10x Controlling Project Skies
Achieving Essential Visibility with Insights from an Air Traffic Controller
Recently, I reconnected with an old friend who's now an air traffic controller (ATC) at Changi Airport, one of the busiest hubs in the world. It had been 4 years since we last spoke, and as we caught up, swapping stories about our lives and work, a striking parallel emerged between his role and an engineering leader - so for the last few months I have been researching Software Engineering Leadership. It dawned on me that the essence of solving most challenges in engineering leadership lies in achieving visibility, much like how an air traffic controller oversees the bustling airspace.
A Meeting of Two Worlds
As my friend described his day-to-day responsibilities at Changi, I was fascinated by the precision, awareness, and quick decision-making required in his job. He painted a vivid picture of the control tower's vantage point, a place of constant vigilance and unparalleled oversight. From this high perch, every aircraft's movement is monitored, every potential risk assessed, and every decision critically impacts the safety and efficiency of thousands of passengers daily.
This conversation illuminated a profound truth: just as visibility is the linchpin for effective air traffic control, so it is for engineering leadership. Achieving a clear, comprehensive view of the project landscape, team dynamics, and operational metrics is akin to overseeing a complex airspace, guiding each 'flight'—or project—to a successful landing.
Visibility: The 90% Solution
In reflecting on our discussion, I realized that gaining visibility into every facet of the software development process answers nearly every question I face as an engineering leader. It's not just about tracking progress or identifying bottlenecks; it's about understanding the intricate dance of moving parts, ensuring they synchronize harmoniously. With visibility, I can anticipate challenges, allocate resources effectively, and maintain the delicate balance between innovation and operational stability—much like my friend ensures safe distances between planes, manages takeoffs and landings, and adapts to sudden changes in weather or traffic.
The Control Tower Perspective
Imagine if, as engineering leaders, we could ascend to our metaphorical control tower, equipped with the tools and insights to oversee the vast 'airspace' of our projects and teams. From this vantage point, we could:
Monitor Multiple 'Flights': Keep a close eye on each project's trajectory, ensuring they're on course and adjusting as needed.
Manage Workloads: Like ensuring aircraft maintain safe distances, we'd balance team workloads to prevent burnout and optimize performance.
Navigate Project Phases: Coordinate the phases of development with the precision of planning takeoffs and landings.
Adapt with Agility: Respond to the inevitable changes and challenges with the readiness of a controller facing unexpected weather.
This expanded view delves into how the principles of air traffic control apply directly to the challenges and triumphs of leading software teams.
Preventing System Overload - Managing Capacity
Managing the 'airspace' of software development means ensuring that the team's capacity and the technical infrastructure can handle the workload without becoming overwhelmed. This entails strategic planning for scalability, implementing efficient processes, and ensuring that technical debt is managed effectively. Like an air traffic controller optimizing runway use, engineering leaders must optimize their team's output—balancing speed with quality, innovation with maintenance, to ensure sustainable, long-term success.
This level of oversight, this visibility, empowers us to steer our teams toward success with confidence and precision. It's about more than just avoiding 'collisions'—it's about ensuring a smooth, efficient journey for every project under our care.
Control Tower for Full Visibility
The control tower is more than just a physical space; it's a symbol of the comprehensive oversight and proactive management necessary to ensure the safe and efficient flow of air traffic. For engineering leaders, building their control tower—equipping themselves with the tools, processes, and mindset needed for full visibility—enables them to guide their teams through the complexities of software development with confidence and precision. It's about having the high ground, seeing the big picture, and being able to direct the myriad elements of the development process toward a successful outcome.
Once at a Major Fintech…
Once at a major fintech, they had several new features planned for release. The team was on the verge of launching a groundbreaking new application that promises to disrupt the market. However, as the launch date approaches, the complexity of coordinating multiple teams—front-end, back-end, quality assurance, and DevOps—becomes increasingly challenging. The engineering leader Alex, is determined to steer her project to success without compromising on quality or deadlines.
One late evening, as Alex reviews the project dashboard, she notices a significant uptick in bug reports from the latest integration testing phase. The front-end team has been pushing new features at an impressive pace, but the back-end hasn't been able to keep up, leading to mismatches and performance bottlenecks. Moreover, the continuous deployment pipeline is clogged with pending deployments, causing delays in feedback loops and further straining the team's capacity.
This is where Alex's "control tower" comes into play—Software Engineering Analytics tool, she had the foresight to implement months earlier. With that, Alex has a panoramic view of the entire project landscape. She quickly pulls up real-time analytics on team performance, code quality metrics, and deployment statuses. The tool's advanced dashboards reveal that the back-end team's workload has been consistently high, leading to slower response times and increased technical debt.
Recognizing the risk of system overload and potential for missed deadlines, Alex convenes an emergency meeting with her team leads. Armed with data from the Engineering Analytics tool, she presents a clear case for immediate action: redistributing tasks, prioritizing bug fixes over new features, and temporarily halting non-critical deployments to clear the pipeline. She also decides to leverage the tool’s capacity planning features to rebalance workloads and ensure that no single team becomes a bottleneck.
Over the next few days, the situation begins to stabilize. The real-time collaboration features of the Engineering Analytics tool facilitate seamless communication between teams, allowing them to resolve integration issues more efficiently. The deployment pipeline clears, and the quality assurance team reports a noticeable decrease in critical bugs. By the time of the launch, the application is stable, performant, and ready to make its mark on the market.
In this scenario, this tool acted as Alex's control tower, providing the visibility and tools needed to navigate through a critical phase of the project. It enabled her to anticipate problems, make informed decisions, and guide her team to success with confidence. This story underscores the importance of having a comprehensive oversight system that empowers engineering leaders to manage the complexities of software development, ensuring a smooth and efficient journey for every project under their care.
Engineering Leaders are making use of Engineering Analytics tools to manage their team’s better.
The Power of Visibility
As a Software Engineering Leader one must fully make use of this superpower of visibility - afterall it doesn’t hurt to be a know it all on your team and project plus, you have seen the benefits too. There are several great tools out there like DevDynamics, Swarmia, Atlassian compass, Jellyfish and many more.
Here is a comprehensive checklist that one must look for before finalizing an engineering analytics tool.
Checklist for Choosing an Engineering Analytics Tool
Ensure seamless integration with your existing tech stack (version control, CI/CD, project management tools) for smooth data flow and minimal disruption.
Real-Time Analytics and Reporting
Must offer live tracking of key performance indicators (KPIs) and the ability to generate insightful, customizable reports for different stakeholders.
Comprehensive Data Coverage
The tool should cover a wide range of data types, including code quality metrics, deployment frequencies, project timelines, and more. It should also track developer-centric metrics like pull request size and review times.
Look for features that allow you to conduct surveys directly within the platform, gathering firsthand feedback from team members about their experiences and satisfaction.
Scalability and User Experience
Choose a tool that scales with your team's growth and offers an intuitive, user-friendly interface to ensure minimal learning curves and high adoption rates.
Security and Compliance
Verify that the tool meets industry standards for data security and privacy, ensuring your team's information is protected according to regulations like GDPR or SOC2
Support, Community, and Trial Period
Just as Iron Man wouldn't be the superhero we admire without Jarvis—his AI assistant that powers the suit, enhances his abilities, and provides critical information in real-time—engineering leaders require their version of Jarvis in the form of an advanced engineering analytics tool. This "Jarvis" doesn't just aggregate metrics and data; it integrates deeply into the workflow, offering insights into project health, team performance, and operational efficiency.