Being a Journalist Within Your Organisation

Posted on 2023-01-07

Having been a staff+ engineer located in Europe while working at a primarily North-American company last year, one piece of feedback I regularly got was that I seemed to know about many things happening, but many folks in my domain who got less synchronous time with me felt like they could not benefit from that. The teams I was directly working with were split roughly 60-40 between North America (East coast) and Europe, so more than half of the team members only overlapped with me during my already busy afternoons.

An important part of staff+ engineering is to figure out the best way to utilise the limited available, Will Larson has written a lot about how to chose the right work. Thinking about the personal feedback I had gotten, and also wider organisational problems we were facing, such as a tendency to misalign or duplicate work, I realised there was something simple I could do in my corner of the organisation that promised large returns for a small time investment: I started a work blog.

Blog is a big word for what it turned out to be, maybe more fitting would be a weekly digest. I started chronicling what I had been thinking about, investigating, or prototyping, what teams in my domain were working on, what decisions or plans were being made, and what work had been completed (or sometimes abandoned). There was no fixed structure, just a list of bullet points with a descriptive heading and 0-3 sentences of details and links.

I would gather items for the digest during the week, and then spend a few minutes organising and polishing them on Monday mornings EU Monday mornings meant that everyone besides APAC got to start their week reading the digest, which I think is a good time. Information taken in on Friday afternoons is difficult to retain. for publishing. The bar for something to make the digest was quite low, after all not that much is really happening in a domain, and the point of this is to share the kind of information that would usually be exchanged at a water cooler. Think "Oh, you're doing X? That is going to be a problem for Y." or "I see you're thinking about X, but we're doing Y which will be much easier for you." It is effectively a form of working in the open. Each week usually had four to six items.

Another aspect here is getting more folks insight into what happens in the room. Some things that happen in the room can be sensitive, or are better kept quiet for a while, but many things are just never shared because no one can be bothered to share them. The higher the levels of the people in the room, the worse this gets. Sometimes legitimately as topics discussed are sensitive, or not worth risking bike-shedding, but often because producing a sanitised and comprehensive summary is work no one particularly wants to do. This is especially frustrating for folks trying to make it to a level (often staff+) to get into the room, but cannot prove their worth without having access to the room first.

Coming back to picking the best use of time, one could try to personally distribute the same information to selected individuals, but broadcasting is inherently more scalable as it requires constant effort regardless of the size of the audience. My usual time spent per week was somewhere around five minutes. If a few people from different areas of the organisation take up this habit, a small Having too many of these digests is something I deem quite unlikely, and there are worse problems an organisation can have than its members over-communicating. collection of digests can develop which can drive alignment and help new joiners understand what is going on more quickly.

From a practical perspective, senior leaders like to write email newsletters, with varying degrees of usefulness in my experience, and this is similar but less focused on business plans (or making a department look good) and more of a front report. I ended up using Confluence's blog feature for this, which allows others to subscribe to updates, but automatically creates a browsable archive as well, which I find highly useful for identifying patterns or areas worth investing into. I would also post updates to Slack to raise awareness.

I will continue to use this method, and I recommend you give it a try too.