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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Whatever the Challenge – it’s Always About the People

Whatever the Challenge – it’s Always About the People

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Satish Jayanthi CTO of Coalesce about building communication and collaboration skills, avoiding burnout and helping managers facilitate, help and motivate their teams.

Key Takeaways

  • The hardest problems dealing with data are people issues, not technology
  •  Helping people build collaboration and communication skills is an important part of growing people
  • Burnout is a real and significant risk for data professionals
  • If you're a manager, your main job is to facilitate, help and motivate your people not to monitor how much time they are spending on the keyboard
  • There are indicators to look out for which can warn of stress and burnout


Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Satish Jayanthi, who is the CTO of Coalesce. Did I get that right Satish?

Satish Jayanthi: That's right,

Shane Hastie: Welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Satish Jayanthi: Oh, thank you for having me here.

Shane Hastie: My standard starting question for my guests is who's Satish?

Introductions [00:28]

Satish Jayanthi: My name is Satish Jayanthi. I am CTO, co-founder of Coalesce. And my background, basically, I started my career as a programmer a long time ago, then switched to DBA, as a DBA for a startup. That was my first time getting into the data space. So when I was working there, I used to get a lot of data requests from the business and it got to a point where it was kind of overwhelming for me and started looking into how I can address that in a more scalable fashion. That's when I encountered the concept of data warehousing. And since then I've been in the space, played different roles, wore several hats, engineer, architect, consultant, manager, but that has been my experience.

Shane Hastie: So we've grown from data warehouses to data lakes to I don't know what the current massive mega data, what would one call them? Data is, in my experience, one of the hardest elements to get right in information technology, and yet it sits at the core of everything we do. Why are we struggling?

Data management is a hard problem in information technology [01:39]

Satish Jayanthi: Yeah, that's an excellent question and it's been that way it seems like forever, right? First thing, it's not a static target. It's not that there is something that is static that we are going after. It's dynamic in the sense it's a moving target. Every time we solve one problem from a technology standpoint, there's other things that come up. For example, we used to work with smaller data volumes at one point and we've increased the compute capacity and we said, "Hey, now we can compute and process reasonable amounts of data very quickly." Then before we realized our data volumes went up like a hundred times more. So the problem is still back to the same thing pretty much because your compute capacity went but your input is now huge, just as an example.

But it is definitely more than technology that makes this a big challenge. Technology is one thing, but I believe it's a pretty common thing across the industry that everybody knows in the space that you need people, you need process, you need technology to be successful. And I think the people part is definitely disproportionately the harder one in this big puzzle and that's definitely a big struggling point for a lot of organizations. Now, once you have some handle on that, then there's the other pieces that come into play, the process and the technology. But I think these are the pillars of success and that's why it's kind of hard. It's not just the technology that would solve the problem.

Shane Hastie: What are we looking for in those people? What are the inherent attitudes or specific skill sets?

Skills needed for working with data [03:14]

Satish Jayanthi: The hard skills, for example, if you're in the data space, your data engineering skills and some experience in that, it's all important. I mean, it gets pretty complex once you get into the weeds of this thing. So that's a given, but that's not enough to be successful in my opinion. Because it's not some science experiment that you're running, right? It's not like you're locked into a room and okay, figure this out and just kind of working your way for whatever you're doing. It's not that, especially with data. As you've mentioned before, data is everywhere. Everybody in the organization, it's more and more like that, everybody in the organization has to interact with data in some fashion.

So what that means is the engineers who are pretty skilled with the technology have to have a lot of skill in terms of working with other people. Not only with other engineers, but working with business people, working with leaders, and understanding the goals. So it's one of those skills where it comes down to collaboration, communication, being humble is important. Just because you learn some technology doesn't make you any different than any other person. So we got to respect that. And it goes from the other way as well, like business people in how they're communicating with engineering. But to answer your question, some of the skills are those, like the communication is key, collaboration skills are key. Of course the technical skills are a given because that's why you're in the job in the first place.

Shane Hastie: Most technologists don't come into the workplace with those collaboration, communication skills, and humble is something that we often see as missing. How do we help them get there?

Building an environment of collaboration and communication starts at the top [04:56]

Satish Jayanthi: It starts at the top, for sure. For example, speaking of our own company, how we hire, I pretty much always, always focus on the potential of a candidate rather than the pedigree. You could have done so many things in the past, which is all great, but I want to see how you fit, what you can do from now on. How do you work with other people? How do you respect other people? How do you build that integrity, credibility, and all of that? I actually focus a lot more than that. I can take somebody who has not a lot of experience, but I see these other traits in them, such as willingness to learn, you have to be a curious person, constantly wants to learn. Listening skills are important, very, very important.

These are all kind of common sense things, but this is what you should be focusing on when you're hiring, not just like a Java experience or JavaScript experience. I mean, those are all kind of important. So that's what we do. That's what, when we look at people, we're looking at, as a whole, what kind of person is this person for that role? If there's a leadership role, then it's even more important. Because as a leader you're going to have a larger impact on the company. You're going to bring people that might think like you. And if you are not aligned the culture, then it's very risky because it's now you have a multiplier effect. If you're good, you'll bring five other good people. If you're not aligned, you'll bring five other people who are not aligned. So that's going to be very detrimental to the company.

Shane Hastie: So that's in terms of hiring. How do we grow those skills?

Invest in growing collaboration and communication skills in people [06:28]

Satish Jayanthi: So it starts with hiring of course. And again, it's growth maintenance, or whatever you want to call it, but you definitely have to invest in that as a company. You have to invest in your employees, their skills, their strengths, their weaknesses, their goals. That's extremely important to listen, constantly listen. As a manager I think that's what you should be doing. Listen, listen, listen, right? And understand how is your employee base getting excited? What motivates them? Where do they want to go? Do they want to improve their communication skills? I mean, if you realize that they are doing everything great but they need some help with communication or they need some help with other things, you have to facilitate that and make that happen. And they should be part of the organization culture and growth program like that. I mean, again, it's very hard when you're a startup because there's so many things going on. So the hiring piece is very, very critical. But as you become mature as an organization, you have to take these processes into consideration. How do you grow your employees in a more holistic way?

Shane Hastie: And touching on something that we mentioned in the conversation before we started recording, one of the things that you've raised is burnout in the industry. What's happening and how do we help?

Build relationships and cultivate allies to bridge gaps [07:44]

Satish Jayanthi: This goes back to the same underlying things that I was talking about earlier, which is there's people, there's processes, technology. I mean, the intersection of these three things is what happens in the real world constantly. Now if you miss any one of those, you're going to have a problem. And that manifests itself as, in this case, it's a burnout or whatever that is, people just leaving the company or whatever. From a people standpoint, the communication between business and IT, this has been a standard problem. So that has to be addressed. And I've provided some examples in the past on how to address those. For instance, from a people standpoint, if you're an IT leader, if you're a data leader, you need to find champions in business units. You need to kind of build these partnerships with people who can help you out. But you also have to come and reach out to the business and see if you can partner with somebody. The more partners you have like that, the better it's going to be because that's how the communication builds.

I mean, you're not always going to find an opportunity to talk to the CEO constantly. That's not going to happen. But there's going to be a leader somewhere in the business who is really struggling with something and who is like-minded, who wants to partner, and you got to build that partnership. So that's the people part of it. And once you find that and you understand the business objectives, you understand the goals, you understand the challenges, then comes the technology. I mean, what type of technology is available out there to solve these problems? Are our tools outdated? Are we going to modernize our stack, simplify our stack? Do we have too many tools? So that's next. But then there is the other piece, which is the process. You have great people, you have great technology, now the processes becomes very, very important to scale. Otherwise, whatever you put in place, you might be excited for a few weeks, few months because of the latest technology, great people working with great technology, but then if you don't have a process, I can guarantee that people will get burnt out. Just because that excitement wears away pretty quickly and you start seeing problems and problems, and that's where there's a high chance that the employees can get burnt.

Shane Hastie: Well let's delve a little bit into that process area. One of the motivators that Daniel Pink, for instance, talks about is the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose. How do we balance autonomy with good process?

Balancing process and autonomy [10:17]

Satish Jayanthi: Everything has to be balanced well, right? I mean the real world is everything has to be balanced. I think none of these work by itself in extreme ways. So the autonomy basically, again, when you are constantly engaged with your own team and you're listening, you would kind of understand what type of a person they are. Everybody's different. How do they feel respected? What does autonomy mean for them, right? Does that mean "Don't tell me how to do it, I'll do it"? Or does it mean that, "Hey, let me talk to the business directly and understand the problem myself. You don't have to be in the middle every time." Whatever that is, you need to understand. Everybody works differently. You can't fit everybody into the same thing, same mould. I think that is important. And assuming that these people can work with other people and all of that, and then on top of that, you're giving that freedom to engage more deeply with the business. That will motivate people.

Because if you always stand in the way that, "Hey, everything has to go through me," you become the bottleneck. And they also may not feel that they're that important in the organization, and that's a bad mix. There's always have to be a overall process that everything should fit, and that process can be established by taking input from everyone. Now, don't force a process on anybody, understand, have a healthy debate, get to the bottom of something that you want to set as a process, and once you all decide, then it becomes much easier to stick with it. And of course, leave some room to fine tune the process because the process may not be the same forever because things are changing around it. But if you have to balance, you have to do it in that way. I mean, you've got to involve all the stakeholders in these. It's hard. It's not easy. It's definitely hard. And that's why it takes so long and people give up or people just get too self centric and then they lose track.

Shane Hastie: Let's explore what you've done in your own organization in terms of building that culture where people do have that balance of autonomy and process and relationships and engagement and so forth. How have you built that?

The role of managers is to facilitate effective teamwork [12:28]

Satish Jayanthi: We are still relatively a small company, new company, and our hiring has been the biggest piece of the whole puzzle here. So we always get the best of the best people on the team to start with. And from there, my partner and I, we are on the same page regarding what our organization culture should be, how everyone should have the freedom to share opinions, debate and feel respected. So those are all the things that help each other out. So all of those things are in our principles. The structure, the organization structure is important, but it shouldn't be viewed as a way to take advantage of something. Rather it should be viewed as helping other people for them to succeed. If you're a manager, your main job is to facilitate, not to monitor how much time people are spending on the keyboard. That's not the goal of anyone.

The main thing is, "Hey, is my employee or my colleague blocked by anything? Are they not happy?" It could be even a personal thing in their life that could be happening because everything, work affects life, life affects work. So it's all in the same thing, you have to address in the same way, pretty much. So again, going back to your question, the hiring piece is a big thing and our top leadership aligned on these principles is a super, super important thing. We all kind of keep talking about how important it is for our employees to have this kind of positive environment every day. We want people to look forward to come to work. We don't have to tell them to work. They should be motivated to work by their own. And so far, we've been very successful. Now as the company gets bigger and bigger, we growing very fast, it becomes harder. But we are aware of it. That's the good thing. We are aware of it. I personally have experienced it many, many times. I can see the red flags, at least watch, keep an eye on for those red flags. So that's how we do it so far.

Shane Hastie: For somebody listening to this, you've just mentioned red flags. What are the sort of red flags they should be looking out for if they're trying to create this safe culture in their organization or their team?

Indicators to look out for [14:41]

Satish Jayanthi: One red flag could be the engagement, how engaged they are in anything, like in the organization. I mean, these days people are working remotely and we are all on Slack. You could see somebody who's not engaged at all. This is just an example. We don't do this internally or I'm not saying this is the way to do it, but I'm just saying an example is if somebody's not engaged, they would probably not participate in any discussions on Slack for some time. And as a manager, you shouldn't approach that alarmingly, you shouldn't be going after them, like "What's going on? Why are you not doing?" But instead, you should kind of understand what's happening. Why is that? Is that because they feel like it's a waste of time engaging in this or is it something else going on? And you have to have that conversation.

It's not necessarily, I wouldn't call it a red flag because a red flag indicates that it's a bad thing. It's more like an indicator that is helping you to kind of saying something is going on, look into it and understand. There might be a valid reason for that, but this is just one example. Or it could be something that they have said to someone and it hurt their feelings or just not having a good day or whatever. So you need to understand what that, as a manager, as a leader. I mean, those are some examples that I'll be watching out. If you're constantly hearing about somebody, that they're not being a team player from multiple people, then you need to see what's going on.

Shane Hastie: How do you amplify? How do you make things better as a manager?

Managers need to be constantly communicating with their teams [16:09]

Satish Jayanthi: As a manager, I think, again, listening is a big, big thing. So if based on what you understand from your employees, where they want to be, what they want to do, what they get excited about, if you can create or facilitate for them to achieve their goals, that would be the best thing to do. That's when people get super excited and they will continue that state of high motivation. And this has to be done in several ways. They say performance reviews and talk after a few months, once in a while, I'm not a big fan of those formal performance review meetings and so on. You should be having pretty regular touch bases and some fun events and some team bonding events, and that constant engagement, as long as you can maintain that throughout, it'll automatically work as a push. If you have these gaps in communication, that's a problem because now you're losing track of what's going on. So it's important as a manager to have that continued communication and understanding both their frustrations as well as their excitement.

Shane Hastie: That is quite a significant commitment from a manager.

Satish Jayanthi: It is.

Shane Hastie: And again, this is, how do we teach our managers to do that well? Most of them may not have that as an inherent skillset.

Satish Jayanthi: Then they shouldn't be a manager. I strongly believe that, actually. It's not for everybody. See, the definition of manager has always been like, people think you manage people. The way I think is if there's someone in the company that needs to be managed, that person doesn't belong in the company. Nobody needs to be managed. Everybody should be motivated to do something. Because if you think as a manager that my job is to manage these five people, you're a bad manager already. You should be looking at, I need to facilitate, help and motivate them. That's it. That's the only way. Given the environment that we have today, like the remote environment, all of that, you can't possibly be measuring or monitoring people like that. That just doesn't work and doesn't scale.

Shane Hastie: Facilitate, help and motivate. Those are very different skillsets.

Satish Jayanthi: Yeah, they are. They are different skillsets. And management is not easy, and I don't claim, I'm not a management expert or anything, I just go with my intuition and feel and with what I felt when I was not a manager most of the times and how I felt left out sometimes, I felt like my opinion was not heard, I was stressed. I was in some good environments, some really bad environments, but all of those experiences, my personal experiences have just kind of taught me what is a good environment. It's not that I went and took a degree in management or I don't have any psychology degree or anything like that. This is just based on my intuition, my interaction for a long time, that's for sure. For more than 20 years. And how I feel as a person and how I want to be, how I want to feel, and that's the feeling I want our employees to have. That's how I approach this.

Shane Hastie: Satish, thanks very much. Some really interesting points there. If people want to continue the conversation, where would they find you?

Satish Jayanthi: Well, they can reach me at my LinkedIn account and also they can email me anytime, I'm available.

Shane Hastie: Wonderful. Well, again, thanks very much.

Satish Jayanthi: Thank you.


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