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Context is a key ingredient for engineers

Context is the reasons behind our actions, goals, long-term plans, priorities, and historical decisions. It's the knowledge about past events and future direction. As managers, we typically have business context from meetings with stakeholders, and it's our responsibility to share this with our team. Engineers, on the other hand, often hold technical context that can be missed by the business, which is just as crucial for making informed decisions. As a manager myself, I'll focus on the business context here.

Even the most skilled engineers can make poor decisions without the proper context, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction across the team. As managers, it's easy to mistake this as a skill issue, but the real problem is often a lack of context. If you fail to provide context, engineers will make it up themselves and make the wrong assumptions while believing they are right. Proper context can guide us in choosing the right tools, deciding where to cut corners, and taking better calls overall. In my opinion, context is much more important than skills.

I use several methods to provide context to my team: weekly team meetings, 1-1s, "brain dump" documents, recordings, and dedicated meetings for additional context. From a managerial perspective, these seem time-consuming and redundant. However, the importance of alignment must be recognized. If a talented engineer repeatedly makes incorrect decisions, it usually indicates a lack of context. In response, I evaluate the knowledge gaps and find ways to bridge them, creating documents, recording explanatory sessions, and then hosting Q&A sessions. Following such sessions, I observe decision-making improves, thus accelerating progress. Remember, there is no such thing as over-communication. Repetition is critical until the message is fully absorbed, so be ready to repeat.

One major challenge in context building is making it a priority and dedicating time to prepare the necessary materials. Once you recognize the need for context, address it promptly. Delaying only makes it worse and leads to more incorrect decisions. Prioritize context building in your backlog and ensure it is addressed swiftly. Talented engineers move quickly, but they can move either way. It's on us to make sure they move in the right direction.

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