May 11, 2022

A Day in the Life of a Technical Program Manager at TextNow

Written by philip


At TextNow, I’m one of several Technical Program Managers (TPMs). For anyone who has worked with an Agile Coach and/or a Scrum Master, what we do is much like what they do. When it comes to the skills that TPMs need to rely on most frequently, facilitation is one of the most important in the TPM toolkit.

Understanding Facilitation

When an experienced facilitator is present and a meeting is going smoothly, it’s easy to forget that the facilitator is there, especially when they have mastered what effective facilitation looks like in practice. A lack of facilitation, such as a meeting that seems to have no agenda or goals, can present major issues for a team.

What Effective Facilitation Looks Like

We might be tempted to think that “running a meeting” means that a facilitator drives the conversation in a particular direction, seeking to move the group toward a particular decision. Although there might be circumstances where a more directive approach is helpful, facilitation is not directive.

As facilitators, we seek to approach the meeting in such a way that the attendees achieve the outcomes that they want to achieve, and thus we’re likely to ask probing and clarifying questions along the way. At various points during the conversation, we may need to reach into our facilitation toolkit to help the group make the decisions that they want to make – not the ones that we want them to make.

What are Some Examples of Things That Facilitators Do?

Martin Alaimo provides a nice summary of things that facilitators do in his book Agile Team Facilitator: A Coach’s Path Towards Enterprise Agility:

  • Honor dialogue over monologue

  • Help make and keep team agreements

  • Decompose big or complex topics into smaller ones

  • Help navigate through disagreement or conflict

  • Coordinate conversations

  • Paraphrase or help clarify

  • Make the decision-making process visible

Facilitation and Retrospectives

One of the areas where a facilitator can make a significant difference when working with any group or team is to help them celebrate accomplishments, surface pain points, and agree on areas that can help them improve. A term that Agile teams often use for a meeting where such continuous improvement conversations take place is a “retrospective.” Let’s look at some examples of retrospective facilitation.

The Retrospective Prime Directive

An Agile practitioner named Norm Kerth wrote a statement that nicely summarizes how important it is for everyone present during a retrospective to feel comfortable with being their authentic selves, being able to say what’s on their mind respectfully, without fear of repercussions or negative consequences. Norm Keth’s statement is known as the Retrospective Prime Directive, and it is common for facilitators to remind attendees about it by reading it before or during a retrospective:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

Encouraging Everyone to Share Their Opinion

Among any given group of people, some are more likely to say what’s on their mind right away when asked, while others might be hesitant to share what they’re thinking or wondering about with the group. One of the techniques that facilitators frequently use to help get a broad cross-section of participation is to use a mixture of verbal and non-verbal techniques.

Let’s say for instance that a team uses Slack or Microsoft Teams for most of their day-to-day communication, and let’s further assume that they have a private channel, which helps ensure that they feel psychologically safe to share their opinions in written form.

What a facilitator might choose to do is prepare one or more questions ahead of time and post them in the private channel, giving team members a chance to write their responses to the questions. When everybody has had a chance to respond, the facilitator then moves on to discussing the group’s answers to the questions.

Here are some examples of written questions:

  • When you hear the term <continuous integration/refactoring/peer code review/some other term of interest>, what does it mean to you?

  • What is an example of an accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?

  • What is an example of something that you learned, or something that surprised you?

  • If someone with magic powers could grant you three wishes, what three things in your work context would you wish for, and what would look different at work if those wishes were granted?

Focusing on the Positive

There is a term called a_ppreciative inquiry_, where the focus of the conversation is entirely on the positive. Having such a conversation can be particularly helpful when it seems like team morale might be suffering, or simply to change up the nature of the conversation so it doesn’t seem like the same questions are being asked and answered during every retrospective.

One of the easiest ways to inject appreciative inquiry into a conversation is simply ask something like “Please think of a recent example where somebody helped you, and express thanks to them.” The facilitator might choose to solicit such comments in real time during the retrospective, and/or to encourage attendees to express thanks to the person(s) later, after the meeting is over.

A variation on appreciative inquiry is a positive change canvas, where we ask a set of interlocking positive questions as facilitators. Here is a sample set of such questions:

  • What are one or two examples of things that I like about being a member of this team?

  • What could we change to make being on this team even better?

  • What next step(s) do we need to consider to make a desired change happen?

  • What is an example of an accomplishment that you are particularly proud of?

  • What is an example of something that you learned, or something that surprised you?

Leveraging the Familiar

As facilitators, we might choose to borrow from something everything is likely to have experienced when framing a conversation during a retrospective, such as usage of a particular app or a reference from popular culture. Below are a couple of examples:

Example 1: Amazon Review

To start off the retrospective, we're going to apply the same thought process we might if we were reviewing a product on Amazon, where each one of us uses the text editor of our choice to write down answer this prompt:

Based on what we remember about the past month, silently write down the following things:

  • Title. A short phrase that describes how the time period felt to you, e.g, “Best Ever,” “rollercoaster,” etc.

  • Description. One to three sentences that add details about your personal perspective. For example: If the title you chose suggests that things were great, include one or more examples of things that happened that made it feel great.  

  • Star Rating. A rating of one to five stars, where 1 would be the worst, and 5 would be the best. Optional: Something that we could have done, or something that could have happened that might have changed your star rating.

Example 2: Our Academy Awards

Let’s imagine that we’re judges who are granting awards to things we’ve recently done or recently worked on, as if we were the Academy Awards. Specifically, let’s reflect on specific user stories that we worked on recently, and grant the following awards:

  • Best Story: Which story was the best and why? Perhaps the one that was the most fun to work on? Or maybe the one that was easier than expected?

  • Worst Story: Which story was the worst, aka – the least fun to work on, or harder than expected?

  • Cinematic Team Achievement Story: What's an example of a story where team collaboration was particularly noteworthy?  

  • Special Technical Effects Story: What's an example of a story where the "special effects" (i.e., something particularly noteworthy from a technical perspective) stand out?

Thinking About the Future

Sometimes it can be helpful to orient our conversation toward the future than the past. For instance, as a facilitator, we might be working with a team that is just now forming, or that is about to undergo a major shift in terms of its area of focus. In such situations, we might choose to ask questions that focus more on the future. The term for such a conversation is futurespective. Below are a couple of examples of constructs for futurespective conversations.

Example: Telos Thinking

Telos is a Greek word, and it roughly translates as “ultimate aim” or “ultimate purpose.”

  • For this activity, let’s think of problems in terms of pain points when using a product. These can be things we have personally experienced, and/or things that customers have reported. It’s not necessary to limit our thought process ONLY to things that might fall under this team’s domain - we’ll do some sorting when we’re done to zero in topics specific to our team.

  • Let’s also think of “to what end” the solution will prove, in the sense of what good can potentially happen if/when we solve the problem.

Hopes and Concerns

Just like the name implies, hopes and concerns are intended to provide us with an opportunity to express the following:

  • Hopes. Things in the future that we’re excited about, aspiring to achieve, or maybe just want to articulate as stretch goals  

  • Fears. Things in the future that we have some uncertainty about, would like more information about, or “keep us up at night”

Working at TextNow

We’ve touched on what facilitation is, with particular emphasis on what it looks like to facilitate continuous improvement conversations. Each of the sample facilitation approaches that we just looked at for retrospectives/futurespectives are examples of actual techniques that have been used with one or more teams at TextNow. Having conversations like these on a regular basis is one of the things that makes TextNow a great place to work.

[Editor’s note] If you would like to join Philip (and the rest of the team) in his quest for telos thinking, then stop on by our Careers page and check out our openings.