Engineering MBA: Be The Boss of Your Own Work, by Kevin Murphy


Improve your work as a developer with an introduction to strategic planning,
situational leadership, and process management. No balance sheets or income
statements here; join me to learn the MBA skills valuable to developers without
the opportunity costs of lost wages or additional student loans.

Demystify the strategic frameworks your management team may use to make
decisions and learn how you can use those same concepts in your daily work.
Explore the synergy one developer achieved by going to business school (sorry,
the synergy comment slipped out - old habit).


The purpose of this talk is to introduce key concepts from an MBA program that
have proven valuable to me as a software developer. These aren't focused on
tools to help you start your own business, or run your own department as a
manager. There will be no math, no financial models, and no marketing plans.
These topics are items that I learned during my MBA curriculum that I put to
use in my day-to-day work as an individual contributor developer.

For each of these, I'll introduce the topic and then explain how it's applicable
to developers.

Situational Leadership


Different tasks call for different leadership styles, and an effective team or
leader can adapt their style as needed. Based on both the assignment and the
people involved, the support, guidance, and process required to complete the
work should vary. The Situational Leadership model, first introduced in
Management of Organizational Behavior”,
suggests four different leadership styles.


Directing is considered the formative stage of leadership, where the team or
individuals may not have much context to navigate independently in a successful
manner, like if one is new to a team. Even if someone has been on a team for a
long time, the directing style can be beneficial if the work is new (or
unfamiliar), but can be accomplished by following a recipe. When using this
style in creating a ticket to be added to the sprint, ensure it contains a
clearly defined set of instructions for what to do. If work is assigned to
particular individuals during sprint planning, ensure there’s a second member
assigned to this work, someone who has done something similar before, so that
they can work together and learn from each other to accomplish the goal.


Rather than following a recipe, as in the directing style, when coaching,
instructions may still be required to lead to a successful outcome, but they
are better structured as suggestions or a jumping off point. This gives the
person assigned the task the freedom, and encouragement, to put their own spin
on the work. Find past examples of solutions to similar problems in the past,
and link to them in the ticket. The purpose is not to enforce or take the
stance that these things are the same and should be the same. Instead,
point out that investigation should be conducted by the team working on it to
determine how similar these tickets are and what applicability the other
solution has to this current task.


When team members have relevant experience to complete the work successfully,
but may be missing the self-confidence to deliver the work, a supporting
leadership style may aid the task while also benefiting the growth of the team
member. It’s unlikely, but still encouraged if felt necessary by the team
member, to have an upfront conversation about implementation details on how to
complete the task. Instead, daily standup or other natural touchpoints are a
better opportunity to help finish the task. The team member may be better
helped by checking in on how they’re feeling about the work and providing them
ample time to talk with you about their progress or any issues they’ve come


The delegation leadership style is best applied for a team member who is both
highly motivated and very skilled in the particular task. The need for
supervision is minimal, and the primary delegation task for the leader is to
get out of the way and clear any impediments the team member may have. That is,
of course, a component in all of these styles, but it is essentially all that’s
left in this stage.

Most importantly, this is an opportunity to pull other team members forward on
this continuum with this task. Should it be a safe opportunity to do so, where
there aren’t intense time pressures or other risk factors, this is absolutely
when the experienced person assigned to this work should be working alongside a
less familiar colleague to share their knowledge and expertise, for the benefit
of all.

Developer Applicability

Thinking through these styles can be helpful when engaged in sprint planning
meetings or backlog refinement/grooming sessions. Situational Leadership can be
used to determine how to parcel out, organize, or describe the work to be done.
It’s important to note that it’s not sufficient to use one particular style,
even towards a specific team member, for all units of work. A team member may
be able to be left alone and faithfully execute one task, where the delegation
style will work best. That same team member may be completely unfamiliar with
another aspect of the project, where the directing style will be most helpful.

In order to round out the familiarity amongst the team with areas of the
application or technical concepts, certain work may be recommended for
particular team members, with the knowledge and understanding that the
appropriate support is required. However, if there is a time-sensitive or
extremely important unit of work that must be addressed, it may be more
appropriate to play to the strengths (and familiarity) of a team member who
recently worked in that space to complete the ticket.

Situational Leadership dynamics can also play out in pairing sessions. If
you’re able to ascertain your pair’s comfort with a particular task, you can
use that information to shape the pairing session to meet everyone’s needs. For
example, someone completely new to a topic may not have the context to navigate
around the area being worked on, so while the Situational Leadership model
would suggest a “Directing” style, in a pairing session, that may manifest
itself more like a “Tour Guide” where the pair with more context provides the
background and story for the work being completed while driving themselves, and
allowing ample time for questions and clarification as the task is moved
through - along with plenty of opportunity for interactivity, allowing the
other pair to build up their familiarity with the work being done.

Competitive Advantage


Your competitive advantage, a concept largely attributed to the work of
Michael Porter,
is what sets you apart from others. This section will discuss the "generic"
strategies to achieving a competitive advantage.

A core competency is part of what drives your competitive advantage, and your
efforts should be focused on maximizing effort spent there while minimizing
effort elsewhere. Core competency is a term that was popularized thanks to the
work of Prahalad and Hamel.


The most obvious strategy, but least sustainable over the long-term, is to be
the lowest-cost provider. This may be feasible if you can reliably produce your
product or offering in a way that competitors cannot, or if you have a massive
VC runway and raised a sizable round of investment. This is also the easiest
strategy to replicate. Firms employing this strategy must be careful not to be
driven to a race to the bottom, at which point there is no cost advantage and
another strategy is the only way to succeed long-term. If we were building a
blogging platform, then to have cost be a competitive advantage, you would need
to sell your product cheaper than any other competitor.


If one is intentionally operating in a way that is unique in the landscape,
they are looking to capitalize on the competitive advantage of differentiation.
This highlights certain compelling or important characteristics for potential
customers and accentuates your ability to deliver on those items. To further
our blogging platform example, this may be a concierge service that
automatically (at least in the eyes of the customer) brings in any writing the
customer has already done and imports it onto the new platform. The blog
company may be able to charge a premium for that service, and attract more
customers, if it meets the needs of customers in ways that other platforms do


The focus strategy tends to manifest itself by identifying a particular segment
of the market and tailoring an offering that’s specific to those customers. For
example, the blogging platform may focus on doctors by building a feature that
provides a comment
moderation system which scans text for possible HIPAA violations and holds
comments in a temporary queue until they’ve been approved. If you’re not a
doctor or a healthcare worker, that feature may not be valued very highly in
your decision of
blogging platform (though hopefully it’s something you can appreciate); however,
if you are a doctor, that can be a deciding factor in your choice of which
platform to start your blog on.

Developer Applicability

If you’re building functionality to send a user an email and your application
happens to be an email delivery service, then it’s (hopefully) in the best
interests of the company to be writing and using your own software to manage
all the infrastructure and processes involved with sending an email. However,
if that is not your company’s business, then you’re likely much better off
relying on a company that focuses on email delivery and focusing your custom
development on the areas that are truly unique about your organization.

Process Management


Identifying and proposing informed changes that help achieve our goals for our
products, our companies, and our daily lives is critical to facilitate
continuous improvement. Business Process Reengineering is the strategy of
documenting the current state of different processes and critically evaluating
the value of each step to propose a more streamlined future process. Michael Hammer
is credited with developing this work.

Developer Applicability

Developers are continually introducing and refining processes for their end
users; we call them features. Managing, benchmarking, and refining these
processes can be critical to the success or failure of an overall product.

More personally, we all have our particular workflows we follow. By evaluating
our tools or the steps we take to deliver our work, we may become more
efficient and eliminate what Business Process Reengineering practitioners may
call “wasteful” or “low-value” activities. For example, when interacting with
git, this may mean writing new aliases for commonly-used commands, learning
different shortcuts, using a different git client entirely, or learning to
eliminate the need for entire commands, like using git pull rather than git
fetch and git merge.


After two years spent earning an MBA full-time, I returned to the workforce
just as I left it: a software developer. The knowledge I gained over those two
years is much more applicable to my day-to-day work as a software developer
than I ever thought it would be.

An MBA mindset helps developers solve problems up and down a company’s
management structure. It gives you the tools to assist the management team in
making tradeoff decisions between projects, and also more perspective on why
that piece of code you’re writing is so important to the company’s success.

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