Hello! What's your background and what do you do?
I work at the BBC in Salford, previously I have worked at Wunderman, College of Law and Playjam as well as Schroders Investment Bank (a career wrong turn for me) and Teesside University.
I initially studied Psychology and did a degree in this back in the early 90s. I drifted into software development via working as a research assistant in the Human Computer Interaction Lab at Teesside University. I shared my office with a developer who would only talk about Phil Collins and programming, so I started doing some programming so we would have something to talk about.
In later life, I did an MA in Design for Interactive Media - I was expecting to come out of this with the skills required to be an excellent designer, instead I discovered that I really enjoyed the programming aspects of the course, and have effectively been doing that ever since.
I have been writing software commercially for around 15 years, initially JS games targeted to Liberate boxes (Cable TV), then flash tutorial DVDs, then Interactive (Smart) TVs (they are not that smart, the computer processing in them is very poor), then Web and Mobile. I have worked across a number of different sectors, learning, games, advertising and media.
Now the systems I work on are largely backend, focusing around Search and understanding of user journeys across sites looking at ways we can use data we have gathered to create better experiences for our audience via Relevancy Engineering system.
How was your transition from software development to management like?
I started managing my first team in 2015. Up until this point I had been an Individual Contributor for about 7 years so felt I had “earned my stripes” as a developer. I was starting to take more of a leading role in the teams I was working in, stepping back from the problems, and allowing others to solve them with my guidance rather than trying to always solve them myself. This process of delegating out tasks, and often leaving the less challenging stuff for me to pick up allowed me to see the advantages of getting the team, rather than the individual to “level up”. Working in a small team, realising I couldn’t do everything, and learning to set expectations of other, more junior team members who I was working with meant I was more forced into a place where I had to do this. My manager at the time recognised the work I was doing and suggested that I apply for a management role as they felt that it would be a good progression for me.
When I got the role of Software Engineering Team Lead, I was hoping it would be an easy transition to managing, but I moved to a different team in a different building on a different tech stack. The only thing that was consistent was that I still worked at the BBC. In my mind, it wasn’t supposed to be a hard break, but realistically it had to be. I tried to keep up my code contributions but it became less and less possible as I was very conscious of the fact that I would pick up a ticket then get pulled into working on something else, so my tickets often took a long time to complete and I was aware I was becoming a blocker. So I started pairing with my new team, helping out with PR reviews, occasionally picking up non blocking work. This had the advantage of me really getting to know the team and understanding their approaches to problem solving.
The BBC is good, we have a lot of support for people stepping into Management, but there were still aspects that were difficult, the feeling that I still needed to be moving tickets to be productive was a hard habit to break (for a while my management tasks appeared on my team’s JIRA board!).
The team I moved to had a Product Owner who had previously been the Tech Lead. That felt a bit strange as my approach to the role was different to his and this did cause some tension. One thing that this did teach me though is that the relationship between Tech and Product is incredibly important and it is important to work as equals.
What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?
I am now a Software Engineering Manager for the Search and Navigation team - which at the BBC means that I am a manager of team managers. I look after four crews, and have direct responsibility for the Tech and Test disciplines. I personally manage six people, the tech leads, the test lead, and both the teams’ principals. My work with them largely revolves around setting personal objectives to help them with managing their teams and their career progressions.
The BBC has a digital arm (Design and Engineering (D+E)) that comprises around 700 staff. These staff are split broadly by product areas, and my team sits within the Digital Products group, which looks after News, Sport, Homepage, Bitesize and Childrens, Weather, Search and Core Services. Each of these groups is organised with an Engineering Manager who has a number of crews working in their area. Search and Navigation work spans across all of the products, including ones outside of our direct group (such as iPlayer and Sounds). Part of my role is to help manage and guide the conversations around technical approach across these areas, and work out how we might help teams to best work together.
I am also responsible for the overall culture of the Search and Navigation team. Over the last year we have, as a team, moved from working on solutions that others have brought to us, to working on problems. This shift in emphasis means that the teams are now more engaged with the work, and we are working more to our strengths. We also work in an InnerSource way, so external teams are able to work with us without relying on the people we have to actually write the code! As a team we are still finding our feet with this way of working, but working in “popup teams” with team members coming from across the organisations teams, centred around specific problems has yielded some great results.
I do not get an opportunity to write code anymore; I do occasionally help out with code reviews, and am involved in architectural decision making. I work on projects which affect the wider BBC D+E, coming together with my fellow Engineering Managers to help shape how we want the BBC to progress as a Digital Organisation. I am also involved in a number of activities aiming to promote gender diversity in tech and also to showcase the work that the team is doing.
I no longer have a JIRA board to help with my priorities list. I work with personal TODO lists, and balance these with team interactions via slack. I try to, as much as possible, step back and allow my team leads to do the day to day management of issues, but am there to step in if required. I help with decision making, if needed, and clarity of focus when required.
My diary is busy but colour coded, so I know at a glance what the tone of the meeting is. I have regular one to ones with my direct reports (weekly for newer leads, fortnightly for the more experienced) and weekly check ins for the crew leads to go over the upcoming work and get an understanding of how this will impact the wider group. My job is largely to have that bigger picture understanding of what is going on, and to communicate this to the teams in an effective way.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?
I think the biggest challenge I have faced is working with teams where there is a cultural imbalance. Many teams are ‘led’ by product, with tech left feeling that they are working for, rather than with product. This also has the effect that technical ‘debt’ or maintenance tasks are left in favour of product progression. Working with these teams to redress the balance, helping the technical leads find an effective method of communicating with the product teams and changing the culture around the team to bring problems rather than solutions.
I also really miss the control of the code. I have moved from a space where I had complete control of what I was doing on a day to day basis (writing lines of code) to being in a place of having much less control (working with people) but perhaps more input into direction. I think that it is difficult to put into words how hard this transition can be. Many new managers feel that they still can only add value with controlling situations. Sometimes you have to embrace the chaos and understand why it works like it does.
What has been the biggest surprise so far? Something you didn't expect?
I just think the amount of emotion that is involved. One of my tech leads put it nicely, higher highs, lower lows. Seeing a team working well and achieving gives you the reflected basking glow of a proud parent. It also means that in a time of heightened stress (such as we are currently facing with COVID-19) you have to be more available, more human, lead by more of an example, even if that means admitting you have weaknesses.
What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?
When someone accuses you of micromanagement, it is usually because they are not getting their own way! Being called a micromanager is a massive flashpoint, especially for new managers, after all, that is not what we are trying to do, but nine times out of ten you are not micromanaging.
Talk to the people you manage regularly. Regular one-to-ones will help the team to build up a rapport with you and build trust. These should not just be with the people you manage, but also your peers, so include catch-ups with Product, Project, UX etc.
Trust is so important. If you trust your team, and your team trusts you, you will achieve much more.
What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?
Technical leadership is a lot less about getting to make technical decisions and much more about making room so that other people can solve the problems in front of them.
When working on code we have full control of our environments, and can affect them directly. Be comfortable with the fact that you will no longer be in a place where you are in control and can focus exclusively on one problem at a time. You will find that you will most likely have to focus on many things at once. Make time and plan when you can. Try not to be too reactive, take time to think if you need it!
Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?
Please do get in touch if you are interested in Search Relevance - I am trying to build a Manchester based community - and am hoping to organise a Manchester based Search meetup in the near future .