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Hello! What's your background and what do you do?

Today I coach 1:1 with leaders and executives to scale their impact by building emotional intelligence and supporting behavioural change. It’s an evolution of 25 years as a SWE, team lead, line manager and engineering manager at Google, where I was also a lead facilitator on their internal flagship leadership development program for emerging leaders.

I started programming as a 10-year old with a Sinclair ZX81 and 1k of RAM. I’ve written software ever since, gaining a B.Sc. in Computer Science along the way. That scarcity of system resources created good discipline that I used again at Psion Software, which became Symbian With a colleague I created the text editing and layout subsystems in C++ which shipped in all Symbian smartphone handsets.

Over time my focus shifted to UI and HTML5/Javascript, before coming full circle back to a custom-built cross-platform UI library written in C++ for the Google Jamboard.

I characterise my career as telecommunications and the office productivity/enterprise sectors. I’ve repeatedly brought new disruptive hardware products to market.

How was your transition from software development to management like?

My transition from SWE to Eng Manager was organic, and not at all surprising. In 1994 when Psion recruited hardcore engineers I didn’t fit the mould and was taken on because I had “excellent communication skills”. I was “a people person”. I produced the goods technically, and I always felt I had to work hard to keep up with my peers.

I was a pure IC for maybe 2 years, before being a team leader and then people management responsibilities soon followed. After 16 years balancing my own technical contribution with management, I formally left the SWE ladder when I moved to New York with Google and jumped to the “Engineering Manager” ladder. (I still contributed a little code, but eyebrows are easily raised if it’s production-critical work at this point).

This change was of my making. I played to my strengths and looked to my professional longevity. The cloak of impostor syndrome has been with me throughout this time.

As I stepped into leadership over the years I expected, and felt, a shift in my relationship with colleagues. Irrespective of my own beliefs around job title, I came to accept that others granted me authority by virtue of position. This created new expectations for the nature of my own contributions. The people I was responsible for saw me differently.

“Engineering is easy. People are hard” (Bill Coughran)

What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?

As a Google engineering manager I wrote no code. (That’s not entirely true, but it was really never intended to be production code!).

If I were to paint a picture of my work as engineering manager you’d see me…

  • creating team structure for an expanding team; growing the next leaders and a layer of management so I could shed 20+ direct reports and spend time doing the work I needed to do
  • Interviewing and recruiting to fill open headcount on the project; balancing the need to accelerate delivery with my desire to address DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and build the culture I valued
  • learning to manage-up; to show, demo and report upwards, to best effect the value being created; ensuring management concerns and questions were addressed
  • creating relevant processes required to scale a successful MVP research effort to a mature, production-capable hardware launch
  • relationship-management within the group to align Eng, Product, QA and UX desires - working alongside strongly-opinionated characters where conflict was commonplace
  • relationship-management outside of the group to leverage company-wide resources
  • building psychological safety within the group; creating and defending the space for my co-workers to learn, grow, try, fail, experiment, energise and do their very best, inspired work. This was a space constantly pulled by competing tensions.

And leading the Google leadership development program was a huge privilege. It ran off-site over 2-days and provided a deeply experiential environment to share, reflect, learn and connect. It was an iconic program.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?

For a period I had a new manager every quarter for a straight year. Each had different values, beliefs, demands and knowledge of our novel project. I found this personally challenging. It taught me a lot about how the quality of relationship with one's manager impacts your performance. I’d characterise this as the managing up skill-set that becomes increasingly important. My go-to way of handling this has always been to show vulnerability and just talk honestly. A combination of advocating for how I feel and what I need, and enquiring of the same from my manager (a form of guerrilla coaching if you will.)

The second challenge that comes to mind is managing low performance. Like 90% of managers I shied away from this. But I received great support and found a powerful re-frame that shifted things for me. Having crucial conversations is a critical part of the manager’s role, and I now have great resources to support folks in this. In essence I moved from having it be about me and leaned into the belief I was serving the employee, knowing that they were creative, resourceful and whole. It was the difference between being compassionate and being nice (there’s nothing nice about suppressing tough feedback).

What has been the biggest surprise so far? Something you didn't expect?

One key learning for me was the importance of managing up and selling both the project and the team. Initially it seemed a frustrating distraction and waste of my time. (‘You want the data? Just go look at the bug database!). As a manager you have access to a new set of resources, including your own manager. There’s a lot you can do to bring them onboard, to share in the vision and excitement, and to leverage the resources that they have access to. (See how I didn’t use the word ‘politics’ there :-))

Speaking to impostor syndrome again, another learning for me was that I had full permission to show up and be more ‘me’; to get stuck-in and do what was needed, to do what I felt was right. When I talk about this I describe how it was like, “I was the last person to get the memo that I had full permission to succeed”. That's an empowering thought to me and it continues to be a challenge that I face down every day. (What would you do if you knew it wouldn't fail?)

What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?

I've been fortunate to have a handful of great managers. And I realise they didn't give me a whole lot of advice. I got some great coaching from them, (meaning I learned a lot), but not a lot of advice. With that said, I'd offer up...

  • Get comfortable holding uncertainty (get comfortable being uncomfortable). The outcome of your decisions is long term. Often you won’t ever get to know if you made the right choice. It’s not about right or wrong, it's about being and doing.
  • Don’t hide from the difficult conversation. This is your job - to be in service of the growth of your people.

What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?

Now that I painted myself into a corner about not giving advice, here's what I'd offer up...

  • Give yourself permission to do it. If you get the job, or are new to the role, the organisation already believes in you. Step into the role and own it. Only you can show up as your most brilliant self.

  • Be prepared for letting go. To some extent you’ll have to let go of parts of what got you here. Embrace letting go because you get to have more impact when you bring your new resources to bear in support of the team’s success

  • Become a better coach. Grow your people - coach the person, not the problem. (Google's Project Oxygen identified the 10 behaviours of successful managers - and #1 on the list… "is a good coach")

Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?

Now I coach leaders, new and experienced, in stepping up to the next level, and creating more impact and more shared success.

You can find me on LinkedIn and learn more about me and my coaching at duncanskelton.com, or write me at coach@duncanskelton.com. If you're looking to move your leadership to the next level, or wanting that for people on your team, I'd love to talk with you.

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