Hello! What's your background and what do you do?
My academic life started in undergrad at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a degree in Computer Science. My interests have always sat at the intersection of technology and business. To augment my technical background I later enrolled at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management evening MBA program.
I currently work in Cincinnati in Kroger’s e-commerce team building the next generation customer data platform. At the scale of a company like Kroger that involves managing tens of millions of customers’ data, there are an exciting set of technical problems to solve. Our stack is composed of microservices written in Go, K8S, and PostgreSQL deployed on Azure.
How was your transition from software development to management like?
My transition to management happened at a startup, which essentially means you are thrown in the deep end and are expected to figure it out. As an early start-up employee, I became the subject matter expert in many areas. One of those areas was building Vue.js design-systems and reusable front-end components. My manager, who moved on to a different startup, asked if I was interested in leading a team to do the same at the new company. I decided to follow him and that is how I became a manager.
The first year was a struggle to figure out how much to get involved with a team’s delivery and when to delegate. At a startup, the lines between an EM, Tech lead, and Product Manager are very blurred and you are required to wear multiple hats at once.
Unlike a developer, where the day-to-day expectations are fairly standardized from one company to another, the expectations of an EM vary wildly. In some companies you are a tech lead doing hands-on coding, at others you are a people manager playing the role of a career coach and are not too involved in a team’s delivery. I have learned that the ideal spot for me is in the middle of these two roles.
What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?
My day-to-day tends to start early as I have team members in India. The mornings are filled with attending standups for my multiple teams. The daily standups have become even more important with everyone working remote. I pay close attention to what blockers the teams have. These blockers generally include clarifications on requirements, waiting for dependencies on other teams, and new risks that came up during development.
The rest of the day is filled with various design and architecture meetings with the tech leads and PMs to hash out spikes and stories for upcoming sprints. For example, right now I am working with Kroger’s privacy office to understand upcoming changes in privacy laws such as CCPA/CPRA, so that I can turn those into requirements for my dev teams. Once I gather the business requirements, I translate them into technical requirements on a confluence page with the first few levels for a C4 Model for Software Architecture. In progressive refinement sessions with my team we refine the design with sufficient detail for the dev team to create stories and start implementation.
In lieu of tracking my work on Jira, I diligently manage multiple to-do lists. Management roles involve constant context switching, therefore keeping track of action items and discussion topics becomes extremely important. Preparing for meetings is an important part of being a manager. In order to be respectful of others’ time and to keep discussions on track, for meetings that I set up I try to meticulously prepare and attach an agenda and any pre-read material.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?
As an engineer, I had a predictable daily rhythm with constant feedback and easily measurable work outcomes. Each morning began with a standup with work neatly tracked on a Jira board. Once a task was completed, it went through a code review process that provided invaluable feedback from other developers. In the EM role, my day-to-day is spent mostly in meetings, where it is difficult to easily measure impact on a daily basis. Therefore, I have learned to track my impact in other ways, by the number of meaningful 1:1s, the number of blockers removed for my teams, and active participation in meetings. The feedback loop is much longer for a manager, usually measured in weeks or months.
What has been the biggest surprise so far? Something you didn't expect?
As an engineer you never have to deal with fixing performance issues or interpersonal issues of others. As an EM, it is a big part of my job to ensure that everyone on the team is performing at the optimal level; often that includes giving regular feedback and more often than not having difficult conversations. When an individual is not the right fit for a team or his or her performance has suddenly dropped, this requires a lot of time and effort to resolve. I have come to realize that I actually enjoy coaching such individuals, especially when it leads to a big improvement. Training this muscle takes a lot of practice and the leadership classes I took in business school are a big help here by providing valuable toolkits.
What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?
Ask better questions. As a leader, others tend to view you as the go to person with all the knowledge and answers. A great leader can use questions to guide a discussion without being authoritative or prescriptive. There is an art to asking the right question at the right moment. There are questions best suited for early parts of discussion and ones that help narrow a discussion to its completion. A book I would highly recommend for new managers is “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger, which outlines strategies on how to spark creative discussions.
What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?
In my 1:1 coaching sessions I often ask developers where they want to see their careers go. This is a question that looks simple but one that most engineers struggle to answer. Therefore, I ask my direct reports who they are inspired by and to try and contact them to get advice. If they are celebrities this will be difficult, though you may be lucky and get a response! On the plus side, a high profile individual’s career path will be public and you can watch their interviews or listen to podcasts to learn how they got to where they are. I find it is best to find people who are a few rungs ahead of you in a potential career path. By talking to as many people as you can, you will find patterns in how people got to where they are and you can start to emulate those best practices.
Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?
You can find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kothakarthik/