In her Being Glue talk, Tanya Reilly defines “glue work” as:
The less glamorous, less-promotable work that is necessary to make a team successful. It can include onboarding new people and making them productive faster, improving coding style guides, and filling the gap between a project that succeeds and one that fails.
Glue work should be an important part of the responsibilities of a technical lead or manager. However, on many occasions, this type of work is done by individual contributors who are eager to help the team. These might be junior-level employees, and according to Tanya, this is something that women tend to do more (whether voluntarily or at the request of managers). In my experience, glue work is usually done by Rock stars as they know how to do excellent work, what it looks like, and what is necessary to achieve it.
Although glue work is essential for a team’s success, and indicates a strong sense of teamwork and leadership skills, it is often not rewarded in non-management career tracks. Individual contributors should be mindful of their relationship with glue work because if not managed correctly, it might limit their career growth. On the other hand, managers should also be aware of who is doing glue work within the team and discuss the potential career implications with those individuals.
Denise Yu created excellent sketchnotes of the talk: