Glue Work - Part 2: For Individual Contributors

Jul 19, 2021

This post is part two in a series exploring glue work – what it means, who does it, why, and how managers can give glue work the respect it deserves. If you haven’t already, read part one here.

The first step in understanding the impact of glue work on an engineering team is knowing what glue work looks like in the first place. In part one of this series, we break this down. Here’s a recap:

Glue work is what you’re doing when you notice a teammate is stuck, and you offer a solution. Glue work is offering to engage the design team so your fellow engineers can ask questions and get clarification. Unexpectedly, glue work isn’t usually anyone’s job, but it’s the stuff that holds everything together. It’s how things get done. It’s critical.

Today we’re taking a closer look at how individual contributors (as opposed to managers) engage with glue work.

Who does glue work?

Ideally, glue work is the responsibility of management and senior or lead engineers. Some parts of it can also be someone’s job. But since glue work can be hard to identify and doesn’t fall into a clear and easy description that applies universally, it often doesn’t get picked up by anyone in particular.

But who actually does glue work?

It’s common for junior engineers and especially female junior engineers to pick up glue work. Capable, motivated people will recognize when something needs to be done and do it. Whether it’s part of your job description or not, you know intuitively that doing this task or that chore will help make your team successful. It might make your own job easier, too.

Is this a problem?

It can be. Since glue work isn’t explicitly part of your role responsibilities as a junior or mid-level engineer, it’s unlikely that management will recognize glue work as a basis for advancement. Depending on how much time you spend performing glue work tasks, it can also keep you from doing the actual job you were hired to do. When that happens, you’re missing out on the experience you need in order to develop your career. You’re also making it less likely you’ll hit key milestones that your manager is expecting you to hit. And no, there isn’t a tidy tradeoff between the three days you spent organizing a hackathon and the code you were supposed to be writing.

What to do if you’re doing glue work but don’t want to anymore.

This is an important conversation to have with your manager or the lead engineer. First, write down examples of the glue work you’ve been doing. Be specific. Since glue work can be hard to identify, you’ll need to offer clear evidence for what you’re doing. Did you take some time to listen to a co-worker talk through the death of a pet? Did you invite the new hire to lunch with some others? Have you been engaging with the design team outside the normal workflows just to build a better relationship? Did you offer to update the company coding standards? All of this is glue work.

Second, detail the amount of time the glue work occupies in your day. Again, be specific. Is it an average of two hours per week? In a year, that could be around 80 hours, or two full work weeks, when you weren’t writing code. When this is laid out plain for your manager, it might provoke the kind of awareness you need.

Third, offer thoughts and suggestions on how the glue work can continue to be done once you’re no longer doing it. Make a prioritized list of the tasks that others must take over for the success of the team. If your manager doesn’t appear to want to take on the glue work, be ready to suggest that the team share these tasks. Consider offering to keep a fair share of the glue work.

Fourth, and this is vital: stop doing the glue work. It’s going to hurt. Hopefully, the pain will be brief as your team works on a fair solution.

When is it not a problem?

Remember that managers and senior engineers should naturally take on most of the glue work. Two key elements need to be present in order for glue work to be an asset for a junior engineer.

  1. Management and lead engineers need to recognize and respect the glue work as part of their responsibilities and factor it into evaluations. Glue work must be categorized as valuable work.
  2. Glue work needs to be part of your career dreams. It’s not uncommon for engineers who are attracted to glue work to decide to become people managers, project managers, or similar. If that’s your goal, see 1, above. It still needs to be recognized and respected in order to help advance your career.

What to do if you’re doing glue work and want to keep doing it.

You might be alight with the possibility of managing a team of engineers. You can see around walls when it comes to these projects and the people working on them. Nothing escapes your notice. There’s a lot of power and satisfaction in holding everything together. If this is the case for you, there are some important steps to take.

First, have a conversation with your manager or lead engineer. It’s time to make sure your efforts are being valued and supported. Detail the glue work you’re doing and describe the outcomes. For example, when you recognized that a teammate was suffering from a lack of confidence, you were deliberate in asking for his ideas and being openly respectful of his contributions in meetings with others. This led him to step up to take on a challenging coding assignment in which he had to learn something new for the company, which he nailed. This saved the company from needing to look outside for a specialist.

Second, make it clear what your career goals are. If you still want to be part of the coding team, say that. If you want to phase out over the next year, and do only project management, say that. Don’t waffle. Since glue work is ambiguous and vague, you need to give it structure by clearly defining your goals here.

Third, ask to revise your job description to reflect the work you’re doing more accurately. This should also be incorporated into your reviews.

Fourth, keep doing the glue work. And call it out to others. “Hey, I took care of that thing that we needed since we were stuck. But now we aren’t. You’re welcome.” It’s ok to ask for respect for work that is essential to the team's success. It’s not boastful. It’s reasonable.

Next: managers edition

In our next post, we’ll break down the dimensions of glue work for managers and lead engineers.


Botany.io is a smart virtual coach designed to help software engineering and managers professionally grow and improve their skills. We can help you get a handle on how you’re spending your time at work and show you how it’s helping or hurting your career opportunities.

Myron McMillin

Co-founder at botany.io

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