As part of this year’s Engineering Leadership Summit: Virtual Edition, we spoke to Katie Womersley, VP of Engineering at Buffer. She discussed strategies for stepping up and leading without a title. Below is an excerpt from the fireside chat portion of Katie’s session, edited for length and clarity.
Hillary Nussbaum, Content Marketing Manager, Code Climate: I’m here with Katie Womersley of Buffer. Welcome to the latest session in our Engineering Leadership Summit. Do you mind introducing yourself and telling us what you do, and how you got where you are?
Katie Womersley, VP of Engineering at Buffer: Absolutely. I’m Katie Womersley. I am VP of Engineering at Buffer and we do social media management to help marketing teams be more effective and save time with their social media. I have been at Buffer for five years. I joined as a Software Engineer during a phase of self-management, and grew with the company, and helped us get to the place where we are today, which is a engineering team of around 40 folks]. Our fun fact is that we are 100% distributed, no offices anywhere, and have been from day one. That’s something that we’re kind of known for.
Let’s talk about the transition at Buffer from not having managers to having managers, and what that looked like. What did that shift make you realize about the role of a manager?
We didn’t have managers when I joined, and it was sort of the holacracy model of working, which is not a bad way to work, but it wasn’t working for us. Probably because we hadn’t implemented it quite right. And the shift from not having managers to having managers wasn’t a case of, “Okay this isn’t working, you all need to be managed.” It was a case of the engineering team actually being quite unhappy. I speak for engineering because that’s where I was in the organization, and people were experiencing problems like, “I don’t know how I can grow in my career and get promoted. There is no one who can really advocate for me.”
It was very difficult to make progress on well-coordinated efforts and have more impact, because everyone was doing their own thing. We actually had the experience of two teams organically forming and making really fantastic features, which was a big self-management success, but these two teams built exactly the same thing, so of course that was a massive duplication of effort at a small company. We were only 15 developers at that stage, so this was really not a great thing.
I think I was on five different teams in the first six months, and I noticed that the problems I was helping the teams with were things like, “We have a really unstable product roadmap so we’re never making any progress and it’s extremely frustrating. The minute we start going in one direction, somebody else has another idea and then we all change,” or, “It’s really difficult for me to figure out how to grow in my career, it’s really difficult for us to address team dynamics that are dysfunctional. I have a coworker who’s honestly not doing anything and it’s very stressful. I have to work really, really hard but there’s no one to give this person feedback, there’s no repercussions.”
So I kind of went around, just as an engineer, kind of, “Okay, let’s put together a document that we can use to advocate for you getting a raise. Let’s see if we can get these goals to be a bit more stable.” I don’t mind having a conversation with so-and-so, and saying, ‘Listen, you’re really affecting all of us…” So I started doing these acts of service, I would say, and after a couple months, I went to the CTO and I just felt I needed to tell him that I wasn’t coding quite as much as he probably was paying me for. And I just, out of an honesty principle, needed to inform him. And he was like, “Yeah, the self-management’s not working. It’s not. We actually need these kinds of activities done.”
And then I became the first Engineering Manager, and we sort of moved away, as a company, from not having managers. It was very much driven by the employees. We had a couple of really brilliant people leave and just say, “This is utter chaos. I’m not growing. I am not achieving what I want to achieve.” That was a massive shock to the organization, losing really talented people because they just weren’t getting a good work experience. A productive, meaningful, impactful experience.
That really knocked into me the sense that management is an act of service. You are there to make things smoother, better for your coworkers and for the company. You need to bring that value, otherwise, why would we have you? We would just do self-management. Self-management wasn’t unworkable, it was just frustrating. So I have this idea of like, “Well if I’m not valuable as a manager, or if the engineering managers that report to me don’t bring value, that’s a problem.” Engineers don’t need managers to survive. You have to bring that value because there is a viable alternative, in my mind, of self-management.
That’s really interesting, and that’s a unique perspective — managing as an act of service. I think that’s really great. You’ve written a bit about the difference between leaders and managers, and a lot of what you were talking about doing was stepping up and leading without that title, right? You weren’t a manager but you were performing these functions.
Tell us a little bit about the difference between a leader and a manager.
Leadership and management are very, very different. Leadership is a very broad category and I personally believe that everybody can, and ought to, exhibit leadership in their personal lives and at work. I think it’s a wonderful quality. Management is a very specific kind of job. It’s sort of like the difference between creativity and then being a graphic designer.
Leadership would be things like speaking up and sharing your ideas, giving feedback to other people. There’s no reason you have to be a manager to be able to say, “The impact of this on the project is that we’re going to miss the deadline, and that’s frustrating to me.” Anyone can say something like that. Being able to lead by example, I think, is a wonderful thing that many engineers, especially more senior engineers, do. And actually most of the leadership in successful organizations is not done by managers. It is done by individual contributors modeling the culture, interacting in a way that is praise worthy, helping each other, being collaborative.
Management is a really specific nuts and bolts subset. If somebody really doesn’t do their job, you’re the person that needs to sit down and say, “This is the expectation, this is what you want to do.” If it doesn’t get better, you’re the one that’s actually going to have to trot out the script and say, “Today was your last day and we’re firing you now.” These are the specific things that the manager job function does.
But management is a tiny subset of the overall leadership role, and there are many, many ways to embody leadership. What we really want, in an engineering organization, is a lot of senior leaders as engineers leading, setting technical directions, making decisions, being very empowered. And then a relatively small number of managers that are keeping a project on track, running formal processes that need to be run, booking vacations. Doing a lot of these administrative tasks, these career development tasks, and aligning various stakeholder goals. That is a very specific manager job.
If you want to be a leader, management’s just one way of doing that. And I would say it’s a very rigid, narrow way of doing that. Many leaders are going to be more impactful, and I think more successful, leading through other avenues, like being the super influential Staff Engineer that everybody asks, “Well, what do you think?”
What advice would you give to somebody who is an engineer and wants to become more of a leader? Or someone who’s a manager and wants to be more of a leader, in addition to doing the other job functions that you mentioned?
Well, leadership is really adding value to your organization, so that’s what you need to do. My advice would be to look around you at the most immediate possible level. People tend to make the mistake of seeing leadership as this huge mountain that’s far away. Look around at your immediate environment — maybe that’s your project, maybe that’s your team — and see, “How do I add value to the organization in an immediate way?” Maybe there’s a more junior developer that you notice just isn’t really getting a lot of investment. Act as a mentor to that person. That would be leadership. That would be adding value.
It needs to be opportunistic. You need to add value to the organization, but I can’t tell you how because I don’t know where exactly the opportunities are. I would say look at your immediate surroundings, look close to home. See where there’s something that it would be great if somebody did something about, and then try and be that person.
A lot of people get held back because they worry, “Who am I to do this? Who am I to speak up? Who am I to make this change? Who am I to go and re-write some documentation that’s confusing? Maybe I’ll step on toes. Maybe I’ll offend people.” Get over it, is my advice. Very few people are going to actually perceive it as, “Who are you to do that?” And if that does happen to you, that’s kind of the price of leadership. That’s why not everybody does it.
That’s really interesting and I think you’re right that people are held back by that fear of, “What if I step on someone’s toes? What if someone feels like I’m intruding on their work?” How would you say someone who’s doing this might know that they’ve gone too far? Are there any red flags or any things that might signal to somebody, “I should step back?”
It’s a really good question. You can expect some friction when you’re stepping up, but if your relationship with somebody is really degrading I would say maybe you’ve gone a little bit too far. The thing is, people tend to not go nearly far enough, so it’s really like, try to make the other mistake. Try to actually step on some toes. It’s unlikely that you will because most people, especially in engineering, tend to be introverted, hesitant, and we don’t tend to make this mistake. But I would say if you are making this mistake, chances are you won’t be making it with just one person. You might notice that all of your relationships are kind of struggling, or you’re getting friction on a lot of different fronts.
If that’s happening, my advice would be communicate what you’re trying to do, and I think that’s good in general. You can say, “Hey, I’m trying to work on my leadership skills, so I’m speaking up more.” And then the other person will be like, “Oh it’s not that you hate me or think I’m incompetent. You’re just trying to do this thing.” So I would say be really explicit. Say, “I’m working my leadership skills, so I am looking for people to mentor. I’m not trying to undermine the Tech Lead.” And then people will be like, “Oh okay, that makes sense.”
And if you do notice that you’re having friction in a lot of different areas of your life or a lot of different relationships, it may be that you are kind of taking over a bit. And in that case my advice would be don’t panic, drop everything, and retreat back. Just have a conversation around it. Say, “I get the sense that maybe I’m taking over a little bit. I’m trying to lead.”
And I got this advice from our CTO Dan — I had a very heavy-handed meeting facilitation style and he was like, “Katie, it’s like you walk into a room, and you turn off the music, and you make everyone sit down, and then you’re like, ‘I have an announcement.’ Maybe try and be more fluid about it.” And I think the reason I got that feedback from him was I told him, “Look I do find facilitating meetings a bit challenging for me and I feel like I don’t really know how to do it. I’m a bit hesitant, so I might overshoot the mark there.”
I find it can be helpful to tell people, “This is the thing I’m trying to do. This is the skill I’m trying to build,” and invite them to collaborate with you on it. Like, “Please give me feedback on how it’s going,” rather than not telling anyone, and then when you do overstep the mark they’re wondering what’s up with you.
You’re talking a lot about communication, which is an important skill for anybody, but a particularly important skill for a manager, for a leader. Are there other skills that you think are particularly important to hone, or other general practices that somebody who is leveling up in their leadership should adopt?
Yes. Self-awareness. The more senior you become, as a leader in general, the less likely you are to get any feedback. And the feedback you do get is less likely to be helpful. You’re more likely to be praised by people because you are now becoming influential and they will want to impress you, they will want your good opinion.
As you get more and more successful, more and more advanced, you’re also more likely to stagnate because people are not going to tell you what you’re doing wrong, they are not going to give you helpful feedback. They are going to give you generic praise because they want you to like them and they want to impress you. Don’t believe it. It’s very, very important from day one of your leadership journey to try to hone your self-awareness and try to understand: what are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? How are you going to continue to grow and develop as a leader?
They say power corrupts. Management’s a kind of power. Leaders also have a lot of power. If there’s a staff engineer on the team who thinks that another engineer really sucks, chances are that engineer’s career won’t go that well because people really trust this person’s opinion.
So the real question is, how do you make sure that power doesn’t corrupt you? And I think the answer to that is self-awareness. You’re now in a position of power. All people in positions of power will get praised, whether they’re great or whether they’re terrible. And you need to figure out what is actual praise, and what is, “This person just wants me to like them,” praise.
And then at a very tangible level, get a leadership coach. It’s the best thing I ever did. I’ve worked with a bunch of different coaches. This is someone who will try to figure out, “How do we call you on your bullshit,” for lack of a more sophisticated term, and who will help you to build that self-awareness, and to have an accurate view of your strengths and your weaknesses.
And when you say leadership coach, is that a mentor in the organization that you seek out? Is that an outside party?
Pay a professional. Hire someone. It’s like if somebody were to say to me, “Katie I really want to do an Ironman,” I would say, “Well have you thought about getting a personal trainer?” And chances are they’ve interviewed a bunch of personal trainers. This is a personal trainer for your career. You pay this person, they work for you, and their job is to call you out and to make you better. If you’re serious about your career, then get yourself a career personal trainer. You don’t have to do this, of course. It’s totally fine not to. But I think it’s a really smart investment in yourself. People tend to think that only executives get executive coaches. I think that the kind of people that end up executives are the kind of people that got coaches early on. They got coaches when they were like, “I don’t know how to become a Senior Engineer, and I’m going to get myself a coach.”
Mentors in your organization are also good but that’s a completely different skill. That’s somebody that’s going to help provide you with organization-specific knowledge and advice. They are not going to necessarily be responsible for developing you as a person. This is somebody that has their own job, their own priorities, and that’s a very different relationship.
Got it. That’s fascinating. I want to ask you one more question. I’m curious, a lot of what you’re talking about I can picture very easily how it would happen in person. Not that it would be easy, but it’s a little harder to envision how one might take these actions on a fully remote team. Can you speak to that a little bit?
It does depend on your organization, and I believe that being completely remote has a fairly level playing field because everyone is operating in the online office, the virtual office. Everything is being done over whatever your chat platform is, over email, over video. I think that this is most difficult in the hybrid situation, where there is a main office that a lot of people are going into, but you’re not one of those people. And there you need to work a lot harder to make sure that you have connections to the various people that you need to be influencing, building relationships with, getting opportunities from.
My advice in that case would be to really invest in relationships with the people that matter. Identify in your organization who is influential to you. Who has influence that you want to build a relationship with? They can help you see opportunities, they can sponsor you for big projects. Sponsorship means I will speak up and say, “I think Katie would be great for this project.” And then also identify — who are you planning to influence? Maybe that’s a more junior engineer that you think, “Well maybe I can really help be a mentor for them.” Invest in those relationships. Message them, set up recurring video calls.
And the other thing is, make sure that you have a good relationship with your cross-functional peers. A lot of people, when they think about leadership, they really focus on, “I want to influence the people on my team, the people more junior, all the rest. And then I want to impress the people above me.” The people you really want to impress are the people next to you. These are the people who are going to say to their boss, “Oh yeah, this engineer actually is really great.” The Product Manager might say, “I love working with Katie.” Then that Product Manager’s going to tell their Head of Product. That’s going to get back to the Head of Engineering, or your Founder, or whoever it is, and that is way more credible for you, as a leader, than trying to impress that kind of person up the chain directly.
So I would say don’t worry too much about up-the-chain influence. Worry about your sideways influence. Work really well with designers, with other team leads. If you are an Infrastructure Engineer, make sure that you have great relationships with the Senior Engineers on product teams. Make sure that you have that kind of sideways network, because that’s where the real influence tends to be.
And I would say with remote, it’s more of a case of identifying that really specifically. You have to say, “This is the person that I’m going to build a relationship with. I’m going to set up the weekly meeting,” because you’re not going to run into them in a casual fashion. It requires you to be a bit more intentional. It’s not at all impossible.
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