How to Run a Development Department in a Pandemic: An Interview with Ash Bablani

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Ash Bablani, the leader of Techtonic’s delivery department and Director of QA and Dev Ops, took a few minutes out of his day to have a candid conversation about what it means to lead a development team during a pandemic.

TG: Ash, how has your leadership style evolved in the face of COVID-19, especially when it comes to suddenly becoming an all-remote dev shop?

Ash: Servant leadership has always been my foundational philosophy, but in these times I find it crucial to lean into that even further. If ever there was a moment to truly support the team, this is it. Sometimes, especially when they are afraid, people may need support with even the most mundane tasks, so making sure that they know that someone is looking out for them is among my top priorities. 

I think I can break it down into three real categories. Servant leadership is absolutely in the first place for me. Next, I think it’s about supporting the team - who can I empower? What can I unblock right now? Who should I be publicly praising in our general slack channel? Last but definitely not least, I make sure to regularly connect with the team both personally and professionally. 

I can’t emphasize this enough; don’t be afraid to have fun! Happy teams are more productive and more efficient and we can all also use stress relief right now.

Really, as a leader, I see my role as providing that anchor of trust and support. There is so much to worry about in the greater world right now and we spend so much time with our coworkers - I just want to keep our work environment positive and stable. 

TG: It would be easy and understandable to default to micromanagement in a situation like this. Have you embraced it or avoided it? 

Ash: Sure, I’ve tried to avoid it as much as possible. In one part, I legitimately don’t have time to check in on that many people like that, but more importantly, that's no way to build the kind of teams that I really want to work with.

You have to trust that your troops are going to do what they’ve said they were going to do. There’s a lot of power in placing trust in people. If they fail to deliver, then focus on correcting the issue more than reprimanding someone. Nurture them, empower them, and try to focus on the growth opportunities. That approach will echo throughout the team and reinforce the right kinds of attitudes and behaviors. People are willing to try harder and push themselves further if they know that there’s a soft place to land if they fail.

TG: This is surely one of the strangest times that any of us have lived through. How do you keep your team motivated and moving forward?

Ash: I believe that success begets hope. Sharing good news and remaining as transparent as possible - sharing scrum metrics, for example, and building feedback loops helps keep people invested. If you can see that your contributions are helping move everyone forward with you - that can be a hugely motivating factor. 

I try to look (and to empower my team to do so, as well) for opportunities to radiate company-wide updates. It’s even more important to do so when you’re all remote since you can’t rely on normal coffeepot conversations.

Structure and normalness are also obviously key things to focus on; keeping those tight feedback loops with executive leadership all the way through the apprentices.

I think it’s also important to create a social dynamic - keep the happiness up! Happy hours on Zoom, Google Hangouts,  and Houseparty are all great. Even in day-to-day conversation, humor is such a powerful tool. I’m happy to be the punchline when I know that it keeps the team’s morale up. 

Based on our metrics, our team seems to be working 20, maybe even 30, percent more. I’ve noticed that some of the best work we’ve done has been during these strange times and so I think it’s important to voice your appreciation even more loudly!

TG: That’s a lot to manage, though. How do you prioritize? How do you focus?

Ash: I’ve been given a pretty straightforward list of priorities. Keep our clients happy, keep delivering the best quality we can, and support our sales team wherever possible. When I look at my task queue, or when I’m not sure what I should tackle next, I look back at those three goals and they order my steps. 

I do my best to also keep delegation in mind. Am I the only person or even the right person to do something? If I delegate, that person may gain a skill or experience that enables them to be more effective in the future.

Every morning, I meet with my department heads and we hold a miniature L10 meeting. We review the previous day’s metrics and burndowns, then do a quick IDS (Identify/Discuss/Solve) triage to make sure that the most important things are dealt with first and with as much thought as we can give them. Just like any real L10, we start the meeting with good news, which is my favorite part. We also make sure to capture anything that the broader team did particularly well and cascade that outward. 

TG: One last question for you, Ash. What advice would you give to anyone trying to start a career in software development?

Ash: Definitely focus on mastering one stack. Go super deep into one thing and learn it inside and out. It’ll make it easier for you to learn other things in time, but it will also help you build the competency to get that first development job as well as the confidence to try new things. 

If you’re stuck or not sure where to start, please reach out! Guiding people’s first steps into software development is Techtonic’s heart and soul in the first place!

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