Defining Glue Work

The most critical yet unloved work of engineering teams

DEV.BIZ.OPS

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The oldest known use of glue predates modern human history. In fact, the first discovered use of glue involved the use of birch bark tar to glue stones together. When archaeologists examined the specimen, they dated it back to 200,000 years ago!

Glue has since evolved over the years into much more complex compounds and formulations. From simple plant and animal based resins to today’s industrial grade synthetic adhesives, glue has become an everyday tool for all sorts of applications, including repairing the handle on my favorite tea mug on multiple occasions.

This idea of joining or sticking things together has meaning beyond just the world of adhesive substances. We often use glue to talk about culture or community. For example, we might say that culture is the glue that aligns our company or that trust is the glue that binds a community together.

From that perspective, glue is an incredibly positive force in helping to join people, processes, and things that have commonality. Through that process of bonding, we work, communicate, and collaborate more effectively from a place of strength. As the fable from Aesop goes, sticks in a bundle can’t be broken but sticks taken one by one can be easily broken.

Glue work

More and more however, I hear the term glue referred to in a negative sense when speaking with engineering organizations. They use it to refer to the work no one wants to do. In other words, anything that is not actual coding. This is the work that is perceived as drudgery, tedious, and not additive to one’s experience or interests.

I saw a talk at a DevOps Days event a few years back by Tanya Reilly who gave a name to this work. This is the non-engineering work that supports everything that engineers do on a daily basis. That can be onboarding hires, writing documentation, note taking, improving processes, reviewing designs, mentoring, etc. All of this happens, but often is not very visible and certainly is rarely appreciated. For these activities, Tanya called it “glue work”.

While glue work has a negative connotation, it still needs to be done and often does get done by someone. In fact, there are people that actually enjoy this type of work and…

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DEV.BIZ.OPS

Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉 https://twitter.com/marksbirch