Tramale is a highly experienced and motivated technical professional and is currently SVP of Engineering at ActionIQ. He has previously worked as CTO at Taxbit and Head of Engineering at Stripe. Prior to Stripe Tramale has held engineering leadership roles at companies such as F5 Networks and Nintendo, and technical and marketing leadership roles at Critical Mass and Volkswagen.
He has a passion for developing technology leaders at all levels, and is determined to hear underrepresented voices amplified in our industry.
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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 everyone. Welcome to today’s managing managers podcast. I’m delighted to be joined by Tramale Turner. Tramale is a highly experienced and motivated technical professional and is currently SVP of Engineering at ActionIQ. He has previously worked as CTO at Taxbit and Head of Engineering at Stripe. Prior to Stripe Tramale has held engineering leadership roles at companies such as F5 Networks and Nintendo, and technical and marketing leadership roles at Critical Mass and Volkswagen.
He has a passion for developing technology leaders at all levels, and is determined to hear underrepresented voices amplified in our industry.
Welcome to the podcast for Tramale.
Tramale Turner: Thank you for having me. Really excited to be here.
Patrick Kua: So you’ve got such an amazing breadth of so many different roles and also really interesting companies. Everything from things like Nintendo, F5 which I remember as hardware and like networking devices, all the way to really modern SAAS products like Stripe and Taxbit. Tell us a little bit about your leadership journey. How did you find yourself on the management track?
Tramale Turner: I think when I first even considered becoming a manager I, of course, didn’t have the I think wealth of knowledge that we have about the practice today especially within engineering. So I considered it a part of the promotion path. I was an individual contributor and I was looking at my career trying to understand or predestined where I might end up one day. What would it mean to be quote unquote successful? So I had the complete wrong perspective as we know today that management is indeed a career change. But suffice to say at that time, what I was really focused on was developing myself, developing my career and when a leadership role became available to me. To be clear I had managed people previously but I had never really considered myself a manager of people if that makes sense. It was more happenstance where I was an individual contributor that like many do, I presumed to be decent at my job and then somehow find myself leading other people without any training or without any coaching or mentoring and ultimately Volkswagen was the the organization where I was actually hired into a management role. The fact is that I was actually an individual contributor with a manager’s title and so I was banded as a manager and I was leveled accordingly.
Tramale Turner: The intent was for me to be a contributor and to drive impact through influence. Which was my my very first good lesson in leading people. But to make a very long story as short as possible, ultimately, that was my first foray into really focused leadership and leadership development. One of the things I appreciate about my time at Volkswagen is that there was this scaffolding and really excellent treatment of helping people who were intended to be people leaders or people influencers to develop their skills and their talents to work on introspection. To understand the principles of people leadership and and ultimately I was of course a people leader at Volkswagen as well. But that’s that’s really how my management journey or leadership, perhaps more appropriate, journey began.
Patrick Kua: Oh wonderful. That is such a classic story I think of people finding themselves leading or managing others without a lot of support and I’m really pleased you ended up in a place where it sounds like there was quite a lot of support for you to grow and probably also have people around you in similar roles. I can only imagine how big Volkswagen was back then as well. Still very large, but, people in similar roles who could then share and swap experiences. I’m really happy that you had that support at some point early in your leadership management career.
Tramale Turner: Indeed. Indeed and you’re correct. It was an organization of 380,000 people I think at that time.
Patrick Kua: That’s phenomenal.
Tramale Turner: It had its own leadership development institute and all sorts of things that I believe persists to this day. But yes, indeed, I agree with you. It was a phenomenal experience. But and perhaps we’ll get to the conversation later in this discussion. We’ll talk. Though it was a great experience and a great learning for me. Certainly not my favorite job.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, every every place has its tradeoffs right?
Tramale Turner: That’s right.
Patrick Kua: I think the the amazing thing about really large companies is they can invest in large departments like training. At the same time there are tradeoffs that come with that size and scale of momentum I can imagine. Can you remember when you started to manager other managers? At what point was that and what was that transition like for you?
Tramale Turner: Yeah I think pretty early on. I think in my management journey I got the opportunity to start hiring other managers. At the tail end of my time at Volkswagen I started to really understand what it meant to scale oneself and to deliver outsized impact through, again, those those motions of influence and direct guidance and having an ability to hopefully find people who were, quite frankly, more adept at certain aspects of what the organization needed than you could be. As I left Volkswagen and went to my my next career inflection and perhaps a quick side note. One of the interesting things perhaps about my career is that in addition to being an engineering leader and individual contributor within engineering, I’ve also been a marketer. So I’ve been an account director twice in my career and when I left Volkswagen as an engineer I went to an agency as an account director. As an account director, I was managing account managers and other contributors within the the agency’s framework. That was really interesting. It was a very different type of environment. Very different type of education.
But I think the the leadership journey was quite frankly very similar to the the overarching principles that we expect when leading other leaders and helping those leaders to understand what the the execution mode for the organization is. Whether it’s the thing that we all here collaboratively really intend on delivering. Getting that focus on. What is the organizational bound? What is the north star? As we might say. How do we coalesce and build a structure so that we might be able to better do that and to serve the needs of our our users or our customers or our clients or whatever that you may be using as efficiently and effectively as possible? That foray from Volkswagen into account directorship and then I think springing forth from there, once that happened, I don’t think I ever really stopped managing managers and have been thus, doing so, perhaps some for the better part of 14 or 15 years now.
Patrick Kua: That’s really impressive. I think out of a lot of the things that you said there’s quite a few things I’d love to unpack. I heard there’s a few things around scaling oneself and I’d love to dive into that a little bit more. About your approach to hiring other managers because I think that’s an interesting challenge for people who have to manage other managers. And then also that transition to working in an agency which I can imagine is a very different environment. Different characters. But maybe let’s go to the first part around scaling yourself. This is what leaders do. What’s your take on this as you were on that journey? What were some things that you reminded yourself of how do you learn to scale yourself? What does that mean practically for you?
Tramale Turner: Yeah. I think the most important thing when we start having this conversation. The most axiomatic fundamental principle is, what is it that you know? What are you good at? What are the things that drive you? Motivate you? That you want to accomplish within the context of the organization or whatever situation they may may be? What does that really, if again, to borrow from what you just said, if you start to unpack those things about yourself, what does that really mean? You need to do it in order to understand deeply those different principles. And that is introspection from my perspective. That you must be deeply aware. I think leaders of all levels need to be able to do this, but you must be deeply aware of what your strengths are, what your opportunities for improvement are, how you are perceived when you present yourself. Even your body language and how you start to show up in front of others, all of those things are really critical. What you start to understand is what your limitations are. And what your limitations are again within the bounds in the context of the thing that you’re trying to do. Of course we are talking about engineering leaders principally here and in that context of building great software, building great tools, building great experiences such that they resonate with others and that you are able to continue to grow.
Tramale Turner: Hopefully with a successful or even if you’re regressing to the mean of mediocrity, you’re still trying to fight for success and drive towards some modicum of being able to sustain or grow the organization that you’re in. You can’t do that alone. We all know that the most important things in any endeavor are capital. You have to be able to fund your endeavors. And people. You need people that can specialize. That can optimize. That can drive. That can help grow your organization and no one can do it alone. When I started to make that inflection and started to make that transition to managing others, one of the things beyond introspection that I learned is that you gotta be able to build great teams. Not good teams. I think that’s a really important delineation. Anyone can build a good team. You find folks who are competent, capable, excited, bring them on. What you will find is that can often be a failure mode because you are, in some ways, I don’t want to make it sound pejorative, and say that you’re compromising per se, but you are perhaps not seeking to drive the outcomes for your organization beyond what even you can perceive. And I think when you take a step back and you holistically look at the problem that you have or the opportunity, perhaps better said, you have in front of you, what you start to realize is that oh, I don’t want just folks who are good at their job and who are perhaps excited to to be in this space.
Tramale Turner: I want people who are driven. Who are, to use a controversial word, passionate, who have this expectation that they along with the the first team, that hopefully you can build with them, are going to do things unexpected and outsized and things that will drive the organization well beyond where, again, it even believes it can go. That’s a great team. If you’re laser focused on building something like that then I think that you are able to overcome all of the different obstacles, vacillations the peaks and valleys that running an organization will entail. But I’ll stop there so that we can we can go deeper into any space you like.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, now that’s great and really resonates as well. Maybe I’m biased because I like that strengths-based focus. I think one of those things that can identify with you, is as you said, self-awareness of what you’re good at and also where your gaps are, and to understand what is needed in that situation. And then also to start to identify the strengths in other people to understand how they work well as a great team and the opportunities that you can bring as well. So I really love that approach. You talked about that hiring of managers and I think that’s an interesting question because I think a lot of people as I transitioned into being a manager and let’s talk about engineering managers, since that’s the general target audience I’m talking to here, what makes a great engineering manager for you and how do you hire for that?
Tramale Turner: Yeah I think managing managers is an interesting abstraction because if you are in a certain context, let’s say a small startup. A new bootstrap organization. Something that’s you know, maybe maximum 50 to 70 people or so, the context you’re going to be operating in is very different and managing managers in that situation may mean that you, as a director, or you as a VP Eng are still actively contributing. But there is a failure mode there. There is typically, many of us in this industry find our way to the path, the manager’s path, to borrow from Camille Fournier, is through being an excellent individual contributor. It’s often difficult for folks who have traveled the path of being deeply invested in building experiences for folks to building people. When that dichotomy of what is the difference between building software and building people? When you’re faced with that question and the conundrum, it’s difficult because there are a ton of books and experiential features that allow us to to build our skills as engineers and indeed, working right in front of the computer, it’s somewhat special because it’s a creative pursuit. I liken it to just about any other creative pursuit. Where you may be a musician, a painter, a writer. But you can go deeply into the practice and develop your skills at your pace and in a way that helps you Manage your own way of learning and growing and development. When you’re dealing with people that’s quite different. Because people won’t wait for you to be good as a manager.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely not. They won’t.
Tramale Turner: They will not. You need to understand that the context is very different. So again to to go back to where I began, when you’re in a small organization, understanding that yes, you may need to still contribute because that’s just what the size of your organization requires. But you need to also understand that you likely need to change your mental model from player to player coach. And to really err on the side of coach and to understand that you’re there to help develop people. To enable people. To create the type of situation that will lead to the outcomes that you’re seeking. Then further as your company hopefully becomes more successful or if you find yourself in an already successful and already sizable company. To be quite frank I think anything over 70 people, you’re probably, you’re a decent size.
Patrick Kua: Absolutely. At least in today’s environment, for sure.
Tramale Turner: In today’s environment, absolutely. So you need to start understanding what is it that you as a person to your, to the question that got us started, what is it that you need in order to make this organization as successful? To make this team as successful as you possiblly can. I know sports analogies are felt a certain way in industry but I think they’re appropriate in that not every player can be Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan or Lionel Messi. You need an entire constellation of strong capable players. People who are excellent and fill gaps where there are gaps. People who have the the right drive and aptitude and that are adaptable and amenable to what changes the organization is likely to face. You really have to be as a leader of leaders, ready to humble yourself in the face of, you’re not going to be, hopefully if you’re lucky, the very best leader, or the very best engineer, or the very best any one thing. What you are, you’re now the conductor. You’re the person who’s trying to find the first chair for violins. I’m mixing my metaphors.
Patrick Kua: Still very creative there right?
Tramale Turner: You’re finding the person or people who will make that orchestra when they come together and begin playing sound glorious and wonderful and that is such a rewarding experience. But only if you allow it to be and only if you see that as something that is fulfilling. So I’ll end here quickly by just saying I was asked recently in an internal AMA about my time as an engineer and one of the things that the question was was directly getting at, was okay, you’ve been a manager for quite a while, have you ever been an IC? Because you have to go pretty far back in my career to see when I was an open source developer. And when I was contributing code directly. I said yes, indeed. But I answered the question but then I quickly said, but my role now is to enable organizations and teams and to find leaders and develop those leaders into leaders perhaps even greater than myself. And I love what I do.
Patrick Kua: That’s really wonderful and really resonates. I often say that transition from maker to multiplier, of what you’re really looking for, you use the player coach analogy, the conductor analogy of finding those people who are really going to amplify the team and and bring the best out in everyone that you have around you and that really resonates with me as well. So I understand when you’re looking at engineering managers or engineering leaders, there are some of the characteristics you’re looking for, how do you test for that in a recruiting process? How do you spot that given you have a limited amount of time with candidates?
Tramale Turner: Yeah I love how you ask the question. Because you start with manager and then you went right to leader. I agree with you because that is one of the things I test for. I look for people who understand that managing – you manage things. Leadership – you lead people. And to understand that difference I think is pretty critical and a really good signal to pick up on in the conversation. I think also that because we are indeed engineers and we are in technical pursuits, it’s also important to test for technical depth. That doesn’t necessarily need to be software development though it can be. Depending again on your context and and what your organization needs. Size, structure and culture within your company. Maybe this is a really good aside just to speak too quickly, there are awful ways to be managers. There are awful ways to be leaders. But there’s no wrong way to run a company should that company be successful. What I mean by that. There is some nuance here. That if you decide that your organization is going to have player coaches who have a bit more of the pendulum swing towards player that is, you want your leaders to write software, to commit code, to do code reviews. That’s okay, if it works for your organization. Now my personal opinion is that, that is perhaps erring too far on the side of just shipping code and not developing people and that you may be losing an opportunity but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be unsuccessful.
I can name several companies that have been fabulously successful that follow that model and I think many of us know them. But on the other hand I think the vast majority of organizations probably need to be clear that when you’re bringing in leaders, you want those leaders to be capable in leading and developing and organizing people towards a goal. So again, getting back to the question, I think understanding how introspective a person is, that they are aware of themselves and of the situations that they’re in. And equally, and I like to have this conversation in the same frame, that they are adaptable. That one of the things that we know is an axiomatic truth of any organization. Professional. Government. Whatever. Is that, it’s going to change. Change is the only constant right? It’s trite and rote. But it’s true. If you are an adaptable person or you have an adaptable mindset, then you’re going to be more successful than not.
Also I mean we’ve already spoken about building great teams and understanding the ability to build a team that is effective and how do you go about doing that? What is your model for doing so? What tools do you use or leverage in order to understand, well, here’s the right way of hiring, of developing, of compensating. And if you have to have the unfortunate conversation of dealing with separations and people who, even if they’ve only done so briefly, have had those experiences and who have models for those experiences are, I think pretty critical questions to ask. I think again depending upon what your organizations, with the products and services, so the type of organization that you’re trying to build, whatever that might be, there are likely to be nuanced signal drivers or things that you will want to understand in a conversation. The thing that is most important, regardless of the, if you will, the pedagogical approach, that you might have, of how do you learn whether manager or leader within your organization. What makes them successful? And then how do you source for other individuals that might be successful? Whatever that model you come up with is, two things perhaps that you need to keep in mind. One. Iterate. Because the organization is going to continue to change and you’re going to need to have… A failure mode I see in organizations is that they don’t spend enough time sometimes doing the administration work. The engineering administration work of rechecking their processes. Perhaps borrowing from the the japanese, kaizen motif, or the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act), that continuous improvement of the process and making sure that you are managing to the state of the environment as it is. So iteration is important.
Tramale Turner: And then two. Take your time. So everyone has high urgency and knows that, oh, okay, my organization is scaling. I probably need to create a new structure and I’m going to need to source leaders that can fit within that structure. The urgency is, it’s happening now. It’s like I need to do it now and then the potential failure mode is that you start to bring in people who are absolutely wrong for your organization. That don’t fit because, not because they are a bad culture fit, which I think is kind of a leaky abstraction, or maybe even a lazy Abstraction. It’s because you didn’t take the time to understand What it takes for a leader to be successful within your context. That’s critically important. Those are two things that I would ask that everyone always keep in mind. Iteration and taking your time to make sure that you’re finding and sourcing the right people. Be very judicious on those leaders. Especially on those leader of leaders hires.
Patrick Kua: That’s some really fantastic advice and I can also sense that agile mindset that you think about in leaders. In terms of iterative. In terms of Kaizen. In terms of adaptive leadership of thinking what’s best for that environment and as you say, there are environments that can be very successful with one type of leader, and other environments where that wouldn’t work at all. So I really love that. We’ve talked a little bit about the hiring of a manager and let’s say that you do bring people in what are your typical measures of how do you know an engineering leader is being effective?
Tramale Turner: Yeah. I think there are several ways to measure effective output. We can start from the end and work our way backwards. So typically when you’re bringing in a layer of leadership either line managers or leaders of leaders, depending on how scaled your organization is, you’re looking for operative instances of execution and delivery. So you’re looking for outcomes. You’re looking for people who can drive effective execution and impact based on that execution. So the material objective measures of that output are indeed what are the remunerative advantages or impacts based off of the output that those teams have driven. Is the business working? Are the customers happy? Are sales and operations and all of the sinewy tissue that make up an organization effectively operating? I keep using that word effectiveness because it is a key indicator of success. There are many models that people will apply. Any MBO based, management by objective based, model is fine. If you’re using OKRS, fine. If you’re using KPIs, fine. If you’re using some abstraction that is in between the two of those things and you’re still calling them OKRS, fine. I’ve seen every iteration of that.
Patrick Kua: Every framework underneath the sun.
Tramale Turner: The important thing is that you are measuring. And that you are measured based off of those and outcomes. Okay, so great. We know ostensibly the role of a leader is to drive outcomes. But let’s start then working backward from that. How do you get to those outcomes? Because that’s also critically important. I think one of the things that is key is have you, to borrow from our signal, evaluation of whether or not we’re getting the right type of leader. Are you building a great team? Is your team healthy? Is it happy? Is it cohesive? Does the team have a clear charter and vision for why it exists? Here’s another potential lesson or maybe a call to arms for every leader of leaders out there, has the team reached the end of its lifecycle? It’s okay. In fact, healthy when a team has maximized the output that it can drive. And it finds itself at an opportunity to adjourn. This is something that people often forget that when they think about the the team formation model, forming, norming, storming, performing, that there is actually another iteration there.
Tramale Turner: And it’s adjourning. That it’s okay for the team to come to a point where it needs to reconfigure. Or to disband. Or to find itself in a new context and to recharter itself. That type of, again you had mentioned the agile mindset and maybe a little bit of the six sigma philosophy, coming into the competition and and that is deliberate because I do think some of those elements are effective. Again, effective, that word coming back. But more importantly, knowing that there are many tools that a leader can draw upon in order to appropriately manage their team and to help drive those great teams is the the main focal point of this part of the conversation. Then further, continuing along that line of how do you manage to effectiveness? How do you manage to outsized outcomes? How does that leader, how does that leader’s team, how does that leader’s organization comport(???) to the expectations of being able to deal with other leaders within the organization? So I mentioned that quickly, earlier on in our discussion, first team and first team dynamics. Who is your real first team? Well, it’s not a vertical slice of the organization. Indeed, it’s a horizontal slice of the organization. Who are the other managers and leaders that that leader collaborates with in order to drive those outsized outcomes? I think that being able to to have a good high bandwidth conversation about organizational effectiveness and organizational impact.
Tramale Turner: Are you leading through influence? And are you driving the right type of outcomes that are enabling for the business? All very critical factors. So there are many other things. But I think those few that we just talked about are really focal points for me when I’m measuring the effectiveness of a new leader.
Patrick Kua: Yeah, wonderful. And thank you very much for giving us those three focal points I heard there. Strong focus on business outcomes. The building great teams. Making sure that that sometimes it’s okay to adjourn the team because they’ve reached their end. And then also thinking about how they’re working well across the organization with their, who is their first team? So fantastic tips.
Let’s change context a little bit because I’d love to explore that jump into that different context of marketing and the agency based environment. Fascinating jump because I can imagine, a) the industry and the people would be very different and therefore maybe styles of managers might be a little bit different? What was that experience like for you of managing if I remember account directors?
Tramale Turner: Yeah, well it was very (laugh). It was a very good education for me because it was great to be in a different context and a different, I think, industry. Yes. Is appropriate. I mean the the marketing services industry is very different than building software. But the fact is that the agency that I was in was a digital agency and so it was still building deeply with building out technical experiences for users. But it was more of a services-based industry. As opposed to building quote unquote products or SAAS or looking to build against SAAS multiples. As one might in today’s engineering or software development ISV based business. I think that things that I learned in that experience that really resonated with me were kind of pulling on the thread that your question intimates. And that very different types of personalities. Literally everyone. I think people find themselves in marketing services, businesses or agencies because they are deeply creative and they are, they’re passionate about building things that are just a joy to use.
Tramale Turner: And that’s not to say that within the the core technical industry that we find ourselves in, typically, there aren’t people. I mean, one of the the most storied companies within our industry, Apple, is exactly that. But agencies, I think, tend to have people who are palpably customer focused. That they are deeply concerned about the outcomes of the client and the relationship with the client. And that was a great lesson to see how account directors were expected to, typically when you’re in an organization and you’re representative of a business, the thing that you believe is that, well I’m an advocate for my business. My goal is to drive revenue for the business and to drive successful outcomes for the business.
Tramale Turner: Yes I want to see the customer happy, of course. But I’m primarily an advocate for my business. No. As an agency account director, you’re expected to find yourself in the shoes of the customer and that your advocacy is for the client, the customer, back into your business. That you are intended to be the stalwart driving force for positive outcomes for that client. And the client, in some cases, almost embraces you as one of their own. It is not atypical to see account directors finding themselves in roles within the clients that they supporteded. If they are successful and those that are perhaps really good at finding the balance between still being an advocate for the agency and for the business, find themselves in the the rarefied era of either agency, partnership or running or/and owning their own agencies. I just thought it was a really phenomenal experience. And organizational design very different than what we would expect to see in typical software development organizations. In organizational intent and and purpose. And even the types of conversations as I said. I think more recently within our industry customer focus and palpable customer obsession has become a more frequent discussion topic. But agencies have been talking about that for time immemorial and are masters of it and I think there’s a lot that engineers, and engineering organizations can learn from that. That deliberate customer obsession.
Patrick Kua: Yeah I think you’re absolutely right. And you’re right, which is the the customer obsession, like the Amazon value, I guess, that’s something relatively new. I think today people talk about that producted focus engineer of really putting that product manager hat, on thinking about that customer. And there’s probably something about in an agency world, where you have that really close contact to a customer, where that becomes a little bit more real. So I can imagine even in Apple, which is really focused on users, still feels like that abstract kind of user from a distance versus the “here is your client” and what do they really want? And that really short feedback cycle to people versus this abstract idea. So but I think you’re right. It’s a very different environment from a normal product engineering organization. Regardless of how you’re set up from feedback cycles.
I could imagine one of the interesting things in the agency world is that there are probably a lot of different clients and account managers or directors tend to probably want to do best for their client and you have to think about the whole business. So that’s an interesting thing when it comes to that first team concept. Did you have any difficulties building that first team across all the account managers because I can imagine there’s like little fiefdoms of people saying I want to protect my account at all costs so you can’t have these staff because I need to deliver to my client needs? How did you manage that if so?
Tramale Turner: I think in my experience it was less orchestrating whether or not there was internal competition to drive outcomes that would basically look good on a person’s review or look good towards their opportunities for promotion and development. And more of a how do you take folks that have a varied set of backgrounds and experiences and considerations and get them to operate in a structure that was cohesive and collaborative. It sounds pretty basic but you have to understand the context differentiation. So many engineers, be they self-taught or going through a university program. However they end up in field, they typically have a similar context of this is what software development is. This is what good software development looks like. This is how you manage operations within that. This is how you test. This is how you do all of the various aspects of what’s important for capable and competent software delivery. And yes, you may have different exposure levels, which is why we have the ladders and level discussion, but it’s typically a salient discussion high bandwidth conversation about what good looks like and what does it look like to go from good to great to world class.
Tramale Turner: In the agency world I think you have, as I said, a varying array. I don’t know that there is a canonical definition of what a good account manager or a successful account manager or an account director looks like. It might reduce down to something as simple as no customer churn. The customer engagement remains and you’ve landed and you started to expand that engagement. So to your question I think one of the opportunities and one that for the folks that know me well, or who have worked with me. They know, annoyingly, I never say challenges. I say opportunities. One of the opportunities is that you have to be a very good listener. A person who can understand what is really beneath the superficial nature of interactive development or interactions or interpersonal conversations that you’re having with people. So that you can get at underlying motivations and help people understand what’s truly important with the customer client relationship. With your peers within the organization and so on and so forth. But I never really saw an instance where people didn’t see the the forest from the trees. Where they understood that you have to interact with project management in order to order things and to make sure that they’re delivered appropriately. That you have to interact with operations in order to make sure that we are charging appropriate amounts and writing these statements of work that would make sense and that the customer wouldn’t bulk at but would also not sink the organization because you’re giving away too many services for free and what have you. So I find those, at least I found those situations, not so much of an issue with cross org collaboration, but really with individual development and understanding how to you know really make that context resonate for people who were just trying to find their way and find their path. Every agency is different and every agency has a different way of defining what success within the agency context for that agency is. I, again, I thought it was really educational but it’s probably not the right industry for me. I like where I am.
Patrick Kua: Well, that’s very good. I’m very happy that you’re happy where you are. Maybe that actually does bring us on some other questions because since then you’ve been at places like Taxbit and Stripe and now in your ActionIQ place, so over that career of working with so many different leaders and engineering managers, you’ve probably seen people who’ve made that transition from managing a team of individual contributors to starting to manage other managers. So what are some signs that you look for that you think that people are ready to move from managing a team directly to managing other managers?
Tramale Turner: Yes. So many. I think it starts really with the presentation of self. And how they start thinking about and talking about the business. What things are they trying to drive in the line manager context? You’re really trying to execute on the charter that you have and to deliver software and services that would be, not to overuse the the wording, but deliver on the promise of that service substrate or that product substrate that you’re trying to build. You’re a piece of a whole. When you start to zoom out in how you think about the business, how you talk about the business, how you talk about the the opportunities within the business from the piece to the whole, then I start to see signals of, okay, maybe this person is thinking larger than themselves and larger than the context that they’ve been operating in. To begin to remove themselves from their silos so to speak. Which I think is a bit unfair. But the metaphor helps. Once they are starting to have an awareness of what that opportunity is.
The next thing I look for is influence. Are they able to see that even though they understand what might be better outcomes for that whole are they able to convince others that those outcomes are indeed true? There are many ways of doing that. Some people are charismatic. Some people are deeply deeply data focused and can bring any argument to bear. What I think is really, like superior leadership signal for a person who might be headed towards this leader of leader’s role, is when they can start to understand the context for the people and the teams on the organizations that they have to discuss. So for this organization, let’s just use a random example. If they’re talking to security, security cares deeply about the the parameter of safety and durability and they want to make sure that the very most critical thing that any conversation begins and ends with safety. Does that person understand their context and know how to speak to them?
And then when they’re talking to, perhaps, a partner team who are delivering services or products similar to their own do they understand what the motivational and what the needs are for those teams? And typically, because they’ve hopefully been operating with it in that context for some time, that’s an easy conversation. But then if they’re talking about yet another color of delivery, do they understand where there might be tradeoffs or natural friction in between what their organization’s delivering and what that sister organization might be delivering? And can they effectively have a conversation that speaks to those tradeoffs but still gets an outcome that is anchoring on that north star benefit that they see? And all those things. When you start to see a person operating in that fashion, I think that’s where you can start having the conversation, okay, what about the more solid signal of does this person build great teams? Are they adaptable and aware? Do they have this execution mastery that we want to see? And so on and so forth. And so all of those things, for me, make up a a great deal of strong signal towards, okay, this might be a person who’s ready for that next level of execution mode of delivering on building out a structure that.
To use a metaphor that my friend Laura Butler uses. Laura was a longtime Microsoft executive and I think is now CTO at a company called Armoir in Seattle. Laura says the hallmark of great scaled leadership is building a civilization. And I love the metaphor because civilization requires so many things. You need basic services. You need utilities. You need safety. You know, police, fire etc. You need transportation. You need all of the things that make a civilization thrive and you also need to understand that it needs to thrive without you. That you can build something durable because of the things that you’ve put in place to make sure that the the system continues to thrive even in your absence. And when you find a person with that type of mindset, they’re ready to lead leaders.
Patrick Kua: That’s a really great metaphor and one that I’ve never actually heard before. But I think I’ll definitely use that civilization metaphor more. I can see it going in many other places as well now. Just in terms of the amount of complexity that you have to deal with, but as you said you have to be able to step back because you’re not going to get it involved in every part of that civilization.
Patrick Kua: Maybe two last questions for you then. Imagine that you’ve spotted talent of people who are you have that potential of being a manager of manager. What would you give as their first bit of advice on day one of stepping into that new role?
Tramale Turner: Learn as much as you can about the organizational context that you’re operating in. That just means talking to as many people as you possibly can. And when you get exhausted and when you get tired, talk to a few more. Because you’re not done yet. I think the biggest thing that helps a leader regardless, be they a line manager or the CEO of the company, that helps them drive success within an organization is understanding organizational context and getting as much signal as they possibly can in order to make decisions. You just said something I think that’s critically important. You’re not going to know everything that’s happening all the time. It’s impossible. You can’t be in all the places. Those who endeavor to do that are typically seen as bad leaders because they’re considered micromanagers or ineffective because they’re organizations, their civilizations, can’t thrive without them. When you’re new to the role, building those relationships and then understanding what’s driving the organization, what’s important to the organization, what’s important to your CEO, what’s important to the first team that reports directly to that CEO. You need to be able to manage effectively the organizational context that you are operating within. So spending a little time to understand that context, understand the structure, and to understand, almost to be something of a historian and to go splunking through the history of the organization, why did it get to the point? And how did it get to the point that it is now? And what are the opportunities that it has ahead of it? I think that’s one of the most and critically important things. Almost more important initially than even your own organization. Because your own organization exists in service of that greater goal. So understanding what that greater goal is so that you can contextualize it for your organization I think, critically important.
Patrick Kua: That’s a really outstanding piece of advice and very well put. My last question for you then, is where can people find out more about you or reach out to contact you?
Tramale Turner: Yeah. So I have this wonderful name that my father created. So I’m pretty unique and easily searchable in Google. If you put my first name and last name in. Tramel Turner. You’re probably going to find me. Pretty quickly. But I’m at shidoshi on Twitter. And shidoshi on Bluesky. I’m pretty much almost always the shidoshi that you find out there. I’ve held that moniker since 1992.
Patrick Kua: Nice.
Tramale Turner: On the internet. There are a few others. But typically it’s me. And if it’s not me, it’s usually pretty obvious that it’s not me. And if anyone would like to reach out on LinkedIn and have a coffee chat about anything that we talked about today. I love those. Our industry is ever expanding but is still pretty small. And leaders of leaders within our industry… it’s, I think, as many people know, a quite lonely pursuit and so having as many conversations about what this practice is like and being able to learn from others I think is critically important. So I commend you for being one of those voices within our industry. That’s really a strong proponent of continuous learning and collaboration and connection. So thank you for that and and I encourage others to follow the model that you present.
Patrick Kua: Thank you very much and we’ll make sure that all those links appear in the show notes as well, so that people can find you. So thank you. It’s been a real delight to hear your stories, to hear about your thinking. I think we could talk about this for hours. But unfortunately our time is up today but I really want to thank you for your time and appearing in the podcast.
Tramale Turner: Thank you for having me. It’s been a joy.