Gab has been in the industry since 15 years. He started his adventure at RTL, rode the wave of browser games at Bigpoint and Gamesys, and started and failed a startup. Today Gab is on the journey to transition the food industry to more sustainable food systems with Choco. He has seen the company’s birth as a software engineer from day 1 and today is a Director of Engineering.
Links and Mentions
- Project Drawdown
- Katz Orange – Restaurant in Berlin
- Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell
- Piergiorgio Niero or @pigiuz
- LeadDev slack
- Rands Leadership slack
- Shortcut to Tech Leadership workshop
- Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager by Michael Lopp
- High Output Management by Andrew S Grove
- Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins
- Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
- Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott
- Riding the rollercoaster of emotions as a leader talk at LeadDev by Gabriel Michels
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.
Hi, today we have Gab Michels. Gab has been in the industry since 15 years and started his adventure at RTL, rode the wave of browser games at Bigpoint and Gamesys and started and failed a startup. Today, Gab is on the journey to transition the food industry to more sustainable food systems with Choco. Here’s seen the company’s birth as a software engineer from day one and today is a Director of Engineering.
Welcome, Gab, to the podcast.
Gabriel Michels: Thank you for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure being here and just speaking to you, having a conversation and let’s see where this brings us.
Patrick Kua: Love it. Great. So the podcast is around managing managers and I think part of that is hearing about the leadership career journey. So I know you started off doing a bit of front end development and you started your own startup. So tell us more about that journey and how you ended up at Choco.
Gabriel Michels: Yes. So I’ve been basically around working as an engineer since 2004 more or less. Or at least 2004 I started my apprenticeship, like in Germany you have this model where you work and you also go to school at the same point that goes over three years and actually I was starting off as a media designer. But like I did like all the different steps in my company so like one part of the journey was actually going through engineering. And at that point, you know, some people might say, “Is that even engineering?”
I started off with Flash, you know. In the early days when it was everywhere in web and like that’s what primarily dominated also my career for a long bit, right? So from the moment this Steve Jobs said, “Okay, we’re not supporting Flash.” Flash was considered dying. But I think it’s still held on for like another five to ten years.
I don’t know. Something like that. It was really long.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely. I mean, I think it shut down probably about five years ago or three years ago. So there was still a lot of Flash out there. You’re right up until I recently.
Gabriel Michels: Yeah, exactly. So I did that a lot. So after my journey at RTL, I moved to Bigpoint. I did some browser games when that was a thing. There was even like before all the mobile games, etc. Like Farmerrama. All these Bigpoint games and then also moving to London for an online gambling company called Gamesys. So I continued the Flash journey there and at that company, that’s when all the rats jumped off the sinking ship and went over to other technologies.
So, at that point, I went to another niche technology language. It was called hacks. Barely anyone knows this for tech. It had a similar concept to, let’s say, TypeScript these days, right? But that overall brought me then to the other web technologies like React and everything in regards to web. Overall when I left London, I decided to move back to Germany for my own startup. A friend of mine dragged me into an adventure, you know. You start conversations and then actually it looks like that’s okay, you’re just advising and suddenly you’re one step through the door.
So I was like, okay, now one step through the door, let’s see where this takes us. When we started the startup, it was also only just six months full-time and maybe, in total a year, with the side by side with my main job. But that’s what we did then in Berlin for six months full time. The startup was called Zoe. It was more based on like building an application for culture building inside of bigger startups. And a classic startup mistakes came the way. You know, like going all in without any clients and living off of your own money and savings. And then, you know, and eventually like I was quite burned at that point. Like exhausted at the very least. So I decided to take a break and after that, that’s what’s then brought me to Choco.
The advisor of the startup was Daniel Khachab, who’s our CEO at Choco. By coincidence, the day that I decided to not pursue/continue with the startup, Dan had a dinner with me, randomly. I said, “Man, I need a break. I need to get my life straight in all dimensions.” He was like, “OK. I understand. I was there at some point as well. But how about you join my startup, that is about to launch.” And so that’s how I eventually made it to Choco.
Patrick Kua: Wow, did you have a break in between? Like, or did you jump straight from your startup into a new startup?
Gabriel Michels: It was three weeks. A three weeks break that I took. But yeah, it was in the intense time.
Patrick Kua: Okay. Wow. So tell us more about what Choco does. I understand sustainable food, but explain it to the other people who are going to be listening to the podcast.
Gabriel Michels: Yes. So our vision is to enable a sustainable food system, right? So why is that important and what does that mean first of all, right? So if we take, if we look at food waste, for instance, 24% of greenhouse gases comes actually from food waste, right? So this is from something called Project Drawdown, that did an analysis. So 24% is of greenhouse gases is food waste and 40% of all food produced goes to waste, right? So and 75% of that 40% is actually inside of the supply chain.
So there’s actually no accountability, no visibility, right? It’s a very old school industry that operates with pen and paper, right? So where do we come into play, right? So we are trying to help digitize and empower the value adding businesses inside of the supply chain to run their businesses more efficiently, increase their profits and eliminate food waste along the way, right? So right now we are at the end of the supply chain, helping restaurants and their vendors to run their ordering management and their operations more efficiently. So that we can little by little go down the supply chain.
Patrick Kua: Well, it’s a fantastic cause and, you know, given the current environment, it makes total sense. That’s really exciting to hear what the business is doing and also, from what I understand, it’s grown quite a lot in that time. So if I understand it right, you’ve been there for about five years(ish). You started as the second employee and a software engineer and now you’re a director of engineering. What has that journey been like? What size is Choco now?(ish) And what’s your tech team look like?
Gabriel Michels: Yes. So the journey. I started off basically as the first software engineer alongside the CTO back then, right? So we were sitting in a little space, in Katz Orange. It’s a restaurant here in Berlin.
PK: I love it
Gabriel Michels: The founder, no, owner of Katz Orange was an angel investor in Choco. So he provided us with some space and in the first year we were like, I think, we started off in April officially and then, we, by end of the year we were like 15 people in total. Of those 15 people we were four engineers in the early days, right?
Nowadays we are looking at around 100 people in the tech organization or we call it EPD. Engineer, product and design. And yeah, multiple teams, a lot of learnings along the way, right? So in the early days you just need to wear multiple hats and figure things out even though you don’t know what’s what’s going on, right? I often say that I was a full stack developer, just because you had to firefight everything that comes here, right? Yeah.
Patrick Kua: Amazing. It sounds like it’s a very large EPM organization now. Let’s talk a little bit about your transition as you moved into that Director of Engineering role. Did you end up being an engineering manager, leading teams or how did you make that transition into your current role?
Gabriel Michels: Yeah, so. I think, you know, the CEO Daniel has more of an ops, ops heavy background, coming from sales. The ops organization in the first year grew quite fast. The tech side of things actually grew quite slow, right? So I recall, I think, by beginning of 2019 we were maybe like five people on the tech side and we had already like 30 people in the rest of the organization, right?
Patrick Kua: Wow
Gabriel Michels: Well, we were like, “Okay, there are other things that need to get picked up aside/alongside coding itself, right?” So there were just areas that needed attention. You know, people management, hiring, especially organizational tasks and set up. In one day, actually, because of this, we were also looking for a Head of Engineering role. So there was a JD (Job Description) open. I looked at this, reading the responsibilities. Actually in the previous companies, I don’t have a classic tech background, tech startup background with engineering management roles, etc. I was reading the responsibilities and I was thinking, “Well I can do this.”
I don’t have formal leadership experience but it sounds like something that would excite me. Then, I started, I was on holiday and I started digging into the engineering manager path. So that’s when I found out how do I become a Head of Engineering, right? And then I found out, okay the previous step is Engineering Manager. So I came back from holiday and proposed to the CTO back, saying, “How about I take all the managerial task and just become the Engineering Manager for the organization that we are now. I will do hiring, etc, etc. So that’s how it eventually evolved into the Engineering Manager path.
Patrick Kua: And if you remember at that time, as you transitioned to that Engineering Manager role, how many people were in the tech group at that time?
Gabriel Michels: I think we were around 10, like, 8 to 10.
Patrick Kua: So a very large team still?
Gabriel Michels: It was a large team, you know. Also we had barely any processes. We had this master squad with 15 people sitting inside. So it was quite funny as well. Quite a journey. And then until end of the year, we grew to 25, right? And it was actually not necessarily classic engineering management, like having clear scope in any other bigger tech organization where, okay you have your PM and you drive things forward.
I was eventually already managing the organization as a whole from an engineering perspective. So that’s when, at some point, I got trusted to do more and get more responsibility. And match my responsibilities, actually, with the Director title. At some point Dan called me during COVID and said, “Congratulations! You’re a Director now. Figure it out.” So here I am, figuring it out.
Patrick Kua: Amazing. Along that journey, you probably, I mean. To go from 25 to about sort of 100 total now, you know, that’s quite a lot of growth. So you probably would have had to do things like hire other managers or leaders or grow people. So what was the mix of that and what does the organization look like now?
Gabriel Michels: So right now, of those 100 people. So we have three domains. So we have the buyer side, which are the restaurants, cafes, etc. We have the vendor side, which are the suppliers, receiving the orders and then we have the platform teams, right? And so my responsibility is taking care of the buyer side of things and all the engineering managers of my domain, which is three at the moment, report to myself. Then I have a vendor counterpart as well. So we have multiple teams inside of these groups or domains, and then we have platform teams where the customers are obviously the product teams with the cloud platform and data platform to enable them.
Patrick Kua: Amazing, yeah, so. Those three engineering managers that report to you. Are they people you grew into that role or people you had to hire or a mix.
Gabriel Michels: Yeah it’s actually a mix. So I think in the early days, there was a lot of figuring out what is actually engineering management as a whole.
Patrick Kua: Everyone goes on that journey
Gabriel Michels: Yeah and it seemed everything that I found in the internet was that different companies did it differently. I think that is actually valid that at different stages, you have different needs towards engineering managers. The first group of engineering managers were actually grown from internally. It was people who were really good around people and really was seeking to grow into that role. Whatever that meant at that time, right. Later on, you don’t have any more people who are seeking to go down that path or maybe it also did not really promote it internally yet or help people grow into that direction, so you look eventually outwards. We hired obviously also people from the outside.
That’s I think is always interesting because that’s the first time you confront yourself with, okay, how do other people actually run this role of engineering management?
Patrick Kua: Yeah absolutely and as you were talking about how you kind of need to reflect and, well, “What does an engineering manager look like in your environment knowing it’s different in other environments?” That’s also an challenge I think a lot of people have when hiring an engineering manager, of trying to find the right sort of shape. Yeah how do you find when you were recruiting your first engineering manager? Did you find that you had people who had very different expectations or different skill set matches? Or did you find people who fit generally pretty well to the shape of engineering manager that you were looking for?
Gabriel Michels: I think so we started quite late hiring for engineering managers I would say. The first group, as I said, was hired internally. It really, to go back to the point of how it evolved, the first engineering managers were actually ICs and tech leads at the same time right. Then you see, okay not feasible. You evolve that, etc. So when we then started hiring, I think you see different kinds of profiles. You have those people who are really purely on the people side of things and taking care of the different organizational tasks, engineering organizational tasks. And then you have and maybe less technical. I think that you have some people who have no former engineering background. So that’s where sometimes different companies do it differently.
For us at that stage, we had already a new CTO. At that time there was an expectation as well for engineering managers to be technical as well. So at least being able to ask the right questions, as well as being strong on the team and people side. So I think that those were the early pillars that we looked at team and people and then technical leadership and citizenship as well. Like helping the other teams, driving the engineering organization forward.
Patrick Kua: And so your current snapshot of your engineering manager, do you expect your EMs to be hands on or to not be so hands on?
Gabriel Michels: Oh yeah that’s that’s quite a discussion as well these days right. With everything happening in the economy right now. But overall I think there was always the expectation towards being on the technical side. Now, it’s even a bit more. I think, because we downsized our teams a bit in terms of how we structured ourselves. Previously, when, let’s say two years ago or one and a half years ago, when we were hiring, the team sizes were quite large. So engineering managers could not actually handle depth on the technical sides because they were really caught up on the people topics, etc.
Patrick Kua: What do you mean by large? What is large for you?
Gabriel Michels: Oh yeah. So we’re talking here around a team of, in total, 15 people and then maybe, 12, or up to 12 reports for an EM. I think many people say the sweet spot is around 6 to 8. So, quite heavy on the people side of that, right. Exactly.
And so these days, yeah for sure, we don’t expect them to do technical decisions because we still have also tech leads in every team but we expect still the EM to understand the systems, the underlying systems, the systems health etc. In total, the four areas that we look out for, I think, team and people, obviously, leadership, growing people. And how your impact, driving impact of the business not only from an engineering perspective, I think that’s where a lot of people get hung up on. Then systems health, systems understanding, and team efficiency. I think a last one, which I think is quite important, is stakeholder management at some point. Which includes communications, information management, collaboration, change management, these kind of topics.
Patrick Kua: Yeah great. There’s so many different areas and, you know, it’s great that you can articulate what you expect from your engineering managers and those areas and capabilities. Because that’s a thing you have to see how well somebody’s doing in those different areas or to help people grow in those areas if they’re lacking some of those skills or capabilities.
Let’s talk about your role and maybe your peers. So I understood that there was the three domains, I think was the term that you used, and I’m then assuming that you have kind of two counterparts from a engineering perspective. Who would you say are peers that you work with closely and how often do you connect them?
Gabriel Michels: So yeah. I have a director of product on the buyer side as well. I work very close with her. And the design side as well. The design side is covering right now still both, so we don’t have a representative on both sides yet. And then I work very closely also with my director of engineering counterpart on the vendor side. Just sitting next to each other in the office and brainstorming or asking for advice, so I think my engineering director counterpart is with whom I’m most connected with. And then obviously when it comes once a week, we have a formal weekly with the directors, one or one and that’s where we then discuss anything in regards to our OKRs, progress, things that are not working well with within the teams. And then we have sessions depending on what topic is important right now, work streams to dig into a more business KPI focus or business area focus that we need to look on. That’s where we then discuss various topics and how can we move in that direction right?
Patrick Kua: Got it and then what about the sort of platform group? Is there a director there that you interact with? Or is there a different forum or cadence?
Gabriel Michels: So we have two, actually, we have someone representing cloud platform, an EM representing product platform, which is more developer experience and then we have a data platform where we have a head of data as well sitting there. We don’t have any one there on the director level, but they come together to represent the different areas of infrastructure, cloud, data and developer experience.
Patrick Kua: And then do you have a sync meeting with each person or is there a group or a forum where you sort of synchronize with all of these different areas at the same time?
Gabriel Michels: Yeah so we have a leadership group which have representatives of all these different domains. Which also includes the the architect of the engineering org. So we have also an architect, like a floating entity person, basically. This is where we then usually discuss all relevant topics. Sometimes once a quarter we also go on offsites to take ourselves out and think a bit more holistically about things. And then we do the same as well after that with all engineering managers, basically, to stay in sync.
Patrick Kua: Got it. Excellent. Great. So I think we have a good shape of your team, the people who work with sort of sideways. What about upwards. Who do you currently report to?
Gabriel Michels: So I report to the CTO right now. He’s part of that senior leadership group too. To run the session, and bring the topics and the concerns from the business side.
Patrick Kua: Got it. Excellent. Great. And then I’m assuming you have business partners that you need to interact with quite regularly or is that more through the director of product? How often do you have to work with different business partners? How many are there? I can imagine there’s probably quite a lot in your world?
Gabriel Michels: Yeah I think, when I spoke earlier about the work streams, you have different representatives of the areas that you want to focus on and there you have like an operations specialist who usually collaborate more closely with the product owners of the different work streams and the product director and the engineering director also in those work stream sessions to align as well and stay up to date and provide our input. Usually also our CEO is in quite a lot of those sessions as well. To bring a bit of a different insight as well from from his experience. But yeah there are different kinds of work streams overall and, you know, it’s also important to focus on a few.
You can’t tackle everything right.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely. It can be very overwhelming when you’re doing that much context switching, lots of work and juggling. Which does bring us on maybe a little bit on to time. I think that’s kind of interesting in terms of maybe thinking about an average week. Maybe there’s not really an average week in your world. But if you were to describe what a week looks like for you, what sort of time or activities do you do? And what’s the split of time that you think about?
Gabriel Michels: Yeah I think… I don’t have percentages of how I split my time but I think of a natural tendency towards team and people on the one side and then also more vision and direction on the other side. Naturally, I spend quite some time on 1-1s in general throughout the organization. Maybe skip levels. Or my own 1-1s with all different people across. If I think back to the early days, one of the things that I thought about like, “Oh cool! Engineering management is all about relationship building right.” So that was my first one of my first thoughts. I do think that it’s quite important to build trust and being face to face, from my perspective. A lot of that goes into there, building that so that we can build a healthy organization and have honest feedback or people can just tell me what’s up when they talk.
The other side is obviously also with people, is, I spend a lot of time hiring as well. Like doing interviews. So a lot of time goes into there. And then the other part is actually syncing with the people of my buyer organization, like buyer engineering leadership. I have the tech leads and EMs. There I try to nudge and bring the mid to long-term topics. As an engineering manager oftentimes, especially in the startup, you’re more focused on the scope of that you have right now and the next three to six months. There’s barely any time to think a bit ahead, so I bring then the conversation.
So, okay folks, what about this? This is coming at some point. Let’s spend a bit of time thinking about that. What do we need to do to already slightly shift in that direction? Have we thought about this? So this is then also bringing a bit of the context of what’s coming next. That’s the other part. I think that sums up my in my week pretty much yeah.
Patrick Kua: It sounds like it’s a very full week. I definitely understand the time that you spend in one-to-ones with people. You’re right. I think the relationship building aspect is such a key element to being successful in that space and in your world, there’s so many relationships you could potentially spend time on and you know trying to find the right balance there is useful. The thing that I found very interesting that you talked about was that strategic thing, right. You mentioned how teams would be thinking for the next week. Maybe the next three to six months and your horizon’s a little bit further along. How far in the future do you tend to think about or do you have any timeframes and what’s your process for thinking more longer term?
Gabriel Michels: So usually what we do is we have a goal, we have a strategic goal for the year. I mean in the startup, we’re now five years old, but still consider us very the early stage actually. One year is a long time. Looking further than that ahead does not often make sense because it will be thrown off the table, other priorities come along and you have to always be receptive to change overall. But in regards, but I think especially for engineering, it is highly important to think about where are we heading next, what could be coming potentially? That’s when I get together with the product counterpart who usually maps out a more broader vision. It doesn’t have to become true but more like a story. Then with design you get together and say, “Okay how will this look like? How could this potentially look like? It’s not being set in stone. But at least we can give also engineers the idea of, “This is how it could evolve,” so that they can, when they start doing technical decisions, incorporate these ideas, because we might go in that direction or this direction.
I think that is pretty much important. That’s where I have to bring the context and ask the people to consider these things in terms of strategy. Then I ask them to think about this and how do we get there.
Patrick Kua: So if I understand it right, the year is the horizon and then it’s a combination between you working with your product director and head of design to shape what that looks like, and then you bring that into the conversations with your team. Is that right?
Gabriel Michels: Exactly.
Patrick Kua: Yeah. Great. Excellent. Wonderful. I think it’s really fascinating or journey in your background because as you say it’s not like the typical sort of engineer, engineering manager. You know you’ve had quite a lot of sort of varied things if you were to think about moving into your director for engineering role, what are some things that helped you as you took on that role and probably with not a lot of support from the organization.
Gabriel Michels: Yeah that was quite interesting I feel. Because when I stepped into that role there was no one really experienced in engineering management. I mean, I literally found out by myself that this path exists. Without that support and all the knowledge internally I sought it elsewhere. The whole reason, or one of the main reasons I was so excited about the leadership journey as a whole was the book “The Trillion Dollar Coach”. About Bill Campbell. I thought, I want to be Bill Campbell. But then, going actually into the role, I was, okay, “What do I do?” So I looked up general articles in the internet and tried to figure out what is the role of the engineering manager. I often reached out to my network. So I remember being on a conference here in Berlin and that was so excited about the presentation I reached out to the person and would regularly ask questions that I would encounter because I had no idea like structuring teams or other things. They would really help me.
A big shout to Piergiorgio Niero from London. He helped me a lot. Or I would bump into articles and reach out to them on LinkedIn and say, “Hey, can we have a chat about these different topics?” And then I would bump into these leadership Slack channels like LeadDev or the Rands eng leadership. Sometimes, when no one could help me, I would just drop a question in the channel and see what people think about it. I think a big part was the network that I had. Generally books and articles but also in the early days of Choco we also did your workshop right. I think I learned a lot there. I was still quite a newbie. I was not even two years into my role. Like all of us fresh engineering managers went into into your course, “Shortcut to Tech Leadership” so thank you for that.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, thank you I remember it was a very excited, very motivated group, so thank you for the energy. Love it. You mentioned one book, which is “The Trillion Dollar Coach.” What are other influential books for you, that you think are relevant for other engineering directors or managers of managers?
Gabriel Michels: I really love “Managing Humans” from Michael Lopp, because he brings a humorous approach to engineering management and his approach. I think “High Output Management”, a classic book as well from Andrew Grove. I think I really liked as well, “From Good to Great.” I don’t know the author anymore. But I think that generally gave good context about what makes companies good and great as a whole. So I try to focus not only on engineering leadership, but try to bring in different ideas and concepts from books to shape them together. For instance there’s a book, “Range”, about generalist versus specialists. I find fascinating. I think these are some books to to pull into your repertoire and see you how it can help you evolve.
Patrick Kua: There’s some really great recommendations. One thing I noticed is, the Rands or Michael Lopp and his Managing Humans is a really good book but the other book are classically business books. I can imagine in your role and in your situation you probably need to face a lot more and understand the business. I mean, you ran your own startup as well. How much is that influenced how you work as a director? How much do you think of like engineering versus like aligning with the business and how does that sort of manifest?
Gabriel Michels: So yeah I think this is actually one of the things that is not that easy to learn. Or not natural when you get into engineering management. You’re focused on your code and what it does and what features it produces. But then when you have to think of engineering metrics and the business, or what the business wants, you have to speak a different language and use a different language. When you have to explain technical initiatives and tech to different stakeholders, you have to translate it and what does it mean in terms of business numbers, so I think this is quite a learning for an engineering manager to stay on top of this. Because oftentimes you have your product manager counterpart who actually covers this space but if you, as an engineer, as well engineer manager and engineer you want to really ship amazing work and understand the user deeply, you need to understand what the business is trying to achieve as well. I think the role of an engineering manager is to take these metrics and translate them in a way to the engineers on why this is important. So you already get the touch point.
If you don’t have any feeling for the business metrics that you’re trying to move, you will always get hung up in technical initiatives, like “Oh, hey I hate this code. This has to be a refactored.” But you don’t actually translate it into business value. You have to have to always keep this in mind, that is also a part of becoming more senior I think as an IC (Individual Contributor) because you shift more from the technical aspects to the business aspects.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely. I think you captured a couple of really good points. One, which is you have to talk to the business on their language and terms. This is definitely a trap I’ve seen with a lot of engineering leaders is that they simply just talk about their own world, tech debt, builds and compile times and business people don’tthey really care about. Do you have any tips for people who are trying to get better at communicating with business people?
Gabriel Michels: Yes! I think many many people in the engineering space also don’t consider what it means to improve their communication skills as a whole. They say, “Yeah I’ve received feedback that I need to improve communication”, without actually knowing, what does it actually mean to improve their communication. I think the more senior you get, you need to learn how to use the right words and language because you want to influence people. I think opinionated engineers often go in quite hard with their strong opinions and I think one of the concepts of the book, Managing Humans is the language called “managementese.” When you actually try to present it in a different way, style of words, they think, “Oh, this is all manager BS” and “I don’t want to talk this way this.” “This is sugar coating.” But actually it’s just, understanding how to use language to influence.
Oftentimes you know when you don’t know how to influence, this is when organizations fall into the fallacy of, oh this is so political, because people don’t know how to influence people. Bad communication and influence is called politics. Good influence is just called good influence. I think this is something to bear in mind. B mindful of how can I really get through to what I want.
Patrick Kua: No. That’s some great tips. I love how you sort of said how language is really important to influencing. And in your role, that’s kind of your biggest lever of being out to communicate with people and influence through those relationships that you have, that you’re building, through the conversations that you’re sort of steering. How did you improve your influencing skills? Was it just through lots of trial and error? How did did you expand your influencing skills?
Gabriel Michels: I honestly don’t know. I think a lot of it was was definitely trial and error. But I was always quite on the mindful side of my communication. I didn’t want, what is it,the feedback sandwich. I knew I didn’t want to do these kind of things. I wanted to be, me personally, very focused on relationships. My personal style. I always wanted to be gentle but I wanted to be clear on my feedback or my statements. It’s always a fine line. Sometimes you realize, maybe it didn’t get through, this time. Then next time you try differently. And you think, okay, maybe this was it was a bit harsh. I do think that a lot of it is trial and error and just keeping on doing it. I do think that a lot of skills that an engineering manager brings to the table is just learned over time and experience by itself.
Patrick Kua: Yeah absolutely. I mean with everything, it does need to be practiced. I think what I was hearing you say in that influencing part, was really that mindfulness of trying to focus on doing something with intention. I hear a little bit of the radical candor stuff in there of being both empathic, like sensitive, but being direct as well. I think that’s useful not just for feedback, but also communication I think.
Gabriel Michels: Yeah and I think you know you want to give the person the feeling that, “Hey, we’re here both. We want both the same thing.” And “We’re on the same page” and I think that’s where radical candor comes into play. Yes.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely. I mean what you just said there also captures a big difference because I do see a lot of engineers who think it’s about winning an argument. What I heard you say there was it’s, “We’re both trying to win.” “We’re both on the same page.” It’s not about a win-lose situation and you’re trying to try to make sure that everyone’s happy with the outcome with whatever you end up with.
Gabriel Michels: Exactly
Patrick Kua: One of the things that you recently did this year was deliver your first public talk. This was “Riding the rollercoaster of emotions as a leader.” I can imagine, over the last five years, there’s been a lot of rollercoasters. Lots of emotions. What’s been a big rollercoaster for you that you’ve experienced managing other managers.
Gabriel Michels: I think, in general, and this is might might not be managing managers per se, but I think the most emotional bits of of this role is when the when the working relationship doesn’t work out and you need to part ways. Because that’s then the moment as well where, you question yourself. Why have I done anything? Could I have done something better to empower this person? Or why haven’t we found this earlier in the hiring process? All these things come up and, just parting ways, is never a great thing overall. This is where, if you’re a decent human being, you will just feel horrible in that moment. I think that is by far the biggest thing.
And also one of the biggest learnings on how you do manage yourself and manage the situation itself. The other part is, I think, a different topic. I think, being able to translate what the business needs. Or when oftentimes business decisions are made from the top and then you have to pass them down and translate them in the best way possible but not always do these come through. You know many times, engineering managers need to disagree and commit. I think the hardest part is then helping the managers through the middle management trap.
On the one side, you’re taking whatever’s coming your way in terms of business decision and you pass it on to your team and then your team gives you the flack for it. So naturally you will be, because you operate daily with your team, you’re very close to them, so it’s easy to feel, okay what’s management or senior leadership or whatever up there doing again. One thing that’s helped me a lot with my engineering managers is to sit down and, to the point of earlier, try to explain that, hey we’re on (the page). We want the same. And be that you’re also representative of the business primarily.
If you feel that you’re not on the same page with what happened, spend more time with your manager or myself to understand what’s going on so that you get to the point that you find especially the positive aspect of it. This is also part of managing your emotions. You have to find the positive spin to a thing that is affecting you negatively, to then go out there and be able to pass it on in a more positive way to your team. I think these things were the things that came to our mind.
Patrick Kua: That’s amazing advice and some very small tips thank you for sharing. Maybe starting to wrap up a bit then, if you were to be in your first time managing other managers, what is something that you wish you’d known in stepping into that role for the first time?
Gabriel Michels: I think assertiveness is something one of these things that you learn over time. I remember in the early days when I started running as an engineering manager and you go into meetings and no one’s making decisions and it’s technically up to you. You’re like, maybe we can do it this way? Then I got feedback, “Man, Gab. You’re an engineering manager now. Make the calls. Fine. Be more assertive.”
This is something that just comes over time when you get more comfortable in the role. Attached to that is obviously the imposter syndrome. I got some amazing advice from an external coach, Ben Anderson. I once went into a session with him and saidk, “You know what? This week hasn’t been great. I just have this huge sense of imposter syndrome at the moment.” Especially when my director of engineering peer joins. That’s the first time you’re actually comparing yourself to someone else with a lot of experience. I had this feeling of imposter syndrome.
He said, “Gab. You have imposter syndrome. Well, that’s amazing! Congratulations! Because that only means that you feel you still need to learn and grow and that you expect more of yourself. So, congratulations!” That gave me a whole different perspective on imposter syndrome and that was some amazing advice. It’s fine to have imposter syndrome. It’s just a sign of you wanting to grow.
Patrick Kua: That’s fantastic. A great perspective. I’m glad that was able to help you through that moment as well so. Thank you very much for being on the podcast. Where can people find out more about you? Where can they find you on the internet or on the socials?
Gabriel Michels: Yes so I would say connect with me over LinkedIn. That’s the platform that I’m most present on, I would say. I’m not a big social media person. I’m a more passive person on social media so I follow instead of posting myself. That might change. Or on Instagram mind dot, the dot, gab with B. So LinkedIn, Gabriel Michels. That’s the way to find me. I’m happy to connect, have a coffee. Don’t be a stranger, so thank you very much Pat.
Patrick Kua: Wonderful thank you very much.
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 conten,t 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.