Julia Evans

Telling people what you're working on

At work sometimes people send “kickoff” emails, basically announcing “hey, we’re going to start working on this project, here’s why”.

The format is basically:

  • explain the goals (why is this gonna be awesome?)
  • explain who’s affected by the project
  • maybe talk about the risks a little
  • talk a little about timelines

announcing what you’re working on can be scary

I find it kind of scary to tell people what I’m working on! Once I was talking about plans with a Very Experienced Person and they said “yeah, sharing tentative plans with lots of other people is scary” and I was so happy that it wasn’t just me.

Some reasons I think it’s sort of scary:

  1. what if I fail and everyone thinks I’m terrible at my job?
  2. what if something unexpected happens and we have to completely change the plan?
  3. what if this takes way longer to do than we think?

It seems much safer to:

  1. start working on a thing
  2. hide in a corner until it’s done
  3. announce “look, we did it, it worked”

After all, if I only tell people about things when they’re finished and amazing, then everything I announce will have succeeded! 100% success rate!! What could be better?

But this pattern of “let me hide in a corner until I’m done this project, or at least I won’t tell anyone outside my team” sounds suspiciously like “I won’t push my code to github until it’s perfect”, and we know it’s important to share works in progress when you’re coding! :)

reasons announcing plans is good

A few reasons announcing plans is useful:

  1. Everyone else is trying to plan their work all the time. If I announce what I’m planning, that helps people who are working on related projects! For example, my team just announced a project that interacts a lot with another team’s work, so that team is going to allocate someone to work on it!
  2. If we advertise a plan maybe someone will notice an important problem with it and tell us!
  3. Writing a plan forces your clarify your goals
  4. Communicating clear plans helps management… manage.
  5. I think announcing ambitious plans can help kind of.. inspire the people around you? Like I sometimes see that someone else is kicking off a Very Important Project and I think, wow, that’s really cool, maybe we can do something cool like that.
  6. It’s exciting to see people starting and finishing projects, like it creates momentum for the whole company if everyone talks about what they’re doing!

I think the shared planning aspect is probably the most important though! If everyone hides in a corner and doesn’t tell people what they’re doing until they’re done… well, that wouldn’t really be a very effective way to work together.

One of our sibling teams always announces what they’re working on VERY LOUDLY (like they send tons of announcement emails) and I kind of love it because I always know what’s going on with them. Their plans don’t always work out exactly as planned! Sometimes they change direction! But it’s really awesome to know how they’re spending their time & what to expect from them in the near future.

ways to make it less scary

Remember it’s my job/responsibility to talk about what I’m doing. We’re all trying to build something together, and as a team we can’t do that if we don’t talk about our plans. (I think as I get more experienced this becomes more and more my job)

Another thing I think might help me is assume everything I do will succeed. I feel like I sometimes waste a lot of time worrying “oh no, what if this goes wrong”. And of course to some extent worrying is useful! Every project has risks and it’s important to think about how to manage those risks. But I think if I start with the assumption that the thing I’m embarking on will probably work, it’ll be easier to execute and tell people about. It seems like confidence is pretty important when you’re trying to do something hard.

It’s definitely important to tell people plans that are mostly true. Plans don’t need to be 100% right (everything always changes), but for them to be useful, they need to be at least mostly right. Like maybe do a proof of concept first and chat with the stakeholders.

Just tell the people who need to know about it. Like – this week we sent a kickoff email. It was for a networking thing that is relevant to many developers, but nobody outside engineering will really be affected by it. So we just sent the email to the developers mailing list!

Maybe that’s it? Like, if when we’re planning something, we just

  1. come up with a reasonable plan and think/talk about it with folks
  2. do at least some preliminary work, I think it’s good to at least do a prototype or something first to get some confidence in the approach
  3. assume that our plan will work (that when we run into problems, we’ll figure out a way to solve them)
  4. loudly communicate that plan to a reasonable list of people (not too much bigger than it needs to be)
  5. listen to the feedback we get and incorporate it when we need to

then that will be fine!

reasons hiding in a corner might be good

I think sometimes there are actually good reasons not to tell people what you’re doing.

In some work cultures, sometimes people can put out a lot of stop energy! If you say “hey this is what we’re planning”, you might get back “hello here are 100000 reasons why what you’re doing won’t work / is a bad idea”. I think if people do this a lot it is actually maybe kind of reasonable to react with “ok, we’re just not going to tell people what we’re doing until we’re further along”.

Philip Guo has a great vlog about how it’s important to start personal creative projects privately – if you don’t tell anyone about an early stage baby idea, it can give you the space/safety to develop it! That’s really important! So I think there’s a caveat here, like “early-stage ideas are fragile and need to be sheltered” :)

hiding in a corner with my keyboard is not for me though

Right now I’m planning a biggish (big for me, anyway! I actually want people to use it!) open source project I’m going to start in January and I.. don’t really know if it will work? So it feels scary to announce “hey, I’m planning X, these are my goals”. But I will definitely announce it! :)

In the past I’ve definitely worried about getting excessive stop energy / bikeshedding when talking about plans. I think where I work it’s better to tell people what I’m working on though! And lately when we share plans with people, almost all of the feedback I see is super helpful!

Learning at work What's a network interface?