Their diverse professional journeys and personal backgrounds point to the importance of self-reflection and perseverance. But of course, Engineering Leaders have their own interpretation of what key factors can help you become an even better manager.
Throughout our conversations with great leaders such as Sergio, Swarup, Vevek, Will, Glenn, Prashant, Sarah, Phillipa, we discovered how important empathy is. It is important for building trust and encouraging inspiration in all kinds of situations.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional journey?
My first experience with computers was with a Microbee, which you probably only heard of if you were a 70s child in Australia; as a young kid growing up in a small country town, it blew my mind! After a successful campaign to get my parents to buy me my own computer, and an unsuccessful attempt to get them to buy me computer games, I really got into coding so that I could make my own games. Initially I wasn’t even allowed to have a mouse as my parents thought it would make me lazy, so even today I much prefer using keyboard shortcuts.
From there my career in technology was set and midway through my university degree I landed a role as a software engineer in an up and coming software company where I stayed at for the next 18 years. During the dot-com bubble I got to experience insanely rapid company growth, as the company went through being acquired by a series of increasingly larger organisations. I used to joke about how I worked for 5 different companies without having to change desks!
What made you decide to become an Engineering Manager?
It was when the company I was working for went through a very large scale organisational transformation from Waterfall to Agile. By this time we had a very large and complex product written over a 20 year period by hundreds of different developers. But in a relatively short period, we transitioned from having a yearly release cycle to fortnightly. At that time Agile wasn’t yet a buzz word and there was little industry confidence in this new trend. As one of the senior engineers, I was picked to represent their interests as part of the transition team.
This was by no means an easy achievement and took total commitment from top to bottom of the organisation and a very high level of trust and confidence in our people.
This led me to stop thinking about software development in pure terms of how to write the best code and really put front and centre the people and processes side of creating great software and what a significant impact it has.
Has the current COVID-19 pandemic changed something drastically in the way you view your job as an EM?
While nothing has fundamentally changed about the role, it has certainly changed the relative importance of various parts of it, due to the specific impact that the pandemic has had on our organisation. As a company whose product is used to support both the testing and vaccination efforts going on around the world, the unending pressure to deliver solutions under intense time pressure, in high-profile projects and regulated environments, is not an easy task.
Ultimately, this pressure combined with the isolation inherent in the change to remote working is felt by the people in your company and by extension their families. Caring about this impact and providing support in all ways possible has become a drastically more important part of the role. As a leader you can set a strong example and make an important impact.
As an Engineering Manager, how do you delegate effectively?
I have the general philosophy that in any leadership role you should always be working to make yourself redundant. From a personal job security standpoint this might be a bad idea, but for the organisation it’s a critical activity to identify where the bottlenecks and single points of failure are.
These responsibilities are the key ones to divest from myself and start delegating to others. When delegating, it’s important that you give full trust to the person taking on the task and imbue them with purpose and responsibility. While you’re always there as a safety net, it’s okay for them to make their own mistakes as it is the best way to learn.
What is the hardest lesson you have learned as an engineering manager?
Possibly the universally hardest lesson learnt for most people going into a manager role for the first time is how important it is to have those difficult conversations both with your reports, peers and managers. I really wish Dare to Lead by Brene Brown was written about 10 years earlier and given to me when I first started getting into leadership roles.
Instead I learned the hard way that avoiding tough conversations to keep harmony is ultimately worse for everyone. Giving direct, timely and honest feedback - from a position where you are invested in that person's success - is the place you want to be.
How do you structure 1:1 conversations and how often do you have them?
I am a huge 1:1 fan and believe they are the most important meetings that I am involved in. As such, I usually never go into them ad-hoc and always prepare behind the scenes even if they are run more casually than other meetings. It’s definitely a two way feedback loop where I get back as much as I give.
I like to do 1:1s with my direct reports no less than once every two weeks. I also make sure I set aside time to cycle through having a 1:1 with everyone in my wider area of responsibility. I have regular 1:1s with colleagues in other departments with whom I need to align with. We also have a mechanism where you can organise a purely random 1:1 with anyone in the company.
This might seem like a lot of meetings, and it is. But I think that your 1:1 connection with people is where you can have the biggest impact. And so long as you go into your 1:1s with the belief that they are your most important meetings, they are worthwhile.
About our Q&As with Engineering Leaders
We are lucky to have a vibrant and dynamic community and it would be a shame not to share these experiences and insights with the growing world of Software Engineers and Engineering leaders! Every two weeks we will be sharing a personal interview with some great Engineering Managers, Directors, VPs, and CTOs.
If you’re looking to join our weekly intimate roundtables, or if you’re interested in sharing your perspective on the topics we’re covering, click here. See you soon!