When I lack focus, I often feel like I’m doing all the right things, but getting nowhere. Swimming in a vacuum is the best way I can describe it: no amount of attention to technique or increased pace is going to make a difference if I don’t have a medium to pull against. My personal focus is my task list. I’m not perfect, but when I compare those days where I religiously tick off my prioritised tasks with the days that I drift, the difference in output is stark.

bokehLikewise, without focus a software engineering team can look and feel like they’re doing great, but not make headway. You can have all the right pieces set up just the right way, but all for naught. No amount of engineering talent, no fantastic working environment, nor great team culture can make up for a lack of focus. It’s that important.

So, you’ve got – quite literally – infinite possibilities in front of you. How do you focus? I’m still working on it, but I reckon it comes down to this: build the right thing, the right way, right now. I laugh at how simple that sounds, but so many times I’ve been caught out by how uncommon common sense is. You may too very well scoff, but let’s take a look at these things in detail.

The Right Thing

The number of paths to take can be utterly overwhelming, so how do you choose the next one? Regardless of how you choose, know this: you must choose. Without a clear priority order of problems to solve (aka engineering tasks), you doom your team to endless half-assery and direction change.

It’s ok though, you don’t have to choose once and never change, you just have to choose the next thing. The next thing is what your engineers are building right now, which could be multiple things at once if you have multiple teams. Define it and get building it (the right way, right now), then you can go back to choosing the next right thing. Even if you chose the not-quite-right thing, getting that clarity for engineers means you can move on to the next right thing rapidly, while accruing some value from a completed feature. Getting to Done is fundamental.

Deciding the right thing is specific to your project and is a real product management art, but choosing a metric will help. Rank your opportunities according to those that will move that metric the most in the shortest amount of time, and pick the top one. You’ll quickly discover if your metric is incorrect.

The Right Way

Great engineers understand the difference between technical debt and slop. Never do slop. Slop is crappy method names, 10k-line JavaScript files, and nested for-loops with SQL queries in each. Technical debt however is a considered approach to build something in a sub-perfect way. Technical debt is choosing not to build this feature to cater for all the possible future uses. Debt (technical or not) is leverage, and your engineers should understand that leverage – used wisely – grows companies.

If you don’t have automated testing, continuous integration, and push-button deploys then you’re absolutely not doing it the right way.

The Right Way also speaks to culture. If you’re burning out, not communicating with everyone in the business, or not building the skills of others in your team, then you’re not building the right way.

Lastly, the right way means engineers understanding the problem that is being solved. Product management has a huge part to play here, defining and articulating the business opportunity represented by building the right thing. Done well, this serves as an inspiration to the engineering team, whereas a poorly defined problem leaves engineers adrift.

Right Now

Some call it “Lean”, but we call it JFDI: Just Fucking Do It. Don’t wait, don’t agonise over every nook and cranny. Make mistakes, fix them – rely on your fantastic devops and test procedures to help catch them. Deploy urgently and measure.

You’ve decided the number one priority for the business, you know how to build it, so dig in and do it right now.

Check Yoself

So, with an understanding of what lies behind the sentence, we can check on the quality of our focus by continuously asking: “am I building the right thing, the right way, right now?”.

Well, are you?




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  1. Great post Ben. The simple sounding stuff usually isn’t that simple to do, but seems obvious when you nail it.

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