adventures in systems engineering


Over the last few months, Tanya Reilly’s Being Glue presentation has been making the engineering rounds. And for good reason! Engineers at every level find themselves in roles where they do a lot of glue work – tasks that move the engineering org along but aren’t quantifiably technical – and that often doesn’t get the recognition needed for career advancement.

This tends to be more prevalent for those of us that are less represented in engineering. Women, in general, are more likely to be the first to volunteer for something. If a woman is on the team, men will typically wait for that woman to volunteer first. Additionally, if there’s some sort of task that needs to be assigned, a manager is more likely to ask a woman first.

And we say yes. Whether that’s because we’re trying to prove our worth to the team, or we don’t want a customer to have a bad experience, or we’re not afraid to ask questions and talk to different teams, or because it’s been ingrained in us culturally.

Make no mistake, this glue stuff is important work. But! If we’re constantly saying yes, how do we also have time to focus on career advancement?

The technically quantifiable work is how we prove we’re ready for promotion, i.e. learning a DSL, working on coding skills, completing tickets or implementing solutions.

Most work is promotable work, but it’s dependent on your job role. To borrow Tanya’s example, “if an engineer organizes an offsite, that’s non-promotable work, but a people manager can maybe claim it’s part of their job to do team-building. If an event coordinator does it, it’s probably their core job.”

Before saying yes to something, ask yourself “is this is promotable work for my role?” If the answer is no, you can start to weigh the pros and cons for taking on that work, i.e. you know exactly who to talk to, or it’s a task you enjoy, or maybe you have a quiet week where you’re between projects. And if the work is non-promotable for everyone, your manager and/or team lead should be acknowledging this and dividing the work up fairly.

And speaking of managers, be sure that you’re somewhat regularly checking in with yours about your career progress (if that’s your focus!). When talks of promotion come up, it shouldn’t be a surprise to either of you about where you think you fit. At the very least, if you are doing a lot of glue work, your manager should be aware of that and they should also let you know if that work is considered promotable or not.

Tanya offers up some great tips on approaching promotion as an engineer when you are doing a lot of glue work. I’m summarizing here, but I highly recommend reading through her slides.

  1. Talk to your manager about promotion, and what you need to do to get to the next level. Make goals, and follow up on them with your manager.
  2. Get a “more technical” title, i.e. if your manager would like you to continue to do a lot of glue work, see if your title can honor that, i.e. technical lead.
  3. Generate a “trail of proof” about the work that you’re doing, whether that’s encapsulating an idea you have in a design document, making sure your work is visible i.e. communicating a change out to all of engineering instead of select individuals, or making sure meeting notes reflect that an outcome happened because of you.
  4. And, if all else fails, stop doing the glue work for a while. Don’t volunteer; let someone else pick up the slack. Delegate some of that glue work to your team members if it still keeps falling on you. Say no because you have too much else on your plate, i.e. the quantifiably technical stuff.

Personally, I’ve stepped back from the glue work in the last few months. This, in spite of joining a new team where I’m the only female engineer. And I’ve tasked my manager with giving me a nudge if she notices me volunteering for all the things. I don’t mind the glue work, and in some cases, I do find it satisfying.

But, I also take a ton of satisfaction from reducing toil whether that’s by becoming an SME (subject matter expert) on some of our lesser-understood technologies at work, automating away pain for my team or other teams in engineering, or knocking out an internal customer request (with code). At the end of the day, being an ops engineer is my passion and that’s the path I want to keep exploring.

Do you find yourself doing a lot of glue work? Has that held you back in your career? What helps you find balance between the glue and technical work?

Hi! I'm a systems engineer for a global marketing platform. Here I dish about (mostly technical) books I'm reading, my musings on the ever-important soft skills/glue work in this field, and my general adventures in engineering.


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