SF Engineering Leadership Community Summit 2019
Some notes from the gathering
Last week, I attended the SFELC Summit along with several other engineering managers at Twitter. In this post, I summarize some of the discussions and lessons from the talks and panels that I was able to attend.
We started the day with a keynote by James Everingham, Head of Engineering at FB. He drew parallels between management and quantum theory.
The main takeaway was the importance of not being prescriptive as a manager. He talked about the observer effect and authority bias and the team’s reluctance to come up with their own ideas when a solution is given by the manager. Instead, a manager’s job should be to ask probing questions.
He also talked about creating the right amount of entanglement on the team. Build a culture of empathy, camaraderie, and clear communication.
He suggested to embrace self-observation and to accept that we are always in a state of both success and failure.
In a next talk I attended, Jonathan Raymond, Founder and CEO of Refound, drew parallels between management and sales. Just like sales, management is helping people see the gap between where they are and where they could be; it is the task of clarifying the cost of inaction.
He also talked about people’s desire to see projects completed. If you are terminating a project, be clear about when it will be reprioritized.
In the fireside chat hosted by Ben Jun (CEO at HVF Labs), Max Levchin (Founder and CEO of Affirm) had some good advice about focusing on valuable problems as opposed to hard problems. There’s a mindset shift as you get into industry from school. In school, you are conditioned to look for hard problems and working on easy problems feels like an insult. In industry, it doesn’t matter if a problem is cool or uncool, if it is easy or hard, you should work on what matters.
He talked about how at PayPal, Peter Thiel was able to bring out the best in people by showing that he believed they could be better and do better.
Regarding recruiting, he talked about the aura test or hallway test: is this a person you want to keep bumping into in the hallways? He talked about not making compromises in hiring. Surround yourself by people who are invested in your success. Friends, enablers, people who inspire you, and those who impress you. Don’t settle for less.
After lunch, Julia Grace, Senior Director of Infrastructure at Slack, spoke about the value in hiring product managers, among other roles. The roles you don’t hire for are things you and your team are doing by yourself.
Later, Paw Anderson, Former Senior Director of Engineering at Uber, talked about the varying degrees of disagreement on teams. The quality of the disagreement determines the quality of the commitment. What you build at a company is new and complex. You are building groundbreaking technology. It is okay to be honest about not knowing things. Getting on the same page is very important before you get into a heated discussion. Here is his takeaway message:
Always let people know enough to disagree with you in a qualified way.
Will Larson, Head of Foundation Engineering at Stripe, talked about best practices in designing organizational processes. One of the takeaway messages was to allow anyone who cares about a project to have a chance to lead the project. In cases when there are no volunteers, reach out to and ask someone you think would be most suited. Your asking is a vote of confidence that is welcome motivation for successful project delivery.
Roll out a new process slowly and be open to its evolution. Do not overdesign at the outset. People organically adopt good process because it solves real problems. Do not force process.
Then there was then a wonderful panel moderated by Sam Wholley, Partner at Riviera, to take on a question, “what makes a great VPE?”
Karthik Rau, Founder and CEO of SignalFx, sees a VPE as someone who is able to connect the dots better than anyone and communicate the strategy effectively to get everyone’s buy-in. A VPE needs to be skilled in building organizations. When hiring a new VPE, you should bring someone with traits that complement those on the leads team and someone who can be a source of positive change. You should also assess whether they can take risks. Have they taken big risks? Do they handle risk well? Are they going to succeed in a role despite being set up for failure?
He also called for setting up an unbiased process in hiring a VPE. One of the best ways to achieve this is by setting up clear criteria for everyone involved in the interviews.
To those seeking this type of role, his advice is to find mentors and be a mentor. These people will keep you in mind when a role opens up. Take some chances, take risks. Don’t be afraid.
Evan Kaplan, CEO at InfluxData, believes that great leaders are model builders and can describe it well to other people. Great VPEs optimize to deliver the mission of the company as opposed to the mission of the Engineering organization. In the interviews, he looks for someone who is authentic and consistent, someone who owns their story, someone who can establish rapport and and is emotionally intelligent, and finally, someone who is credible as endorsed by others. In hiring, he reminds us to consciously counter our biases.
To those who are trying to get promoted into a VPE role, his advice is to try to fit in, but not for too long. Sometimes you need to go somewhere else to find someone who is willing to take a bet on you. Get coffee with hiring managers to understand their criteria but also to learn and bounce off ideas.
Bret Reckard, Director of Human Capital at Sequoia Capital, cares how potential candidates are able to see Engineering as part of the whole, and how they can understand product plans to guide Engineering execution. Are they good at storytelling? Do they care about people. Can they be a mentor as well as a manager?
To those seeking this role, his advice is that you need to be driven. Nobody is just going to offer you this role, and you can’t just expect to be recognized.
Holly Rose Faith, Talent Partner at NEA, talked about the hiring capabilities of a potential VPE. It matters how quickly they can identify good talent, bring them in, and sign them. She also identified self-awareness as in important trait. She asks potential candidates to talk about a situation where they would have done things differently and to identify things that didn’t go well.
Regarding hiring biases, she suggests the internal hiring funnel to match, at the very least, to that of the market.
To those seeking this role, her advice is to ask for feedback in order to gain awareness on where you stand.
Sam then talked about several anti-patterns to watch out for when hiring a VPE. Beware of arrogance and those who only manage up.
To those seeking this role, his advice is to build relationships with talent partners at firms and not to be afraid to apply for any open roles.
I missed a few talks after this panel as I went for a walk and a froyo run. I was able to meet and chat with a number of amazing managers and authors.
After my stroll, I attended a talk by Ron Lichty, author of Managing the Unmanageable. He talked about the Agile Method. Micromanagement cultures are not suitable for Agile. Honor everybody’s expertise on the team. Rather than telling people what to do, support and trust them to determine how something is done. Protect the team from all the noise and guard against the evil of multitasking. Multitasking is a killer of joy, of focus, and of quality.
Programming is a team sport, create a culture of effective communication and collaboration. It’s generally a bad idea to have an EM or PM be a scrum master. They visit the team three times a day to ask, “is it done yet?” It is best to have scrum masters that can’t affect people’s performance reviews. Scrum masters should focus on optimizing collaboration.
Values and principles should come before practices and processes. Just as voting does not make a democracy, Agile practices are not enough to ensure Agile development.
He said despite his not knowing anything about basketball, he recommends the following two books by Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls from 1989 to 1998 (he inherited MJ):
Another basketball coach he finds inspiring is no other than Coach Kerr of the GSW. He later found out that Kerr used to play for Jackson!
After dinner we had one keynote and two fireside discussions. The first keynote was by Fred Kofman, Leadership Development Advisor at Google. He started the talk by addressing the dangers of optimizing for product-level KPIs, rather than overall goals. Consider a soccer game. If you’re on defense and your KPI is to minimize goals, you would prefer for the whole team to lose 0–1 rather than to win 5–4 because the latter would make you look better. In this scenario, even if you know your job and what’s good for the team, you can’t do it because it’s not how you will be assessed.
The biggest problem we face in management is that there is no theory of everything. There is no optimal solution. We are bound to falter and die.
Next he discussed the dangers of moral hazard at a company. This pertains to everything from matters of headcount to the amount and quality of contributions by everyone. When you cannot calculate the marginal contribution of people, quality will suffer. Average pay drives the best away.
He then talked about F. A. Hayek’s views on management and showed the following quote which reiterates the lack of an optimal organizational structure:
This is an unsolvable problem, but you don’t need to solve it! You just need to solve it better than others. “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
He also talked about providing non-material reasons for people to do their best. How do you engage people not because it is convenient but because they are genuinely intrigued? This is not about solving an engineering problem, it is about changing the context in which people solve an engineering problem.
Humans have the need to transcend. We have the need to create something that lasts. Business is our best chance.
Next up we had a fireside chat hosted by Dan Portillo, Former Talent Partner at Greylock Partners. Aditya Agarwal, Former CTO at Dropbox and Partner-in-Residence at South Park Commons, had some good recruiting advice from his days at Dropbox. The main takeaway was to take the long view on recruiting. You have 30–45 minutes to make a good impression on someone. Show that you care about the person and their career above all else. In many cases, if they don’t accept, they will send recommendations; or join at a later time.
We are incredibly lazy when closing a candidate. We can do a lot more. Understand if the candidate has any questions left. They might have concerns about finding the right resources for their spouse and children. They might not be clear about the reporting structure and manager. Be mindful, make promises, and keep them. Life is a small circle. Do good.
The limits on the throughput of a company is determined by its engineering managers.
Make sure to value people who are always there, and people who take on the non-glorious tasks. If they’ve done a lot of small things but no shiny projects, make sure you reward them. The easy thing is to reward the shiny project, but shiny projects are not always the most necessary.
The last fireside chat of the night was hosted by Sarah Guo, General Partner at Greylock Partners. Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn and Partner at Greylock Partners, talked about his new book entitled Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies.
The main takeaway here was that it’s important to prioritize speed over efficiency in a competitive environment. To determine where to stand in this tradeoff, always ask which risk is bigger: to scale or to be efficient? This depends on your competition.
When asked about his motivation for sharing this winning strategy with companies outside of Greylock, he said,
While we compete intensely, we collaborate intensely. This is what makes us great.
I find this to be very inspiring. The best environments for growth are those with a culture of knowledge sharing. We are all in this together.
When asked about the current “techlash” and the downsides of the culture of moving fast and breaking things, he responded that it’s important that you choose which risks you are willing to take. You shouldn’t move fast on things that could heavily slow you down in the future and interrupt your ability to live and compete.
We concluded the night with an awards ceremony, recognizing great engineering managers. There was an excellent quote by one of the people being interviewed for the selection process:
You don’t support women in tech by saying that you support women in tech. You support women in tech by doing so.
This was a very well organized summit. Many thanks to Jerry Li and the many organizers and volunteers at SFELC.
PS There’s a lot of great talks I missed. Let me know if you have notes to share.
PPS We are hiring managers for Data Science and Machine Learning teams at Twitter. We are also hiring Data Scientists and Machine Learning Engineers. Please get in touch if you’re interested!