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Creating Stability in Uncertain Times



Sarah Shewell covers strategies for new scheduling demands and performance management.


Sarah Shewell is the Director of Engineering at Gravity Pymts. She helps teams discover what their customers need through empathy, build it with quality, and continuously improve how they do those things.

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Shewell: I'm going to ask you all to travel back in time with me to July and August of 2019. What you see here is a construction zone of the space where my team in Boise, Idaho would be moving into soon. There was a lot of anxiety around, what new commutes would look like. Where would we park? Where would we go eat lunch? What was the new part of town that we were going to be working in? Kind of funny now how that's not really a concern anymore, since we're really working from home. We're looking forward to getting back to that space. At work, I had also about doubled my responsibilities, and taken on a new role as Director of Engineering at Gravity Payments. I had a lot of trust that I needed to build with the team and felt that I needed to build rapport and trust with my leadership team also. I felt though, there was a lot of pressure on me at that moment of things that I needed to figure out.

I also decided that that was an excellent time to take on a home remodel project that we had been planning for about 10 years. We gutted our kitchen, and began overhauling that, so I had a construction zone at home. I'm in the Seattle area. I wasn't directly impacted by the Boise office, but was traveling back and forth. I quickly learned how difficult even the simplest of tasks can be when you're in a remodel. This is a picture from my laundry room/kitchen after making a barbecue meal for my family. Life felt very chaotic at that time. I needed a plan of how to move forward, found support in my peers and also from trusted advisors that I have in my life. I came up with a way forward.

I was feeling really good about that. At that time, my family went to this beautiful location, one of our favorite spots, and did an annual camping trip and just reconnected with nature. I was so excited to get back to work, start working on this plan, and find more balance for myself. I was really looking forward to it. Then I woke up the morning that I was to return to work, and I felt a little bit of a strange sensation on the left side of my face. It was early in the morning. How clearly are you thinking at about 5:30 in the morning? I continued on. Got in the car, was driving to work. About halfway there, I noticed there was something a little bit strange.

The Price of Imbalance

That is where I discovered the price of imbalance in my life for a long duration. I had Bell's palsy. I looked in the mirror and saw that half of my face was paralyzed. I didn't know that it was Bell's palsy at that moment. Didn't know if I was having a stroke, or what was going on, but went to the emergency room. That kicked off a series of many doctor's appointments, and a road to recovery that I'm still on. Part of that road to recovery has been many frank conversations with my doctors about how I will manage my stress. That is so important. I am here to share this talk with you today, to talk about the strategies that I have taken to manage my own stress, and what that has looked like for me over 2020. This is no easy year, as we know, to try to take on a new endeavor of really seriously managing your stress. That is no small feat in 2020.


The three areas of that, that I am going to go over will be, knowing how to understand there's a problem, diagnosing. We'll talk about early warning signs. We're also going to talk about what happens when one of those is tripped, how not to ignore it like I might have. How to plan that path forward. The third is monitoring. We're going to go into that. We all know and love that with just about every product we probably create. How do we start applying that to ourselves and our teams? With all of these examples that I'm going to be giving, I'll be talking about how you can apply this personally. How you can apply it for your peers. For leaders, I want you to take special note in looking for ways that you can make space for these steps to happen for your team. Help guide them through them. Help find new solutions for them, because balance is so critical in everything that we do.

Considerations for Early Indicators

For early indicators, one of the critical things for myself has been managing time. How many people have gotten into an issue and time starts flying? It's happened to me earlier this week. We had a production incident. We were this close to the solution and just sure we could find what was going on there. You look at the clock, and an hour and a half has gone by. It is so easy to do. Set up reminders. Set stopwatches for yourself. I set timers on my phone all the time now of, I am going to allow myself this much time to work on this thing. Have your team hold you accountable. Have your leader hold you accountable. Have some plan for how much time you think is appropriate to spend on the things that you're either worrying about, problems that you have to solve before you pull in help.

The next is really understanding your self-care needs. I am an introvert. I have a deep need for just being by myself for several hours, once a week. If I don't get that I'm really not pleasant to be around. My family knows that about me. They help make space for that, which is wonderful. I encourage you to look for those patterns in your teammates. It's hard to see outside of your tunnel vision sometimes. It might be time for someone to take a vacation.

The third is where I need the most help, and that is establishing mini-milestones. Make sure you're celebrating along the way, if you're undertaking anything that is going to take you a significant period of time. Let's face it, in 2020, a month has really felt like a quarter. The passage of time has been crazy. I've had to look for small wins along the way, just to know that I can make it through the year. I don't expect that that's going to change after 2020. We need to be better about celebrating along the way. Those are the different indicators that I mentioned along the way.

Health Checklist: Self

There is a checklist that I like to employ. It's great to have all those things on your mind all the time. I have actually made concrete physical checklists to do checks on myself. What that looks like for me is I have started bullet journaling in 2020. I really enjoy that from the perspective that it's physical. It starts my day with something that is tangible. I limit myself to five things that I think are critical to complete. I track how I'm feeling with my mood. I look at that. I look for trends of where I might not be feeling well. Often, that points to those activity patterns down below. Am I not getting exercise in the way that I normally am? Am I getting too much? Am I trying to work things out through exercise? Am I not sleeping well? Is that affecting my mood greatly? What's the cause of me not sleeping well? All of those things are things that we all need to be monitoring for ourselves all the time.

I, for the majority of my life, have taken them for granted and figure out I can catch up later. Just as I saw at the end of last summer, even when there's that light at the end of the tunnel, even when you reach it, there's no escaping the damage that you're doing to yourself by putting yourself through undue stress. The third thing that I try to always track is notice what you notice. What that means is, what things are you continually attracted to? I find myself in patterns of negativity. I'll be seeking out maybe more negative news or just seeing more problems in the world. Or, when I'm feeling good, I can block those things out. The noticing what I'm noticing, the trend of things, is really indicative to how I'm feeling with my barometer. I'll try to make note of those in my bullet journal on a regular basis, and just say, these things I found interesting. These were articles that I found click-worthy. This is something that I'm interested in learning. This sounds like an exciting, new technology that I might want to pursue. Keep track of those things. That might be an indicator that things are a bit out of balance for you.

Health Checklist: Team/Department

Moving on from yourself to your team, these are things that you can employ for your team members, or as a leader, and making space for them. A key thing to look at is the temperature of the team. When problems arise, are people approaching those with energy, or is it, I'm sure that they messed up that build again. Is there blame happening? Is a pattern of negativity forming? Those are signs that the team is reaching burnout and something needs to be adjusted. Those things spread through the team and can greatly impact everyone on the team.

Working agreements are another one of those things that can seem like a no-brainer. We create them as part of agile principles in Scrum. What they really are, it's a list of things. I find it's like the, don't forget these things. These are often things we come up with, with the benefit of hindsight in a retro, to say, "We should have done this," or, "Things would have gotten a lot better if only we had not done this." Go back and revisit those things. Check to see, are they serving you anymore? Are you forgetting some? Have you fallen back into bad patterns? The working agreements is that contract for making sure that you have the information you need to do your job, the balance that you need to have work-life balance, and things can happen there. Go back to those and visit them. If you don't have them, create them, and start revisiting them.

Focus on Requirements, Throw out The Norms

Now you've identified there's a problem. I've tripped one or two of those things. I'm going to talk about a major one for me in 2020. When we started working from home, I was actually incredibly productive. There was a very short period of time, I think it was about four days, when my kids were still going to school. I was working from home. I knew that they were going to be coming home very quickly. Whether that was by my own choice, or the schools starting to shut down. I was suddenly taking on, in addition to my role that was fairly manageable for me, of becoming a third and fourth grade teacher for my 8 and 9 year old. I'm not good at that. That's why I did not choose that as a profession. It was really difficult. I was at a complete mental block of how I was going to do all of these things. I knew my kids needed a lot. I knew work needed a lot. That's when I started focusing on what the requirements were. I had great guidance from some of those people looking outside in, helping me pick through, and say, what things in your job need to be done when people are available? How do you need to be there for your team? Which things can be done outside normal working hours?

I created a plan to work a split schedule, and that's when I started working very early in the morning. I would log out at about 9:30 in the morning, my time, and I would start getting my kids on their Zoom and showing them how to make text boxes so they could turn in their assignments. I could help them find the random login from some math site they were supposed to log into that they hadn't in months. I was completely available to help them with whatever they needed for a period of time in the morning until lunch. Having that dedicated time proved amazing for the needs of that year.

Create a Test and Clearly Communicate

I'm at a point now where I'm facing that challenge again. It's a new school year. They're still home. We have new teachers. We have a totally different schedule. I need to create a new plan. That is the test. That is something you need to start experimenting with. You need to be taking steps forward. Create something to begin experimenting with. Find a way to clearly communicate what that test is, so others know how to support you. One thing that's been key with this for me is I have always tried to avoid emailing my teams in the evening. I hold home and family time sacred. I want my team to have that separation as well. Now in a 2020 world with Coronavirus, working from home, I think it all feels like a large Groundhog's Day to us.

Things are changing rapidly, yet they aren't. Things are going the same. I have started emailing my team in the evening, because that's the time that I have to log in. That's ok, but I feel bad about interrupting their evening. I've had to be very clear that if I send you a message after your core working hours, and I know what those core working hours are, there's no need to respond unless we have some type of production issue. Within Slack, I have started putting in a school icon when I'm spending time with my kids, so people understand that I might take a bit to be responsive. Or, if someone has a question for me, maybe they'll schedule an email or a message to come to me a little bit later, or just not expect a response right away. Being clear all around, clear is always kind.


Then going into triage. You've identified a problem. You have a plan. We all know plans are only the first step, and we're going to keep trying. Really be gentle with yourself. This entire year has been a whole exercise in how to reset my own personal expectations. How to really focus on what is most needed with those outcomes. Throw away any notion that I previously had around what my core working hours should be. Yes, we might get back to that someday. Is that serving me in this moment, right now? It's not. Then keep showing up. We have to keep trying. We have to keep being there for each other. I know that I wouldn't make it through this year without others, and having their support, and come up with some creative solutions. This is again, as a leader, the best thing that you can do in uncertain times when you can't promise people maybe raises, or funds, or business conditions. You can promise them the ability to come to the table and work it out with you. Be someone who will sit side by side with your team. Ask that of your leaders. Say, more than anything, what I need right now is flexibility and understanding to work through some problems as they come up, because we can't anticipate all of them.


This is the opening of that Boise office. Although I missed it. I wasn't able to fly at that time. They had a wonderful opening. It makes me so happy to see all of them together. I can't wait until we can get together again and do that. I miss my team. I can't wait to be back in that office. It's going to feel like an opening all over again. I hope to be there at that time. I need to keep myself healthy so that that can happen. I have a kitchen. I have spent so much time in my kitchen over this last year, and making it great, and cooking, and baking bread along with every other pandemic person. I'm so happy that that's come to completion. The thing I am most grateful for, your health is your wealth. I am able to get back outside with my family. I can enjoy nature. I can go on those hikes. I can blink my eye. I can be outside again. I don't take that for granted ever.

I encourage you to create whatever balance you can for yourself. Start breaking down problems, just like you're good at doing in your day-to-day job, every day. Help others do the same. We can often have blocks for ourselves. Know those early warning signals, and take them seriously. Also, don't be afraid to activate a plan and something different. Remember, one vacation might not solve all your issues. It's ongoing work. We're never done. We have to keep our pulse on this. We have to continue supporting each other. The greatest thing I think that all of us need in this time is flexibility to face whatever new challenge comes at us.


Find your people. Get that group who will support you and help you think outside of the box, when you can't think for yourself. Have someone share some hard truths with you. Spend some time with yourself and really be reflective of what's really going on. It's so easy to fill your day with busy things and take yourself for granted. Then remember, above all, self-care is a service to others. You can't do anything, if you're not around and you're not available to help others, and solve problems. There's a reason why you're instructed to put on your own air mask first. I won't forget that even when I can travel by air again.

I'm Sarah Shewell. I am the Director of Engineering at Gravity Payments.


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Recorded at:

Feb 17, 2021