Thoughts on retiring from a team

The Rust Community Team has recently been having a conversation about what a team member’s “retirement” can or should look like. I used to be quite active on the team but now find myself without the time to contribute much, so I’m helping pioneer the “retirement” process. I’ve been talking with our subteam lead extensively about how to best do this, in a way that sets the right expectations and keeps the team membership experience great for everyone.

Nota bene: This post talks about feelings and opinions. They are mine and not meant to represent anybody else’s.

Why join a team?

When I joined the Rust community subteam, its purpose was defined vaguely. It was a small group of “people who do community stuff”, and needed all the extra hands it could get. A lot of my time was devoted explicitly to Rust and Rust-related tasks. The tasks that I was doing anyways seemed closely aligned with the community team’s work, so stepping up as a team contributor made a lot of sense. Additionally, the team was so new that the only real story for “how to work with this team and contribute to its work” was “join the team” . We hadn’t yet pioneered the subteams and collaboration with community organizers outside the official community team which are now multiplying the team’s impact.

Why leave?

I’m grateful to the people who have the bandwidth and interest to put consistent work into participating on Rust’s community team today. As the team has grown and matured, its role has transitioned from “do community tasks” to “support and coordinate the many people doing those tasks”. I neither enjoy nor excel at such coordination tasks. Not only do I have less time to devote to Rust stuff, but the community team’s work has naturally grown into higher-impact categories that I personally find less fulfilling and more exhausting to work on.

Teams and people change

In a way, the team’s growth and refinement over the years reminds me of a microcosm of what I saw while working at a former startup as it built up into an enterprise company. Some peoples’ working style had been excellently suited to the 5-person company they originally joined, but clashed with the 50-person company into which that startup grew. Others who would never have thrived in a company of only 10 people were hiring on and having a fantastic impact scaling the company up to 1,000. And some were fine when the company was small and didn’t mind being part of a larger organization either. That experience reminds me that the fit between a person and organization at some point in the past does not guarantee that they’ll remain a good fit for each other over time, and neither is necessarily to blame for the eventual mismatch as both grow and change.

Does leaving harm anyone?

When you’re appreciated and valued for the work you do on a team, it’s easy to get the idea that the team would be harmed if you left. The tyres on my bike are a Very Important Part of the bike, and if I took them off, the bike wouldn’t be rideable. But a team isn’t just a machine – a team’s impact is an emergent phenomenon that comes out of many factors, not a static item. If a sports team has a really excellent coach, they’ll retain the lessons they learned from that coach’s mentorship even after the coach moves away. Older players will pass along the coach’s lessons to younger ones, and their ideas will stick around and improve the group even long after the original players’ retirement. When a team is coordinated well, one member leaving doesn’t hurt it. And if I leave on good terms rather than sticking around till I burn out or burn bridges, I can always be available for remaining members to consult when if need advice that only I can provide.

Would staying harm anyone?

I think that in the case of the Rust community team, it would reflect poorly on the community as a whole if the exact same people comprised the community team for the entire life of the language.

If nobody new ever joins the team, we wouldn’t get new ideas and tactics, nor the priceless infusion of fresh patience and optimism that new team members bring to our perennial challenges and frustrations. So, new team members are essential. If new people joined on a regular basis but nobody ever left, the team would grow unboundedly large as time went on, and have you ever tried to get anything done with a hundred- or thousand-person committee? In my opinion, having established team members retire every now and then is an essential factor in preventing either of those undesirable hypotheticals.

The team selects for members who’ll step up and accomplish tasks when they need to. I think establishing turnover in a healthy and sustainable way is one of the most essential tasks for the team to build its skills at. The best way to get a healthy amount of turnover – not too much, but not too little either – is for every team member to step up to the personal challenge of identifying the best time to retire from active involvement. And for me, that happens to look like right now.

Aspirational Clutter

Do you have stuff in your house that you don’t use, and it’s taking up space, and you’re kind of annoyed at it for taking up space, but you don’t feel like you can get rid of it because you think you really should use it, or you’re sure you’re just going to make some personal change that will cause you to use it someday? I call that stuff aspirational clutter: It doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to some imaginary person who doesn’t exist but you aspire to become them someday.

A team meeting every week on your agenda can be aspirational clutter in the same way as a jumbled shelf of planners or a pile of sports gear covering a treadmill: It not only isn’t a good fit for who you are right now, but by wasting time or space it actually gets in the way of the habits and changes that would make you more like that person you aspire to be.

I find few experiences more existentially miserable than feeling obliged to promise work that I know I’ll lack the resources of time or energy to deliver. Sticking around on a team that I’m no longer a good fit for puts me in a situation where get to choose between feeling guilty if I don’t promise to get any work done, or feeling like a disappointment for letting others down if I commit to more than I’m able to deliver. Those aren’t feelings I want to experience, and I can avoid them easily by being honest with myself about the amount of time and energy I have available to commit to the team.

The benefits of contributing from a non-team-member role

One scary idea that comes up when leaving a team is the question: “if I’m not on the team, how can I help with the team’s work?”.

In my opinion, it builds a healthier community if people who are good at a given team’s work spend some time interfacing with the team from the perspective of non-team-members. If I know how the community team gets stuff done and I go “undercover” as a non-team-member coming to them for help, I can give them essential feedback to improve the experience and processes that non-team-members encounter.

When I wear my non-team-member hat and try to get stuff done, I learn what it’s like for everyone else who tries to interface with the team. I can then use the skills that I built on by participating on the team to remedy any challenges that a non-team-member encounters. Those changes create a better experience for every community member who interacts with the team afterwards.

What next?

As a community team alum, I’ll keep doing the Rust outreach – the meetup organizing, the conference talks, the cute swag, the stickers – that I’ve been doing all along. Stepping down from the official team member list just formalizes the state that my involvement has been in for the past year or so: Although I get the community team’s support for my endeavors when I need it, I’m not invested in the challenges of supporting others’ work which the team is now tackling.

I’m proud of the impact that the team has had while I’ve been a part of it, and I look forward to seeing what it will continue to accomplish. I’m grateful for all the leadership and hard work that have gone into making the Rust community subteam an organization from which I can step back while remaining confident that it will keep excelling and evolving.

Why blog all that?

I’m publishing my thoughts on leaving in the hopes that they can help you, dear reader, gain some perspective on your own commitments and curate them in whatever way is best for you.

If you read this and feel pressured to leave something you love and find fulfilling, please try to forget you ever saw in this post.

If you read this hoping it would give you some excuse to quit a burdensome commitment and feel disappointed that I didn’t provide one, here it is now: You don’t need a fancy eloquent excuse to stop doing something if you don’t want to any more. Replace unfulfilling pursuits with better ones.