Cate Huston is an engineering director at DuckDuckGo and an advisor at Glowforge. She previously worked at Automattic where she led the mobile Jetpack and Developer Experience teams and Cate administers the new-ish manager slack and writes regularly. She is currently writing the O’Reilly book, “The Engineering Leader”, coming out in early 2024.
Links and Mentions
- New-(ish) Manager Slack
- Cate’s Quartz Articles
- Cate’s LeadDev Contributions
- Cate’s blog
- Cate’s socials: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, GitHub, Mastodon
Patrick Kua: Welcome to the Managing Managers podcast. I’m your host, Patrick Kua, founder of the Tech Lead Academy and curator of the newsletter for leaders in tech, Level Up. In this podcast, I’m chatting with senior engineering managers, directors, VPs of engineering and others who have walked the path of managing other managers, where we will uncover some great stories and lessons learnt.
Let’s get started.
Patrick Kua: Hi. I’m really excited to be joined by Cate today. Cate is an engineering director at DuckDuckGo and an advisor at Glowforge. She previously worked at Automattic where she led the mobile Jetpack and Developer Experience teams and Cate administers the new-ish manager slack and writes regularly. She is currently writing the O’Reilly book, “The Engineering Leader”, coming out in early 2024. Welcome Cate to the show.
Cate Houston: Hey Pat. How are you doing?
Patrick Kua: I’m very well, how are you doing?
Pretty good, pretty good. But like oh wow we’re finally talking about me writing a book because I haven’t really, you heard it here first unless I publish my blog posts before your podcast.
Patrick Kua: Ah, that’s great. I mean you’ve written quite a lot of things on Quartz, on your blog, and I’m pretty sure, a number of LeadDev articles. So I’m really excited that you’re going to be working on The Engineering Leader book. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your book project?
Cate Houston: Um, yeah, so I’ve been working on this since the start of last year. Last year I really spent convincing myself that I could write a book and not really talking to anybody else about it. Because I don’t want to be that person who’s like, I want to write a book and then a book never comes out. So I’d written quite a bit of it and then I had convinced myself that I could write a book. So then I was just really procrastinating on writing a book proposal by writing a book which like, I don’t really recommend. Eventually I posted something on Mastodon and Melissa from O’Reilly reached out to me. And I was like, “Wow, I think I can write a book now but I’m not convinced that I can write a book proposal,” and she was really helpful. So yeah, then.
Patrick Kua: Amazing. What’s the essence or picture of the book?
Cate Houston: Oh my god, I was thinking so much about your podcast that I think I forgot. I think it’s really about the kind of growth that you go through as a leader. And that you take teams through and how you can’t really disconnect those two things, right? You have to figure out what you want from your career before you can really help other people with their careers. You need to really figure out your own self-management and that becomes increasingly important as you have more responsibility in order to manage other people effectively.
Patrick Kua: Amazing. Yeah, I love it. I can’t wait to read it as well. I’ll add it to my reading list for sure.
Cate Houston: You’re welcome to have a preview copy and send me a list of all my typos.
Patrick Kua: Ah, thank you. So I mean we’re going to get into your energy management and talk about this in the role of managing other managers. But why don’t you give us a brief summary of your leadership journey and maybe when you started to manage other managers.
Cate Houston: Yeah, so I was like a pretty normal start to my career. I got a computer science degree from the University Of Edinburgh. I went to grad school. I dropped out of grad school to go work at Google. You know. So far so normal and then, I kind of, rage quit tech. Honestly I was just really tired of the misogyny. I took a break and I did a bunch of interesting things and I kind of like relearned what I liked about programming and tech in general. And then I somehow got my first management role in Columbia and ended up, as a not entirely legal migrant, in Colombia. So maybe that’s where it gets weird. And that was for a startup that was just, I was just obviously failing the whole time I was there, so it was all like real trial by fire. You know, like I had to lay off half my team. That was awful.
Cate Houston: Single worst day of my professional career for sure. Just. Yeah. Just. I don’t know. I feel like I’m going to save that one for my memoir right? But somewhere towards the end of that, Matt Mullenweg reached out to me and he recruited me to go and run the mobile team at Automattic. And I was like, this, I don’t seem qualified for this. Um, and so I went from like a failing a team of 8 people at a failing startup to, ah, I wouldn’t call it a team, a group of, a collection of 24 people in like a bigger company.
Patrick Kua: Wow.
Cate Houston: I just really had to figure it all out. I think there, you know, the way that I ended up, because initially, you know, Matt told me this is what he was thinking. I was like, I don’t know why you think that would be a good idea. He was like, I really like your writing. I think clear writing is clear thinking. So I realised, even though I was on the face of it, not qualified for that job, I had this experience in open source, I had this experiencing kind of community management, and I had this remote experience that you know very few people I think had that blend because everyone was still quite co-located. Right? And so I saw a lot of maybe not that many, but plenty of people with a co-located mindset, come into a remote environment and not figure out how to be successful because there’s a lot of I think the kind of principles of community management that you can use in a remote context to really help you be effective.
Patrick Kua: Amazing. Yeah, and um, I mean I can definitely understand it, particularly back then, maybe now is a little bit different, post COVID. But yeah, back then, remote and that experience was very very rare. Most leaders that I knew were definitely co-located with their team. So I can see that unique blend that you bring in.
Cate Houston: Yeah, and global remote is different from even the remote we talk about today. Like where the way we’re talking about remote work. Often we’re talking about people who are in pretty similar time zones, who, you know maybe live. They don’t want to commute to the office but they can come in and so they see each other like reasonably regularly. When you’re talking about a global remote context, you’re talking about a team that operates 24 hours a day. That is not the same. You’re talking about people who can be 8 hours away from the people they work with regularly and that is really not the same. You have to think about things differently.
Patrick Kua: Yep. Yep. So let’s talk about that experience then. So you inherited this group of 24 people. That sounds like a lot. And, you know, particularly when maybe it feels like from how you describe like everyone’s just doing their things they different work streams. How did you end up organising or structuring that in the end?
Cate Houston: Yeah. I think when I took that job I knew it was gonna be hard. I expected to have… I will have eighteen months of hell if I take this job but at the end of it I might have, like I’ll have a really amazing job, right? Like because, you know, obviously WordPress was really personally meaningful to me. I really am bought into the distributed work idea. Um, and yeah. So I did like feel like I was signing up for like a really steep learning curve.
And like, honestly, a really difficult situation. Um I think the way that I kind of went about getting things in order, is I think about teams along these like 4 layers of communication. So you have the mission layer. Um some people call it vision but that just is too tied to recreational drug use in my head. I’m not here for visions. Strategy, right? Which is how you intend to validate that you can achieve your current mission or your proximate objective on your mission. The tactics layer. Which I think is really about interoperability. So can people work together? Can teams work together? And then this fourth layer, which is execution. Which is just getting shit done. Um, and I think when you think about things on these four layers, it can make many problems very apparent right? So many small companies, they have a mission and they have some execution. They have nothing tying it together and this all breaks down once you get past a certain number of people. You know there’s this genre of person who I described as a process monster. You know they are obsessed with tactics. They have no strategy.
Cate Houston: There may or may not be a mission. It doesn’t really matter. But nothing happens because everything is caught up in this oh but the perfect process. Everything will be fine. It will not.
Patrick Kua: Yeah. No. I can definitely see that and I can definitely I appreciate those different lenses that you think about the teams and structures and I guess as you go through those different sort of lenses, I guess, as you talk to people and you were discovering what people were working on I guess you were studying to discover, maybe, how you might shape those teams. Is that right? Or?
Cate Houston: Yeah I mean I think on each one of these layers, you have to think about how do I create clarity around this layer? How do I create capacity on this layer? In the team in general. And that means, saying no to some things. Doing less stupid things. In order to kind of make sure that everybody is moving in the same direction. And then you when I’m looking at a team that’s not functioning, I’m looking at what are the bottlenecks? Because often people go to the conversation that’s most comfortable to them.
Patrick Kua: Yeah.
Cate Houston: They will say, “The problem with our team is that we do not have a mission.” It’s like, I don’t know, probably not. You know, um. Because the mission I think is a very comfortable conversation because you don’t have to say no very much. So people love to have it. Your process monsters always want to talk about your process. And process can definitely be a limiting factor. But no great team is great because of their great processes. Processes are about enforcing adequacy.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, yeah, they definitely help and maybe ritualize some of the routine things that teams agree on but they’re no replacement. I think it’s one of the agile manifesto things of people over process. Is that process is helpful but it’s not the end goal.
Cate Houston: Yeah. Uh huh.
Patrick Kua: And definitely not a substitute for the people that you’re working with. So I mean when you had these 24 people I’m just trying to imagine what the transformation was like. Does that mean that you were having one to ones with all these 24 people and then at some point you’re trying to work out how to organise these people.
Cate Houston: Yeah I mean there were technically managers on the team. We called them team leads. You know, like one of them, this guy’s such a sweetheart. But I was asking him about his process for leading the team. His team had just refused to have one on ones with him. They’re like, “We don’t think that’ll be useful. We don’t need to have ones on ones.” So he’s trying to manage a team without whatever we would agree is probably the number one levers that managers have.
Cate Houston: And I remember, I think, I joined in November and then in January we came back from a break. He was like, “Look. I’ve decided I’m going to make them have one on ones with me. That is my new year’s resolution.”
Patrick Kua: How did that go?
Cate Houston: I don’t think it’s gonna be as hard as you think. It seemed like it was something he was really psyching himself up to you. I think you can just tell them, “This is happening now”, and it’ll probably be fine.
Patrick Kua: Got it.
Cate Houston: I was doing I think almost bi monthly or quarterly 1-1s with everybody for a while and that was a lot. But it really helped me get a handle on things and start figuring out, who had potential, who was coaching who. One of the leads left. He was doing things like scheduling interviews with candidates and not showing up to them, so I didn’t feel that was a great loss.
And I had a fun choice between let that continue, or shut down hiring. Then hiring has to be shut down. We can’t be doing that, you know. There was a lot of pretty fun and spicy things at first that I definitely you know, I was, “What the fuck did I do?” But the thing that really helped, was that my competing offer had required me to move to the US and Trump had just been elected. So obviously this was bad but I could be living under fascism so in the end I felt it was…
Patrick Kua: It’s all relative.
Cate Houston: Probably a win you know?
Patrick Kua: Good timing. Good timing and good for Automattic at that time.
Patrick Kua: In terms of the managers, that was your first time managing managers versus individual contributors. Did you find that there were any differences there or did you have to adapt how you manage those people versus ICs.
Cate Houston: I think the thing that made it easier for me was that there were two failure modes that I completely sidestepped. The first is there was so many people that I couldn’t be functionally doing everybody’s job. And the second is that I hadn’t done anybody’s job.
Cate Houston: I’d never been a developer on that codebase. I was never going to be a developer on that codebase. I clearly had too much other stuff to to be doing. So I wasn’t tempted to start writing code, undermine people. I didn’t have existing relationships with other people. I really sidestepped a lot of the things that I think when somebody goes from managing a team to splitting that team into um, kind of growing their responsibility. They can easily fall into those traps because they already have that context. They already know those people. It’s easy for them to inadvertently do things that don’t really serve making that manager successful.
Patrick Kua: Yep, they’ve got those habits. And they can’t break those habits. Whereas you didn’t have any of those established patterns in that environment.
Cate Houston: Yeah, and I just had no time to build them. So I think that helped a lot. I think one of the things that’s hard when you’re managing a manager who’s not doing a great job, for example, is that obviously has an impact on the team and that’s when you have to come back and figure out how to balance that again.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, do you have any heuristics? Do you have a timeline in your head? Or how do you sort of balance that? Because you’re right. Managers have that multiplying impact and you can’t let that run for so long, right?
Cate Houston: Yeah, yeah. I mean I was lucky that it’s not something I have too much experience with. I’m always just looking what should be happening. What are the milestones? What’s being missed? What’s not? Like giving people feedback. I don’t let things run for a long time without intervention. If your people are pretty good, that’s fine. If you have somebody who is determined to be bad then I don’t know. I think this is core. Whenever I’m looking for who can take on a leadership role or I’m hiring leaders, it is so critical to me that I assess how they respond to feedback.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, that’s amazing. What do you look for specifically then?
Cate Houston: Well I give them some feedback and I see how they take it. We do all these written assignments as part of our hiring process. So, ok, I looked at this. I don’t understand this. Can you explain this? Or that kind of thing.
Cate Houston: And then I also have a few questions. Like I ask them about some difficult feedback they received and how they worked for it. And I also ask them about how they think about implicit feedback and can they give me an example of some implicit feedback that they noticed and how they acted on it.
Patrick Kua: What do you mean by implicit feedback in this context?
Cate Houston: I mean explicit feedback is something that people tell you right? Implicit feedback is stuff that you notice that you realise is for you to deal with. So if we come back to these 4 layers of the team, if you think as a leader you have developed a strategy and everyone should know what that strategy is. You think you’ve communicated it adequately and then you start noticing that people don’t understand your strategy. That is implicit feedback that you did a poor job of it and you need to have another go.
Patrick Kua: Got it. So it’s that sensing, noticing, impact and not just moving on to the next task or activity.
Cate Houston: And taking responsibility for it, right? Somebody told me, once the intent of a communication is its impact. Or the impact of a communication is its intent. I think we’re often going around thinking about our intentions and what we are trying to accomplish. But if we’re not sanity checking on what’s actually happening. Then we’re never iterating on our approach.
Patrick Kua: I love it. Excellent! Let’s talk about your current role then. What does the shape of your current role look in terms of how many people or teams, managers who are your peers? Can you describe a little bit about the shape of your current role?
Cate Houston: It’s such a difficult question. I should have told you to take it out.
Patrick Kua: We can move on to a different question.
Cate Houston: I’m joking. I’m joking. Yeah. So we have what you would call a non-traditional org structure.
Patrick Kua: Sounds interesting.
Cate Houston: Yes. yeah. It’s super interesting. I think there’s pros and cons to that kind of thing. I think though the way that it works is that it’s very supportive of an individual’s job crafting and working their strengths. I think the downside of that is that it doesn’t map to a normal org chart and it makes it easier for things to fall between the cracks. So I have 7, what we call career advisees. 4 directors. 2 staff engineers. And 1 person who’ll be both of those things one day.
Patrick Kua: Okay, and then in terms of the touch points with those directors. Is it just regular one to ones with them? Or how close do you get into the work that they’re working on?
Cate Houston: Yeah I think it depends what’s going on. So one is on the backend team. She’s still relatively new. We basically started doing a daily standup together every day, so that we can help. I can have more context and help her more. Then I have a director on the windows team. A director on the android team. A director on the Apple team. And for those it really depends, what’s happening. We normally talk multiple times a week and we have a regular 1 on 1.
Patrick Kua: Got it. What do you do, or, do you do anything to bring them together to work as a team?
Cate Houston: Yeah, we have a weekly call, which is what we call the native apps functional team leads. So there’s two per team. So the backend director is not in that. But the rest are. So 2 for android. 2 for Apple and 2 for windows are all in that call. I’m still trying to get them to function more as a team. I’m fifty fifty on where that’s at. But it’s relatively new. We only split the teams at the end of last year.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, amazing. Thanks for describing your shape. I know one of the things that you’ve been doing over the last year or 2 is investing in coaching. I understood you did the co-active coaching training. What was your experience doing that and how do you bring that into your role today?
Cate Houston: It was great because it’s a totally different way of thinking. Often what we call coaching is giving advice. I mean it’s giving advice. It’s mentoring or whatever. I think of this as kind of in 4 quadrants right? So there’s mentoring, which I guess is advice giving. There’s therapy, which I’m not doing. Then there’s practical help. And then obviously there’s this coaching quadrant. I think really filling out the coaching quadrant for me made the other things much more clear and the boundaries more clear. Because I guess the other thing that we often talk about with coaching is somebody comes to you with a problem and you coach them on it. But sometimes, you should just fix that problem, right? So the most extreme example is when someone comes to you and they’re like, “Yeah, so I’m being bullied.” You don’t coach them on here’s how to be bullied better, or be less bullied. You go and deal with whatever is going on that’s causing them to feel that way. And then and then there’s obviously smaller examples and then less extreme examples in the practical help bucket. But I think it’s really important in the leadership position, you do look to give your directs practical help.
Patrick Kua: Yeah I totally agree.
Cate Houston: This was really new for me with my boss because my previous 2 managers have been the CEO of Automattic. He would sometimes help with things but there was no way I was asking him for anything. That guy had at least 6 jobs. And before there was the VP at this failing startup, who obviously was also having a pretty miserable time, so I didn’t really want to ask him for very much either. So this was something my current manager was really beating into me. Beating sounds brutal. But I had to be a little bit brutal. Expect me to help you. Expect more from me. And now I have to do that to my directs. One of them this week, I’m like, “What can I help you with?” and he’s like, “Well. I just can’t ask you for help.” And I was like, “Well, who else is going to help you because there’s nobody on your team that’s going to help you?” and he’s like, “Sure but I don’t want to give you shit things to do,” and I was like, “What do you think my job is?”
Patrick Kua: I love that. I mean I think that’s definitely one of those things where I think yeah, the more scope that people have, like your CEO, there’s more things that feel are taking up their time. I love that you’re making space and you’re explicitly letting your team know that you’re there to support them and help you. A lot of people don’t do that. Is that they just let them go and then pull them in when things aren’t going well so I love how you take a very different approach to that.
Cate Houston: Yeah, and I think with coaching you really learn. They really drill into you that it’s not your responsibility to fix things for people. So in those places where it’s their responsibility. They need to do the work. They’re being too controlling and they need to dial that down. It trains you into this acceptance of what you can do for people and what you can’t. I think the thing that it’s helped me do is do more of the things that I can do for people and less of the things that I can’t do for people.
Patrick Kua: Amazing. Do you have any mismatch in terms of expectations? So a direct who or a person who comes to you who wants your advice and help and actually you go actually I should coach you through this. How do you find that balance?
Cate Houston: I try not to give advice. Which does mean that I least normally ask people before I give them advice.
Patrick Kua: Okay.
Cate Houston: But I really try to frame it around, okay I personally would do this but what you do is up to you. I try to make all my directs have their own coach. So sometimes when we go to that place, I’m like, this sounds like a great topic for you to take to your coach.
Patrick Kua: Ah, and how do you help them find their coaches or do you just say go find a coach and make it happen?
Cate Houston: Oh no. I have a list of people and I try to connect them to the people that they would really like.
Patrick Kua: That’s great. Yeah, it’s amazing to have that organisational support. That encouragement to have that coach as well.
Cate Houston: Yeah, and it’s an external person too right? Because I’m always gonna be biassed to what the team needs. I’ll try and do what’s best for people but I know that I’m biassed in that way. I’m honest about it and I think there’s some things that it’s healthier for them to take to somebody else.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely, and do you work with the coach yourself in your role?
Cate Houston: Oh yeah, otherwise I would lose my mind. I was with my coach this morning. I love her. She’s the best.
Patrick Kua: How long have you been working with her and how often do you meet with her?
Cate Houston: I have been working with a coach period since I moved into management. Not that long after, I changed my coach once. I realised I needed a European. I needed to talk to somebody in a more peaceful part of my day because I just couldn’t, you know? So this coach and I have been working together for maybe eighteen months.
Patrick Kua: Amazing.
Cate Houston: She’s great.
Patrick Kua: That’s great.
Cate Houston: And we meet 2 to 3 times a month.
Patrick Kua: Excellent. Yeah I mean that longevity and the touch point thing means that they have that context and and can help you through they they know what you’ve been through. And and know your sort of style as well. So that’s fantastic.
Cate Houston: Yeah, you just have a deeper relationship and then on the side, I have my own. I take very few coaching clients and one of the reasons for that, is I look for people who want to prioritize this longer relationship. And so I think two of my coaching clients, I’ve been working with for more than two years now.
Patrick Kua: Amazing. One of the articles that you recently wrote was this thing about energy management for newer managers. So how much of that applies to a director role or somebody in a managing manager’s role?
Cate Houston: Yeah I mean I think if somebody hasn’t mastered some of that, they probably haven’t made it into that role. Well so I think this is one of the core things I see newer managers holding themselves back with. Because they switch into the job and they think that their job is still kind of task management. And then they’re like, I’m not getting through all my tasks. I feel really overwhelmed. I have these problems but and it’s a shift in your thinking. Yeah so I’ve never met a new manager who wasn’t having that problem honestly.
Cate Houston: If there’s one out there, I would love to talk to them. For science. I think in a kind of more senior role, people have managed it a little. They’ve they’ve had to figure out that that stuff about themselves. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have made it there but it doesn’t mean you don’t still need to pay attention to it right? Because. It’s just a hard job. If you have 1 team, you might have a period where everything is fine. But as soon as you have something that is org size, it is never going to be the case that everything is fine. There’s always going to be something. So I think you have to take those small windows where, everything is nearly fine and you can just have a break and enjoy them. And you really need to figure out what you’re internalizing and what you’re letting go. Because I think in a line manager position, there’s some things that you can have problems and they’re they’re not really your problems to fix. You need to push them up the chain. But at some point you’re at a level where if there’s a problem, it’s yours. It doesn’t really matter if it’s technically your peers. It’s still your problem. It’s impacting your org. You need to take responsibility for it. You need to deal with it and often that work is… shit. It’s invisible. People complain and then eventually they complain less and if you haven’t figured out your own resilience, your own way of deriving meaning from your your job, your own sense of purpose and support, then you’re just going to hate everything. Everything.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I can hear a couple of approaches that you use. One thing I think I’m hearing is identifying whose problem or thing it is, or responsibility to own this, even though you might still need to do it ultimately but who primarily might respond to that. What are other techniques that work for you, in your role, managing resilience and all the surprises that come with lots of scope?
Cate Houston: Yeah I think one thing for me is when I start thinking I don’t have time to take time off, I need to take a day off. And when I just start being angry. I’m not generally an angry person but I’ve definitely, you know, see myself and others sometimes you reach your point. I don’t want one more fucking thing. And then again, it’s time to take a break. What am I responsible for? How am I managing that? What’s going on? And this is where coming back to a coach and having the big picture of it. Sometimes operating as a coach yourself in your 1-1s with other people is just like, I’ve noticed this trend. You keep telling me everything’s going to be better next week and it never is. Let’s accept next week is going be the same as this week. What are we gonna do about it?
Patrick Kua: Yeah I love it. And I mean what you also talk about is also a little bit of self-awareness, right? Which is, what’s your state? And do you do need that day off, right? And I think that requires a lot of maturity as well.
Cate Houston: Yeah. Yeah I think it’s scary to step away from something when you feel things aren’t going well. It’s easier to step away when things are going well. But then when things are going well, sometimes it’s like, “What do I even do here?” And then that insecurity comes in.
Patrick Kua: That’s true.
Cate Houston: When things are bad I know what I do here and definitely they can’t cope without me. They’re all adults. How much damage can they do in a day?
Patrick Kua: That’s true. Yeah, that moving back and forth between those two things of everything’s fine, but what am I doing, and then, I could solve this. Absolutely.
Cate Houston: Right. Exactly I think the thing I notice also is I get to a more a bigger breath of responsibility is I’m shock absorbing for so many people and if it’s one of them, it’s fine. But once it’s 3 of them, my week is terrible and I don’t even know what I did. It was all these little things that somebody else would normally have dealt with but they were out that week so I was just also paying attention to 7 people’s very different jobs or 3 of 7 or whatever it is and then. That’s when I start to. And this is the state I’m in this week. So being really real here is I just feel I’m so much is coming in that I’m not managing to finish things. And so this was the topic with my coach this morning of, “Okay. If this is how I feel, how do I get out of it? Why is this? What do I need to do?”
Cate Houston: So I’m taking Monday off. It may make things worse.
Patrick Kua: But you also need that mental space, right?
Cate Houston: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And then I’ll actually take a lunch break. I’ll do a spin class. If I work late, I’ll try and be okay I’m going to work late this evening but I’m going to close things off. I’m not going to open anything new up.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, love it. Yeah I love how you’ve got all those responses. Options of how to move forward even though the world is chaotic at the moment and there’s lots of stuff that you have to react to, but also you need that sort of clarity and the things that help you get that clarity again. So you can be as effective as you can be, knowing that there’s all these crisis stuff going on. Yeah.
Cate Houston: Ah, totally. I mean it’s also the summer right? So it’s a time when a lot of people are in and out. I think one thing is when are you having a bad week? When are you having a bad month? And when do you really need to hire somebody in or make some bigger change?
Patrick Kua: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. One of the other things that you wrote about was about this org survey. So, can you tell us more about this? Why do you run it? What do you do with the results and how do you run it?
Cate Houston: I used the org survey a bunch at my last job to get a healthcheck of what’s going on and figure out where to pay attention. One of the things, especially in a distributed environment, is that people can make themselves seem bigger than they are, when they complain. It’s really helpful to just get a sense of the numbers. You know, do you have an unhappy team or do you have one unhappy person? And you know who it is and why? Um, but it’s not always clear which it is. I think they can definitely feel muddy especially when you don’t see people. The quieter, happier people often, end up kind of undercounted in terms of the impression on team vibes. So I would use the the org health survey for that, to kind of give feedback to the managers and figure out, how they were doing, what they should pay attention to. Yeah so that’s how we used it.
Patrick Kua: Got it. What I hear there is that delineation again of ownership. You’re running this as a feedback mechanism but you’re giving that information back to your managers and hopefully they’re responding to that feedback and then doing something with that.
Cate Houston: Yeah, and I ideally being transparent about it. I think if you do a reasonably anonymous survey then you should be okay to put the results up. Maybe not the comments but definitely the overall result.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, great. And what are some actions that have come out of that, or what results have you seen from running it and talking through this with your managers?
Cate Houston: The last one we ran at my current job. It was one of the things we did to kind of checkin on the decision to split the team. Yeah, so that was that came up as the number one thing that people wanted. So we split the team. And then of course, people said, “Why did you split the team?”
Patrick Kua: Ah, this is the point. The feedback.
Cate Houston: Yeah I know. I spent a year working on this. I mean, I think honestly, I could have, the way that we end up working at DuckDuckGo didn’t um. I had this year long strategy, and I don’t think that made sense to other people. But we don’t really talk about things that way so I had this set of projects which was like, “Okay. I need to hire directors. I need to overhaul our director hiring process. I need to overhaul our director onboarding process. I need to redefine what it means to be a functional team lead.” And so we went from it being one person to this kind of primary secondary model that we use in other places too. Um I’m sure there was other things in that too. But anyway at the end of all this work. It was okay if we split the team we have leads. They know what their job is. We’ve hired them. We can onboard them and it’s all clear. Um, but I guess maybe for the year, for many people on the team, what I was doing did not feel very relevant to them and so they were like, “Why did we split the team?” “Yes, you asked for it. Here we are.”
Patrick Kua: We did what you wanted.
Cate Houston: I know. I know. I mean people always complain about something. So it’s always just. That you have to make those decisions. Explain it to people as much as possible and then see if a month later they’re complaining about something new or if they’re still on that last thing and then you know.
Patrick Kua: Go back to it.
Cate Houston: Exactly. Exactly.
Patrick Kua: I heard you were saying that you had to hire and review the sort of hiring process for directors. What is it that you think is different about looking for directors versus say looking for a manager, a team lead or a manager of ICs.
Cate Houston: What is different? I mean I’ve actually never hired a manager. Which is perhaps a really weird cap for me to have but we just didn’t hire managers in my last job. So I hired ICs. Like hundreds of them. And directors and that’s it. Nothing in between.
Cate Houston: Ah I’m trying to hire Staff Engineers now. Which is another fun fun topic. My friend Nandano(???) said to me being a director is about good judgement. I think that is very apt. So often I think companies talk about a Director is about having X number of people which has led to some super fun times in the valley right now. With humans as a vanity metric. I think this idea that it’s about judgment, it’s about decision making, it’s about clarity and the ability to communicate their clarity. I think the other thing about director roles is that you need to care about people. But it’s not a people role in the way that some line manager roles are. It’s an organizational effectiveness role. And people being happy, people being developed, I think those are important things about organizational effectiveness. But they’re not the be all and end all.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely I mean ultimately every employment is a financial transaction. Ultimately.
Cate Houston: Exactly. Exactly we’re all making deals under capitalism right here, you know.
Patrick Kua: Well and hopefully everyone also benefits personally from the growth. But as you say, it’s not the be all, end all of the relationship.
Cate Houston: Yeah I mean this is the the entire first section of my book is about this idea of what does it mean to be the DRI of your career?
Patrick Kua: What does DRI mean, just for the the listeners.
Cate Houston: Oh yeah. You’re like my editor. You’ve been talking to her. But anyway. Directly Responsible Individual.
Patrick Kua: Got it.
Cate Houston: I think that is a shift. Often under capitalism, it encourages us to self-actualize via our jobs. To conflate our career with our identity. And that results in people feeling stuck in making bad decisions and ultimately in being unhappy and not getting what they want from their lives. Your manager, we talked about that with coaching, is that they’re invested in you with this job. They have their agenda that they need to accomplish in their role and you are part of it and they might care about you a lot as a human being and want the best for you. But that is always going to bias them.
Patrick Kua: Yep.
Cate Houston: You need to, I think everybody needs to, take responsibility for their own career and what they want from it and start making more mindful decisions. Like not getting pushed into things that you don’t want to do or chasing job titles when you actually hate the job.
Patrick Kua: First time managers. Lots of them.
Cate Houston: Totally. Totally. Just like staff engineers. I could go off on huge rants about staff engineers.
Patrick Kua: Yes. Oh yes.
Cate Houston: Being a staff engineer I think is a pretty terrible job. You have to go to the worst places, untangle the worst mess, get everybody on board and normally also ship something.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely. Yeah I think I think we’re going through that period where everyone’s going, “Oh it sounds fancy and nice and I want to do it and they don’t realize what’s really involved.”
Cate Houston: Yeah, they want the job title. They don’t want to do the job. That is fair it. I totally understand if you do not want to do this job. This also means you cannot have the job title.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, exactly. So maybe wrapping up then, what would be maybe one piece of advice for people looking to step into a managing manager’s role?
Cate Houston: I think the first thing to think about is whether you really want to do it. There is much more managing across. There is much more managing up. There is a lot more responsibility. There is a lot more work. If you’re good at it, you will be rewarded with new terrible problems.
Patrick Kua: I love it. More problems come your way.
Cate Houston: I mean come on. You know I’m right.
Patrick Kua: It’s true. It’s true.
Cate Houston: That could be great, right? But it is, it’s called type 2 fun. Like Tough Mudder. Is tough muder also type 2 fun? It might be my personal idea of hell. I don’t really mud. You have to kind of derive some meaning from the outcomes. Because the work will often feel like shit.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely. I Love it. A great tip. And then where can people find you on the internet?
Cate Houston: At http://cate.blog. It’s the one constant in the ever changing world of social media. Although I am also on all of them. But who knows how long any of them will last.
Patrick Kua: Right. Then go to the website and we’ll have all the links to all the other socials. We look forward to hearing about your book, that’s going to come out next year. Do you want to do a bit of a plug for that?
Cate Houston: I’m writing a book. Writing a book is very hard. So if people could at least tell me they’ve read it, once it comes out that would be really helpful.
Patrick Kua: Wonderful.
Cate Houston: But no, I’m really excited about it. I think I’ve written a lot of blog posts and you cited some of them and I like to believe they’ve been useful to people. But putting a lot of those same ideas together in this bigger narrative. I know when I went into management, managing managers, I felt so alone and so lost. Even as an IC, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a good manager. I just really believe in putting a ladder behind you, so that other people can have an easier time. I really hope that you know… When I was writing this book and starting it, I was like, I want to write something for all the people who have no manager or a shitty manager or their manager is the CEO who just doesn’t have time for them.
Patrick Kua: Love it. Yeah I think many people will benefit from it and I think there’s still so much space for other voices around this as well. Other ladders to help people on their journey. Absolutely.
Cate Houston: Cool. Well thanks so much. Pat.
Patrick Kua: Thank you so much for your time and thanks for joining us on this episode.
Cate Houston: Thank you.
Patrick Kua: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Managing Manager’s podcast. You can find the transcript and the show notes at www dot managing managers dot tech. If you enjoyed the content please be sure to rate and subscribe, to be informed about new episodes. Also consider sharing this podcast with another person who might benefit. Until next time.