Over the past weeks, we’ve discussed the necessary balance between innovation and infrastructure, reframing work for long-term stewardship, and identifying maintenance styles. These were all critical lessons that my team and I learned while meticulously navigating a years-long product migration to stabilize and support new developments. As we neared the final stretch of that journey, our team felt uplifted and excited to pursue new ideas with partners. Then, it hit us.

How would we sustain this revitalized culture?

Indeed, there were moments during the migration when we felt like things might reverse course when unsustainable practices or decisions crept in that conflicted with our new direction. We needed to define and follow practices and protocols to help keep us in check.

Thankfully, like many product teams, we had a playbook with a thorough inventory of our technology and how it operated. It had been an invaluable resource, but we eventually realized it was missing specific components needed for sustainability, such as:

  • Routines for upkeep on a weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly basis.
  • Industry best practices, including ones we adopted or adapted.
  • Policies and standards that defined protocols or boundaries to follow.

The original playbook explained how the technology worked but not how we could best work with it. We defined and integrated these operational guidelines to support the culture we ultimately wanted. The playbook began taking a more preventative approach to help us avoid risks and be aware of vulnerabilities that would inevitably come up. We were also able to be more transparent with staff and partners regarding our standards and practices. Today, the playbook serves as an ethics document that explains how we care for the technology in our products and the humans building and using them.

Investment in documentation and willingness to be adaptable were two critical characteristics of our team that held us accountable for sustainable product development. Without them, the culture we worked so hard to build may have collapsed during or after our migration. Let’s dig into them a little more.

Try This: How are you investing in documentation?

“Great doc writers act like journalists — following a lead and filling in gaps to create a full story.” – David Nunez, former Head of Docs at Uber and Stripe.

David Nunez, a well-renowned technical writer, has put together a “brick-by-brick guide for startups” on improving the culture of documentation and advises organizations to “address incentives and rewards for writing and maintaining documentation.” In his three-step process for improving documentation culture, he suggests:

  1. Model good writing habits: Taking your writing seriously “will give others a nudge to model this behavior…  reinforce the importance of writing and sharing knowledge.”
  2. Get into the editing habit: “…practicing your writing and getting feedback is the only way to get better.”
  3. Make writing a part of the job ladder: “If you codify knowledge-sharing expectations in job descriptions and job ladders, folks will inherently look to fulfill those responsibilities on their ladder.”

As an example of the last step, the original job description for software engineers here at API didn’t specify technical writing as a part of the responsibilities. Last year, we added: “Contribute to the knowledge base for our products to communicate technical changes or help document user-friendly instructions and explanations that can help with technical support.” Today, I’m excited to collaborate with Marita Pérez Díaz, our newest Web Applications Engineer, to conduct weekly sprints addressing other documentation gaps. The more intentional approach helps set expectations and goals around improving communication and transparency on our team going forward.

Dig Deeper: How can policies and protocols adapt within uncertainty?

One challenge to writing policies and protocols in journalism today is that we often find ourselves in newly formed organizations or technical environments where we have yet to understand the consequences of management initiatives. Often, there is no local historical data or experience to help guide the development of regulatory guardrails, which are critical to our work’s sustainability.

Reuters has shared how setting guardrails for technology development has been especially prominent with the latest wave of artificial intelligence. Without standardization or guidelines, journalist Hamilton Nolan says, “It is guaranteed that a lot of bad things will be done.” However, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman suggests that regulations should be “flexible enough to adapt to new technical developments.” Similarly, the pandemic has taught us how resilience depends on adaptability. Therefore, we are conflicted with this need to define best practices and protocols for technology development while being open to adapting to the uncertainty that comes with it.

On my journey here at API, I’ve become more familiar with practices of adaptive policy-making and adaptive management for product technology. These encourage us to accept that we may continually be in new policy environments without reliable standard operating procedures. “The essential idea of adaptive management is to recognize explicitly that management policies can be applied as experimental treatments, without pretense that they are sure to work,” says ecosystem researcher Carl Walters. “Management becomes an active process of learning what really works.”

My team knew it was essential to begin revising our playbook’s documentation as early as we noticed unsustainable practices. Indeed, at first, our updates weren’t perfect, but continuous adaptation throughout the project allowed us to learn and improve over time. As we all continue to find ourselves in new environments of uncertainty, whether technological or otherwise, we need to remain open to identify vulnerabilities and quickly investigate the reasoning behind them to more deeply understand how our guardrails may need changing.

Thank you for joining me along this series. I enjoyed sharing these important topics on technology stewardship with you and look forward to continuing the conversation about how you’re applying or adapting practices in your organization.

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