For our series, 1:1 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 with Tara Ellis, Manager, UI Engineering at Netflix, Brooks Swinnerton, Senior Engineering Manager at GitHub, Gergely Nemeth, Group Engineering Manager at Intuit, and Lena Reinhard, VP of Product Engineering at CircleCI.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation with Mathias Meyer, Engineering Leadership Coach and former Co-Founder, CEO, & CTO. Mathias shared his thoughts on working with coaches, and the difference between influence and authority. Edited for length and clarity.
For Mathias’s advice for early-career engineers, visit the Codecademy blog.
Tell us about your current role, and how you got there.
My current role is a little complicated because I’m in the middle of a sabbatical. I’ve been coaching engineering leaders and founders — folks who’ve had a similar trajectory as I’ve had —and working with startups here and there. Previously, I had several roles. One of them was CTO at a company out of Santa Monica, Reaction Commerce, which got acquired earlier this year. Prior to that, I was founder and CEO of Travis CI, a company in Berlin. Both had fairly distributed teams.
At Travis CI, I started out as an engineer and without any aspiration to be a CEO at some point, to dive deeper into management. I started out focusing on infrastructure and automation, and always had an interest and a knack for debugging production systems. Some of that translated pretty well into a growing company that needed some sort of leadership and eventually a certain level of management. Over time, we split up these responsibilities, and some of them ended up with me. At Travis CI, the title of CEO came along with them. As it is with a founder role, it was all over the place, focusing here for three months and then focusing there.
Leadership and management just became interesting over time, with interesting skills and personal traits to learn and sharpen.
What skills did you already have that were helpful as a manager, and what did you need to work on?
I would say I probably didn’t have any skills to speak of. We were five co-founders, and we were all engineers, that’s just where we came from. What I had was an interest in organizational behavior, organizational psychology, and company culture. Those things existed in my mind, but they weren’t things that I had practiced in any way.
The other thing that I mentioned previously is a knack for debugging, which is a handy trait when you’re a manager. It was the one thing that I brought into that role that I was good at that was very useful. The rest was just years of working with a coach, years of talking to other founders and CEOs, and learning while failing a lot of the time as well.
What do you see as the role of a manager? Does it change if that person’s managing a team, or managing a department?
I do think the role changes. When you manage a team, your concerns focus a lot more on your team. You know what their priorities are, what their personal growth paths are, how they support the organization and the business, so on and so forth. You focus a lot on the people that report to you. As you move away from just managing a team and towards managing a team of teams, your focus is a lot more towards the horizon.
When you’re an engineer, most of your focus is on what’s right in front of you. When you’re a team lead, you look a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months ahead. But as you move further and further away from the action of actually writing code, you focus on more strategic things like having a strategy in place so that your entire team knows what’s going to happen in the next 12 to 18 months. Or you focus on budgeting and living up to these budgets, and interacting more with other parts of the company.
The further you move away from the engineering side, the more time you will spend doing things that have nothing to do with engineering. Not even what your team is doing, though you’re making sure that what your team is doing ties well into the rest of the organization.
Is there a difference between being a manager and a leader? If so, what is it?
I do think there is a difference. Simply put, I would say a leader can rally people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. That’s a useful skill for a manager, but you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. Having leaders on your team that are not managers is actually very useful because for you as a manager, that means you don’t have to do everything. Say you have a Tech Lead on your team, that is someone who can actually do that, lead, rally people around a certain thing, or Product Managers, those kinds of folks, those kinds of roles. Those are all leadership roles, but they’re not management roles.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for leaders? Not the logistical challenges that a manager might also face, but the more people-related, motivational challenges.
As a leader, you don’t necessarily have the authority that comes from the management role. I think every Product Manager will be able to attest that the most difficult part, or one of the more difficult parts, is to actually get people to do something when you don’t have the direct authority to tell them what to do. In a classic hierarchical organization, it’s always the person above you who has the authority to tell you what to do. So as a leader, you only have influence, you can only try to convince people that something is a good thing and something should be done, but you can’t just go ahead and tell them well, do that.
That kind of leadership, leadership by influence or suggestion, is actually a lot more powerful. If you can actually convince people that something is a good idea, or you can make them realize it their own, the effect is a lot more powerful than telling someone to do something. Because then they’re convinced themselves that this is a great idea, this needs to get done. They’re motivated to do it. This is where I think leadership and management are different things. If you as a manager can have the skills or learn the skills of being a leader, influencing people, convincing people, not just telling them what to do, I think that’s a very useful and powerful combination.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you are doing now. A lot of the engineering leaders I’ve spoken to have mentioned that they have worked with leadership coaches. What is the role of a leadership coach?
I can speak from my experience of working with a coach. A big part of growing in leadership and in management is growing yourself. Or as some people say, scaling yourself.
There are challenges involved in being responsible for first five people, then an organization of 20 people, and maybe at some point 50 or a hundred people that are very lonely challenges. If you’re somewhere in middle management, maybe you have a support group in your organization, or maybe you have a support group outside of the organization, which are definitely both things that I would highly recommend. But the higher up you go, the more lonely everything is, and the harder it becomes to find someone to talk to, to complain to, and to speak to about whatever personal challenges you face in increasing responsibility, or having to deal with frustrating people on your team.
It’s useful to have someone who’s impartial, whose only concern is you and not necessarily the organization as a whole, to provide an outside perspective, to be a sounding board, or to call you out. If you’re procrastinating on something, if you’re avoiding a difficult conversation, if you don’t actually know how to have a difficult conversation, a coach can help. They can give you ideas or pull them out of you so you can actually make it through what I like to call the crucibles of management, like having to fire someone, or having a difficult conversation with your co-founders, or with a peer in the organization.
Those things don’t come lightly or easily to everyone, probably not to most people. A coach can be a useful guide through those situations. It certainly has been for me. I’ve been working with a coach for five-and-a-half years, and it was probably one of the most impactful and useful things for me personally, to have that sounding board, to have someone to complain to. You can’t complain to the people on your staff, that would be wrong. But sometimes you just need to vent. Sometimes you just need to vent to someone, and then you can move on and you can figure out what to actually do about it.
For all that entire basket of things, it is very useful. Even if it’s just an hour every two weeks, which is the cycle that I’ve been in for a long time. It’s having this dedicated time that is only for yourself, which is something that most managers and leaders don’t afford themselves. They’re always in service of others, even though they themselves have challenges that they need to figure out.
How do you find a coach who’s a good fit? How do you know if they’re the right person?
It takes a couple of sessions to figure that out. Probably a lot of coaches will have an initial conversation with a new client just to see if there’s a general fit. It depends on what you are actually looking for. Some people say they’re looking for a coach, but they’re really looking for a mentor or an advisor. Someone where they can go, “I’m in this situation, have you experienced that as well? What did you do about it?” That’s more of a mentoring or an advisory role. Usually you figure that out in the first conversation, but I think just like with hiring people, it takes some time of working together. It doesn’t take a long time, but you do need a couple of sessions with a coach to just see if it clicks.
What advice do you have for new managers or people who are looking to shift paths and become managers?
I would refer a little bit to the other question for this, but something that I’ve experienced is that people from the engineering side sometimes look to management roles to gain authority, to gain that hierarchical advantage of being able to tell people what to do. I wouldn’t say it’s a common thing, but it happens. Some people are frustrated that they can’t tell other people what to do, and think being able to pull rank would be useful.
My advice to those folks usually is, that’s not how it works. Even if you do have the authority, people will not just go ahead and do what you tell them to, especially if they disagree with it, or if you can’t explain why it is a good idea. They might still do it if you can’t explain it, but they’re not going to be happy about it, and they’re not going to support the idea. Going into management to gain authority is not a useful motivation. If you go into management, you should have an interest in figuring out people. That’s really the most interesting and also the most frustrating aspect of management — you have to work with a lot of different people, and you have to figure out how each and every one of them ticks. You have to figure out ways to work with different people within your team, people who report to you and people outside of the team that might have more influence over something than you do.
Again, there could be a tendency to go higher up so that you have even more authority, but it will never change. It will never be different unless you’re maybe at the complete top. Even then, you can’t just tell an entire organization, “do that,” and expect that the organization will drop everything and just go for it. It’s just not how it works, and you still have to work with people. That requires patience. It requires curiosity. Be ready to interface with people a lot, and to be in a lot of meetings.
For more of Mathias’s advice for the next generation, visit the Codecademy blog.
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