How to become a supernode
at Etsy, over the course of a few years
Written for my friend Jared
People have identified me as a 'supernode', and I agree that one of the value-adds I bring to Etsy is knowing what's going on in the organization as a whole. This enables me to identify the right person to talk to about a certain problem, and sometimes manifests as me bringing two people together who are working on the same thing (or at cross-purposes) without realizing it.
I've found being a supernode emotionally valuable for feeling connected to the organization as a whole and what we are trying to accomplish. That being said, maintaining many relationships across the organization as a whole and understanding a high level view of what everybody is doing is not realistic in a 1000+ person org, and shouldn't be necessary to get things done in one. Part of the work I aimed to do on the Architecture Review working group, was to make finding the right people to talk to easier for people who did not have a holistic view of the entire org. More on that in some other writeup, maybe.
Also but maybe you want to become a supernode anyway. This is how I'd suggest you do it.
- Discover your existing network.
You probably already have a network that you can tap into. This organic network is going to be the easiest for you to maintain, so I encourage you to find where you already spend your time. For me, it was a combination of technical spaces (e.g. #push and the people who I saw in push trains a lot, and debugged with), affinity groups (#womenby-tech, recurse center peeps, people who sat near me physically in the office (originally, I sat with data-eng and not with Core. I remain close to data-eng's leadership to this day), and hobby groups (e.g. #bikes). You probably also have a list of people whose public work you admire, maybe via great questions in postmortems, or strong leadership in shipping a product you were adjacent to. Write these spaces and people down for later.
- Identify your blind spots
Everybody has blind spots. Part of being a super node is being aware of where your blind spots are, and accounting for them. Take a look at your Slack DMs. We have weekly retention on these, so all those names are all the people you've talked to this last week. Write down these names. Write down the number. As you're aiming to become a supernode, set a goal for what you want this number to be next week! For some context, mine varies from 30-50 people per week.
Now take a look at these names--What teams are these people on? What attributes or identities do they all have in common? Maybe they're all engineers in syseng. Maybe they're all other managers scattered across the org. Now take a look at the company org chart--write down the large areas that you're missing from your week-on-week informal chatter network. For me, some of my known blindspots even today include marketing and data analysts. These were lower priorities for me to address than my known blindspot of seller services, which is an engineering team. You might have your own priorities!
- Identify people in your existing network that are in your blindspots.
OK, so now you have a list of blindspots, and an understanding of your existing informal network.
Now! Identify people who do work in your blind spot areas that happen to be in your informal networks! Maybe this is someone who rides bikes and talks about 'em in #bikes but also works in seller services as an engineer. Maybe this is a product manager who works remotely and posts in #remotes.
Identify a few people who you can develop relationships with--some of them won't have time or energy to be your new buddy, or maybe the two of you just won't click, so it's good to have a few people to target, in case some don't work out.
Another thing I learned over time is that sometimes things don't work out in the short term but the act of reaching out at all will make later conversations easier. Becoming a super node is a long game. As part of this identification, do some digging! Read their last commits! Check to see if they've written up a design doc that's posted in go/architecture! Rack your memory--were they active in a postmortem that you were at? Did they ask a particularly good question at an eng all hands? This is a good time to start paying attention to the all-company meetings you're at to identify potential targets for becoming work friends with in the future! : D
- Create new relationships.
Now, this is the hard part. Take those conversation topics and that list of names and reach out! Maybe it's just a Slack DM bringing the conversation that you were having from a public channel into a private channel! Maybe it's reaching out to ask them, "Hey, I would love to understand GPLA a bit better, can I set up 30 minutes with you?"
I find that the easiest way to get to know a coworker is to talk about work. It's a known element you have in common and it reduces the potential friction and discomfort inherent in trying to bond over outside of work things. Even if you initially bond over non-work related topics, to truly become a supernode you'll want to transition your relationship into one that can talk about work things in addition to other things, and that's in this step.
- Maintain those relationships
My philosophy on friendship, work friendships included, is to be part of the squad of cheerleaders on the sidelines of your friend's life. Maintaining work relationships looks a lot like this too. Check in with your new friends! Ask them what they're working on, and how it's going! Celebrate their successes--publicly. Post in your shared channels congratulations of major events, be it committing to an open source project for the first time, or getting promoted, or launching a project. Offer a listening ear when they're stressed--privately. Share their accomplishments and gush about how awesome they are to your other work friends. Feed your network and it'll feed you.
Now look! You're a supernode now. : )