Engineering Management Lessons From Mountain Biking

Since moving to Colorado, I’ve been lucky enough to get out mountain biking pretty frequently. I love it. On some rides you’re just trying to get up or down the mountain in one piece, but on some rides you get good time to think quite deeply. On a recent ride I was rolling around (pun intended, you’re welcome) some ideas about engineering management, and realized there are some good parallels between mountain biking and leading teams of engineers.

Look Out Ahead

When you’re riding single track, it’s really common to have your eyes glued to the trail right in front of your wheel. Big mistake. Not only does it mean that you’re going to be constantly reacting and trying to respond to things as they appear right in front of you, but it also means that you’re not going to have any advanced warning of big changes ahead. Like a tight turn. Or fast descent. Or a jump/drop-off.

Instead of staring right in front of your wheel, you should keep your eyes further out ahead. This gives you more time to react, some time to pick your line, and the ability to adjust your approach as needed by speeding up, slowing down, changing your stroke on the pedals, or even just bracing for impact 😉

With engineering teams, if you’re heads down responding to the things right in front of you, you’re going to be in that same reactive position, and things will constantly take you by surprise. Take some time to not only plan out ahead, but forecast and “game out” what the future might hold. Will you need to hire more people soon? Adjust team structure? Train your people up in some specific skill? Transfer knowledge between key people? If you’re not looking ahead, these things can catch you by surprise, and become a much bigger issue than they needed to be.

Build Momentum

When you’re on a really gnarly section of technical trail, it’s all too easy to slow right down and find yourself picking your way through rocks and bumping across things uncontrollably. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s often better to speed up and keep moving than it is to slow down and try to delicately navigate every little obstacle. You can end up feeling like a bit of a steamroller, skimming over the top of everything, but you end up with a smoother ride, and it’s a whole lot more fun than bumping and grinding through every rock in your path. Instead of slowing down and being overly cautious, a common refrain is “let it roll”, meaning don’t brake, just roll through the obstacles using your momentum (and then quickly move on to the next one).

Something similar can be said for engineering teams, who benefit from building and maintaining momentum in their work. Get in the habit of shipping, and always protect that habit. Don’t slow right down and get stuck in the details. If you adopt an extremely slow and overly-cautious approach to shipping, then you can quickly find yourself in a state where you’re not shipping at all. Once shipping becomes a habit, that momentum is easier to maintain and build upon, to continue increasing your velocity.

Find Your Velocity

As a balancing point to the previous one, it’s also important to find the right velocity. On a mountain bike, if you go too slowly, you’ll have a rough ride, experience every bump and rock, and probably not enjoy yourself much. If you go too fast, well, there are plenty of YouTube videos to show you what happens. You need to find a pace where you’re making good progress, but you’re not completely out of control. It’s probably a little faster than you think it is, so you should push yourself and really find your limits.

If you’re moving too quickly as an engineering team, it probably means you’re shipping sloppy work, failing to validate ideas, accumulating a ton of technical debt, or just plain old rushing things. Find a sustainable pace where you can deliver quality work, without burning people out, and without shipping junk. That being said, moving too quickly is rarely a problem with engineering teams, so remember that speed matters, and always push to move as quickly, but sustainably, as possible.

I’m sure there are more parallels to be explored, but these were the only ones that came to me before I hit the more technical section of the trail, and had to really pay attention!

SCOUT Epic, Day Three (August 7)

Since check-out from the hostel I was staying in the night before was 10am, I figured I could get in a morning ride, and still be back in time to have one last shower. Turns out it was lucky I could get that shower, because the ride was a sweaty one, with lots of climbing involved. The views were amazing though, so it was all worth it. I rode around in amongst the Lower Loop and Lupine trails, which start (and end) right in town. Super convenient.

With the ride done, and all cleaned up and checked out, I grabbed some coffee and breakfast, and hit the road for Cimarron. I was kind of expecting to get lunch there, but this was another case of underestimating a small “town”, and in fact Cimarron is not even really that. There’s a general store there, but otherwise it’s basically just a campground, and then a huge dam. I hadn’t actually realized there was such an impressive dam (Morrow Point Lake/Reservoir), but it turned out to be a great spot for a little hike, and a little fishing. I didn’t catch anything (even though I watched a young guy catch and gut 4 or 5 trout right in front of me!), but it was a nice break from driving regardless.

From Cimarron I powered through to Montrose, where I stopped at Horsefly Brewing Co for lunch and a pint. Then it was back out to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to find my campsite and check things out. My site was pretty mediocre (next to an RV, no trees or anything really), but I booked it pretty last minute, so I was just happy to get it. The canyon, on the other hand, was incredible. I drove out to the end of the outlook road, and then hiked the Warner Point Nature Trail. From there I worked my way back through some of the lookouts. I liked Dragon Lookout the best (amazing view down the canyon, and of the “Painted Wall” with the “dragons” on it). On my last stop I met a recent college grad who was on an absolutely epic (and crazy) roadtrip that had already been going for a month. He was stopping all over the place, but driving hours and hours and hours a day, so he’d covered half of Canada and the US, and had done something like 10,000 miles already.

Luckily I had stopped in at the Visitor Center, so I knew there was a night time session at the amphitheater that night, which I went and checked out. “Ranger Molly” put on a great session about the nightlife and stars and whatnot at Black Canyon, which was quite fun. From there I went back to my campsite, and was lucky enough to watch two different lightning storms off in the distance (in 2 different directions), without either of them bringing bad weather my way. The stars were stunning, and with very little light pollution in Black Canyon, extremely bright.

Southern Colorado and Utah (SCOUT) Epic Roadtrip/Adventure

When we moved to Denver, one of the primary reasons was to be able to get outdoors and enjoy nature a lot more. Between moving to a new city, then buying and working on a new house, I didn’t actually feel like we’d done much of that, so this summer I planned to fix that. With a three month from sabbatical, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I planned to take a road trip, and combine it with a bunch of hiking, backpacking, fishing and mountain biking. I spent a week on the road, heading south from Denver, then across the bottom half of Colorado, into Utah, back up to I70 and across to Denver again. It was amazing.

This post series will cover each day in a separate post, and will break down that portion of the trip, the things I did that day, and the things I saw. Keep an eye on this post, which will link all of them together.