Discussing Effective Engineering Leadership – Webinar Rundown

Recently, we ran an open discussion on how to effectively manage high-performing tech teams – with expert advice from those at the highest level of tech leadership. 

Our panel for the webinar consisted of: Melanie Yencken (UX Design Lead at Google), Usman Hamid (CTO at Barclays) and Matthew Sinclair (Partner and Vice President, Engineering at BCG Digital Ventures). 

The following post is a rundown of the webinar, bringing together all the salient points of discussion to help you on your journey towards effective engineering leadership. 

Question 1: How Do You Effectively Structure Your Engineering Teams? 

Sometimes you may inherit a team, other times you may have the task of building a team around you – in both cases, structure is important.  

Understand Your Own Strengths and Weaknesses  

Response from Usman 

Part of creating a credible team around you is understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, and then understanding the gaps that need filling. The people around you can help you achieve your teams  goals and takeaway some of the pressure by being accountable for specific deliverables. 

Structures can vary based on role, skill and the type of organisation you’re in, but having that inward look at yourself and conducting that capability assessment is one of the first things that you should look to do. 

From there, you can look at the individuals that you’ve got at your disposal what you can add to the mix to help your team achieve their objectives. 

Your Design Will Mirror the Organisations Communication Structure 

Response from Melanie 

The reality is that no organisational design is perfect but there are some good principles that we can kind of work by. I used to believe that there was a very set way that you would have to set up UX and design within engineering organisations to be successful, but really, it needs to be individualised to the organisation.  

And when I look at the team design and setup, I love the principle of Conway’s Law – the thought that any organisational design that you create will end up being mirrored in the product or the system that that team is actually building. So, any organisation that designs a system will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.  

I’ve seen that in so many other products that I’ve worked in, like the silos that exists in the team exists then in the product itself. And that can be in the how the API speak to each other, or it can be in terms of what the actual interfaces that a user sees. So I think keeping that in mind when you’re designing the team structure is really important. 

Question 2: How Do Effectively Engage People In New Initiatives like Training? 

It can be hard to introduce new initiatives, especially when they don’t always land at the top of your teams priority list.

Create an Environment Where Good Behaviours Can be Modeled 

Response from Matthew 

I find that the best way to learn something is to get in and do it. What we try and do is get them operating in an environment with some people they can model their behaviour on.  I feel blessed, that across my career, I was able to able to spend some time with really great engineers who I’ve been able to model.  

I’m a big believer in promoting with from within. We spend a lot of time with associates and folks who don’t have a traditional engineering background and want a career change. We’ve had some fantastic success stories with pushing those people through by giving them the opportunity to work alongside some of our best engineers. I think that’s just absolutely the best kind of training. 

Spending as much time as possible on feedback is important as well. I think as soon as you take agency away from people, they start to disengage. So if you just go out and tell people something directly, they tend to not be as excited about it as if you leave a bit of white space for them to work out what to do.  

Top-down Mandates Fail Without A Clear Benefit for the Individual 

Response from Melanie 

We’ve found the best way to bring people along is to focus on the ‘why’ behind it. 

I think if you just say, ‘Oh, we need to go and complete x’, it’s going to be very unlikely that someone is going to feel motivated to go and do it. So, when we rolled out new initiatives, we’ve met with each of the groups, whether it’s certain discipline, or a certain person who’s responsible for a certain area, and we’ve tailored the message to them and their challenges. 

So, it’s like, ‘we want you to do X, because it’s going to help you as an individual person achieve y’. It’s not a generic message.  

Ultimately, people are pretty self-centred. It’s just human nature. And so having some kind of message which focuses on why this task in important for their individual role or their team will get more involvement.  

Top-down mandates tend to massively fail without any clear benefit described. 

Audience Question: The metrics that you choose will, whether you mean them to or not, be the focus of your teams. If you could choose only one metric for a team to report on. What would that be? 

What should you measure? How frequently should you do it? How much of an impact should it have on the conversations you have with your team?

Choose The Metrics that Have Demonstrative Business Value 

Response from Usman 

We tend to lose focus, and we start to chase numbers at the expense of doing the right things on time. If metrics are important to you and your organisation, choose the ones that have th most value from a business perspective and ones you can demonstrate progress on. Make sure they’re not arbitrary things that you need to hit.  

I’m not saying they’re not important, but I think they must be right in terms of what you’re trying to achieve, really. 

I Want Engineering Leaders to Focus on People, Process and Technology. 

Response from Matthew 

When we’re hiring Venture CTOs we look for people who go hunting for signals because the one metric that really means a lot for us is product market fit. Has the venture achieved product market fit? It’s a binary thing – yes or no. 

I make sure I look for folks who go chasing signals, not vanity metrics but also not just technical signals. I want Engineering leaders to think about people, process and technology. We’re looking for the balance. 

Audience Question: How do you Manage Custom Development Requests While Maintaining Core Product Development?  

Engineering leaders, especially those in SaaS businesses, can often get pulled from pillar to post. Internal and external customers all bring valid points to the table and all shouldn’t be ignored – but an Engineering Leader also needs to keep their core product and wider organisational objectives in mind. How do you juggle the two? 

Make Sure You’ve got an Ideal Customer In Mind and Develop for Them 

Response from Matthew 

We came up with this concept called ‘white label zero’. Imagine you have an ideal customer, and build your version for that. All these feature requests can go into customised versions, if you need to, in the short term for each of your other additional customers. But make sure you’ve got an ideal customer that’s driving the product in the direction that you want it to go in. Otherwise, you’re just going to get pulled from pillar to post, and you’ll start being all things to everyone, which ends up being nothing to everyone.  

Question 3: How Do You Effectively Build Your Influence Across the Wider Organisation? 

The engineering and technology function is far too important to business objectives for an Engineering Leader to be a siloed individual. Therefore, it’s very important that an engineering leader be the spider moving across the web of the organisation – adding value everywhere they stop. But how do you start spreading that web? 

Treat People With Respect  

Response from Usman 

People look to leaders of large engineering teams to make critical decisions. With that, I think you’ve got a platform from which you can build credibility – and credibility is a huge part of this.  

It comes down to how you kind of come across and how you interface with people. There’s a lot of soft skills involved which aren’t taught. You pick these things up through lived experiences or you’re naturally quite people centric, and you have a natural flair for getting people on side.  

Create and Use Stakeholder Maps 

Response from Melanie 

The chances of a radically new concept landing well in a meeting is quite low if people haven’t already been brought along for the journey. I, personally, track my stakeholders on a stakeholder maps and I revisit that every couple of months. I rate my relationships with each of those people: how am I meeting with them? What are those forums? Do I need to build more rapport?  

Within Google, success is largely based on how your peers are viewing you and rating you. So like making sure that you have a good relationship with your stakeholders so that when it comes to actually making decisions and influencing them, you can rely on the trust and rapport that you’ve already built, is kind of key. # 

I Had to Get My Creative Nurishment By Proxy 

Response from Matthew 

The point where you get promoted is the moment where you’re least qualified to be that new in that new role. A lot of engineers get caught up on that because Engineers get this creative nourishment by building stuff.  I love tinkering around. Hacking around. But what I had to learn was that instead of getting that creative nourishment from doing something myself, I had to get it by proxy.  

Question 4: How Do You Identify and Empower Leaders on Your Team? 

Effective leaders are always on the look out potential leaders – so how do you identify them and then how do you empower them to take the next step?

Create Career Plans That You Review Every 6 Months 

Response from Melanie 

What I do with my teams is have a solid career plan for every individual that we refresh every six months, but revisit every month, and part of their career plan is to identify all the motivating factors that an individual has, and what their own ambitions are. So that its clearly stated for every individual on the team that leadership is the direction they want to go. 

At for Google, we’re fortunate that you don’t have to move into management to progress in your career, you can keep specialising and get more senior levels as an individual contributor. But you know, we clearly articulate with every individual: ‘Hey, what do you care about over the next six months? What are the main things that driving your motivation?’ 

Once the goals are really clearly stated, then the manager can look at equitable assignment of the projects and opportunities. And just having like a very intentional perspective over how you assign the work that gets handed out, and I’m a big believer in what I call promotable tasks, but also the non promotable tasks.  

The unfortunate reality is that people from underrepresented groups tend, especially women, to be the ones who put their hand up or get volunteered by someone else to do what I call office housework, which are the things that we need to make the team work like birthdays and events. 

And all of that time spent is not on the things that are helping them get their leadership goal or you know, whatever it might be. So we do equitable assignment of what we call office housework to make sure that that’s like fairly shared, and so that everyone’s playing their part. And not everyone gets an opportunity to do the extra stretch goals that they you know, tasks they might need to get to the next level.