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4 ways engineering leaders can accelerate innovation in times of uncertainty

We’ve all had to adjust to a new normal in 2020. For businesses, COVID-19 has meant compressing and accelerating digital transformation — sometimes with less time, money, and people. That puts particular pressure on engineering leaders working to scale their apps and platforms, whose orgs are often responsible for meeting the demands of this moment. But given these immense challenges, this is also a special time for us as engineers. The world is recognizing the value of developers and how they’re not only key to making it through, but that we are  essential for surviving and thriving as the world has moved to a digital first mode. 

So in this time of high pressure, how do we deliver innovation, and help our teams and companies succeed? Below, I’ve identified four key principles engineering leaders can orient around to help bolster your technology, meet company goals, and care for your people’s time and wellbeing. From moving small but impactful code blocks to the edge, to rearchitecting intelligently for traffic surges, to simply revisiting your management style — there are some practical ways teams can innovate now, and set themselves up for success tomorrow. 

1. Reevaluate what an MVP looks like. 

There’s a lot of pressure to streamline and move quickly this year. Which is why, when it comes to things like strategizing for your next product release, now’s the time to think smaller than you might be comfortable with. How can you structure a project so that it starts delivering value to users as soon as possible — even if, on the whole, the project might take six months or a year to complete? What is the shortest period of time in which you can deliver an impactful set of features? Sometimes when you look at the most monumental projects and break them down into their smallest components, greater innovation is unlocked. There will obviously be tradeoffs in some of these up-front decisions, but being able to ship a steady cadence of small-but-valuable releases can make a huge difference. Your team can be proud of all they’re able to build, and your users will benefit earlier from the things you’re improving.

2. Let your devs lead you to the solution. 

It’s easy to be a good manager when everything’s going your way, but it’s how you behave when times are tough that can matter the most. Managing in difficult times requires a different set of skills and strategies. Now is a good time to check in with your own stress levels, how that may be impacting your teams, and whether you’re creating an atmosphere that’s conducive for innovation. We know that developers crave autonomy and that it’s critical for problem solving — and when you’re faced with challenges as big as rearchitecting or moving entirely online, giving your teams that independence is key. It’s easy for leaders to see problems, big or small, and overprescribe how to fix an issue, believing that their solution is the right solution. But no one likes to be micromanaged, and that level of control can get in the way of your team delivering their best work and unleashing the creativity that brings some of the best engineering solutions to life. And that’s what this moment demands. 

Give your team the problem, tell them what success looks like, and let them choose the tools and workflows that are right for them. It’s just good management. And now is the perfect time to reset yourself as a leader and check in with your team, so you can ensure you’re properly taking care of your people and giving them the autonomy to do great work.

3. Shift to a security enablement mindset.

Dev teams want to move quickly and security teams don’t want to be a blocker to that. When you’re faced with unpredictability, it’s even more important to focus on security and what’s within your control. There’s always been a tension between moving quickly and moving safely. But now’s the time to make the choice to move toward security empowerment rather than blocking. 

Instead of waiting for security teams, you should partner with them to give them visibility into your world. When you give security and ops teams clear, direct visibility to your application teams, they can fully own the health of their services. This strengthens the organization as a whole, enhances autonomy and security posture, and allows everyone to move faster, safely. (Hint: this approach is just one of the reasons why Signal Sciences joined the Fastly team.) 

4. Leverage serverless, and especially the edge.

Serverless is a game changer when it comes to being able to do more with less. It can simplify operations and reduce the burden on your teams, enable faster shipping, and optimize your cloud spend. The ability to build business logic — without worrying about servers and networks — gives your teams that much more time to focus on solving the biggest problems they’re facing. And running that logic as close to the end user as possible, at the network edge, provides a much better customer experience, both from a performance and scale perspective. Building at the edge means that even on your busiest times or with unforeseen traffic spikes, your site can handle it and deliver the way your users expect. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to re-architect and overhaul everything all at once. There are practical, actionable ways to start moving pieces of your apps to the edge: microservices and JAMstack APIs are a great way to begin and test things out.

Tying it all together

There’s no magic formula for getting through the challenges of 2020. But by looking at some of these fundamentals — where you’re building, how secure it is, what can be streamlined, and what kind of environment you’re creating for your teams — you can make significant headway on your company’s goals. Leaders who innovate successfully at this time will be those who had a laser-sharp focus on technology, solutions, and the well-being of their people. And if you’re looking to go further in accelerating transformation at the edge, we’ve got you covered: check out how Khan Academy and Gannett met the moment, and stay tuned for more case studies coming soon.

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