Glue Work - Part 1: What It Means and Why It Matters

Growth Jan 6, 2021

Considering all the details that need to come together for a team to perfectly engineer a product, it’s a wonder anyone can ship anything with quality at all. How does it possibly happen?

It’s a little like planning a family reunion. You show up for the big weekend and marvel that everyone is in one place at the same. They came from all over, some with kids, some with pets, some with elderly parents. How did it possibly happen? You can look back and see a version of the path you took to arrive. You booked the hotel room, packed your bag, and showed up at the picnic, right? Well, not exactly. Someone made the decision to have the family reunion in the first place and found a date that worked. Another someone found the perfect location and reserved a block of hotel rooms. The pavilion at the park got booked, miraculously. Somebody paid the catering deposit and picked the menu. Reunion t-shirts showed up. It seems so simple, but making something big happen is full of complexity and a special kind of meaningful work.

The very important bits

This is called glue work. Like glue, it’s the stuff that holds everything together. It’s critical. It’s the kind of work everybody needs to do in their own daily life for family and friends, but not everybody steps up to do it in the office for co-workers. In the engineering world, the glue work—the way a product gets completed— can look like:

  • Participating in team activities and offsite meetings
  • Onboarding new hires
  • Offering emotional support to a teammate
  • Building community by setting up team lunches or ordering pizza for a late-night push
  • Noticing when someone is stuck and reaching out to help
  • Advocating on behalf of a team member
  • Managing relations between other teams and other functions, like designers
  • Making space for others to participate

Who does this work?

There’s no doubt that this kind of work is critical. When nobody steps up to fill these gaps, the whole team feels it, and progress suffers. The problem is that this kind of work is often unassigned. It doesn’t fall neatly into a single role, or there doesn’t seem to be a huge need for someone to cover it exclusively. That is until the team grows, and the need is overwhelming.

In an ideal scenario, most glue work is done by management and senior or lead engineers or by someone whose role includes these tasks. Unfortunately, this is rare. It’s common for junior engineers to pick up these pieces. And if you’re a human who knows a woman, you’ve probably already guessed that women tend to do the majority of glue work – in any scenario. Whether at home, enjoying a hobby with others, volunteering, or at work, women are more likely than men to raise their hand for tasks that fall through the cracks. Most of the time, these are tasks that aren’t visible or don’t have an obvious impact on the day-to-day work of writing more code. This makes them “un-promotable” tasks, which can make this kind of work problematic if it isn’t recognized as valuable.

The truth about glue work

It may not seem like a big deal; you agree to organize a hackathon for a group of students and spend several days making sure everything is going to run smoothly. On the day of the event, you play host, help students troubleshoot, and run the judging. All told, you’ve put in close to 40 hours on a project that your boss said is a priority for the company founder. Unfortunately, while you were doing this work, you weren’t contributing to the code that your team was writing.

You get praise for a job well done and more opportunities to organize events like this since you did such a good job. This is the moment when the hard truth about glue work sneaks in. Do you recognize that glue work is hard to measure, and isn’t the job you were hired to do, and therefore can’t be used as a basis for promotion? Is the glue work taking you away from the career path you want to be on, keeping you from developing the experience and skills you need? We have a finite number of hours in each day—are you using those hours to your own benefit or the team’s benefit? Which matters more?

For managers, there are other hard truths about glue work.  Such as this: not doing the necessary glue work to keep your team on track makes you a poor manager. When you allow others to do this work, especially junior employees, you become less of a manager. You lose control, respect, and credibility. This also leaves your team open to a devastating impact when the person doing the glue work gets overwhelmed and leaves for a more manageable job.

Breaking it down

In our next two posts we’ll break down the dimensions of glue work for junior workers and for managers. Both cohorts are impacted, and both can and should take ownership of their role in glue work.

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.

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Myron McMillin

Co-founder at botany.io

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