Hello! What's your background and what do you do?
My current role is Engineering Manager at Attest, which is a consumer research company. My focus here is spent looking after our Engineers, enabling them to perform to the best of their ability as well as working on scaling the team and improving how we do engineering at Attest.
I never intended to be a developer or even involved in software. I left school at 16 and worked for a number of years as a construction labourer (in fact my construction career has been longer than my software career). Unhappy in my mid-twenties, I decided to embrace on a life change that would ultimately allow me to work at something I enjoyed and give me more freedom to explore life and the things I was passionate about.
Starting with a basic knowledge of web design I taught myself to code in my spare time, ending up working for several local agencies for a number of years as well as taking on some freelance work. My first big break came with a senior frontend developer role at Mango (a data science consultancy) where I got to hone my skills working on several large companies codebases before leading the development of a SaaS product.
My second big break happened when I was given a role in engineering management at Monzo, which is a UK digital challenger bank (at the time this was the 'UK's Most Desirable Startup to work for'). Getting a job there is extremely competitive and the talent there is huge and abundant. This had a large learning curve, but it supercharged my ability and confidence as a manager.
How was your transition from software development to management like?
My transition to management was very sudden and therefore a huge learning experience. I applied for an internal role at Mango, as the company Engineering Lead. Half expecting not to get it, I was delighted when my success was announced, however my initial elation gave way to a quick realisation that I had very little knowledge in managing software engineers.
I am a big believer in proactively stepping out of your comfort zone to supercharge your learning. I was uncomfortable in the new role, but it became much more natural to me the longer I did it. I digested book after book, (Making a Manager by Julie Zhuo and An Elegant Puzzle by Will Larson are two I recommend!) conference talk after conference talk and practiced the techniques I learnt about. This role was a 50/50 split between people management as well as being an IC and writing code. I made so many mistakes, but I view this time as an 'apprenticeship' period, and it was vital to my understanding of what made a good software manager.
The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it, but the more I realised that at this point I wanted to move away from the IC work, at least for the meanwhile, and pursue management as a discipline on it's own. I relished the task of thinking about people problems with the same amount of time as engineering problems, it gave me so much satisfaction and value.
What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?
I dedicate one to two hours every morning before I start work to reading and writing and I meditate and exercise daily. It is super important to me as a manager, that I am always growing myself personally, which in turn allows me to grow the people I work with.
My mornings usually consist of 121's with my direct reports, of which I have 9. These conversations are typically around career growth, engineering in general and talking through personal or work related difficulties. For example, I have regular conversations specifically around where engineers see themselves in the future, discussing what progression track is right for them. I had a 121 recently with an engineer at the start of his journey into senior engineering, and we were able to pull apart what he thought made a good/bad senior engineer. It was an incredibly valuable exercise, and giving engineers the opportunity to think about this really interests me. Or I might have discussions with my folk because they feel as though they could improve in a particular area, their organisational ability for instance.
I approach these conversations with a coaching mindset, my purpose is to listen and ask questions to allow my engineers to make their own conclusions and solve their own problems. This has been one of the most valuable approaches I have taken in managing people. Psychological safety and trust has the upmost of importance for me as a manager, a lot of effort goes into to making sure engineers feel 100% safe to discuss anything they want to with me. Whether its work related or something super personal.
I try and tie up my meetings in the morning, as an introvert I find that lots of meetings can drain my energy, however that is not always the case so I keep myself adaptable. I spend an amount of time meeting with other people in the company or interviewing new candidates. However, most of my afternoons are spent focusing on engineering initiatives, writing proposals and reacting to problems that need solving. For instance, I have introduced a Health Check at Attest (here is a link to a blog article I wrote regarding how I implemented this at Monzo) to get clearer insight into where our teams' real problems are and also am working on improving our career growth framework for engineers. We keep this information public, it can be viewed here.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?
There are consistently challenges in management! But two in particular come to mind.
Management can at times be a lonely role. When I was the only manager at Mango, I would painstakingly reflect on harder decisions I had made and crave reassurance from my team, yet with no peers I couldn't get that from anywhere. Joining a close knit team of leaders at Monzo and now Attest has been a way to overcome that personal challenge. We actively share problems and talk about our decisions frequently, and it makes the job much less lonely. I also have been active in looking for peer groups outside of the company I am in, joining Slack communities and speaking to folk with similar roles through social media has helped me find more professional support.
The second biggest challenge is an ongoing one. Finding the perfect balance between taking action myself and waiting for the team to do so is something I have needed to consistently work on. As a leader, I want to be empowering engineers to make their own decisions, however there does come a time when a leader has to be proactive and take a risk in implementing something without the feedback from their team.
What has been the biggest surprise so far? Something you didn't expect?
The biggest surprise without a shadow of a doubt is how much energy working with people gives me. As I mentioned earlier in these questions, I am naturally an incredibly introverted person and I like my own space. If you had told me five years ago I would be choosing to spend my days leading a team, I would have laughed.
Genuinely though, I love speaking to engineers, finding out what they are passionate about, helping them grow and see the potential in themselves. Whilst I loved working as an IC, the reward I get from helping people is incredible.
What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?
To show your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. When you become a new manager, the temptation is to act as though you are more experienced than everyone else and therefore more knowledgeable - but that just isn't realistic. We all have our own strengths.
In fact, one of the first things I do with engineers when I am growing a manager/report relationship is talk about my perceived weaknesses and the things I struggle with. I am not afraid to say "I don't know" or "I will think about it", but this is a skill that requires confidence that needs to be developed over time. I speak to the most junior engineers in the exact same way I speak to the most seasoned engineers, and make a lot of effort to speak and write as plainly as possible. There is strength in being honest or real, and with showing vulnerability only makes you a stronger and more respected leader. Respect allows you influence.
What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?
That leadership can happen at any point in your career, you don't have to wait to be given a formal title. So many wait to be given permission to lead, however there is nothing stopping you from learning good management practices no matter what seniority level you are at.
Taking the initiative to solve hard problems on your own, upskill the team you are on and generally being proactive in taking on leadership responsibilities is the best way of growing as a leader and exhibiting that you are ready to do a good job of taking on this work.
We have incorporated leadership into our growth framework at Attest, expecting and encouraging even the most junior of engineers to showcase leadership ability, we deem this so important for the growth of all of our employees. We also give people the opportunity to take on Engineering Management as a career choice, to test it out and see if they enjoy that side of the work and see it as a longer term choice. I know many folk who have been forced into management due to it being the only way of getting a higher salary that what they are on, but resent the switch. It is not for everyone, and its ultimately a different discipline to engineering that should be experienced before you commit to following that line of work.
Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?
I write about software, leadership, minimalism, mental wellness and just anything that interests me on my blog. Check it out! --> www.jame.es.