Using skittles to shape software engineers

“What should I work on” is a question that different people in my team ask me, quite frequently.

As a lead for a team of mostly software engineers, the range of things people could work on is immense so it’s totally understandable that when it comes to personal development, it can be tough to know where to start.

With that in mind, the answer to the question ‘what should I work on’ is really ‘it depends.’ I’ll often sit down with someone to understand things like where they want to go, what they’re already good at, what they struggle with or makes them uncomfortable. But that’s quite difficult to do at scale, in a group or as a team, mostly because the level of trust and safety needed in that team to allow all kinds of people to be honest with themselves is rare.

This is why, at a recent team day, I ran an exercise to help the team understand what they should work on based on what mattered to them.

It’s an exercise called ‘Skittle Map’ that’s described much better by Jason Mesut in his series Shaping Design but slightly adapted for technical teams rather than design teams.

A completed skittle map with skittles used to graph confidence against skills

TLDR;

We ran an activity to generate skittle maps, a small personal map of compentencies that matter to you. Each person walked away with their own map, having rated their own confidence in each area but also highlighting areas where they could help others.

We then moved on to take action on these competencies and hold each other to account.

1. Set up

As we were doing this as a group initially; we split into two teams of six or seven, gave each team a set of markers and giant sheets of paper.

2. Generate competencies list

We gave the teams ten minutes to generate at least 30 ‘technical skills, tools or techniques needed to work in our team.’ This was designed to be an easy start, software engineers naming software skills should be an absolute doddle (it was). The winning team generated 65 different skills or tools in the ten minutes.

We then ran the same exercise but this time, the teams had ten minutes to generate at least 20 ‘non-technical skills or behaviours needed to work in our team.’ This was likely to be more challenging, simply because the types of personality in the team and their skills are mostly technical. We’ve found core skills for most people in the team much more challenging. We had to do a little prompting of things like ‘coaching’,’empathy’,’presenting’ but both teams did hit their target of 20 (phew!) 😌

Once we had all the compentencies generated, the lists went up on the wall for all to see.

3. Create a map

At this point, I issued everyone with a card. The activity now moved from a group activity to an individual one.

Everyone was asked to take their card and choose eight competencies that mattered to them. At least two had to be from each list (this stopped our typical software engineers doing what they do by default and only picking technical skills!) on reflection, we probably should’ve made it a 50/50 split but yeah, hindsight’s a wonderful thing.

Once everyone had picked eight competencies and written them on their card, they had to pick one colour of skittle (or smarties) and put between one and five sweets on each competency. The number placed on each competency depended on how confident you were in that area. Purely self-confidence, nothing else.

A team of people using the skittle mapping activity

Once that was done, we moved on…

4. Choose what to work on

Next up, we asked everyone to choose another colour and place one, two and three sweets on three areas they wanted to work on. Three sweets on the highest priority or most meaningful, two on the second priority, one on the third.

5. Here to help

Last up, everyone was asked to choose a third colour and place a single sweet on every competency that they felt they could help others with.

This gave us an idea of any opportunities to pair people up with similar interests, needs and self-confidence.

Finally we had maps that looked like this…

Two completed skittle maps with skittles used to graph confidence against skills, side by side

Everyone then took a photo of their map, sharing them on the team Slack.

6. Take action and commit

The final task for the activity was getting each person to take action on what they’d learned about themselves and commit to some kind of change.

Everyone was given a new card and asked to write down three goals;

  1. One to be completed in one week
  2. One to be completed in one month
  3. One to be completed in one quarter

Then, everyone swapped their card with someone else – this person was now going to hold you to your goals.

Summary

The exercise worked well for most people. Everyone walked away with more focus on what they wanted to work on and with some practical steps to take to help them get there.

That said, I screwed up by not establishing enough trust up front, some people were caught a little off guard sharing their goals with someone else. I had to back track a bit on that one.

It’s definitely a good exercise for teams, especially if you’re having a tough time knowing what to work on when it comes to personal development.

If worst comes to worst, you’ve got a lot of sweets to each together and you’ll ride the sugar crash together.