For our series, 1 on 1 with Engineering Leaders, Code Climate and Codecademy for Business are speaking to managers and VPs about their career journey, leadership strategies, and advice for the next generation of engineers. Check out our previous interviews here.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation with Nitika Daga, Engineering Manager at Stitch Fix. Nitika spoke about helping developers learn from each other and being vulnerable as a leader. Edited for length and clarity.
For Nitika’s advice for early-career engineers, visit the Codecademy blog.
Hillary Nussbaum, Content Marketing Manager, Code Climate: Tell me a bit about your current role and how you got to where you are now.
Nitika Daga, Engineering Manager, Stitch Fix: I am currently the Engineering Manager for one of the merchandising engineering teams at Stitch Fix. At Stitch Fix, half of our engineers work on stitchfix.com, what you as a consumer would see, and then the other half of us work on internal tools. So my team owns the merchandising platform that our buyers use to place orders and track inventory. I actually started on this team four years ago as a junior engineer, so I kind of grew on the team and then got an opportunity to become a manager of the team, which is great because I have a lot of domain knowledge that helps me in my current role. Prior to this, I was an engineer at another retail tech company. That’s really what I’m excited about and passionate about and what I’ve spent my career in. And then prior to that was my first job out of school. I studied Computer Science at Berkeley.
Can you tell me a bit about your transition from IC to manager?
I got really lucky. I had expressed that at some point in the future I was interested in management. My ultimate career goals are to be a CTO one day, and obviously moving into management at some point is a prerequisite for that. And then my manager at the time left for his parental leave, which is four months at Stitch Fix, and we needed someone to step in during that time. So I got to kind of try it on, in a less pressured way. Usually you go into management and it’s hard to go back, but I got four months to see if it was something I wanted to do, and then after those four months I decided I liked it. My manager decided to become the manager of another team, so I got to move into that role full time.
What was it like starting to manage a team that you had previously been a part of?
It was interesting. Some things were really good. I had the domain knowledge. I knew the technology we were talking about. I could speak to it from experience, and then when doing things like estimates, I could say, “Yeah, that feels right,” versus, “I’ve never been in this codebase so I have no idea.” Some of the challenges were obviously going from being peers with folks to moving into managing those folks, and there’s some tension that can actually arise.
I’m really lucky that I have a great team and they never made me feel like, “Oh, this is weird. You used to be our peer.” They put their trust in me, which I really appreciate, because that could have been a big cause for imposter syndrome or just like, “Hey, I don’t actually think I’m cut out for this.” They never made me feel that way.
That’s great. What interested you in becoming a manager? I know you said your aspiration ultimately is to be a CTO — why are you interested in that trajectory?
I think a few things. One, I think I’m just interested in the impact that can have. You hear stories about how a good manager can make or break someone’s career, both at a company and then in tech as a whole. A lot of people just leave tech if they have bad managers. The second thing is I have found it really powerful in my career when I have a manager or someone in leadership who I can relate to and who looks like me. Stitch Fix has a female CTO, I have a fully female reporting chain, and I think it’s a little bit of like — you can’t want to be what you can’t see. Being that person for someone really inspires me to be an engineering manager who doesn’t look like a lot of engineering managers.
What do you see as the role of a manager on an engineering team?
I guess I see my role as two-fold. One is translating what the business needs at a high level into problems my engineers can solve and then clearing the way and enabling them to do what they do best and go out and solve those problems. My engineering team has way more technical knowledge than I do. So my job is to give them the problem and put it into a scope that they can understand and then let them run with it. I clear the way for them, give them the resources, make sure they’re talking to the right people, and they can go out and solve that problem for the business. The second part of my role is advocating for my engineers, whether it’s tactically for a promotion or an opportunity to work on an exciting project, or whether it’s advocating for the technical approach they have proposed and making sure all the other teams are bought onto it. Just advocating for them upwards and outwards.
Got it. Is there a difference between being a manager and a leader and if so, what’s the difference?
I think there’s a difference between being a people manager and a technical leader, and I think teams need both. This is something I learned the hard way — if I know the technical details of everything my team is working on, I’m probably not focused on the right things. That is not my job anymore, and so I need a technical IC leader, like a Principal Engineer who can be focused on the technical details and lead in a technical sense, where I kind of look at the future of what we’re building in more of the people management aspect of it. So I think they’re different but complementary.
What are the biggest challenges you faced since moving into a management role?
That’s a good question. So I transitioned into manager in January, so two months before COVID hit. So I’d say the whole time has been a challenge. Luckily one of Stitch Fix’s core values is, “Motivated by Challenge.” So it’s very much in the ethos of our company.
The biggest challenge for me is has been balancing compassion for my engineers as they figure out what their new normal looks like with homeschooling or sharing a space with their partner or having to move, versus being accountable to the business for deadlines. I’m balancing those two things and making sure my engineers don’t burn out while we’re still delivering value to the company. My first priority is making sure my team is happy and healthy and can take care of themselves and their families, but also we’re a business and I need to deliver things in order for all of us to keep having jobs.
Yeah. I’m sure it’s really, really tough. You’re talking about making sure developers are happy and healthy — how do you help them grow, both as individuals and then together as a team?
This is my favorite part of the job. Promoting people and helping people grow and achieve things they didn’t think they could do is so much fun. There are a few things I do. One is, I try to understand their aspirations. Something that’s really been clear in the last nine months is some people are just happy where they are. They’re not seeking that next promotion because there is enough going on in the world. So it’s about really coming to a common understanding, and giving them growth opportunities that are maybe still in their comfort zone and don’t stretch them too much. And then taking those engineers who do want to grow, and just giving them the right opportunities. Again, the technical knowledge of my team is stronger than mine, so it’s really matching them to the right opportunity and then letting them run with it within the right guardrails.
And then in terms of growing as a team, again I think it’s pairing the right people together. We do a lot of pair programming at Stitch Fix, especially now that we’re remote. So looking at the skills that I know a Senior Engineer has, and pairing them with the right Junior Engineer so that Junior Engineer can run and grow, and team members can lean on each other to grow their skill sets.
As a remote leader, how do you make sure you’re able to really understand what your team needs?
Stitch Fix engineering was 50% remote prior to this. I was living in New York earlier this year and I just recently moved back to the Bay, but only one person on my team is in HQ. Having more recurring one-on-ones and touch bases, and really leaning into async communication because we are spread across time zones. And then specifically for understanding how is the team working together and what do we need, we do retrospectives every sprint. I also really drive home the point that feedback is a gift for managers. We don’t get it that often, unless things have gone really terribly wrong. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s not working, and so I really work on building that trust with my team so they feel like they can give me that feedback, and then trying to get that feedback from different avenues so we can try new things and figure out what works for the team as the environment changes around us.
What advice do you have for new managers or for people who are looking to make the shift into a manager role?
I think one piece of advice I got from my current manager that I found really powerful was to lean into the vulnerability of being new at something. If you’re managing a team, it’s easy to pretend like you have all the answers, you have everything figured out. But I’ve been doing this for 9 or 10 months now and I’m still figuring out my management style and what works for me. Be upfront about that, let your team know, “Hey, I’m going try a few things out. Let me know if they’re not working until I figure out what’s working.” It lets your team know that you’re trying things out and that you don’t have all the answers. Being vulnerable as a leader gives your team permission to be vulnerable back to you, and that just builds more trust and you get better and more honest feedback that way.
So don’t pretend like you have all the answers. Do that figuring out in front of the team because it’ll make them trust you more, not less.
For more of Nitika’s advice for the next generation, visit the Codecademy blog.
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