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Team Management
October 6, 2020

Tandem Roundtable: Engineering Leadership at Tandem

Mercedes Bernard Engineering Manager
Chris Alvarado Engineering Manager
Kate Donaldson Engineering Manager

Tandem’s custom software engineering team works collaboratively to create products for our clients. For today’s Tandem Roundtable, our engineering managers (Mercedes, Chris, and Kate) sat down to discuss how they create opportunities for career growth, cultivate an inclusive workplace culture, and support each other along the way.

What is Tandem’s approach to management?

Mercedes: We have a matrix management style at Tandem where all the managers have multiple direct reports, but don’t necessarily work with those people on projects. Your career management comes from your manager. Our software engineers also have a technical team lead on each project, which is where a lot of your day-to-day leadership comes on client projects.

Chris: Mercedes kicked this whole thing off: she was the first official engineering manager, and I was fortunate to step into some great processes and documentation when I started at Tandem.

Kate: I think our management style is employee-centered in a way that focuses on employee needs, and it feels like a supportive, enriching part of being an employee here. Your manager is not worried about your pull requests, but is concerned with your personal goals.

Chris: Following on from that, I find our management style advantageous because it encourages managers to reach out to other team members to gather feedback, and to be a lot more engaged outside of our own projects [because Tandem managers are also delivery team members assigned to client projects]. It would be more difficult to stay connected to other projects happening at Tandem if I didn’t have people reporting to me who worked on those projects. Our management structure gives me a more holistic experience.

What are some challenges you’ve experienced as an engineering manager at Tandem? How do you mitigate those challenges?

Chris: Since we juggle varying needs, if there’s a need on a client project to support folks, sometimes it pulls me away from another project. Which is fine, but it means you have to do a lot of context switching.

Kate: When you are a manager here, you are also on the leadership team. All the company-wide initiatives, strategy, and larger planning stuff goes through us, which is great because we get a lot of autonomy and impact on the direction of the company — but it takes a lot of time. It sometimes feels like we’re doing three jobs.

I rely heavily on delegation. I like to be the workstream lead on a project, to understand the general concepts but not necessarily deliver all the code. You’re forced to let go of a little control to help the team be successful and support good relationships with the client. In the engineering field, often people who get promoted to manager feel like they don’t contribute code anymore but here that’s not true. Delivery work doesn’t have to be just code, and delegating big responsibilities to my team members helps them level up.

Mercedes: Your delivery responsibilities shift a little bit. If you are handling the challenge of the context switching, you can focus on the big picture: architecture pieces, the landscape of the technology used, and the roadmap, those things are easier to hold in your head because they move at a slower pace. You’re still super technical, but you shift from the micro to the macro.

I also guard my calendar: I stack my one-on-ones so if something runs over, the next person I’m having a one-on-one with knows what’s going on. This also makes the context switching between coding and people management less drastic. By protecting my calendar, I’m more able to pair with my team on daily implementation stuff.

How does the leadership team work together at Tandem? How do the three of you support each other?

Chris: We talk quite a bit on our private leadership Slack channel, plus we have a weekly sync meeting.

Mercedes: Any time one of us has a challenge, it pretty much gets put in that Slack channel so we can run ideas by each other, ask “what would you do?”, or get help editing a document.

Kate: We’re like a committee of managers. Whenever one of us has a concern about how to handle a situation, we try to present a united front so people get consistency in their experience with their managers. We share the responsibility of the engineering team together. We check with each other first.

Chris: In my career I’ve experienced various flavors of management, and this is a good one. As a team, we’re stronger when we’re leaning on each other for advice and thoughts. I feel safer and more confident in my decisions after having input from my peers.

Kate: We’re also doing a book club right now reading So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, because we want to improve the way we’re managing by being more aware of progressive issues, and equity, and the privileges we might have that are unexamined. So we have a list of three books we’re working through together.

As leaders, how do you influence Tandem’s workplace culture?

Mercedes: We all feel responsibility for setting the tone. Culture develops both from the bottom up and the top down… I’ve been joking with Kate lately that I use the term ‘shepherd’ a lot. We don’t set the culture and force folks to abide by it, but we try to cultivate the kind of culture we want. We’re responsible for hiring, strategic decisions, pay equity, so I feel a ton of responsibility. The rest of the company does too. We take suggestions very seriously, and we have an equal responsibility to listen. That culture is not something that just appears out of thin air. You have to tend to it.

Kate: There’s a practical application of that. We put all our core values assessments in hiring rubrics. We’ve listed what our team says is important, and we reinforce it through the way we gather feedback, the way we hire people: we’ve woven our values into the fabric of everything we do. It’s the most efficient way to get culture. We’re not having “culture meetings,” we’re baking the Tandem values in at the beginning and it becomes natural behavior.

Chris: Our core values are a part of our review cycle. We try to cite examples that demonstrate each core value, and that allows us to make sure we are setting goals or making adjustments and suggestions that are values-based. Basing everything on the core values helps remove subjectivity from our personnel processes, from hiring through review.

How do you support your direct reports’ growth?

Chris: During our review cycle, I take a serious look at the growth areas that are identified through peer feedback I’ve solicited, and coach my reports on setting goals around those areas that we can keep visible in our performance management system to track against. So one thing I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching and reading about is setting goals. I struggle with goal setting for myself. So, coaching people on how to do that effectively is a growth area for me! Whatever goal-setting framework you believe in, the overarching theme of most of them is that goals should be relevant, achievable, and measurable if possible. That’s one way we support people.

Also, always being aware of what a person’s growth goals are for themselves so you can look for opportunities. People will grow where there are opportunities, so seeking opportunities out — or creating them — is what we do really well.

Mercedes: Ditto. We’ve baked goal-setting into our performance review process. Historically, I’ve had a lot of direct reports think of goals as “set it and forget it” until you get to the next review… so to avoid that, I make it a regular part of our one-on-ones to check in on goals and identify opportunities.

I put a lot of effort into finding non-traditional opportunities to help folks reach their goals, or to highlight things they’re already doing that contribute to their goals. People don’t always recognize how the things they are already doing are helping them grow! So I try to be a cheerleader to recognize and help them feel confident, so they can see their own progress. When you’re close to your work it can be hard to see unless someone else points it out to you.

Is there anyone who’s influenced your management style?

 

Chris, Mercedes, and Kate all at once, with great enthusiasm: LARA HOGAN!

Chris: When I first started as a manager I basically stalked her blog. My introductory one-on-one rubric — I just stole straight from her. For the very first question she asks about a favorite treat which at first seems silly, but it’s such a good icebreaker. It makes people know that you care, that you want to know how to celebrate when they have a win.

Kate: I also saw her talk at a conference and I like the way she talks about empathy and how you manage your direct reports with empathy in goal-setting. It’s just a different approach from the typical hierarchical way of managing; it’s collaborative management and not dictatorial management. There’s a lot of opportunity to make that relationship more supportive, and she makes that idea really easy to act on. She gives lots of templates and suggestions for discussion which have been a great guide for me.

What do you think is your best quality as a leader?

(awkward silence)

Ok then, what do you think is each other’s best quality as a leader?

Mercedes: For Chris, it’s his humble listening: I have never met a man who can just sit back and take it all in and listen to understand rather than to respond as much as he does.

Kate: Mercedes is really good at tailoring the experience for each direct report to exactly what they need. All of her direct reports are very different, and she approaches them very differently and she’s great at bringing out what they each need from her as a manager.

Chris: Kate is freaking fearless! I’ve noticed this about you, as experienced and talented and skilled as you are, you’re so quick to say “I don’t know how to do this thing, let’s learn together” and I think that’s an incredible example for people throughout their careers. You do the same thing with management: this is your first official managing role with direct reports, and that hasn’t tripped you up at all. You just charge in head-first and own that and it sets a great example.

What should job candidates know about Tandem?

Mercedes: I would love for job candidates to think about what they want in management and leadership and not be afraid to talk about that in an interview. We need to learn from them, and would love for more folks to share what they are looking for.

Kate: I’d encourage early career engineers to think about what they want their career to be like and what gaps they have, and come into a new job with some goals — don’t be afraid. Often early career engineers may be afraid to think about what comes next, and I’d encourage new candidates to dream big.

Chris: One of the things we do well at Tandem, that has helped me grow as a manager, is asking the question “how can I support you?”. Instead of hoping we’ll organically know how to support our direct reports, sometimes it’s really effective just to ask what they need from us, and I love that about this team. We’re not just applying a mold to every individual. I would want people to know that coming in, they will get an individualized experience with their managers.

Do you want to work with Mercedes, Chris, and Kate? Check out our current job openings on Greenhouse!

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