We’re going back to 2019 with this month’s influential article. It’s one that I’ve gone back to at different points in the last four years, and what I take away from it has changed over time—in a good way. (An aside: I acknowledge that these have been highlighting a single article more than not lately! They keep getting longer though…)

Catch up on previous entries in the Influential Articles series.

Whenever the economy goes through a hard time, we can see a pattern with technology companies laying off a certain kind of employee, who does important but less-than-flashy work. They’re the person who connects the dots, who fills in the gaps, who amplifies the efficacy of a team or initiative.

And often, they’re thought of as non-essential.

Being Glue, by Tanya Reilly

Tanya Reilly (who, by the way, has the greatest domain ever) gave a talk at LeadDev New York in 2019 on Being Glue (archive). She’s done the fantastic work of making her slides and speaker notes available to read, but you can also watch the video if you prefer.

Defining “glue work”

If we consider a product to be a building, with each brick of the building being a feature, functionality, or piece of infrastructure to make the product viable, then glue work is the mortar between the bricks. Without the mortar, the building would not stand the test of time. Walls would shift, the draft would get in, and the occupants would be most unhappy. Glue work is necessary for teams to build successful products, run sustainable initiatives, and generally do quality work. Tanya lists some specific examples of what might constitute as “glue work”:

“[Glue work is] noticing when other people in the team are blocked and helping them out. Or reviewing design documents and noticing what’s being handwaved or what’s inconsistent. Or onboarding the new people and making them productive faster. Or improving processes to make customers happy.” (link)

All of that is really important, isn’t it?

Let’s pick the onboarding example. Nearly every time I have someone new join my team, I have them keep a friction log of what goes well and where they encountered problems where they had to ask for help or escalate an issue. They then improve the onboarding documentation so the next person has an easier time. Rinse, repeat. After all, you only get one shot at being new. (This isn’t an uncommon pattern for teams; it is a tried and true method of both improving the onboarding experience and making new team members feel like they are contributing right off the bat.)

That kind of glue work raises morale, makes it easier for new team members, and instills a culture of perpetual improvement.

Glue work backfiring

I’ll admit that the first time I went through this talk, I did not get it. Surely, everyone thinks that glue work is part of their job, right? Why wouldn’t you want to help everyone succeed?

Then, I got passed over for the jobs I really wanted. Or for being considered a good candidate for promotion. I was thanked a lot for my work, for “taking one for the team”, for setting good examples, for mentoring, for lots of things in lots of ways that didn’t ultimately matter to my career. Tanya tells the story of someone who had a similar experience.

It’s important to note that the talk is from the perspective of a software engineer, but you can substitute many other common career paths and it still holds up.

In the anonymous story that Tanya tells, and in mine, glue work is not considered to be promotable. Which still strikes me as counterintuitive given that “glue work is the difference between a project that succeeds and one that fails”! As with so many situations, it is context-dependent. If your role is rigidly defined (and sometimes even when it’s not), then doing glue work often isn’t high profile enough or the impact isn’t attributable enough to your efforts to be seen as a testament to your skills.

For software engineers, working with customers to gather feedback doesn’t give you evidence of your amazing engineering skills. For product managers, writing scripts to improve productivity of the team doesn’t lend credence to your ability to ship features that your customers love. You get the picture.

Working outside of the prescriptive job description, even if to the benefit of the team, stakeholders, or customers, can hurt you.

Working the system

The talk proposes ways to turn the downsides of glue work (the work that determines whether a project succeeds or not) into upsides:

  1. Have an honest conversation with your manager
  2. Fix your title
  3. Tell a compelling story
  4. If all else fails, do the thing

As Tanya points out, managers often benefit from their employees doing glue work and therefore might be tempted to let it go on to the detriment of the person doing it. But, aside from helping their employee prioritize, managers can help them by aligning their title to the work they need done. But that’s not the end of how managers can help:

“If you see [the situation] where a glue person is the only reason something launched, publicly give them credit! And not for helping, but for leading.” (link)

If you like the work that your job title describes, drop the glue. Let someone else step in the sticky mess until leadership prioritizes glue work.

Aligning your career with what fulfills you

But, if you like glue work (and there are many of us who do!), then you need to find jobs, companies, or managers who:

  • Involve glue work as a core function
  • Aren’t rigidly glue-ed to job ladders
  • Value and reward glue work

There’s no one job that’s termed “glue job”—contrary to popular belief, the program manager role (technical or otherwise) isn’t actually always glue work—but keywords that you can look for include:

  • cross-functional
  • coordination
  • communication
  • alignment
  • strategy
  • experience (developer, user)

We don’t often talk about these career paths with the same value as those of a software engineer or product manager, but they often require a more diverse set of skills and expertise than the more “traditional” ones.

Glue work skills are superpowers

If glue work is so essential, why do we not include it in more job descriptions/ladders?

Glue work is so hard to quantify. As mentioned above, it’s not flashy. It’s hard to take personal credit for it, and often the type of person who enjoys glue work does not prioritize taking personal credit.

There’s a reason that Tanya classifies glue work as expected when you’re senior in your career. It’s something you’re supposed to learn as you go on, but it doesn’t mean you can’t come into it early! I don’t think we, or the system, should punish those who do. You wouldn’t hold someone back for being great at database design, so why would you for someone who excels at amplifying those around them?

Disproportionate requests for glue work

Glue work often winds up falling on those whose careers are least likely to succeed in spite of it. Specifically, on underrepresented groups in the industry.

Tanya links to the article, Why Women Volunteer for Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotions (archive), that reports on a study that concluded that “the real driver was a shared understanding or expectation that women would volunteer more than men” (link). The same article reported that women receive 44% more requests to volunteer for tasks that aren’t rewarded than their male peers.

When these requests come from your manager, the cost of saying no may be too high of a price to pay, especially for junior employees who are also most at risk of career harm from taking on glue work.

Valuing glue work

We can value glue work at all levels by incorporating the skills that make people good at glue work into job descriptions and career ladders. Managers can identify common narrative arcs for glue work and provide guidance to employees as to how to frame that type of work when it comes time to performance reviews and promotions. We can add OKRs or quarterly goals specifically for glue-type work, even when it’s not directly tied to feature development.

If we want to build products that succeed—and I hope we do—then we can’t wait for people to figure out for themselves that it’s important. We need to provide them with the training, resources, and yes, encouragement to develop these skills. And we can’t lay off the people who excel at them because we haven’t figured out how to recognize the value they provide and then wonder why our products and customers suffer.

Let’s value these superpowers in practice the way that we do in theory.