What’s It Like to Work on a Development Team That Prizes Autonomy?

February 5, 2021
An illustration of a person working alone
ILLUSTRATION BY VIKTORIA KIRPAS FOR SHUTTERSTOCK

Technology companies talk a lot about the importance of “autonomy,” especially with regard to their development teams. However, like “culture,” autonomy is an intangible concept, and it can be difficult to pin down just how it impacts a developer’s daily work.

At a base level, it’s easy enough to understand how having the ability to decide what gets done, along with when and how, would be beneficial. But how much freedom are autonomous employees provided? How do managers encourage and support this unique style of working? Also, what impact does this philosophy have on developers themselves?

Autonomy must be experienced to be understood, which is why we sat down with Alexander Rinker of MarketAxess and Sagar Patel of Prizeout, two local developers whose teams prize autonomy. Rinker and Patel provide a firsthand account of what it’s like to self-direct their work and the impact it’s had on both themselves and their teams.

 

Alexander Rinker
Applications Developer

Weekly one-on-ones are extremely common in the tech industry, so it may be surprising to hear that Alexander Rinker, applications developer at MarketAxess, meets with his manager once every few weeks. While it may sound unconventional to some, Rinker said this structure helps support his autonomy by giving him more direct control over how he approaches projects and tackles challenges.

 

Tell us briefly about the autonomy you have in your role. How are you able to shape the work you do and how you do it? 

Our team has self-governed ever since we moved to the Agile Development Process. While we obviously have to meet the high-level business needs communicated by our project manager, we can negotiate the tools, strategy and timeline with which we implement a solution. Even at a lower level, every team member has a say in their daily tickets. This prevents typecasting developers and keeps the work interesting, as you have the opportunity to tackle new challenges every day.
 

My manager supports my autonomy by acting as a resource as opposed to a supervisor.


How does your direct manager support and/or encourage your professional autonomy?

My experience with MarketAxess’ managers has been more about mentoring than traditional management. My manager and I don’t interact day to day. Instead, we have catch-ups every couple of weeks where we discuss my projects, challenges and the blockers to my goals along with potential solutions. In this way, my manager supports my autonomy by acting as a resource as opposed to a supervisor. Instead of dictating the tasks I undertake and how I solve them, he discusses the trade-offs for my solutions, allowing me to learn from him and still feel in control of my own work, which is something I really value.

 

How has this autonomy affected your experience at MarketAxess?

Because our team manages their own projects, the decisions we make drive our success rather than external variables. We feel better about our work because we choose it. Since we actively volunteer for tasks, the team is naturally more engaged and invested in creating a well-functioning product. This leads to better performance overall, which opens doors for career opportunities within the company. Thanks to this structure, my hard work was recognized and I quickly went from a junior developer working on small housekeeping items to one of the lead programmers building our trading automation tools.

 

Sagar Patel
Senior Software Engineer

On the surface, it can seem like autonomy is most impactful at the individual level. Sagar Patel, a senior software engineer at Prizeout, begs to differ. In Patel’s experience, autonomy gives developers the chance to play a larger role in a company’s success by encouraging them to focus more on the value their work is creating.

 

Tell us briefly about the autonomy you have in your role. How are you able to shape the work you do and how you do it? 

I have a large amount of autonomy over my roles and responsibilities, which shapes my work by allowing me to plan, build and execute the way I best see fit. Whether it is balancing priorities or trade-offs in the systems I build, it is up to me to manage the way I work and the decisions I make. For example, when managing my backlog, I am given the freedom to use the tools and methods of my choice as well as outline and break down tasks to the level of detail that I need. I can tailor this process as needed as I work with other developers or other teams at Prizeout, and this fluidity saves me a lot of time and effort. 

Autonomy also shapes my work by forcing me to constantly reevaluate the process in which I develop my code. When presented with a problem, it is up to me to figure out what needs to be automated immediately and what can be done manually. In an environment that is constantly shifting, it’s important to spend time working on problems that add the most value.
 

While working autonomously comes with more pressure, it also means I get to play a much larger role in the company.


How does your direct manager support and/or encourage your professional autonomy?

Trust and communication are the most important factors to keep in mind when working autonomously. My direct manager encourages autonomy by building and maintaining trust within the team. In an autonomous role, it is critical to stay in communication and ask for help when needed. I know that my team has my back in tough situations and vice versa. Being transparent on what is slowing me down and raising issues that come early on is also extremely important. Having a manager who listens to that feedback and makes adjustments as necessary is crucial.

 

How has this autonomy affected your experience at Prizeout?

Autonomy has made me a much more confident and efficient developer. While working autonomously comes with more pressure, it also means I get to play a much larger role in the company. Understanding my priorities and organizing my day to day have become the keys to my success. I spend a lot of time ensuring I am working on the right thing and adding the right value. In return, the work that I do is far more rewarding and enjoyable.

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