React Boston conference

Over the last few months, we’ve been sharing some of our top picks for mobile app and development conferences in California and some insights from our favorite talks. Today, we’re moving to the other end of the country and sharing our highlights from Kate Wardin’s talk at React Boston last September, where she tackled the topic of leadership in the tech industry. To start us off, let’s take a look at the React Boston conference.

Leadership React Boston Conference

What is React Boston?

React Boston was born out of ReactJS Boston, a local react user group that hosts meetups every month. Sponsored by Wayfair Tech, the event grew to the point ReactJS Boston and Wayfair decided to launch a yearly conference. So, in 2017, this two-day conference was created.

React Boston is hosted in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood and is aimed at developers of all backgrounds, skill sets and experience levels. This year’s event was held on September 21-22, with ticket prices ranging from $375 to $499 (including breakfast and lunch meals, as well as access to the closing party on Sunday).

Past speakers have included Laura González from The Guardian, Robert Zhu from Facebook, and Houssein Djirdeh from Google, among many others. The talks cover a wide range of topics related to React, such as designing a component kit, various aspects of GraphQL and piloting a drone with React. There are also plenty of opportunities to socialize. You can take a look at this year’s talks here.

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Kate Wardin: The speaker

Kate Wardin is a Senior Engineering Manager at Target, where she supports a development team of front-end engineers who build supply chain React apps for the company. Based in Minneapolis, MN, Target is the eighth-largest retailer in the United States with over 18,000 stores. In 2019, Kate founded Developer First, an organization that provides new leaders with resources, tools and confidence to be great leaders in the tech field.

Target Logo

The problems behind the talk

Kate Wardin’s talk was called “Developer First – A New Leadership Mindset”. After introducing herself and what she does both at Target and Developer First, Kate Wardin mentioned the three reasons behind her talk:

  1. The impact bad bosses can have on an individual in the tech industry. As the saying goes: people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. According to a 2015 Gallup engagement study, 50% of respondents left a company to “get away from their manager at some point in their careers”.
  2. Engineers tend to be picky about their work and rightly so. With only 70,000 new candidates for development roles graduating in the US by 2020 for the projected 700,000 new roles, developers have a wide variety of options. This means employers need to focus on how to attract and retain developers. Moreover, Kate explains how retention is actually at an all-time low at the moment, with 1 in 4 workers quitting to try something new, which is predicted to be 1 in 3 by 2020.
  3. New managers struggle with the change from individual contributor to leader of a team. As Kate explains, the sad truth is that only 40% of engineering managers receive formal training when they become a boss for the first time.

After explaining these reasons, Kate Wardin went on to state that bosses get a bad rep. Maybe because of how they are portrayed in the media or because they come from roles that don’t provide any specific training and are not properly prepared to take on the new role. Flattening an organization doesn’t seem to work either as employees need a solid foundation of support from a leadership role. As organizations struggle to recruit and retain top technical talent given the low candidate pool and increasing demand, Kate dared us to think differently about technical leadership in order to build and retain strong, empowered, motivated, and loyal development teams.

The solutions

After covering the issues, Kate Wardin went on to provide these solutions to the three problems discussed at the beginning of the talk:

  1. Develop awesome leaders.
  2. Foster irresistible culture.
  3. Equip leaders with tools, actionable frameworks and confidence to be effective leaders.
Growth at React Boston conference

Kate Wardin has actually tested these solutions with great results. At Target, she has managed to improve engagement and retention in her team compared to the national average. In 2018, engagement was at a mere 15% at a national level and she managed to reach 84%. Regarding retention, the national average was 80% while her team rose up to 92.6%.

How can I do it?

Because of the issues within the industry, Kate Wardin decided to establish Developer First leadership based on the foundation that “I work for my team, not the other way around”. Here are seven ways to practice Developer First leadership according to Kate:

  1. Remove blockers that prevent developers from making progress towards their professional and personal goals: whether it’s changing how we phrase questions, bringing up potential issues, addressing low performers or letting go of your most valuable players, you need to help each individual on your team grow, even if that means finding a new role for them or seeing them go somewhere they can keep learning and growing.
  2. Empower your team: make sure your employees don’t feel like they’re always in the passenger’s seat, that leaders and business partners are available to them (and vice versa), and that you involve your team in decision-making and problem-solving when their insight in necessary or relevant. You should also focus on guiding instead of imposing by waiting for conversations to play out before sharing your ideas, as well as making sure team members know they can disagree with you. Moreover, if something cannot be run by the team, explain why and how their work ties into the bigger picture.
  3. Share credit and take the blame. On the credit side, Kate suggests associating names with accomplishments and knowing what type of recognition each member prefers (some may want it to be very public while others might prefer a quiet email or message). As to any problems or failures, she says one should focus on what happened, how you solved it and what other teams can learn from the mistakes. Moreover, Kate believes the only person accountable should be the leader of the team.
  4. Never devalue people in the process of delivering a solution: value is not just about productivity, it is measured by our impact on the development team and the company. Kate advises not to call employees resources and to understand that family and personal lives are more important than anything else–a leader shouldn’t incentivize behavior that means sacrificing that. You should also build an inclusive culture, but without compromising company values and work ethic.
  5. Be vulnerable and authentic: you should be relatable and provide a good example by sharing your past failures.
  6. Prioritize and focus: this is a point Kate really struggled on when she first came to her managing duties. She advises not to multitask on important things, stating that, according to some studies, multitasking causes a 10% drop in IQ and leads to as much as a 40% drop in productivity. She recommended using the Eisenhower matrix and auditing yourself in order to help you prioritize and focus.
  7. Invest in your communication skills: Kate narrows it down to simply stop talking. Listening is far more important. She suggests having one-on-one meetings with your team at least every other week for 30 minutes, making sure you rarely miss them and that you are focused on the team member. If you happen to be distracted for any reason, let them know. And if you notice they are, you might consider suggesting rescheduling to them.

React Boston Conference

Final thoughts

As the tech industry faces a lot of challenges to keep up with demand, companies should focus on how best to recruit developers and keep them engaged. We believe Kate Wardin makes a lot of extremely valuable points and we hope you can apply her suggestions and create a workspace that attracts talented developers and fosters a healthy and productive team environment. You can check out the full video for the talk here, and make sure to check out the rest of the React Boston videos about React web development.