Hello! What's your background and what do you do?
Hello, my name is Arnab Sen. I am a senior Technical Delivery Manager at AKQA, a digital agency that is part of the larger WPP group. AKQA's motto is to create beautiful products and services via the innovative application of art and science. Previously I worked at AKQA San Francisco on the Audi and Nike accounts, before transferring to AKQA Paris to launch an e-commerce platform for a large French luxury retailer and create the Android and iOS apps for Disneyland Paris, a VOD platform for the leading cinema chain MK2, and a hair diagnosis tool for one of L'Oreal's brands.
I completed a dual degree in Computing Science and Business Administration at Simon Fraser University. My career as a technologist began with a software development internship at Canada Revenue Agency. Following graduation I worked in the heart of India's Silicon Valley in Bengaluru at a large outsourcing company before returning to work as a software engineer at a startup in Vancouver. Inspired by my Indian adventure, I then spent a decade in Asia working at advertising agencies in China and South Korea leading technology teams on a plethora of long term and campaign projects for top brands such as BMW and Canon.
It is very important to have a diversity of experiences as you grow your career. I've worked in a variety of industries from large offshore development companies and government agencies to non-profits and startups, but the bulk of my career has been spent at digital innovation agencies. At these agencies, I have focused on delivering high quality marketing and e-commerce websites and apps, occasionally dabbling with physical/digital experiences such as the 30th anniversary of the Jordan Brand at Paris's Palais de Tokyo, voice assistants, and desktop software.
How was your transition from software development to management like?
I was in a individual contributor role as a full stack developer for approximately 3-4 years prior to taking the leap into management. My transition to management was a deliberate decision on my end, rather than organic evolution from IC to manager with one organization. An avid traveler, I was determined to embark on an international career while simultaneously broadening my leadership capabilties and workplace responsibilities. I had chosen to study both technology and business in university as I did not want my education to restrict where I could work and what type of problems I could solve. I obtained an IT manager role at a market research firm in China via the international youth organization AIESEC. I then built upon that experience and location proximity to secure a Technical Project Manager role at Interone China, an advertising agency based in Beijing.
Apart from project management courses in university I had received no formal training on leadership principles or guidance on how to lead a team or a project. In my first engineering management role I was given enough runway to lead projects independently, without any micromanagement from the senior tech leadership. Fortunately, I received mentorship from the senior tech leadership in times of crises if I escalated any issues to them. The ability to take measured actions and risks, while still having this safety net of supportive upper management was critical in my growth as a team lead.
What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?
I like to be kept on my toes, continuously learning new technologies and working with a variety of brands and projects, while collaborating with multidisciplinary teams. Each project and client is different from the next, with unique needs and tech stacks to boot. Every day is full of new challenges and learnings.
Whether it be JIRA, Trello, or Asana, as a manager it is critical to be comfortable with project and product management tools. A text based todo list might suffice for an IC, but as the diversity of people and deliverables to manage and fit into a timeline multiply these tools are an integral part of an engineering manager's toolkit.
The teams that I lead are formed ad-hoc, ranging from 1 to 20 individuals. Based on the needs of the particular project, the teams can be composed of backend developers, content authors, DevOps engineers, mobile developers, and/or QA analysts. As a technical lead in an agile scrum-based environment, there are a variety of meetings I have to organize or take the lead on including backlog grooming, poker planning or estimation sessions, sprint kickoffs, sprint reviews and demos, daily stand ups, and retrospectives.
Day to day tasks could include a grab bag of the following activities on any given day:
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?
The primary challenge as a technical delivery manager/engineering lead in an agency environment is that often times the tech team are only brought in after the scope and timeline has already been agreed upon by non-technical stakeholders. Once I become involved, I may discover a host of issues which can put a significant wrench in the best laid plans of mice and men. I may find that the development effort has been woefully underestimated, many technical considerations ignored, accompanied with incomplete, unclear, or completely missing business requirements, specifications and designs. Vocalizing these concerns can make the tech lead quite unpopular with team members from other disciplines, or even with the client themselves.
The creative and UX teams may take the bulk of the limelight and eat up a lot of time in the schedule as they work with the client to agree on a pleasant UI for a website or an app, but it is the responsibility of the tech lead to insert themselves into the conversation as early as possible. I can certainly take a backseat in the discovery and concepting phases, but it is important for the technology team to have a seat at the table from as early on in the lifecyle of a project as possible. This involvement is imperative to mitigate risks, build relationships, and to provide a realistic perspective of what can and cannot be achieved considering the triangle of scope, cost, and time. It will drastically increase the chances of succesfully launching a product that exceeds expectations while reducing stress for all involved.
What has been the biggest surprise so far? Something you didn't expect?
I have been blessed to be able to use my career as a springboard to experience the great cities, countries, and cultures of the world, having had the opportunity to live and work in Canada, India, China, South Korea, USA, and France so far. When I first began my career, I could not imagine what a world of opportunities awaits those in the technology field. As companies compete for top international talent, who knows where your journey can lead you next?
What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?
A happy team member is a more productive team member. As a manager you cannot control someone's intrinsic motivation or drive, but you can help promote a workplace where each individual thrives and has space to create and grow to the best of their abilities by providing challenging work, learning opportunities, steadily increasingly responsibilities in a respectful and open environment.
What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?
As a software engineer you have to drill down deep into a few technologies or stacks, strengthening your skillset until you become a subject matter expert in that particular ecosystem. You may or may not have any input on your day to day tasks, as they just might be assigned to you unilaterally. I enjoyed being enveloped in code during the initial stages of my career, but was always drawn to how technology fit in with the world at large alongside business, UX, strategy, data, and design. As an IC, if you feel this way, the switch to management can be highly rewarding and provide a level of independence, authority, and interactivity that a pure software engineering role may not offer.
Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?