I gave my notice, we agreed on 3 months, and we set to work.
The first month was about setting things in motion, and creating the right environment for a transition. We made an offer to someone on the team to take over my role as CTO, answered all questions that came up, and worked together as an executive team to make sure the next CTO was confident about taking over.
The second month was about letting my team know, and working to ensure that all the basics were covered. We talked a lot about their careers and our time working together, polished brag docs, and ensured everyone had a written performance review and “next year goals” that could be consumed by the new CTO and used fairly. We also discussed how the goals they had could change as they transitioned to a new CTO, and how to keep pushing for the things they care about. I knew there were things people in my team had wanted to do that they never got a chance to really focus on, and maybe this was a new chance for them to figure it out. We also talked about management; how I go about it, the things they don’t notice, the things they do notice. I talked a fair bit about the things I wished I had done better, too.
The third month was where I started to realize the timeline we set-up for me to leave had been perfect to ensure our goal of a peaceful transition. I was hesitant at first, because I dislike long periods where people are feeling uncertain, but it turned out to be a good idea. Having a 3 month transition period enabled me to leave the organization with confidence that I had done all I could, and that the new CTO was more than ready to pick up where I left. It also gave him time to reflect on what he was going to change and how, and which areas are important to him and which aren’t. It gave them all time to prepare as a new team, let off steam, and let themselves imagine how things could be better. I knew change was coming, and I told folks to expect things to change too. Even when the changes are good, (and I believe many of the things that are likely to change fast were good), it’s important to emphasize that this is to be expected, and to give people space to find joy and pride in the changes, and to allow themselves to be part of the change.
It can be hard as a leader to let go, and I did what I could to make it safe and good to align with the new boss, QUICKLY, without guilt or fear or weirdness.
When I took on the role, I spent a lot of time thinking about the things I wanted to achieve, and understanding what the cut-off would be where I’d feel I could leave without guilt.
By the time I was leaving, I was able to tick most of the boxes, even if (of course) I didn’t achieve or did great in many areas I hoped I would.
It’s Wednesday. My last day was last Friday. It still feels weird. I woke up in panic yesterday thinking I had missed my first 1:1 of the day.
Regardless of how weird and new it is to be out of an organization I loved working for, I’m confident I made the right call, and that I did a lot of the things I had wanted to make progress on: shifting the organization’s management style somewhat, making more decisions based on direct user feedback, making support a central piece, giving people more power to enact change, and giving my team a chance to own their areas entirely.
I wanted to add a small checklist of the things I did as I prepared to leave, in case it helps others who are planning a similar transition in a small team.
Comms & finding a replacement
- Work with your boss on an appropriate notice period: set expectations on how/why this may change. For us, the basics were that if we couldn’t hire from inside the org, our timeline would probably need to change.
- Agree on communications: decide right away how and when you will communicate your departure to your team. This may change, but it’s good to set a plan right away. In my case I:
- notified exec team
- meet with exec team to decide on next steps / how we would replace me
- asked the (potential, at that point) new CTO about taking over
- did a context & learning session with exec team + new CTO, then 1:1s and time for him to reflect and accept/reject the offer (he accepted, thankfully)
- Once that was done, we notified the team. I told everyone who reported directly to me in our 1:1s, and the rest of the team via DMs. This worked out well. I also offered and did some extra 1:1s with folks who didn’t report to me but had things to discuss and wanted to chat. This was good because by the time people found out it was already clear there was a transition plan in place and there was no uncertainty on who would be the next CTO.
Working with direct reports on next steps
- Ensured everyone had their brag docs up to date
- Worked with everyone who directly reported to me on perf reviews (it was right at formal review season so this fit the timeline, but I would have done “final” reviews regardless since it helps the new leader know where people stand, and it helps lower the anxiety of the change)
- Ensured we reviewed all salaries (it was, after all, salary review season too) and adjusted accordingly. This was important because I didn’t want to leave before ensuring we had confirmed salary adjustments. Salary is complicated, and it takes some context to understand how to deal with this, so I didn’t want a new leader to have to do it right away.
- Everyone had goals for 2021 and things they wished they had done more/less of, and we set those up too in the transition documentation I sent to the new CTO.
- Encouraged folks to go straight to the new CTO and ask about plans, goals, and changes. I knew it was coming, might as well help folks be comfortable with it.
- We had (have) an intern from Outreachy, so beyond comms, it was important to also establish ways to contact me as her internship would continue well after I left.
Working with my replacement during the transition
- I don’t have access to my calendar from work to verify but from memory, the new CTO and I had about 16 meetings, each between 1.5hs and 3hs, during the last 7 weeks of my transition. These were working meetings. We would pick a topic, and go deep into it. Some were technical things I knew more about due to my own context. Some were management things. Others were organizational context on its own that he may not have had.
- Hiring: we dedicated a lot of time to discuss hiring, and presented a plan to the exec team.
- Ensured we had discussions about inclusion, diversity, sexism, racism, and how they impact people. This matter to me greatly, as I worked pretty hard to fix issues that still affected my team, and I didn’t want to risk these efforts being ignored later on.
- Set the tone for the new role and what it entails, explain where things get messy for me, and give him time to reflect on how it would look like for him.
Wrapping projects up
- I had two important projects to wrap up during my transition that unfortunately had gone mostly to me as the only backend engineer. I worked to ensure I finished the key components, released them, and then transitioned it. While it wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be, at least we felt ready for me to not be involved by the time I left.
- Pair programming on things that were ongoing: we did some pairing on areas of the codebase that the new CTO needed to understand. This was meant for him to be able to onboard new backend engineers later on, and take care of emergencies as needed.
- We had a contractor working with us whose contract ended right around the time I was leaving, so I had contact details sent over in case it was necessary.
- For most of the other projects, because they were owned entirely by people in my team, we didn’t have a lot to do. It was just a matter of ensuring there was awareness that they existed and where to go for help.
- I wrote a blog post about my transition, and we used it to announce my departure to external partners.
- My boss (ED) managed the comms to our board.
- My boss managed the Twitter comms
This is the concentrated version of 3 very intense months. When my last day came around, everything was ready for me to leave, and it was just a matter of sending goodbye messages and preparing LinkedIn recommendations for everyone I had worked with there.
I’m now taking a little break to reflect and decide what’s next.