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Jean Hsu: Hi,Juan Pablo. Thanks for joining me on Lead Time Chats today.
Juan Pablo Buriticá: Thank you for having .
Jean: Let's just dive right in. So the topic we wanted to talk about is just this topic of like becoming a manager, becoming an engineering manager at a high growth startup. And what that experience is like you know, often there's no guardrails, very little support. So what are the common pitfalls and mistakes that people make when they're in this position? And then how might they avoid them?
Juan Pablo: Right. So this is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart because.
Jean: [laughs] Let me guess, you were there.
Juan Pablo: [laughs] Yeah, I was. There was a time where I was like, I'd never want to be a manager. I just want to write my code so just leave me alone and don't talk to me. Eventually, I just completely flipped. It was like, okay, I'm going to throw myself in. It seems so. So, the first thing you probably should know if you want to become more, or if you have become a manager, at a startup or want to work at a startup is that startups are not places where you get people with a ton of management experience, early stage startups, right? It is unlikely that someone who has a ton of management experience, specifically engineering management experience, will join an early stage startup unless they either founded it or they're lucky, like Range, to have someone like you. For example, right, we know like it's not having managers of any range, even at a startup, is uncommon.
The most common pitfalls that I found myself in was dismissing the need for management, right. For someone who is focusing on specific problems that are different from engineering. Right. But, but have a huge impact in engineering, right. Specifically around the goals and the impact of the goals of what we're trying to achieve.
Right. You know, early stage startups are burning cash, trying to learn really fast, or faster than half the market, and decision-making at where to devote that engineering effort is critical for whether you're like spending. So, I’ll give you an example, I was talking to a startup that was chosen to use Kubernetes in a really complex way to deploy their environment and I asked him how many users they have? He was like, “oh, we're not live yet.” I was like, “well, that's why.” Right. That is a management decision that someone should be making at some point, right? You have technical leadership, but it is, it is a business decision of where to devote some of that, some of that attention.
And so one of the first pitfalls is dismissing management, dismissing the importance of managing management very early. And over-indexing on how cool it is to learn with technology, which is super cool and it's super fun, but our responsibility is not to use someone else's money to learn, right? At least not on those angles.
Jean: So there's this like rush to, to deliver or build or execute. And so like funneling all your energy towards engineers, doing stuff, rather than getting some alignment or some leadership or management upfront and making the right decisions.
Juan Pablo: Yeah, it's sort of like sorting impact, right. Which is it's hard to do without authority. Right? You have to either be very influential, especially in an early stage startup. You have to be extremely influential to say, “Hey, look, I have all this experience already,” which is unlikely or be very, very good at laying out the ground and why you should make certain decisions that will positively impact the business.
Cause that's, that's what we have to always come back to. Like, we're, we're a business to be fun and cool. And we're locking in ties and things, but we're still trying to produce business outcomes.
Jean: So, say you’re in engineering, so say you're in that environment where like, The general vibe is, you know, deliver, execute, work on these cool things, but like, you know, you're not live, but you're, you're kind of hiring you're, you're burning through cash. If you were to become an engineering manager in that kind of environment, what are the challenges you might face?
Juan Pablo: Well, that's a great question. It's a difficult one. One of the first questions is when are the first challenges you'll face if you've never been a manager. Yeah. The trust from your peers, from your poor former peers or from your team on like, all right, well, like why are you the boss now? Or why are you totally in charge? Like I have to do that right.
The first time I became a manager or sort of like promoted or not promoted because we know it's not promotion, but I was given the role because I kind of took it right. I was like, look, this is a mess. Let me and I had to. Lolly all my peers like, Hey, look, this is a mess. This is a mess. I can help this give me a chance and eventually I earned the trust and they were like, cool. And then, then not giving me more trust, but that's one of the biggest challenges. The second big challenge is when. Especially in startups is when we start running against our early startup infrastructure or lack thereof, right.
Where we wrote the code because we had to go live. And it's what we call a lot of technical debt. Right? We made all these decisions for the sake of finding market product market fit. But finally we get Saudi, we get there or our product, or we've reached the limitations of the expense of our product. And we have to take care of these things and lobbying.
Or influencing the organization to sort those things out is really challenging. Learning how to have the right language is sometimes we'll start saying like, Hey, there's technical debt and we have to rewrite this. Why? Like we have to rewrite. It's like, we can't do anything. It'll be better and really be better and yeah, we're going to take three months of doing nothing, but it'll be better and we'll do more. Well, talking to her is very un-intuitive. It's like, it doesn't make sense. Why, why? And so learning how to translate from the business to engineers. Yes. That's fine. Bounces on how to not rewrite everything or migrate or start from scratch or will these things that sound super cool, but not having succeed.
And then at the same time, Be able to talk to other business leaders and give context into why this is important. And w without even talking about the technologies that are underlined, no one needs to know about microservices or services or whether Postgres it's also the business. We need to invest in our website because the loading, this is one I use the loading time for our landing page is seven seconds. You want to invest all this money in growth marketing, which is going to go straight to the drain in seven seconds. Right? And so we need to do all these very complex things with some of our front end technologies so that we can reduce. That time and there are shortcuts, but it'll impact the experience and the impact these then we'll make the decision, but the ultimate goal is so that, that money that you're investing in gross marketing can go really, really far. And so our product can advance further. We don't just want to play with new versions of whatever the latest front end farmer is. There are decisions, and that is also why focusing on.
The business goals despite yeah. We're going to play with cool stuff for nerds, or at least I am. And we'd like learning and we're motivated by learning, but, but the confidence management. Is, is done through that, right? Th th that we're always keeping the business in focus and we're talking about business outcomes cause that's how we get out of those sort of cycles are like, Hey, all you want to do is just invest in infrastructure and investing in infrastructure. When do we get a product or business? Like it's, it's not it's not a us versus them. It's together.
Jean: It seems like there's one part that's like the pitfall is not communicating well, but then it seems like to communicate well, you also actually need to have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the business of where, like engineering, how this stuff fits it. Right. You need to know like, Oh, the seven seconds, you know, they're putting a bunch of money in growth marketing.
That's just going to go down the toilet because people are going to get to the seven, second loading and then drop off. Right. Your conversion rates are going to be like close to zero. And so how do you, like, I think, especially as engineers a lot of IC engineers don't need to have that information for a long time.
Right. They kind of have it already. Things are vetted. Things are like, already having buy-in from other business leaders by the time they're working on it. So like, how did you find, like, what was an effective way for you to start gaining this? Like. Knowledge of how the business works, how all the different functions fit together.
Juan Pablo: Right? So we're, we're attaching a really key part, which is in larger companies. You can maybe get away with not really understanding the business or the levers of the business, because you can be working really far from it, right.
Jean: Right. You've got a PM, you've got an engineering manager, you have a director by the time it gets to you and you're implementing stuff, it's decided that's the thing.
Juan Pablo: Yeah. And, and if you do want to advance in your career, then one of the ways that you do it is you learn about those things. But in startups, you're kind of forced right? In one of the most illuminating moments for me was when I started having those, the language, like the cost of acquisition, the law and the lifetime value, the cohort, like when I started just spending.
Part of the business. Right. I was representing engineering and I got invited to places where engineering should always be. But isn't because sometimes these teams are set up as consulting agencies, right? Like you're in front of the consultant. He's like, Hey, we know what the solution looks like, so just build it for us.
And yeah, you can build it with whatever cool stuff you want. But this is how it's supposed to look like. And, and sometimes that works right when you're trying to replicate someone else's business model or you're trying to do sometimes,
Jean: Right. You have something that, you know, has product market fit, for example.
Juan Pablo: Right, but I've learned that having engineers closest to users closest to the problem is what really. Changes the game. Right. It really puts people like, okay, so here's the business problem. Here's how users are impacted. And here's like with all my technical chops, what I can actually do to change this, I can sometimes, yeah, I'll build an admin or I can use just like an air cable here with an API and it'll give you a lot of flexibility.
And so yes, on one end you have a pitfall. Not understanding of the business is a common pitfall for engineers as a whole, right. We are really overly obsessed with software for a reason, right. That in some cases it's what drives us to keep learning and keep reading and keep, but it, it. It creates a blind spot on why software is so powerful.
Why building software is so powerful and why it can be so impactful with, with, with similar effort, what other
Jean: pitfall pitfalls or common mistakes have you seen kind of like first time engineering managers make in these situations?
Juan Pablo: I think the first one I always like telling is the first mistake I made the second day I was a manager. I committed my team to a deadline without talking to my popular team last week.
I was saying like, no, there's just too much. We're not going to hit it next week. Of course absolutely will. Those are common, but, but another.
Well, one of the challenges is as a younger manager at a startup, is that a lot before Camille's book the managers? A lot of what we learned about management was through oral tradition, right? Like income being in companies where someone kind of knew how it worked and when managers who knew migrate to other places and they sort of like to see that this, but it wasn't oral tradition.
And so not. Looking at the manager's path as a career, as a side, it's a completely different set of skills that you need to develop. This is a common pitfall, right? Cause we, we sometimes default to things that are really easy for us, right. Are comfortable. And when we're first time managers it's really comfortable and easy to stay close to the code to make technical decisions, to not delegate all those things.
But we know. Well, you're now responsible for the people who are, who are in our team and their growth and that they understand the business and the way that we should understand the business, that they're actually solving those problems. So instead of spending an hour writing code, maybe you spend an hour learning about the business, right?
Those are, those are the trade-offs that you're, you're not making it. And separately there's a whole series of roles. Earliest stage startups don't hire for that. You still need to build an effective organization like HR, like talent acquisition like, and so if you want to be effective or how I've been effective is taking.
A lot more of those hats. Especially when, when I'm thinking about building well-represented organizations and maybe either traditional HR consultancies, aren't going to be, aren't going to be there. Somebody like set some of those policies myself or, or set out a sourcing strategy, be out there recruiting and that, that becomes my job, especially if we're growing.
Jean: It sounds particularly challenging because if you're growing into this role, it's not like you're growing into it at a huge company where you have your manager telling, you know, giving you mentorship. There's maybe like internal management training, there's other, peer groups you're kind of thrown in and you have to put on all these other hats that are maybe beyond what you know, frontline engineering managers would do at a larger company.
So you're kind of. Doing a lot more.
Juan Pablo: You have no blueprints and no support. You probably have no, no peers or peers in the similar situation. And you also have a range of folks reporting to you with a broad set of experiences, some who have been with good managers, some who have never had management, some who have received feedback, some who haven't and.
And it's really, really hard being a manager at a startup as much, much harder because you don't count without that support framework. And you will, you don't know what you don't know, especially if you're just getting started. And so even fighting support, this is very fast.
Jean: What do you find effective for folks like that where they don't maybe like, you know, a lot of high growth startups, the founders. Are not known to be great people managers, right? They're like their product or their maker is. And they, they, they don't, they certainly can't mentor a new manager on how to be a good manager. They haven't yet hired anyone. That's why this person is being kind of pushed into management. So like where does someone like that find support or.
Juan Pablo: So there's a couple of places. Well of course I hope they are watching this cause this is the first, this is, this is a great first Introduction to this. And I know you've written a lot about management and so there's, there's a few reasons, right?
Lara Hogan has written a lot about like management. I'm going to just pour it. You have Camille's book the matter's out. There's a few online communities or socks where people can join and start at least finding what they don't know. Like throwing out questions. Like, yeah, no I'm lost and we'll get a lot of support.
One of those is the engs manager Slack run by Cate Houston. And there is a lead deaf community as well, which kind of writing and, and there's events. I will say that anytime folks are reading about anything related to management, the context of whether this is at a large company versus not really, really matters because a lot of the writing, a lot of the, when you get a chance to like, yeah, well, look, here's how we did it at Airbnb or Stripe or Medium or all these places. Cool. You're already big. And you had people who knew. Come and set, set up stuff. If you're a 20 person company, it's a very,
Jean: I mean, you may be a first time engineering manager and have to create a hiring process, create you know, comp comp system leveling. Right? Like those are all things that you could be a senior director at Google and never have to touch them.
Juan Pablo: Never. No, I was surprised. Right. Okay. How does what you never talked compensation? What. I had to set the bands for like and so keeping that in context is really important. Also finding cohorts of people who are in a very similar position, right?
Because then you start finding folks who have been there, have solved some of those challenges and collectively you can start Helping those, those, those problems. I don't think there's enough support though, for, for managers and in this space before we didn't have support for managers at all.
Jean: Yeah, eng manager material. Right. But it's generally like there's leveling systems. There's kind of more structure set up for, for those. I mean, the resources, there are kind of not, not with the assumption that you're kind of. In a high growth startup with no guard rails and no support internally.
Juan Pablo: Right. And especially if you've seen this happen in, in, in, in software, right.
You're like, well, Google has a MonoRepo. Okay. We're going to do them on a report. We have coordinators or whatever. Yeah, that happens with management too. And there's a famous case, right? Spotify, Spotify came out with these squads and things and everyone was like, Oh my God, we have to, everyone is all companies without conflict went all the way and started again and it's like, oh, this, this matrix management makes us slower. And why is this happening? It's well, No one, like, what am I hired? The person who invented agile coaching. Right. And they had all this infrastructure in tiny companies. Don't don't have it.
Jean: it sounds like one pitfall is like cargo culting things from other companies without thinking critically about is this appropriate for our company at this stage and, and kind of trusting your own instincts as just like you know, someone with common sense and judgment and just. Yeah. Like not, not just taking things with no con context or, or for like critical thinking correctly.
Juan Pablo: Yeah correct. Yeah. Context matters a lot. The outcomes. It's not wide. It's not that we're doing this because Spotify did it. It's like, why did Spotify, what, what outcomes they're looking for? How does that relate to the problems we may have or not? And then what are the pieces from there that we can learn from? Because of course that is extremely valuable, both learning about that's, that's how we, that's, how we all advanced, but it's being a little bit more critical around why we're importing these processes.
Jean: Getting clear about like, what is the problem? Like what is, what is the, what is the problem the company is facing and then how will this address it? And probably that would even then you just, when you're writing it out in a doc or something, you're just like, Oh, do I have any reason other than. X company did it, right? Like starting to be more critical about adopting these processes.
Juan Pablo: It's, it's being, taking a product oriented approach to your process, right. And piloting and experimenting and reevaluating lightly, whether it works or not.
Jean: Cool. All right. Thanks so much. I think this will be really helpful for engineering managers and also just people running companies, fast growth or high growth startups so thanks for, thanks for joining me.
Juan Pablo: Thank you so much for having me and good luck to everyone.
Jean: Thank you. Yeah. Find some support, external resources.