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1:1s | From Meeting to Multiplier

David McClain
- San Francisco, CA

If there’s one thing we probably have in common, it’s that we both have a “1:1”. Some sort of regular check-in meeting with your manager. If you don’t, I urge you to fix that.

Software Engineering is one of those attractive pursuits where there’s no shortage of resources to get started, but getting to mastery is devilishly unobtainable. There’s always more to learn, more to read, more code to refactor, more great conference talks to inspire, more languages to experiment with, more paradigms and design patterns to apply.

We spend a lot of time with our noses in a book, or a blog post, or at a meetup. We also spend a decent amount of time fretting about all the topics we’re not covering because we’re so busy trying to absorb the other ones. Or is that just me?

I think there’s something a lot of us miss or overlook when it comes to growth and development, and that’s the humble 1:1. (Some companies call them “TBs”, or “Touch Base(s)”.) If you’re screwing up your face right now, or gently shaking it in disbelief, then I’m very happy this post has reached you. This post is especially for you.

If you use them correctly, 1:1s can provide an enormous amount of value to you. So what is the difference between my 1:1s and your 1:1s?

The golden rule - the one thing you need to take away from this if nothing else - is that the 1:1 is your meeting. It is for you. If your manager has an agenda, then it needs to either be directly about supporting you, or come second to your agenda. Taking ownership of your 1:1s is an easy, everyday superpower. Taking five minutes before you meet to write a couple of talking points is the biggest difference between a 1:1 that works for you, and one that doesn’t.

What should you cover in your 1:1?

I couldn’t possibly answer that. It’s whatever you need it to be. But like all good blog posts, I have some opinions and some bullet points.

  • 1:1s are about uncovering your roadblocks, the things holding you back, in your work/projects, in your career, and in your professional relationships.
  • 1:1s are about discovering where you want to go and what you and your manager can do to help make sure you get there.
  • 1:1s are about leaning on your manager’s experience to help guide you through issues you’re dealing with.
  • 1:1s are not about performance reviews, that’s what immediate, candid feedback and 360° reviews and et cetera are for. You can use this time to solicit specific feedback from your manager on points you’re looking to improve upon.
  • Related to that, 1:1s are not about looking good in front of your manager. They’re not about all the things you know how to do; they’re about all the things stopping you from being better. You need to work on having a relationship with your manager (at least within the confines of the 1:1) where you can be vulnerable and ask for help.
  • 1:1s are scheduled, regular and immutable. It might take some time to get into the swing of things, to feel comfortable being that honest with your manager. Cadence and practice are key.

Bonus bullet point

  • 1:1s don’t have to be just something you do with your manager.  You could also set up a less-formal meeting with someone else in your company that you look up to. I get a lot of value from hearing the different perspectives I get from peers inside and outside of engineering.

How 1:1s became my superpower

I didn’t really have 1:1s at my previous jobs. Stitch Fix was the first place where I worked that took them seriously. I had weekly 1:1s with my manager and monthly 1:1s with my boss’ boss. It was an opportunity to get their opinions on leadership (a topic I was starting to take an interest in). I would come to them with problems, and they would not solve them for me, but rather talk me through ways I might solve them. It was through these conversations that I shared that I would someday like to lead a team and take more ownership over our roadmap. I felt brave enough, or I should say secure enough to ask, “So what’s standing in the way of that? In what ways am I not ready yet?”. These conversations became avenues for mentoring and guidance, for feedback and reassurance. These 1:1s were the reason I got promoted and given a team to lead. These meetings are the reason I haven’t completely screwed that up. These 1:1s have been my superpower, and I rely on them now more than ever. The power of having someone who makes themselves, their insight and experience available to you, who wants to help you succeed (whatever that means for you) is immeasurable. I wouldn’t be where I am today if we had just talked about status updates.

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