On motherhood and leading engineering teams | Tara Feener | #LeadDevAustinOn November 16, 2019 by Raul Dinwiddie
Hi. I think she actually did say Newfoundland
and Labrador right, so kudos, you did it. I’m really excited to talk about something
here near and dear to my heart, motherhood and engineering teams. So a little over two
years ago today, I woke up feeling a little bit feverish and a little off. I knew I wasn’t
sick exactly so I’m wondering what might be wrong, I realized that my period was a few
days late. So I got, and decided to talk a pregnancy test, and two solid dark lines were
staring back at me. In that moment I knew I was pregnant. That sounds a lot about like
the movies, right? Every rom-com move I starts with being pregnant? Well, that pregnancy
test was $2 50 worth of pregnancy tests. And those two solid lines
I had seen them once before. the last ones, two weeks later, I was in a meeting at work
when I experienced cramping which I later learned was a miscarriage. This story is so
common. It’s a hard one, but it’s so common, we just don’t talk about it. And there are
so many people who try for so much longer and experience so much pain and loss along
the way. 15% of known pregnancies actually end in miscarriage, a number which is in actuality
much, much larger. At work it can be kind of confusing, what happens when you have a
miscarriage? That grief leave? Is it sick leave? It’s hard to say.
Parenthood for many of us actually begins at the moment we decide we want to start a
family. However we decide to get there and however long it takes us.
What was very uncommon about my scenario was a situation I found myself in at work. I was
leading an engineering team at a startup, and my due date was aligning with a moment
of change. I found myself at 8 months pregnant, driving
a due diligence process — and if you’ve done those before, you know how painful they are,
and attending acquisition meetings on behalf of my company and our engineering organization.
By the way, going into an acquisition talk at 8 months’ pregnant is a very good way to
get a feeling for a company’s culture. In this case we transferred the whole leadership
team was just incredible. So kudos to them. So fast forward a couple of weeks and on July
27th, 2018, at 9:58 p.m., my son was born and just hours earlier my CEO had written
me on Slack to share that the acquisition had been finalized. That is a lot of change
for a single human in a single day. There’s no documentation for navigating parenthood.
And as a systems and processes thinker, I had to really quickly figuring out and absorb
as much as I could about how I could support both me and my engineering org through this
change. I had also never seen somebody who looked
like me before. . A woman in an engineering management role, stepping out for a long leave.
So this talk is for parents current and future, wherever you are on that journey and most
importantly it’s for every single person in this room. Because whether you have a family
or not, you will at some point as leads and managers, have to support someone on your
team through that change. So we’re going to break it down into three
sections. Everything before baby arrives. Everything after baby arrives, and the fourth
trimester, and transitioning back to work. So let’s start with the first thing, which
is, telling your team. So for parents, I recommend waiting until you feel comfortable, first
and foremost, but most importantly for managers, this is an intense moment of vulnerability.
Parents are looking for support, and a negative reaction when they come to tell you the news
could actually trigger a fight or flight response that sends them interviewing. In fact, new
research shows that when managers responded positively to a family announcement, the employee
was found to be more engaged, more committed, and actually would stick around much longer,
for more than a year later, which is pretty incredible.
So when somebody comes to you and says that they’re starting a family, no matter how much
you think it’s going to hurt the business or your current product plans and OKRs, be
positive, be excited, ask them what they’re excited about, what they’re worried about,
and most importantly, ask how you could help them.
Next you have to create a transition plan. I recommend starting by just opening a Notes
file on your machine and for two weeks, write out all the things you do as a lead. Every
time you do something new, every time you’re responsible for something new, write that
down, then prioritize that, would. Are there things there that you could probably put on
the back burner for a few months? In my case with the acquisition, we weren’t going to
be hiring for a little while, so that was a whole set of work that I could just kind
of put aside. Next, take a delegation pass, who on your
team can take over this work? Can your manager take it on? Are there people you could give
that work to while you’re out? Do you need a backfill. And lastly make sure this is in
place as early as you can. You never what can happen, it’s not uncommon to have to be
put on bedrest or experience something called preeclampsia which is blood pressure related
and although it’s rare, it can happen. When you’re looking at your due date as the date
you’re racing towards, it’s not always the case.
So we’ve all read about giving away our LEGOs, how important it is to delegate and how good
it is for our people. What about lending out our LEGOs? Would you get them all back? Will
there be some missing? Broken? What about when your elementary school friend lent that
LEGOs to somebody else? Now it’s degrees separated never to be recovered. Well, jumping ahead
to the end, the spoiler at that case is that my team was actually pretty anxious to give
me back my LEGOs after I returned. This will not be the case for everybody. In fact, I
think they were pretty relieved to give me back my LEGOs when I returned.
First of all as a parent, you should share the news. If you’re like me, you probably
spend more waking hours with your teams than you do anybody else. So add them to your announcement
thread if you have an email list that you put together. Or, when you feel up to it,
and there’s a lot of adrenaline in the first couple of days, make sure you post on Slack.
Make sure they find out from you and not somebody else. How do we as teams support new parents?
New parenthood is incredibly hard. I feel like everywhere unanimously they show
everything up to that moment where baby is lying on a parent’s chest and then nothing
afterwards. For context, a baby’s stomach is the size
of a cherry when it’s born. That means it has to feed every two to three hours. And
then there’s this whole thing called cluster feeding where they feed for like three to
four hours straight? And what does this mean for you? It means you’re not sleeping. And
that’s incredibly hard and that, from what I’ve heard from others, goes on for years
and years. There’s also postpartum depression which can occur anywhere up to a year after
the baby arrives. It’s also common in adoptive and in partners, as well. So these are things
as leads and managers, we have to be looking out for for a while. These aren’t problems
that go away when someone comes back to work. So let’s look at a timeline of new parent
support. Give new parent space, and don’t expect anything at all from them. New parents
are just in survival mode. So next it’s really nice to have a company policy, like a baby
bonus or a gift that you give to new parents. I used to give all my friends flowers which
I thought was really nice, but now having had a baby, I did not want flowers. I actually
just wanted food. So if there’s something you want to do for your teams, a warm meal
is kind of like a warm hug. It’s one less thing a parent has to think about and you
can make it really easy these days with like a food delivery gift card. A lot of us are
expats, giving in these tech hubs away from our families and communities. If I had had
a baby in Labrador where I’m from, I would have had a line extending down the block with
casseroles. So about halfway through leave, it’s good
to check in to see if the parent is maybe interested in coming to the office for a visit
or going out to lunch. If they say no, don’t be offended. This is their baby bonding time
and they can do with it what they want. We have no idea what they’re going through and
if this is something they could even make happen at this pointment
For me, I decided to actually meet up with my coworkers for lunch and it was a really
important milestone. I was absolutely going through an identity crisis and didn’t know
how Tara the mom and Tara the engineering director could coexist. Seeing them was this
moment where I knew I could make it all work. Plus I got to see my team with my baby and
I got to eat lunch with two hands. So three-quarters of the way through, and
this is for managers, it’s time to check in. Send an email to plan a call and make sure
there’s a lot of buffer on either side. There is still no schedule at this point for most
babies, depending on how long your leave is, so you want to give them a lot of breathing
room. And you’re doing two things on call. The most
important thing you’re doing is listening. Asking them how they’re doing, how they’re
feeling, how it’s going, what they can do to help you, and then you’re trying to just
broach the topic of if there’s a transition plan. Have you thought about coming back?
What might that look like? How can I help you?
If you’re finding that you’re hearing signs of distress, and that it’s going to be really
uncomfortable for the parent to come back when they’re technically supposed to come
back, that’s a great moment to hit pause and to work with HR to see if you can come up
with some options. It’s actually — at Google they found that
by extending family leave by 6 weeks, they actually saw their rate of attrition go back
to normal, basically. It had been double for moms who had been returning, so they would
come back and then they would quit. So in just extending it by a few weeks, that
might be all you need to help a parent who’s really struggling slowly transition back.
So transition plans are becoming really common these days, so if you can use vacation time
and unpaid time and create a plan where they come back for like one day, two days, three
days for coming back to a full schedule, that’s really helpful.
And then shaping our back to work transition team. So Lara Hogan has this great card for
building out your transition period. Just going through the exercise of writing out
the people who had my back, who I could count on, and who I could delegate to, to help me
with the transition, was extremely important and I leaned on this team for a few things.
I asked my manager to go figure out the mother’s room situation for me. I was breastfeeding
and would be pumping, and because of the acquisition, we at that point were in a WeWork space. So
he went, and he did a full video tour, and just having that, just seeing that, it meant
the world to me. And it made me feel so much more comfortable.
I knew exactly what to expect on day one. I had told another coworker here who had reached
out that I was really stressed about storing my milk at work. Again, shared fridge, and
milk is incredibly precious. For a lot of us it can be hard to produce the amount you
need every day for baby. So my coworker anti-and bought a mini fridge and it was waiting for
me the first day. It was the most precious day in that moment.
Transitioning back to work, I’m not going to sugar coat it. The first day is really,
really really, really hard. Although I will saw say, and friends had told me this, the
transition is a lot worse. On my first day back, I rode the subway, I live in New York,
and I cried three times. I got out, I walked around the as office to calm down and I went
inside. I poured a cup of coffee, I opened GitHub and Slack and I got to drink that coffee
with two hands. In that moment, I realized how important this was for me.
I love building products. This was me. It was a moment where I felt like I’d reclaimed
a part of my identity and I knew that I would have to figure out a way to do both. So to
make your first day easier, go back on a Friday. That means it’s just one day between you and
baby, it makes it a lot easier emotionally. Don’t have too many transitions in a single
day. So don’t have childcare starting the same day you’re going back. That’s just way
too much for anyone. And be extra kind to yourself. If you have to go facetime baby,
if you want to walk outside, if you want to leave early, do all of those things and managers,
let’s give people permission to do them. So we talk about for me I structured it as
a 15/30/45 day plan and I kind of took the steps inspired by the book the fifth trimester,
which is all about going back to work. The only thing you have to do is set up one-on-ones
basically. So I met with peers, I met with managers, leaders, new people. That’s a fun
thing about when you go on leave, there’s new people when you come back. And you’re
just listening tore your LEGOs, you’re listening for new work, new problems, you’re understanding
what all has changed and you’re looking for work to basically pick up. In the first 30
days you’re starting to take back those LEGOs, and then the first 45, you start to lead one
or two projects. The important thing through this transition is that you’re iterating on
your new routine. Because our parents coming back, they’re not just coming back to work
and work that they know, they’re actually getting an entire human being ready before
they can get ready and then dropping them off somewhere and picking them up and doing
that all over again and that’s a lot of adjustment. So iterate on your schedule. Use this time
to figure out what’s, working, with whomever you have in your family who’s supporting you
as a parent, and make changes to make it work for you.
Next, communicating our schedule. So before baby, I was totally the person who would come
in at 11. I was work everything with a team that was partially based on the West Coast,
so that was both a perk for me and I guess maybe a late start for some others, and then
I would leave anywhere between 7 and 9. It wasn’t uncommon that we would order food,
hang out, go for a coffee in the middle of the afternoon. Post-baby, I am on my childcare
schedule. So it’s very much like a 9 to 4:30, so that I can meet pickup and dropoff as needed
and then I tell my team, hey, I’ll be online also, after baby goes to bed, for like an
hour, and I do that because I enjoy it and I like the flexibility that this provides.
This also gives me time in the morning with baby and it gives me like two hours when I
get home and before bed, which is really important to me.
Also, just really quickly, like, parents are the most productive people I have ever worked
with, so I feel like in my new schedule I get so much more done than I did in my old
schedule. It’s really crazy. So lastly, normalizing parenthood. There’s
an economist named Emily Oster, and she came out with this book this year called Crib Sheets
and it’s a deity driven guide to parenting which I’m sure for all of us sounds great.
We all lean more heavily towards that kind of data and information anyways. She also
wrote this great piece in The Atlantic. Where called End The Plague Of Secret Parenting.
Which is about the fact that we don’t talk about parenting. For many of us we think it’s
a perception problem that people will think that we’re not performing well if we’re talking
about it. Well, she says, we can’t fix problems that we pretend don’t exist, we can’t improve
the lot of parents at work if we pretend we’re not parents.
For me with my team, I came back and because it had been so shocking to me, what parenthood
really looked like, I talked about it very openly. I would tell people when I was going
to go pump and I didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. This is what it’s like, and something crazy
happened. I found that my team would actually start to end meetings on time and they would
tell me that I needed to go pump. Wasn’t expecting that.
By talking about parenting at work we’re letting our teams grow. We’re giving permission. I’ll
end with this. They say it takes a village to raise a child.
Well, maybe more importantly, it also takes a village to support a parent.
We as leads and managers, teams and companies, make up a huge part of that village for our
people. And if we can create and foster cultures of
compassion and empathy and support our people through tough and very human transitions,
we won’t just retain our people longer, but we may just find that our products, team,
companies, and industry, are more diverse and inclusive because of it.
Thank you and a special thanks to my village, who I would not be here without. Thanks!