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OfferZen Updates: The Role of Psychological Safety in Developer Retention at Mobiquity
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The Role of Psychological Safety in Developer Retention at Mobiquity

25 April 2022, by Hongsie Namingha

Money does not always buy happiness as we also know from developers who change jobs frequently. Jieke Pan, VP of Engineering and CTO at Mobiquity EMEA & APAC, joined us in our last Untold Stories in Tech Hiring webinar on “Developer Retention: Beyond Compensation”. He himself has been with Mobiquity for almost 7 years, starting as an engineer and working his way up. During the webinar with Phil Barrett, VP of Product at OfferZen, Jieke let us in on his ways of thinking and working to establish a safe environment for his engineers to thrive in.

Summary of the event


Phil Barrett (starts at 00:13:18):

On your social media profiles we often see you using #alwaysbekind. So we’d love you to tell us what that’s all about.

Jieke Pan (00:13:48):

It’s [a bit] my personal motto, it’s been carried on for many years already, and somehow it also became the motto of Mobiquity Europe. A lot of people know that I repetitively talk about being kind with each other, being kind, being mindful of what you do. But what in a nutshell, what kindness means in this context, or at least in my own personal interpretation, it’s beyond being friendly. It is about empathy and trust. It’s about how mindful you are in certain circumstances, how mindful you interact with other people, how mindful you treat your job. And that’s in a nutshell what kindness means in this context.

The importance of psychological safety

Phil Barrett (00:14:44):

Empathy and respect were two words you used there. And those are quite tricky words, actually. Do you want to do a little bit more to define what those mean? What is empathy?

Jieke Pan (00:15:08):

From a leader’s perspective, empathy consists of first of all, creating a safe psychological environment for your team members and your employees or the people who you lead. And the safe environment does not necessarily only mean where they feel psychologically safe, but it is the place where they beyond “feeling home”, they are feeling accomplished. It’s their career, life objectives, friendship, and all kinds of aspects. And as a leader, you must be able to enable them. And we hear a lot of people talking about “being [a] leader, must be being vulnerable”. That’s totally true. Being vulnerable is not [just about] kind of “show your vulnerability”, it’s really you don’t talk top down to your team members in the way that as if you are their official manager. But it’s a peer person who is trying to help to grow their career and solving the problem whenever they need your help. That’s the definition, the baseline of empathy. And on top of that is enabling, giving them enough encouragement and also in situations where they commit a failure, they don’t feel judged. And if certain situations happen, be there, be the hand to help them and encourage them to go through the stage so they can learn from the failure, learn from the experience and [do a] better job as for their career development.

How to create psychological safety

Phil Barrett (00:17:56):

So creating psychological safety is the tricky part, actually, isn’t it? […] Can you put into words any of your tactics for how you do it, or any of the ways, the methods that you use to create it?

Jieke Pan (00:18:29):

First of all, in my context, within my responsibility, we don’t call our team members “developer”. We call them “engineers”. Their responsibility covers beyond just writing code. Their responsibility covers how to enable and bring the right solution to solve the right problem for our customers. And why is that so important? Because that emphasis - every single person’s position in either larger, small digital program delivery - their importance, their individual role plays within the impact of the overall outcome that we deliver to the customer. In order to do so is getting them involved at an early stage.

Jieke Pan (00:19:33):

In the other way around, what we manage is getting engineers to be involved, participating at the earliest stage as possible of large digital or small programs - kick-off moments. Why is that so crucial? Because then they get, if possible, in contact with stakeholders.

Jieke Pan (00:20:05):

It’s very important to get them engaged at the early stage, the stage where we are still designing or helping a customer together to figure out what their business frictions, user journey problems, user experience problems, or any other business issues that they wanted us to solve are.

Jieke Pan (00:20:41):

So at the early stage, you know what’s the purpose of your work. And from their own words, it needs to have a thorough and well structured way of working to take the people through the journey, through the experience as if they are running together a business like a startup.

Jieke Pan (00:22:10):

A major problem we notice in a lot of companies - that are even within our customers - is that there’s not enough care or attention paid in order to create such engagement so that the people feel what their purpose is of doing their job. And that’s down to the level of how you write user stories.

Jieke Pan (00:23:21):

Detail matters - that’s the most important thing. And it’s independent of the role you are performing. And it requires the overall team effort to care about the purposes [what] they are working on. So it reflects into engineering, reflects into product management, reflecting to designers and any other role which is participating in a program delivery. So that’s number one. And as you can tell, it is not directly related to a safer environment.

Jieke Pan (00:24:04):

It’s a psychological environment where you feel fulfilled, engaged and you know the value you are delivering. I know it’s hard. Sometimes work is work and you have to get certain tasks done. And that comes to the second topic which is proper expectation management. Sometimes if the reality is the way it is, you better tell the truth. Instead of sugar coating the situation where people have in their mind a different expectation to what’s a reality.

So perception, that’s translating into also what we so-called transparency. And often that happens when people get into the leadership level, they feel like “I need to kind of hide this and that so that I can communicate this way, so the team is engaged”. No, they will be disengaged I can tell you. They don’t know the purpose. They don’t know where you want them to be. You just give them the orders instead of showing them the roadmap. So being the leader is very important keeping in mind transparent communication.

Jieke Pan (00:25:54):

If you don’t know or have information about a certain topic, then you do better to also tell your team member you don’t have the information instead of fake it or give a very vague answer, then people start creating all kinds of norms and fake expectations. So when it comes to transparency, I think what I described everyone can achieve no matter which level of leadership you stand for. It’s how you communicate as a decent human being, down to the ground. That’s the base rule. And what we are talking about - safe environment - that’s the starting point to let you pave the way to create trust towards your team members.

Lot of companies call their team members as a resource. Terminology matters. We are human beings. We are not objects. So stop calling people resources.

Jieke Pan (00:27:26):

How engaged they feel within the company and how you treat them in small details - it really matters.

Mid-level leadership drives the company culture

Jieke Pan (00:27:33):

Especially when it comes to the strong leadership of the middle-layer leadership - it’s not about the executive level. It’s not about a management team, but the middle layer. It’s a very important one. We are talking about middle-layer. Who are they? Competence leaders or some company called team leaders or chapter leaders. You talk to people, talk to individuals directly. And though that layer needs to be really well structured and the well established principle, have rights, and unique ways of communicating, executing so that you can implement what is so-called company culture, because those are the leaders who are taking care of each individual level. But when companies grow, we often have this laziness of forgetting to continuously check, validate, if we are keeping this lay of the people up to date to their skill, to be a decent leader. Nobody was born as a good leader - nobody. And leadership is a skill you can learn and must be coached. So for a company it’s a combination of training and also learning on the job.

Phil Barrett (00:29:12):

And you’re right, that staying human when faced with the pressures of business is a real skill for managers.

Jieke’s own experience of retention

Phil Barrett (00:29:40):

What made you commit to staying at Mobiquity for as long as you have? Because you’re an engineer and you’ve actually stayed at that organization for nearly seven years so far, and I think it’s going to be longer. So what made you commit to staying there so long?

Jieke Pan (00:30:00):

I think this November it’s going to be seven years within Mobiquity. And I joined at a very crucial moment, so to speak. We were at the early stage of growth and expansion in terms of team size, head counts and also business size and the business domains. It was a very exciting time when I joined. And until today, the excitement just keeps going and gets into a different level. I joined as engineer and later on, got asked to take part as one of the competence leads of one competence team, in this case backend together with other colleagues of mine. Since day one I joined Mobiquity I’ve never been told to not do something without any reason, which means that as long as my action plan is meant for a good reason that is helping business to grow, helping individuals to develop their career, get engaged, increase their skill, increase our delivery of quality. And furthermore, also helping to build up a company culture towards a direction we all wish to move forward. Nobody would stop by saying, “Hey, what are you doing really annoyed me and please stop.”

Second thing is, I’ve been really fortunate that I was always surrounded by top talented people. And my definition of top talent does not necessarily come with their hard skills when I say hard skill in terms of their skill or experience of their domain knowledge. What I’m talking about is really I’m being surrounded by a great group of great people who share the common understanding of what our mission is and what being kind to each other is. What all kinds of topics are we just touched up on until now since the beginning of this chat. We share very similar values to each other. Although we all come from different countries, currently Mobiquity Europe, it consists of 51 or 52, 50-plus nationalities. And I’m just one of them. We all share a common goal. And most importantly, the level of respect is really high. Not because I’m speaking up. Now I’m in the role of CTO, so that people respect me. Since day one when I joined as an engineer that is equally the same feeling I’ve been carrying on. Obviously from my side, I would like to transmit this value to others as well. So that’s what we’ve been doing.

And on top of that, people have super talent for what they do in their business domain, their expertise being the subject matter expert. It’s beyond just being the engineering group. I’m talking about the overall Mobiquity Europe. And the sense of feeling I’ve been getting is over the last six years. I’ve kept on learning from others. And these coming from independent of the level where this stands, it’s not about, I couldn’t learn from the junior engineers, which you do from different aspects. They come from a different generation, different country, different experiences they had. And sometimes the challenge they put towards you - easy learning curve that you have to take. The more senior we become, sometimes our vision becomes more narrow.

Jieke Pan (00:33:45):

So for me, the sense of feeling is really continuous learning. And this learning doesn’t necessarily come from only technology, because technology really comes last as the factor driving my motivation to stay. Because let me tell you something – what is cool today as technology is lame tomorrow. It becomes so easily outdated.

Jieke Pan (00:34:35):

Modernized is now; what you are working on. The value you deliver and using the right technology to deliver certain solutions. What is really cool is seeing the happy face of your customer. Seeing a very engaging team working together, delivering certain solutions. And those are the invisible, what I call non-functional aspects of which contribute to my motivation.

Continuous feedback cycles - giving smaller feedback more often

Jieke Pan (00:36:24):

There are other aspects I think that keep people engaging is what we call ‘continuous feedback cycle’. The feedback applies to your peers, expressing their feedback about you. It could be appreciation, could be improvements - in a frequent timeframe but in a small quantity. So that you can digest messages easily. What I call that is a lot of companies implement yearly, or if I may, half year - that’s quite common. A lot of companies have this performance review. And the worst part is those are even highly attached to yearly salary adjustment promotions.

Jieke Pan (00:37:43):

They are your peers. The only thing you can do is give you feedback. Either it’s appreciation or an improvement remark. And as long as you make it as constructive as possible your peers would listen.

Jieke Pan (00:38:13):

The key message here is never wait until another year and then bring the feedback.

Jieke Pan (00:38:34):

The point is you must have a well-structured systematic way to do so.

Jieke Pan (00:39:39):

What we encourage people to do on a quarterly basis.

Jieke Pan (00:39:52):

We also implement what is called feedback sessions. That is within one scrum size team, like nine to 12 people. And after one sprint delivery, they will sit with each other within an hour and write down appreciation topic items, and also improve items for each of the team members. They work within the project in that spring, what happens. And then in a one, one mode of two minutes session, they will hand over these sticky notes to the others and explain the context and give them proper perspective of what they expect things to change to improve, or what they really appreciate, and that they want a person to maintain.

Peer Programming Feedback

Jieke Pan (00:40:44):

And we encourage people to do peer programming. That’s not necessarily mean, or the project we demand is peer programming, but you’ve seen that all the teams at the beginning when nobody knows each other, team formation takes time until to a certain level that everyone is working as a team. But our mission is always to shorten that time. The way to do so is getting everyone talking to each other, not just by talking, but while executing your job day to day, you are interacting with others.

Jieke Pan (00:42:08):

It’s not about pushing people to talk to you. You need to have a mechanism to naturally enable it. So peer programming is just one way to do things. Getting people paired with each other. They exchange ideas, enabling them to establish, back again to the topic - safe environment. They feel trusted and respected.

Importance of effectively driven 1-on-1’s

Phil Barrett (00:43:30):

People are giving their colleagues feedback about the work, as in almost, I’m not going to say real time, but frequently, very frequently - and very honestly. And how do you make that start?

Jieke Pan (00:44:34):

The experience we have gone through is between leaders and their team members, you often have this one-on-one conversation. And that one-on-one conversation must be driven effectively as a starting point because you will meet them more often than other peers meet them for these types of sessions, for these types of purposes. So encourage them. The leaders need to be also encouraged, but most importantly, encourage the team members. When you have a one-on-one with a team member, they must start feeling comfortable first because you are the leader who interacts with them more often.

Jieke Pan (00:45:46):

But a leader is the one who establishes one-on-one relationships more often or in a more fixed manner. And that’s the first thing is you really do need to encourage people and that they feel comfortable having chat with you. And don’t implement this feedback right away at the first sprint of the execution where you have project teams. And you must let the team start feeling comfortable with each other, but by following the normal practices of what scrum meant for you, for instance, during the retrospective.

Jieke Pan (00:46:35):

Try to change the format in the way that doesn’t say what went well, what went wrong, what needs to be improved. Change into a first person mode in the sense of starting to write what went wrong. But people should start the sentence with “I really liked, I really loved, it was amazing that”. Because things happened positively, you do need to express it in a positive way. Now things didn’t happen so well, don’t make it too negative. So you could start at it, well, “I wonder why this didn’t happen”. “It was a pity that we didn’t achieve that”, etc. So that you make a really comfortable setup.

Jieke Pan (00:47:46):

Be a decent communicator. And think in the shoes of others, so that they address the messaging nicely. Then naturally you are building up a trusting environment within your team.

Encourage micro-celebration

Jieke Pan (00:48:05):

Celebrate more. And at the moment, those celebrations are not about customers paying off, “yay, let’s go for drinks”. It’s about tiny features that get finished every day - do a micro celebration. And let the people who accomplished that task or user story be proud of them for their work.

Jieke Pan (00:48:42):

Of course it depends on occasion, depends on the culture of the customer, how they perceive, but nothing prevents you from doing such small celebration moments within your team. Nobody’s going to prevent you from doing that. And it’s not like, let’s go out for lunch for the whole afternoon. It’s about really tiny celebrations.

Jieke Pan (00:49:16):

At Mobiquity we have a standup every Friday, we call the company standup. I’m the moderator. And basically what we do, we introduce new journals. We ask people to speak up. If they need help, we have a section. One of my colleagues will bring a philosophical text piece that he read from a certain book to share the ideas with the people, project achievements. And that’s not a necessary project that needs to be delivered. Their teams are celebrating at a key moment that certain things got achieved.

Appreciation. So if you want to bring a thank you message to a team or to individuals. And also our president, managing director, Paul, would give a short update over that week what happened on management level and the company level. And then we have a monthly company meet, which we host at the end of the month that everybody joins. And there will be a lengthier session, but every Friday we have this 15 to 30 minutes stand up, everyone joins remotely or in the office. And then we celebrate such small achievements together and also get to know the new joiners when they introduce themselves.

Jieke’s book recommendations

Phil Barrett (00:51:28):

Which books have you given to people as gifts, leaders at your company? And are there any books you’re planning to give them next?

Jieke Pan (00:51:58):

So far the collection I’ve bought so far are the collections from the author, Simon Sinek, probably some of you know him by the famous speech about the Golden Cycle - why, how and what. But Simon has also written multiple books around definition of leadership, experience of leadership and vision of leadership. I found them rather inspiring such as The Leader, Last Infinite Game. Those are the two choices from my side. And another one is not from Simon. It’s from Will Larson, Elegant Puzzle is also very interesting. And I highly recommend it because the Elegant Puzzle is a book fully focusing on engineering leadership in a management context. Written by Will Larson who is a CTO.

Using onboarding to see team potential

Jieke Pan (00:54:33):

At Mobiquity, we have one week, well structured digital onboarding now because of COVID over the last two years. People join via Zoom session and they go through learning company history, our way of working, and also getting a couple of short sessions of training. But what’s most important for us is also learning their potentials, their profiles and how we can form ideal teams around them so that they can lend it safely in their first assignments after they join Mobiquity. Now, how would you form a team with all the new joiners? You are setting them up for failure, I would say. Not per se that they are not good performers. They are all subject matter experts of their domain. But allowing them to work as a team, knowing, or even maybe searching for what’s the right way, working within the Mobiquity context, it becomes a really hard job. So you do need to have a certain good team mix so that you can achieve quality.

Self-reflection and learning from mistakes as a leader

Phil Barrett (00:59:30):

Have you ever had any conflicts or maybe just confusion between being yourself and being a leader?

Jieke Pan (00:59:54):

First of all, this is a definition of conflict or confusion. There’s a difference why we call a leader instead of manager, because it’s just a title and responsibility, I would say. It doesn’t make you act differently when you are a leader and we are not a leader. What it means is if you know the context of your job, of your engineers, you think their way, instead of thinking your own way and your leadership activities or plans would be tailor made naturally towards their needs instead of your needs. Leaders appear to facilitate them, not themselves, but they’re team members. So if you see there’s a certain hierarchical separation between yourself and your job versus others, I think there’s always a moment for reflection. And if I have had such a moment, certainly I have. At a very early beginning when I was asked to take the lead role. It’s the experience before joining Mobiquity. And you do get the conflicts because you think suddenly at that moment, you are over someone else, which is not. It’s just your job title.

Jieke Pan (01:01:28):

And being a leader you just facilitate. So you do need to think about it. And one thing is very important. Daily self-reflection moments. Usually, I take a little bit of time around seven or seven half, just do a very quick self reflection moment of the day and what I’ve done. It’s quick. If you start building this habit, then every day will just cost you five minutes or 10. And I do make mistakes along the way. That’s what I’m saying. I get encouraged to learn from my mistakes and the people will point out my mistakes, no matter which role they play and which level they act at Mobiquity. It’s not like it suddenly becomes very chaotic. Everyone’s fingers point to each other. No, it’s about giving them the room that they feel safe to speak up if they see something is not right coming from my side. It’s coming from my peers, my team members, people I lead directly. Nothing would be linked to judgment calls or personal conflicts or whatever. We are talking about content driven discussions and also helping me to grow. So I hope I answer the question, maybe vague, but I think you do need to even, you are just a team member of one person. Think in their position when you are planning or taking actions for whatever. So your mission is helping them to grow.

Retention’s top three: leadership, transparency and perspective

Phil Barrett (01:04:41):

Can you give us the top three things from your experience that have shaped the way you think about engaging and retaining talent as VP of engineering?

Jieke Pan (01:05:09):

If I may quickly summarize, first is strong leadership. Really choose the right leader to lead the people, have good selection processes, etc. I highly recommend the companies to see your existing employees first, when you want to expand your leadership group instead of hiring from outside. But first try to promote within, because certainly there will be people who will have a skill or even not having skill, have an ambition to. But always have the right process and right mindset when you choose people. Not because that’s your friends or family, it’s about really the person who can do the job. And the definition of leader does not necessarily mean top performer. You cannot link directly to each other, but often they are because the top performers go beyond and above. The point is sometimes top performers do their job right but they are not leadership material. You need to establish a well established training programs, coaching to help them. And some people may not have a drive and also don’t enforce them to take leadership roles yet they are top performers. So don’t link this to each other. Of course, you need a certain level of seniority to take the lead because the experience also comes for certain solution-resolution moments.

Second thing I think is basically trust and transparency as we talk about already a lot.

And thirdly, it’s a perspective. And these days, as we talk about attrition is high and people change jobs often besides of salary offering a job title, those are the two factors that will always by definition have their seling value per any job nature.

But what it doesn’t have the selling value is a career progression in terms of satisfaction about what they get versus their plan. So creating the right perspective, a clear roadmap for your department and clear career goals for each of them. It’s very easy to say for a lot of companies that “yeah, we have career goals”. But look at how you measure. Look at how you define them and how you measure a smaller granularity in the sense of how people feel? Does each individual agree with those goals? Does it match your business goals? How can you highly attract, how can you continuously refine - that’s one part. And also managing the expectation right. Sometimes you do need a certain guru to do the job because that’s a part of the job, then manage it, be transparent. But that’s also the skill that comes when you manage and create a proper perspective. And most importantly the roadmap and the vision needs to be clear.

Jieke Pan (01:10:14):

I do want to emphasize it’s an important topic to keep in mind on your day to day job no matter if you are a leader or just a team member within your team or your company. Feel free to connect with me if you have any follow-up questions. Thank you very much.

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