If there’s one thing that you can count on most tech executives being very attuned to, it is the risk management of the different product engineering work in their organizations. They are often equipped with years of experience as technical ICs and have become calloused enough to think about all the different things that can go awry during development work. These are the people that already had deadlines adjusted a couple of months ago when the tension between Putin and Ukraine started, as they wanted to account for possible disturbances for their Ukrainian teams (I know that “possible disturbances” is an understatement to describe war crimes and an unwarranted attack on a sovereign nation. Let’s accept that what Putin is doing is abhorrent and an absolute travesty).
Nevertheless, these same tech executives seem to be doing poorly regarding the risk management of two different aspects of their responsibility. Those are areas where I constantly notice blindspots and senior leaders finding themselves surprised and unprepared to tackle issues that were months or years in the making. Those are the people and tech evolution areas.
Tech Evolution Risks
Leaders and teams can have a hound-like nose for sniffing out code smells in ongoing projects and spotting tech debt, yet completely miss out on tectonic shifts in the industry that can completely change how the work itself is performed. That might mean that they fail to see that technologies are quickly dying (take that from a person that used to have an entire business around Angular.js development). It can also be about technological disruptions that should be accounted for.
To come up with a few examples for tech evolution, let’s consider the effect that the cloud had on businesses, then containers and k8s, the shift from monoliths to micro-services, iOS moving to Swift (or React Native). For complete disruption and new spaces, we can think about the impact of AI and ML on creating entirely new business models, the emerging effects of blockchain and crypto on many markets, and the ostensible failure of IoT to deliver on its promise. All of these had or still have the potential to turn industries on their heads completely.
How many of these have you spotted in real-time? How many might still pose a potential threat to your business as it currently operates? These are precisely the types of risks that executive teams are utterly blind to and rely on their tech executives for a “heads up.” Are you going to provide it?
Less amorphous and yet still overlooked is the risk management of imminent personnel changes. Executives should regularly keep track of weaknesses in their organizational charts and work to fortify them. Do you have entire systems that are mainly under the purview of a single early-stage engineer? Are you considering the probability of different engineering managers leaving in the next six months and how that might affect your team? How about being prepared for immediate success that will require faster growth and rapid installation of new managers in place? Do you have a “bench” of people who are being actively coached and mentored towards a managerial role?
As an example, I don’t think that enough companies are looking forward and considering the long-lasting effect of the transition to remote/hybrid work on our industry. Too many are still operating with old assumptions in mind, though recruitment and growth plans should be updated. Personally, I believe that the “great resignation” will be followed by a “great migration” once travel seems safe again and people will want to relocate given the remote nature of their work. When you’re selecting new managers or deciding on new locations for offices, do you have that in mind?
Avoiding or Mitigating
All of the above is intended to prime your minds and help you more easily spot areas where you should be doing some more thinking and preparation. That risk management means that you should consider the severity of each risk as well as the cost of different options to handle it. Some can be easily avoided or even turned into opportunities with some preventive measures put in place. For others, you might spot contingencies that you can perform should the risk actually pan out. Knowing that you have those ready means that you can peacefully focus your attention on other areas of your team.
If you’re wondering when you should think about these areas and prepare these steps, the answer is, of course, in your regularly scheduled Leadership Blocks. As I explain in The Tech Executive Operating System, I advise my clients to set time for introspection and higher-altitude thinking regularly. That is how you create a leading team and stay ahead of the curve. It can also help to have a trusted advisor that is external and has a beginner’s mind and therefore can point out problems that you and your team might be oblivious of.
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