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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Moving from Technical Contributor to People Leader with Lena Reinhard

Moving from Technical Contributor to People Leader with Lena Reinhard

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Lena Reinhard about new skills that are needed when moving from an individual contributor role to a people leader, communicating outside of engineering and the layoffs in tech.

Key Takeaways

  • A definition of culture that makes it tangible is the behaviours that are rewarded and punished in the organisation
  • Human skills training is important for new leaders in technical teams
  • Success in a leadership role is very different to success in a technical role
  • In a leadership role you need to connect with your stakeholders outside engineering and work to truly understand their challenges
  • Diversity of thought and perspectives is key to creativity in teams, and brings a healthy, productive tension which needs to be navigated


Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today, I'm sitting down across the miles with Lena Reinhard. Lena was a speaker at the recent QCon San Francisco on Hybrid and Remote: how do we start making change right now? I'm very privileged to be able to sit down and chat and we'll see where the conversation goes. Lena, a good starting point is who's Lena?


Lena Reinhard: Very happy to be here, first of all, thank you for having me, Shane. I'm Lena Reinhard. I've been in the tech industry for quite a while now and I've dedicated my career to supporting teams through high change and doing so with globally distributed organizations and teams that are trying to get better of what they're doing. I used to be software as a service startup co-founder and CEO and VP engineering for quite a while with TravisCI and CircleCI, for example. Now, I work as an executive and leadership coach and organizational consultant, speaker and trainer, and very excited to talk about engineering culture today.

Shane Hastie: Thank you. What does a good engineering culture look like?

What does good engineering culture look like? [01:40]

Lena Reinhard: You're just going right forward, aren't you? I like this definition of culture that I heard a couple years ago that culture is the behaviors you reward and punish, and most of all because it makes culture so much more tangible. Good engineering culture I believe first of all has to be aligned with the values of the organization. Then, it's like engineering sometimes tends to be a little bit of a subculture or operate in different ways from the rest of the business, but there's this sort of alignment with the greater company values, company direction. I think that's one key point.

I think honestly, the rest is a little bit up to the people who are working in that engineering team. I don't think that the culture of a series A startup should be exactly the same as one of a giant corporation. That actually would probably not be a very good sign. I do think there are a couple tenets to what makes a good engineering culture in my perspective comes to, for example, continuous learning and improvement, strong feedback culture, a very strong alignment against solid strategy and vision as well as clear mission to align people on clear goals and expectations, a culture that also cares about people as humans and not just as "resources," and that's ultimately a lot of the traits that lead to building high performing teams that are important for just also getting good outcomes when it comes to engineering work. But there's the science and there's my perspective, but there's also just what organizations actually need for where they're at and where they want to go.

Shane Hastie: A lot of our audience are people who are moving into leadership roles in that technical environment for the first time or considering the move from being an individual contributor, maybe from being a specialist engineer, an architect moving across into that, roles that incorporate at least some people management. My experience is in many organizations, this is done very poorly. We take the best technologists, we make them the worst manager, and we give them no support and training. How do we avoid that?

Supporting new leaders with human skills [03:42]

Lena Reinhard: Oh, I love that question. My background is a little bit unusual in that I'm not an engineer. I dabbled in it a bit, but in any organization I've ever worked, I was always the worst engineer on staff. That's not just because I worked with incredibly smart people, but also because I was just very bad. That also means that I'm coming from a management and people-focused perspective and I never had to make the choice between do I keep being an engineer versus do I switch over into people management.

To your question, how do we fix that issue, I think the first part, even as before how companies set up roles and responsibilities and that is in do organizations truly value "soft skills, people skills," and do they actually understand how crucial those are to the functioning of an engineering team? Because I think that is the root of a lot of these issues that we're seeing, for example, with how you described this path of this fictional engineer who actually isn't very fictional. There's a lot of those out there in that deck.

I believe that many organizations still think that the only thing it takes is exceptionally good technical skills, and that is to a certain point true, but also once you're more than, say, five people on your engineering team, that's not going to be enough anymore because then you need to have communication, coordination, people who facilitate, people who handle change and ambiguity and all that, and those are all soft skills. I believe, first of all, organizations acknowledging that those skills are important, that they're valuable and that they're needed for your organization would be the starting point.

Career paths for engineers [05:11]

Then, I think the second more essentially the structural question is how do career paths look like? I have worked on my first career growth framework for an engineering organization in 2018. At the time, there weren't a lot out there. That's changed fortunately, and I'm seeing more and more that have a split between an engineer career path that goes from junior over senior staff to principal and then eventually essentially CTO role, and on the parallel track with people management role that starts with a team lead, engineering manager, director, VP. That's kind of the classic setup and I'm seeing more and more of those, which I think is great. There are still a lot of nuances there, but I do think this acknowledgement that yes, managing people is a distinct skill. It requires distinct experience, it also requires willingness.

For a long time, what you described has been happening in that people essentially had to choose moving from an engineer role to a people manager track because it was the only way to A, get more money, B, get more recognition, and C also move up in the organization. And so, I do think things are trending in the right direction, but the underlying question of how much do we value people's skills is still not entirely answered everywhere.

Shane Hastie: As a new manager, what are the changes I need to make? How do I find my groove, I think is the term you used earlier on when we were chatting?

Success in a leadership role is very different to success in a technical role [06:31]

Lena Reinhard: One big topic that I see with a lot of engineers I've worked with and new managers as well, so my clients now is figuring out how to feel successful about your work because a lot of folks come from coding a lot, doing a lot of technical contributions, maybe collaborating, peer programming, and then suddenly you are in meetings all day, you're meeting all these business people who have very specific ideas for how things should work. You're spending a lot of time just talking, chatting, and at the end of the day, you may feel like you got nothing done.

One big factor in that is that what also tends to fall away is the dopamine hits from actually shipping things, checking items off your to-do list, and so even from a neuroscience perspective, there is a factor here where our bodies may not be working in our favor. And so, essentially, you're dealing with a lot of work now that's much more ambiguous, a lot of management projects take forever to get done. You may talk weeks, months to see things through.

And so, one of the big things I always encourage folks who are new to these roles, think about what success means for you because one part is of course, you at the end of the day feeling okay about the work you did, feeling like you got things done, feeling okay, I did a decent job. The other part is then, of course, also how do other people view your work, are you moving into the direction that's expected for you. I found the internal part is easily overlooked.

The couple techniques that I've used with folks there is one, just keep a record of what you're doing because just at the end of the day, seeing here are all the things that I did can at least give you a sense of, okay, I didn't just sit around all day and do nothing. Another part can also be thinking about what you enjoy about this work. What are the things that you get joy out of? What are the nice moments that you have? Like, "Hey, I was able to help someone with something or I got positive feedback from someone." Write those down because they're so easy to forget, but they can make a huge difference in just how you feel about your own work.

Then, the other part, just sort of more the external view is also speak with your manager about what are their expectations and not just expectations at a really abstract high level in the sense of, "Oh, you own delivery for the team," but what does that actually mean? What are concrete goals that you have? You have something that you can work towards that's ideally concrete and quantifiable in some way. And so, this whole thing of feeling successful in your role as a new manager, I would also say give yourself time, be patient with yourself, because it's going to take some adjustment. You're coming from something that you know how to excel in which is engineering work and you're moving into territory that's very unknown for you and that's going to take some time to get used to to figure out how to actually get good at those things.

At the beginning, a lot of things may feel very awkward or at least not very fulfilling and that doesn't necessarily have to mean that the role is wrong for you, but it's just a very different way of working and a different way of seeing the world and thinking about the world. I would also say figure out how much time you're giving yourself. Usually, I found that between three and six months of adjustment, it works for most people and that they're starting to get into things and feel like they're actually getting a grip on the new role and also find some support throughout that. Find a mentor, a sponsor or if there are some great Slack communities out there for engineering managers, or you can find community, just make sure you're not going through this alone.

Shane Hastie: One of the aspects of that role is communicating with people who probably do think differently, the communicating with business people as opposed to with technologists, how do I adapt to that?

Communicating with people outside engineering [10:04]

Lena Reinhard: That's something that a lot of engineering leaders struggle with quite a lot as someone who came from the opposite side of that spectrum. I've also been the engineering leader who at some point was like, "Well, we've got to do this thing because engineering says so and you've just got to trust me." Just obviously not a really great line of argument, but I've been there as well. I think one big part honestly is just understand the people that you're working with and that sounds very basic, but it's actually going to usually go really long ways. Genuinely try to understand it when they're asking you questions about typical things like when is this thing going to ship? When can we roll it out to customers? Why is it not done yet? Here is the feedback that we're getting, what's happening with us?

A lot of engineering leaders tend to either go into very vague answers. It's like, "Well, we're working agile, we're not doing that” or “we're not sure yet." It's basically not giving people anything specific. Start with genuinely understanding your stakeholders. A big part of that is understand their motivations. Where are they coming from? What are the problems they're thinking about? What are the challenges they have in their domain from engineering and what are the things they would like to see more of and try to genuinely understand what is on their minds because it's going to take you from a potentially adversarial relationship to one where you can actually partner. That's something that I would recommend, spend a lot of time on actually getting to know those people and their concerns.

The second part is also adjust your language. Business people, like many of them, especially if they're working in tech companies, they actually understand tech pretty decently, at least at a rudimentary level. We're not talking about the have you tried turning it off and on again level of tech understanding, but they generally know the domain. But usually, the biggest thing they're looking for is impact in the sense of work is visible, work is usable by customers, work is at least in a state where it can be tried out by their teams and they have something they can potentially show in the sense of demos or at least the slide deck and now it's like that's impact, and impact is ultimately of course the thing being shipped as well, but that's only the last step of that process.

And so, figure out how you can help them first of all understand the impact of engineering work. Learn to think about business metrics. I highly recommend if you can take a basic class in business, business metrics, things that are important there or read a book in that area, do it because it will again help you understand how these folks think, and then adjust. It's like engineering work is usually any refactoring project, any feature that you're building, so the ultimate goal is to achieve business value.

It's so easy to forget that, especially if we're talking about some maintenance investments or so that we figure out what that business value is. Are you trying to make things more stable? Are you trying to increase reliability, improve visibility within engineering so that things are easier to fix when something goes wrong? Even with these engineering internal investments, think about the impact and convey that, because ultimately that's the language that we should all be speaking as people in a business anyway. Those are the things that we should be thinking about and use that as sort of a common denominator and a way to talk with the people who are working in different domains and have different backgrounds from you.

Also, honestly, utilize their expertise. There is easily a bit of, I would say many engineering departments have a bit of a special standing in organizations and then it's usually the highest paid employees, they're employees that are hard to recruit and retain. They're really essential for the success of the company and all that, which also means that there is often a bit of a power imbalance between engineering departments and the rest of the organization. But on the flip side, the folks outside of engineering have great expertise. They're subject matter experts in their respective domains and make use of that. Ask them what they're seeing in the market, what trends they're hearing about or what they think would be important.

Just because engineering is a critical function of a tech company doesn't mean it's necessarily special, and I do think there's a great opportunity in making use of everything our colleagues know, especially when they're not engineers. That ended up being a very long-winded answer, but it's something that I would love to see a bit more of us just thinking more about impact overall.

Shane Hastie: We've all seen the studies that talk about the value of diversity in teams and that diversity of thinking across the broader team.

Different perspectives in teams results in better outcomes and can create tension [14:30]

Lena Reinhard: Different perspectives are also going to lead to more tension. They're going to lead to more conflict because you're not just going to have everyone working in unison at all times and thinking in unison, but that kind of tension is also a prerequisite for innovation, for thinking outside the box, for leaving your trotted path. One great example of that is why for most organizations, it makes sense to have a split between a product manager and an engineering manager role because there is some tension already built into how these roles are set up between product managers owning the big picture, the why, and engineering driving the how. There is a tension and that tension though is ideally giving you the best outcomes you can for the business. And so, I think bringing more perspectives into the way that we work and that we ultimately also define what we're going to prioritize is going to lead to better results.

Shane Hastie: Switching topics, we're early in 2023. There has been the blood on the floor, the massive layoffs that have been headlined in the last few months. What's happening? What's going on in our industry and where are we headed?

Factors influencing the layoffs in tech [15:35]

Lena Reinhard: I think the part in what's going on is interesting because there's so many factors that go into this. I wrote a blog post explaining a little bit all the factors that go in. I think it's about 20 or so overall. It's a quite complex situation. Also, I have a background in finance and so, these kinds of topics are exceptionally interesting for me. I think one of the biggest factors is VC funding, which is driving and fuelling so much of tech and especially tech growth. We have seen a lot of exceptional growth over the last couple years, a lot of companies with unicorn, so over a billion dollar valuations. For a while, there's been a bit of a suspicion that some of that may be inflated, but also, money has been very cheap. Interest rates were very, very low. And so, funnelling a lot of money into tech was at the time easy way to get your money into something that would at least likely bring you some profits.

These startup valuations exploded, but at the same time, we've also seen a lot of funding that went into startups from like, well, these probably don't have a super sustainable business model, and they probably got a bit more money than they should have gotten. At the same time, the whole advertising business has been struggling. A lot of companies like Meta or Google, for example, are relying a lot on advertising to drive revenue, but at the same time more privacy protections for consumers have been put in place, which I personally think is a good thing. Then, advertisement spending has been falling as a result of not just that, but among others.

Then, there's, I think honestly for many companies what we're seeing now is just that they made bets that didn't pay off and now employees are paying the price. For example, e-commerce companies really benefited from the pandemic from everyone being at home and shopping from their offline stores being closed. Many bets kind of hoped that the effects that they saw in terms of revenue growth over the last couple of years would last. They hired accordingly, but now that stopped and that also means that some companies over-hired, because of course, and I think that's in my opinion, one of the biggest factors of them all. We have the pattern matching.

No one in tech wanted to miss out on the potential of things continuing the way that they've been going for the last couple years. They didn't want to be the ones that then would be asked by their investors, "Well, why didn't you hire more people?" Now that the trend is continuing, and on the flip side now, I do think a big part of the layoffs is also just pattern matching. It's like essentially founders and executives not wanting to have to answer to their board, why are you not laying off when everyone else is doing it, when everyone else is being cautious and when everyone else is just downsizing? That's sort of mostly on the macroeconomic side.

The other part is in how companies operate. I think the pattern matching is a big issue that we're seeing in tech overall. I think you alluded to it earlier as well. It's also very easy to get rid of employees. That's at least in the US with, for example, at will employment labour is a very, I would say, flexible cost item in your budgeting sheet and saying, "Okay, we're just going to lay people off," is very, say, non-consequential. I do think there's also part now where a lot of companies are exercising just caution because of a lot of macroeconomic uncertainty. Interest rates have been increasing. There's still supply chain issues as a fallout of the COVID pandemic and there's politically still a lot of unrest. There's still a war in Ukraine. And so, at the moment the questions of how is this year especially going to go from an economic perspective globally, there's a lot of uncertainty.

The uncertainty in the tech industry will continue for a while [19:08]

To the second part of your question, that was a lot of factors in terms of what to think about and what does it mean for this year, I do think we, in the sense, leaders in tech, people in tech will just deal with a lot more uncertainty for a while. I'm sure we'll also see more layoffs. I don't think this has been the end of it. I do also think in terms of if you say, "Hey, I want to keep a bit of an eye out for this. I'm interested in this topic, but I also don't know where to start." I have the points that I just laid out in terms of macroeconomic factors. You can keep an eye out for that, take a look at how are interest rate's developing, what's happening with VC investments. There are pages where you can see that.

Plus, I have a blog post that I wrote about these economic conditions and you can see all the things that are playing end-to-end, and you can watch out for this just to get a bit of a sense where is tech evolving and especially if you're in a higher level leadership role, that kind of stuff is important for your work anyway because it will likely impact your company sooner or later.

Shane Hastie: Lena, really good picture of some of the background on the why there, but if I am either laid off or I'm a leader and some of my team are laid off and some aren't, what do I do?

Ways to address the efficiency push [20:17]

Lena Reinhard: At the moment for a lot of companies, this means thinking about efficiency. There are still a bunch of hiring and growing, I don't want to negate that, especially in earlier stage companies, it's still relatively easy-ish to get funding. Things may not change for you if you work for example in a series A or series B startup, especially for later stage companies, thinking about efficiency is a big one and big topic for the next year. What that means is efficiency refers to usually particularly doing what we're doing, but in a way that's with the least cost and time and other resources that we have available as possible. It's efficiency and thinking about that means first of all, just you can start with an assessment of your team. How is your team working in the sense of what money are you spending each month to get things done? What software are you using? What tooling, what do those things cost? What are your processes like, and getting a big picture of your team and how they're doing and then speaking with your boss about that.

A big component of that for many engineering teams can also be just toil work. What are the things that have to be done somewhat repetitively that you can automate away over time where you can have engineers and their precious time just be spent on other things that are more valuable. I would also recommend speaking with your team about this and essentially workshopping together. There is of course, when you're having that conversation, I would always advise a little bit of caution and I don't necessarily want to lead with, well everyone's doing layoffs, so I'm trying to get us more efficient to avoid that happening here. It's probably not the best pitch, but being open with your team and saying, "Hey, we want to get better at what we're doing." For example, if your company's just laid off people, that can also be a reason to think about this.

Then, speaking with your team and getting their ideas, what options do they see or opportunities do they see for automation, for reducing cost, for stopping to use some tooling that you don't need anymore, for improving the way that you're working overall as a team. I do think that efficiency focus, it's good practice for any leader anyway. I think especially right now in this current economic situation, it's even more so. A friend of mine wrote recently that inefficiency is an opportunity for great engineering work. I think that's especially true now in particular, if you run an infrastructure team or a team that has services that are using certain infrastructure, figure out what that actually costs. Running technology, I think especially in cloud environments, is exceptionally expensive. It may be that through great engineering work, you're able to actually save a lot of money for your company and also do great engineering work in the process to get you there.

Shane Hastie: Thank you for a interesting and wide-ranging conversation. If people want to take this conversation forward, where do they find you?

Lena Reinhard: Thank you. You can find me on LinkedIn, Lena Reinhardt, as well as on Twitter at least for a couple more weeks. We'll see how long. I'm @lrnrd. I also have a website,, where I write regularly about engineering leadership and management topics and have a newsletter there as well that you can sign up for. It's a monthly thing with a topic that I talk about. Thank you so much for having me.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.


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