SimpleLeadership specifically focuses on improving the craft of software engineering leadership. As a VP of Engineering & CTO I am acutely aware of the lack of good resources available for new and existing software engineering managers. SimpleLeadership is designed for both new and experienced software & technology managers who want to build high-performing teams, better motivate & mentor their employees, reduce attrition and advance their career. It is for people who want to go beyond just being a manager and become a true leader.
In this interview based show I ask each guest to share their journey from individual contributor to software engineering manager and provide any guidance on the transition. The SimpleLeadership Podcast will present real and actionable stories from people who have navigated their way from being an individual contributor into a software engineering manager. We will also hear from experts on specifics of team dynamics, motivation, feedback, leadership and many more aspects of being a successful engineering manager.
Redefining Parental Leave with Matt Newkirk
Being in a management position in any industry can often leave you overwhelmed. Striking a balance between your work and personal life is already difficult. So how does a manager take parental leave? Matt Newkirk—the engineering lead for Etsy’s International Customer Experience initiative—has worked out some of the kinks.
I’m the father of three girls. During their birth, I was fully involved in startups and was never able to take parental leave. Not only did I miss out, but as a manager I feel I can’t help my team plan a successful leave because I never experienced it. So in this episode of Simple Leadership, Matt shares how to plan and prepare for parental leave. Anyone in leadership can benefit from his experiences.
Outline of This Episode [1:14] Matt’s background in coding + role at Etsy [3:48] Why two-way communication is important [6:33] Matt’s advice for a new manager [8:20] Taking parental leave as a manager [12:57] Parental leave can empower your employees [15:15] How to prepare for parental leave [18:07] How do you tell your boss you’re taking leave [19:19] You need to have a reintegration plan [25:29] How does a manager support employee leave? [31:46] Supporting employees who are parents in a pandemic [34:57] How to navigate “work from home” in leadership [38:06] Parental leave needs to be normalized [41:30] How to connect with Matt Newkirk How can a manager take parental leave? Matt has two children, a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old girl. He started at Etsy when his son was 7 weeks old. He was fortunate to receive some parental leave, but there was an odd tension. He was just forming relationships with his team and it felt strange to disappear. So he took that leave very sporadically, almost as if he was taking vacations here and there. Most of the decisions were made before or after that. Very little true delegation had to happen.
But when his daughter was born, he wanted to take his full leave. He’s very fortunate that Etsy provides 6 months of parental leave. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with his family and disengage from work. When anyone in leadership takes time off, its news. But it is possible.
You want to role model that it’s okay to take parental leave. It shouldn’t just be a benefit on paper that no one uses. How can taking parental leave empower your employees? Listen to hear Matt’s take.
You HAVE to plan your leave When possible, you have to build out a plan for your parental leave. Matt was managing many different teams with different scenarios. He notes that sometimes it’s as easy as delegating one person to carry out a task. But it needs to be clear to stakeholders and delegates who is taking on what responsibility.
It took him 2–3 months to iron out the details for his leave. He recommends to try and have this done at least one month before you take leave—in case your baby comes early. When should you start planning? Around the time you’re comfortable telling your boss. These plans don’t expire. So if you wrap up a project earlier than you thought, it’s great.
Before you leave, Matt says “I think your job before that happens is to make sure that your reports trust you enough, that they don't have to wonder what's going to happen.” You don’t have to think about missing out on opportunities or ask: “Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to get reassigned? Am I going to get the side-eye for the next six months?” Your job is to make sure that none of those things happen.
You need to have a reintegration plan A reintegration plan is just as important as planning your leave. In Matt’s case, he knew he was coming back to a reorganization and a new boss. He wasn’t sure how the units would fit together. So the first thing he did was contact his new boss and let him know when he was coming back. Then he thought about how he
Hiring Engineers: Junior, Senior, or Boot Camp Graduates? Johnny Ray Austin Shares His Take
If you’re an engineer in a leadership role where you’re dealt with the task of developing teams, the hiring process can be daunting. Do you hire junior engineers that you can shape and mold? Or senior engineers who are experienced, but come with baggage? And how do you throw boot camp graduates into the mix? Johnny Ray Austin joins me to lend his thoughts on the hiring process, including what he looks for in an engineer. Don’t miss it!
Johnny is an experienced engineering executive and international public speaker. Johnny claims he got into leadership by sheer luck—but he ended up taking the leadership position and never looked back. He’s now the VP of engineering and CTO at Till, a company that helps people pay, stay, and thrive in their homes.
Outline of This Episode [2:23] Johnny Ray Austin’s background in engineering [4:33] The biggest mistake Johnny’s made—and the lesson learned [7:35] Transitioning into leadership: Johnny’s top tips [9:58] Handling remote work amidst a pandemic [14:00] “The Death of the Full Stack Developer” [18:54] How do engineering leaders keep up with new technology? [24:50] Hire for strengths, not lack of weaknesses [20:57] Develop a hiring process based on your company [27:24] Junior engineer vs. senior engineer: which is better? [31:38] Advice for managers for coaching junior engineers at home [34:18] Why you don’t want to rush through the junior engineer phase [38:15] Bootcamp graduates: to hire or not to hire? [41:10] Embracing the concept of radical candor “The Death of the Full Stack Developer” Johnny’s talk, “The Death of the Full Stack Developer”, was a culmination of what he's seen developing in the industry. He’s seen an evolution of people switching engineering midway through other careers. The people who are switching have a more difficult time because of the expectations that are placed on engineers to know it all.
Catching up to everything that’s happened struck Johnny as silly. He can’t keep up with all of the new stuff out there. It also depends on our definition of “the stack” (It’s typically short-hand for front-end and back-end experience). 80% of people land on their website from a mobile device—but no one talks about mobile devices when they talk about the stack.
The full stack encompasses a lot more than what we mean when we use the phrase. When you look at it that way, it’s unreasonable to expect someone to be an expert in the entire stack. The true full stack developer is dead and gone. Johnny is quick to point out that that doesn’t mean you can’t be good in multiple areas.
But you have to recognize that there are specialties. While you do want as much bang for your buck as possible when hiring, you can't burn people out. You have to set expectations accordingly. How do engineering leaders stay on top of new technology? Keep listening to hear our discussion.
Hire engineers for their strengths—not lack of weaknesses Johnny points out that—as an industry—we assume that one hiring process is going to work for every company out there. But it’s up to you to find a process that works for you and your team. You have to take into account questions like: Can they grow into what I might need in a year? Or 18 months? Does your company align with their future goals? The paradox is that you need to stop hiring for the now—and hire for tomorrow—while still solving today’s problems.
John screens a potential team member’s ability and willingness to grow with the company from the first phone call. He talks about their ambitions as a business and asks if the potential engineer can see themselves growing with that vision. Are they interested in leadership? Are they willing to mentor other engineers? What is their mindset regarding operational excellence? He’s honest about his expectations moving forwar
Technology Leadership Begins with These Traits with Emad Georgy
Today’s guest—Emad Georgy—is passionate about technology leadership. He’s a CTO Consultant and the Founder and CTO of Georgy Technology Leadership. Emad has been in the tech industry for over 25 years. His hybrid approach to technology management—focusing on both the practical and cultural elements of leadership—makes Emad a trusted and valued partner helping both domestic startups and global enterprises scale and grow.
In this episode of Simple Leadership, we chat about what cultivating leaders looks like. Sometimes, it involves making difficult decisions for your team. You must also embrace your values and lead your team by example. Listen to learn some steps to help you grow and mature as an individual and as a leader.
Outline of This Episode [1:24] Emad Georgy joins me in this episode [3:23] Making difficult decisions for your team [6:01] Tips for leaders starting a management position [7:49] What is the concept of leadership debt? [10:38] Traits it’s important for technology leaders to possess [14:40] Embrace the engineering mindset [18:38] Develop a deliberate “people strategy” [22:33] Embrace problems as a tech leader and CTO [25:13] How to improve your team’s customer focus [29:31] How to become a process ninja [32:56] The importance of resilience in engineering leaders [35:26] Leading through times of crisis What is the concept of leadership debt? According to Emad, if tech leaders really want to solve the root cause of technical debt, they have to start talking about leadership debt. It’s the concept that the decisions you make as a leader results in hidden costs that build over time.
He points out that “It's our responsibility as technologists to bring [those decisions] to the surface, make [them] transparent, hold them and go, "Are we making decisions that enable the durability of the company and/or architecture?".
You don’t wake up one morning and decide to rewrite your whole platform or application—the decision is based on little decisions and mistakes that occur over time. Having knowledge of how leadership debt works helps you make better decisions along the way.
Technology leadership development begins with these traits Emad points out a key trait: embracing the concept of ownership. A leader “Must have a collective sense of responsibility—not just about his or her actions—but about the actions of their team and the organization”. It’s about leading by example.
You need to be problem-solvers, not problem-reporters. Emad has learned that pointing fingers only serves to create dissension among your team. It isn’t about who’s at fault, it’s about how you got there. So when something goes wrong, you step up and take ownership—then help your team find and fix the problem.
Emad points out that as the leader, you get to manage the company culture. He defines culture as “the stories you tell every day”. If you spend every day complaining and moaning about the work you’re doing—that’s your culture. That is your contribution to the culture. But you can easily change that. Keep listening as Emad shares some other traits and processes he believes are key to your success.
Technology leaders need a deliberate people strategy Emad gets frustrated when leaders claim that they’re “all about their people”, but when it comes down to it they focus less than 20% of their time on their team. He believes it is essential to apply a tangible growth path to your team. Where do you want to see the team go in a year? What will you do for the company in that time? What do you expect from each individual? Are you helping them determine their career path and managing their growth?
Anywhere Emad has migrated in his career, he embraces a people-first approach. He’ll spend his first couple weeks—or month, if necessary—having one-on-ones with his team
Overcoming Engineering Leadership Challenges with Farhan Thawar
Transitioning an engineering leadership position to a work-from-home model can be a challenge. For some engineers, working remotely is the norm. For others, such as those working for Shopify, being forced to work from home because of the Coronavirus is a whole new ballgame. In this episode of Simple Leadership, Farhan Thawar joins me to chat about his transition into working from home and how Shopify has made the process manageable. We talk about the benefits of coding in pairs, whether or not managers should still code, and what he looks for when hiring engineering leaders.
Farhan became the VP of Engineering at Shopify after the company acquired Helpful.com, where he was co-founder and CTO. He is an avid writer and speaker and was named one of Toronto's 25 most powerful people. Farhan has held senior technical positions at Achievers, Microsoft, Celestica, and Trilogy. Farhan completed his MBA in Financial Engineering at Rotman and Computer Science/EE at Waterloo. Listen to this episode for a glimpse into his expertise.
Outline of This Episode [1:27] It’s Farhan’s Birthday! [3:44] Is there an uptick in online shopping? [6:34] How Farhan is being impacted by COVID-19 [10:54] The concept of “Assume Positive Intent” [12:00] What got Farhan where he is today [14:43] Farhan’s transition into a leadership role [16:32] Lessons Farhan has learned from mistakes [19:04] What new managers struggle with [26:23] Implementing coding in pairs [30:23] Where should a manager write code? [36:10] What does he look for when hiring engineering leaders How Farhan has been impacted by COVID-19 Shopify sent all of their employees home to work remotely at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. They also supplied each employee $1,000 to make the transition a smooth process—for necessary equipment such as webcams, ergonomic chairs or mats, and office supplies. They knew they wanted to be proactive in protecting their team and those around them.
Farhan much prefers in-person communication and interaction. Since working from home, he has made a concerted effort to focus on communication that includes Google Hangouts, Zoom calls, audio, and asynchronous video—all before defaulting to text. His goal is to connect and converse with fellow employees about their lives and remember to have non-work-related conversations like they would if they were in the office.
How to take your management to the next level Something new managers often struggle with is whether or not they continue to code once they assume a leadership role. Should they work on company projects? Practice coding on the weekend? Farhan incorporates coding into his schedule every Thursday morning as a way to “go deeper” and stay on top of his skills.
Something that Shopify implements is what is called a “studio week” in which executive-level team members take a week to deep-dive into their craft to continue learning and perfect their skills. It takes their skillset to the next level, gives more context to how their team operates and helps them stay on top of the right questions to be asking their team.
How pair programming can make a positive impact Pairing with someone is a great way to learn a new environment and language. It’s also a great way to learn something new that you’re not as familiar with. You can lend your technical expertise and architectural ideas to the team. You work to help each other stay focused and intense—and add to the intellect and velocity of the team.
Shopify allows their teams to set up pair programming hours—they simply open space in their schedules for others to sign up. They even supply special rooms specifically for the practice. Farhan shares that it’s set up with two monitors, two keyboards, with a long desk so you can sit and pair for a long period. Others prefer to work on pair programming in the comfort of t
How to Manage Remote Teams [and Help Them Thrive] with Dana Lawson
If you’re in a leadership position in the engineering industry and have suddenly been thrust into working remotely, it may feel like your world has been turned upside down. In this episode of Simple Leadership, Dana Lawson and I discuss a few tips to help you manage remote teams. You want your team to thrive and be successful during a time of great uncertainty.
Dana describes herself as an atypical engineer. She wanted to attend college to be an artist but soon realized the ‘starving artist’ lifestyle wasn’t going to cut it. She took the ASVAB test when she joined the military and scored high in engineering categories. In the last 20 years, she’s worked in every tech position possible—most recently, she is the VP of Engineering at GitHub. Listen to hear her unique story!
Outline of This Episode [1:38] Dana Lawson: from art major to engineer [6:18] How Dana found herself in a leadership role [9:02] Mistakes Dana has learned from throughout her career [12:27] We got to eat dinner at Al Gore’s house [15:48] Tips and strategies for managing remotely [26:38] Don’t forget these aren’t just transactional relationships [30:42] How to onboard a new hire completely remotely [34:45] What happens when the process doesn’t go well? [37:04] Help remote employees advocate for themselves You have to embrace a leadership mindset Dana states that “Anybody can be a leader, it’s just how much you wanna unlock it”. She believes it’s an attribute that’s been ingrained in her personality. She’s naturally an A-Type and has never been afraid to speak her mind. In whatever capacity she was working in, she always took the initiative to move the ball forward.
You don’t have to have a management title to be a leader.
She just believes that some of us gravitate towards being a leader more than others—but that we all have the calling to lead in some way. Dana argues, “Anybody has the ability to go influence change and bring up the people around them to do great things”.
Tips and strategies to manage remote teams Dana shared some tips she’s learned from a managerial role:
Write it down. Have a good practice of writing things down. Track what’s being done throughout the day. Reiterate tasks and instructions multiple times through different modes of communication whenever possible. Form a daily structure for your team and yourself. Don’t stop the practices you already have in place because you suddenly have this new obstacle of working from home. You can still hold the same meetings, just do them virtually. Take advantage of ALL the communication tools available to you. Slack and online chats are great, but if the conversation is going to be longer than 5 minutes, hop in a video chat (Zoom, Skype, FaceTime) or a phone call. 90% of communication is non-verbal and it’s okay to jump from chat to a call. Invest in some camera gear: This is my tip here, but get a decent webcam off of Amazon and use appropriate lighting when using Zoom or other video applications. To keep things light-hearted—though partially serious—Dana points out that you have be on-point with your emoji game. There’s verbal communication, non-verbal, and emoji verbal. Humans have reverted to Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Oddly enough, each company has its own set of social norms with emojis—so learn quickly.
These aren’t just transactional relationships Don’t forget there are humans on the other side of your communication. How would you interact with someone in the office? What about pleasantries like “Hey, good morning!” or “How are you today?”. Dana points out you can ask about your team’s families, learn about their dog, and keep apprised of their life like you would in the office.
A distributed workforce still needs to feel like they’re part of the office family. Dana points out that you want to build
How to Implement Good Software Development Processes with Eric Elliott
A management role in software development can be difficult to navigate. You need to keep a high-level perspective on projects while making sure they go smoothly. Eric Elliott, today’s guest on the show, believes that you need to implement coding quality practices such as test-driven development. In this episode, we talk about why software development processes such test-driven development makes an impact and why it’s important to remove bugs. We’ll also talk about how to train developers and keep them happy—and why it’s inherently important not to rush the process.
Outline of This Episode [2:08] Eric’s background in software development [4:28] What’s happened in the last year? [6:17] Tangible benefits to reducing bugs on the front-end [9:34] How much time should be spent on fixing bugs? [11:43] What happens when you rush engineers? [13:35] What happens when a manager steps in [19:50] How to communicate with your leadership [25:11] What tangible things should you measure? [29:55] Top 3 things to do to improve quality of code [34:30]Measure pull requests and open bug tickets [40:49] Test-driven development (TDD) [43:50] Resources Eric recommends What are the tangible benefits to reducing bugs? If you are able to reduce bugs on the front end, you spend less time fighting fires. According to Eric, “Fixing bugs is not work that’s delivering direct value to your customers—it’s rework”. Customers don’t look at your software and think being “bug-free” is a benefit. They just assume that it’s a given that there will be no bugs.
Secondly, Eric points out that you will lose customers if you produce buggy software. Struggling client retention and turnover means you’ll have to increase your marketing budget in order to attract new business.
It is the most expensive and time consuming part of producing software. But it is imperative to deliver a stellar product on the front end. Because, per Eric, “Every hour spent in code review saves 33 hours of maintenance”. The hardest part is understanding that this process takes time and cannot be rushed, but it is well worth it in the end.
What happens when you try to rush your engineers? Those in leadership positions often have to deal with pressure from higher-ups to rush a project or push a timeline. This is the worst thing that could happen, and you’ll start to see significant negative results of rushing your developers.
Eric points out that bugs will pile up, testing will get skipped, and communication will suffer. Your team will feel like they don’t have adequate time to mentor each other, and knowledge sharing is left behind. Productivity levels will plummet.
Even worse, your developers can reach the point of burnout—with effects that can be long-lasting. The Japanese struggle with a culture of over-working to the point that they have a coined term for people who die because of overworking—”Karoshi”. While this is an extreme example, it’s something you want to steer clear of. Pushing your team to rush will bring to fruition the opposite of what you intend.
What is your role as a manager/leader? Eric uses a manufacturing analogy to drive this point home:
“ There's a floor manager who is usually perched up high above a factory floor so they can see everything ha
Customer ReviewsSee All
Great content and interviews. I particularly enjoyed the episode with Liam, in preparation for interviewing him on my podcast. Great questions! Keep it up.
Very useful for new managers...
...and people interested in tech leadership. Christian touches upon all the important and interesting subjects.