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

I have been a software engineer and leader for nearly twenty years traversing different industries including finance, media, edtech, and e-commerce as much as different languages including Visual Basic (I’m dating myself a bit!), C#, Java, Groovy, Scala, JavaScript, PHP, and Python. I have worked at companies like the Washington Post, Newsweek, Kaplan Test Prep, and Zalando and have lived in a number of cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, DC, New York, and now Berlin.

I received my bachelors in psychology at the University of Chicago and my masters in information technology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I currently oversee the Marketing Tech engineering teams at Babbel, the leading language learning app.

How was your transition from software development to management like?

Rough. I was haplessly promoted to a management position over ten years ago because I was one of the most senior members of the team and routinely mentored those around me. I neither received preparation nor training. I probably made every mistake in the book. For example, I didn’t fully appreciate the change in relationship with my former peers and continued to treat everyone as a peer. I went through many moments of loneliness, feeling like a failure, and outright depression. I learned early on to face everything with acceptance and gratitude -- even when it’s hard to do -- and forged on.

Fast forward to today after years of making hard mistakes, learning from them, getting lots (and lots) of coaching, asking for (and receiving) mentorship, taking advantage of every book or training opportunity I can get, I now am starting to feel like I have a pretty good handle on managing teams, on being authentic, on balancing trust with guidance, on having difficult conversations, on giving timely feedback. I have learned about servant leadership and situational leadership. I now fully appreciate in nearly every way possible that engineering leadership is truly a different job.

Furthermore, I have discovered the joy in it. I enjoy the greater scope and greater impact it can have on a business. I love giving opportunities to people who earn them. I get goosebumps at seeing a team come together and deliver beyond anyone’s expectations. And I look back at who I was many years ago and am thankful that I forged on.

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

My day-to-day varies a lot. One day I will be focused on objectives for the next quarter, the next day I will be doing one-on-one’s, and the next I will be removing blockers for my teams. Seeing my teams succeed and achieve something great is one of the best things to keep me going.

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

One of the biggest challenges for any manager is balancing the needs of the company and the needs of individuals in your team -- especially in the case of poor feedback. Sometimes you have to have difficult conversations. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy. People can find negative feedback literally threatening. I learned that it is important to de-personalize the conversation. You are not there to make judgements about them as a person; you are there to give honest feedback on behaviors and on team and company needs. If you are there not to attack but to enlighten and (hopefully) help, your candor will ultimately be welcomed.

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

What surprises me at every stage is how seldom leaders have all of the answers. I often talk to engineering managers, c-level leaders, directors, and VP’s, and they are often at best 80% sure that they are on the right track. Leadership -- like life -- is hard, and no one has a sack full of magic answers to everything. We are all doing the best we can.

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

When I got my first director-level position, my old manager told me that the gut response is to jump in and change a bunch of things -- either because you want to mold things in your own image or you think you know the right way to do things. Resist that temptation. Start by listening. Talk to people individually if you have to. Understand what they truly need, or fear, or hate, or love. Let them change you. And when you finally do make a change, you will echo what you have been hearing. And everyone will cheer you on.

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

I tell them that it’s truly a different job. Don’t expect quick feedback. Leading is not like getting your tests to pass. People don’t always do exactly what they are told. Teams will not always raise an alert when something is going wrong.

But I also tell them that software engineering is fundamentally about people. It’s not about writing code or deploying a patch. It’s not even about requirements documents or user stories. Software engineering happens when a bunch of people come together to make something impactful. And you get to be at the center of that.

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

You can connect with me by checking out my website, my LinkedIn, or my Twitter feed.

posted on September 16, 2019