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Episode 15: Greater scope, systems and what is a VP of Engineering and Operations with Maria Gutierrez

    Guest Biography

    Maria Gutierrez is an Engineering executive and advisor with over 20 years of experience working at companies ranging from early-stage to large public tech companies. A big focus of her work is building healthier and more impactful Product and Engineering organisations at scale.

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    Patrick Kua: Hi everyone. I’m really thankful that Maria Gutierrez can join us today. She’s an engineering executive and advisor with over 20 years of experience working at companies ranging from early stage to large public tech companies. A big focus of her work is building healthier and more impactful product and engineering organisations at scale, which I’m pretty sure we could all use. Hi Maria! Welcome to the podcast.

    Maria Gutierrez: Hi Pat. Thanks for having me here.

    Patrick Kua: Excellent. I mean you’ve got such an amazing background in your career so far. You’ve done so many different roles. Worked at so many well-known companies like Adobe, Living Social, Freeagent, Intercom, Twitter and more. So maybe you can tell us… go back in time and tell us how you first started getting into management. So what was your first time managing other people?

    Maria Gutierrez: I have to really go back because I think I’ve been around the block for a little while now. But I think that the first time that I started to consider becoming a manager was when I was at Adobe. I was an individual contributor. My manager had started to talk to me about the idea of maybe, looking into getting into management. At the time I wasn’t very keen on it. I was like, no, no I feel like I have a lot more to learn.

    Patrick Kua: Like a lot of people.

    Maria Gutierrez: On the technical side. But I think in hindsight one thing he did that was brilliant, is like, okay, well take your time. Let’s explore what that’d look like and he put me through some management training that Adobe was making available to employees just to see if, kind of, I was interested in the topics. Whilst I didn’t decide to continue at Adobe as a manager, from there I moved to LivingSocial and, again, I joined as a technical lead and I was very much in my mind I want to be an engineer. Build them. Fixing things. I don’t know if you remember Living Social. That was about 2011 and it was one of the original unicorns. So it was super rapid growth when I joined. The team that I was working on, we were like about 5 or 6 people and in no time we were 20 people and growing and more.

    Maria Gutierrez: It became very clear, very quickly, that actually me taking on that management position would be very helpful for the team, who was at the time and my manager had taken more responsibilities. The org was growing quite a lot so he was like, hey Maria, maybe you should be considering taking that on. It felt right at the time. It really felt like it was the right thing for me to contribute to the team. And that was when I was very grateful that I had done a little bit of management training before and I had the opportunity as well at Adobe to lead the intern cohort a few times so I already knew a little bit of what I was getting myself into. So yeah, I’m very grateful that I was able to do that and not just dive into the deep end without any context whatsoever of what to expect.

    Patrick Kua: Which is a lot of the experience a lot of first time managers have. Now it’s a little bit different because there’s a little bit more effort in training people. But back then, such a great opportunity to have some of that training before stepping and dipping your toes into trying out management. So I understand that was your first management role a long time ago. Do you remember when you started to transition into managing other managers or leaders?

    Maria Gutierrez: Yeah. It was very quickly after because we were growing very very quickly. So my team got quite big. I ended up with about I think twelve people or whatever and we started to consider, ok, maybe we need to split. We were building different products. So we brought in another manager to manage part of the team and then that person was reporting to me whilst I was still responsible for one of the teams and very quickly that became like 3 teams and 4 teams. I think you know from being a baby manager, first-time manager, to becoming a manager of managers was not a very long time. Like I think it was probably within the year in all that happened.

    Patrick Kua: Wow. That’s a really rapid journey there and can you remember anything that really surprised you about managing managers versus managing individual contributors of that time?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think this is the biggest problem. Because if you take into account that I had transitioned from an IC to a manager not that long ago. The way that I measure my contribution, some value, was still very much through understanding in depth the systems what we were trying to build. Getting close to the details of what the team was doing and the technical challenges. So when you become a manager you have to go through that first phase, okay, Maria you can’t be on everything. You need to enable everybody. But actually moving into a manager of managers, there’s another layer of abstraction in there. It did take me a minute to figure out. Okay, how do I now understand what’s going on in these other teams. In this first team I had a lot of context and I knew exactly the product and the systems, etc, but as we build new things and I haven’t been there from the beginning it is a little bit more of a challenge to get, you know, the data that you feel comfortable having. And so that was the journey of, like ok, how do I let go? How do I start gathering information about what’s important from the other managers? So that was definitely the biggest shock to the system.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah. You’re right. Absolutely, which is that extra, what you described, as the extra layer of abstraction. Another point of indirection there. And with a number of different teams, you probably also have teams that are maybe working differently in different fashions, so how do you adjust for that, or how did you adjust for that in your system of collecting information because I’m guessing each team had a slightly different process or way of working?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think that was the… and not even just the teams. Even just the managers had different approaches. We all had, you know, had different managers that we had to learn from or come from different companies that approached their problems differently. And aligning to those expectations was probably one of the big challenges for me. I knew my winning formula. I think at the beginning, you just want to force your winning formula on other people and you realise that actually that might be the winning formula for me but not necessarily for other people with other styles or ways to see the problems. And really trying to understand, ok, why are people doing things in this way? What can I learn from it? But also, how do we set the right boundaries, contexts and expectations? So regardless of your style or your approach, at least there’s a common understanding of what is expected and what we’re trying to do. I think that was my very first dive into the wonderful world of setting expectations with your team. Creating career ladders, etc. To be able to codify that a little bit.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, great. I heard you say there around setting expectations and boundaries with managers. What’s a concrete example? So what’s a type of conversation that you would have setting expectations and boundaries with a manager?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think it’s like trying to understand what, first, the role. And responsibility. Depending on where you work and the type of teams that you manage. I’ve managed a lot of product engineering teams. So the engineering manager normally works with a product leader or a design leader. And just like even, different people, depending on their strengths, take different approaches. That’s something like that clarification. Okay, now what are you here to do? What are the things that you are driving? For me, it is in 3 areas. Around setting the charter and like being clear about what the team is trying to do. Is that well-communicated, understood by the team? But also by the people that interface with the team. Then how do we do execution? So for me, the managers and the models that have operated. And I’m a big fan that they are delivery managers as well. So they’re not just responsible for the people and their growth and their performance but they’ve also got skin in the game. They are responsible for getting those products and those things out of the door. So what are our commitments to delivery? Are we doing that well or not? And the quality of the product that we’re building isn’t hitting the bar and are we responding to incidents or any of the issues that we hear from customers, etc? Then the people side of things. Are you hiring people that we need? And are you doing that in a timely manner? How are you onboarding people to be productive immediately? How are you managing performance, growth like rewarding that or not. So for me, those are like the 3 pieces that I try to make sure that we are aligned on what is expected and what we’re doing as a group.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, amazing. I think it’s great that you can articulate those 3 areas for managers because I think when I talk to a lot of engineering managers, they get thrown in and they just are expected to know what’s right. And fingers crossed, that they get some feedback at some point. But setting those expectations upfront with, what is the shape of the role? What does that look like in your organisation and giving people that reinforcement? I can see so much value in helping people understand that. How they know that they’re functioning well within their organisation. One of the things I heard you say was around thinking about that evaluation part and that’s an interesting thing because typically you’re not really going to be involved in the day-to-day with your managers. So you’ve set some expectations with what is the shape of this engineering manager role. How do you know that they’re doing those roles well when you’re not there to see some of their results?

    Maria Gutierrez: That’s a problem that I deal with a lot. So as well as managers I’ve managed especially this past five, six years, quite a lot of program managers and operations people, etc. And that’s like the typical. They are everywhere but they’re not working with you very very closely. So for me, it’s two ways. I understand their peers. What is the feedback from their peer group? What is the feedback from the stakeholders that depend on their work? What is the perception outside of the team of what is happening and the performance of that person? And then skip levels like which are also very important. Is like, okay how is the team doing? How are they seeing the contributions of their manager to help them do their job and to set them up for success? So having you know a way to pick up on those things and actively ask for that feedback is the only way that I can triangulate a little bit of what’s happening here. I’m hearing you. Hearing them here and there and just trying to bring the full picture together.

    Patrick Kua: Great. I do love that triangulation metaphor of, you know, you’re almost emitting sounds to try to work out the shape of something that you have a good idea but you don’t really, can’t firsthand see it. So I think it makes sense.

    Maria Gutierrez: One of my favourite things is when people that work with my team provide unsolicited feedback about those folks. I think you get that when you start investing in those relationships with the people around the group and suddenly people know that you’re probably going to ask them this time, so they probably sometimes just go more proactively to let you know those things. So you have to negotiate chasing them.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, great. Yeah, it definitely makes your job a lot easier if people are bringing you the information instead of always having to ask for it. Absolutely. So you’ve done a lot of managing manager roles in your career. What would you describe as other differences between managing a team of individual contributors and managing other managers?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think the bigger one is the scope of the work that you’re doing. Like when you are managing your team you have normally a more limited scope. Suddenly you are now working on a portfolio of products. Or if it’s a product, many different aspects of it and the complexity normally of how those things come together is different. Instead of thinking as well as maybe about a system or two that you’re responsible for. Now you’re responsible for a distributed team system and you need to figure out, OK, what are the right technical decisions as well that we need to make here. So I think that this scope is definitely one of the challenges. Is like you need to start to think more systems versus individual solutions. Then what we said before, the visibility of the work and even your own expertise on those areas. I remember the first time that I was asked to manage. I was at LivingSocial and I had been managing a product. A team with different types of features and different solutions but they were all a stack that I was very familiar with.

    Maria Gutierrez: Like product development. That it was very familiar and then I took on internal tools. Suddenly I had to manage our Salesforce engineers and administrators. I had no clue. It’s like I don’t even know what’s going on here. Is that like, oh, now you are responsible for something that not just that you don’t know in detail. It’s like even the domain is new to you. You have to then go back to those first principles of what you expect from those people to ensure that you actually are on top of what’s going on there. And if there are any risks and that you start exploring and identify where you actually need to build good domain expertise. So having, you know, that ability to pick up quickly context and understanding and know what new things from the domain you need to learn is also different from just a specific team. The last one would be assessing from afar. Like you were saying any organisational dysfunctions. You are not there day-to-day. So you go by what you hear or maybe that spidey sense, in that something is not quite right over there. What’s your framework to start figuring out what is happening and whether you need to dive in or not?

    Patrick Kua: Great. Lots of good concrete examples that I can definitely relate to a lot of the topics that you talked about as well. Particularly also dealing with teams that you have no background in. It’s like I don’t know what your tech stack is. I will learn it. I’m not going to be hands-on but I need to understand some of this to understand the risks and the complexities that you’re going to face. So I can definitely empathise with all the different areas that you talked about. Let’s talk a little bit about the process because I think at a managing managers’ level, it looks a little bit different than at a team level. A few years ago, you joined me on a panel where we talked about processes. I loved that conversation. In your experience, as a Head of or a VP, what are some processes that you think about that are maybe different than what an engineering manager might focus on?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think it goes back to what we were saying. I think probably the biggest lesson for me was thinking about systems. I know you have a course all about systems thinking, but I think it’s so important because then suddenly all the pieces start to come together.

    Maria Gutierrez: For me, my system, when I think about the health of an organisation and how you aim to build a high-performing organisation is like this 3 three-legged stool. Do we have clarity on the direction of the business? The mission. What are the goals that we’re trying to achieve? Who are our customers and what problems are we trying to solve for them? So there’s a number of processes that I think are important that we invest on to make sure we have that clarity and are from like how do we set a strategy? How do we set the planning process for roadmapping or metrics? And how do you measure progress on a regular basis? So that’s one area that I’ve spent a lot of time looking through in many of the jobs that I’ve had. Then you have more the execution processes. Like okay, that’s great and that’s very exciting but like actually how are we going to get this thing done? And what are the best practices and what is the quality bar for us that we want to align on how we build the right thing the right way? Those are processes for me around more like your CI/CD processes. Like how do you automate as much of the things that you know need to be happening over and over again and that you want to make sure that every engineer in your organisation knows exactly what to do especially when problems arise like incident management. All those things you cannot leave it up in the air of how it’s going to be done. As you grow more and more as an organisation there’s how do you manage dependencies? How do you track those things? Do you have a good understanding of your KPIs for systems’ health, whether it is how you address bugs or availability or security vulnerabilities, the performance, etc. So having your little score card of how you measure those things and know when to pull the lever and say oh no, no no, we’re in trouble we need to do something here. The last bucket is the people. So your processes around hiring, onboarding, performance management, promotions, etc. Especially as you start growing it’s very easy to have unfair processes and biassed processes. So while I’m not a big fan of putting a lot of structure on that, you need to have something that at least gives you that sense that you actually are being consistent and approaching that in a sustainable way for the organisation.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely. I guess for a more established company some of those, particularly the people process, is going to be shared across the company and inherited from that side. On the product engineering side, I think that’s interesting because there’s an interesting tradeoff I guess of what you would like to have from all teams and then there’s the engineering manager perspective of I want to run my team my own way. So do you have any heuristics around how do you find a balance between that? Do you have anything about being prescriptive or how flexible are you on that?

    Maria Gutierrez: I like to give teams as much autonomy as possible. But autonomy doesn’t mean that you are working on a silo or doing your own thing because when processes are super restrictive, you are losing a lot from innovation or even velocity, etc. Actually the opposite, kind of too much autonomy and things done in completely different ways can actually sometimes cause even more problems than very strict constraints. That’s something that I’ve seen all through my career over and over again. That is like when you leave things too loose without constraints or guardrails, it’s chaos. It’s just the wild west and then you’re just wasting so many resources and you’re just not making the progress that you think you need. So I put my engineering hat on and I think about this. About defining good interfaces. So we have a distributed system. So what are the interfaces of how we’re going to talk to each other and how we are going to measure the health of the system?

    Maria Gutierrez: And that’s like the thing that gets me a little bit of an idea of where we should have some of those processes in place. I’m a big fan of having a common rhythm of the business. Cadences. A calendar that we all are humming around the same time. So planning processes and cycle processes for development because if we’re all speaking in the same language and we all know where we are, it’s just there’s so much cognitive overload that you can remove. You don’t have to be worrying about oh how are we doing the planning process this time? What are we doing here? So having a lightweight but consistent planning process I think is super important, especially as you need to set expectations with other parts of the business as well that are interfacing with us.

    Maria Gutierrez: As I said I believe I’m being fairly strict on the development process. I’m a big fan of investing a lot on developer experience and automate as much as possible of that and have all teams doing it the same way so that if you need to adapt and change the organisation, it’s very easy for the person that moves from team A to Team C to quickly get up to a speed as well and know have to relearn how how everything is done. I think outside those ones then any information that we need to report on or that the team is producing that is of interest to other people. One of the biggest problems I’ve seen everywhere I work is how you manage knowledge. It’s impossible to know what’s going on with a project. There’s so much duplication of work. This team uses Notion. This team uses Asana. Another team uses Google Docs. Then it’s like okay, how do you even start?

    Patrick Kua: And very rarely up to date.

    Maria Gutierrez: Sometimes you make compromises because there’s no one perfect tool for everything. But actually the value of having consistent information that is accessible to everybody and that you know what to expect or if you have to write a new PRD (Product Requirements Document), you know exactly what you know like a product. A document about the purpose of why we’re building this. Or a technical document if we have common ways of doing that it’s just so much easier for people to very quickly get on with what they’re trying to do. So it’s a balance. But I think those interfaces are super helpful to get a company like a well-oiled machine going.

    Patrick Kua: Great. I love that technical analogy of that interface as well. We always talk about clarifying the communication boundaries. Allowing more different implementations and we really want to get those interfaces right because they’re going to be really hard to change in the future.

    Maria Gutierrez: How the team does a standup. How they organise and plan their own work. Do whatever works for you all depending on the needs of the team. But it’s like just making sure that what needs to be passed to other teams and the information we need to gather is there.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely. Over your career, you would have been leading processes or structures and at some point probably needed to change them that affect lots of different teams. Can you think of an example of a process or a structural change and how did you go about doing that since it affects a lot of an organisation?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think as I was saying before, probably the planning processes of everywhere I’ve worked have had a little bit of Maria.

    Patrick Kua: Improvement by Maria. Love it.

    Maria Gutierrez: I hope so. Maybe other people have other opinions. But I think that’s normally one of the biggest challenges when, especially when I’ve gone to other companies more as a senior leader and you join. Some of the problems that those companies normally try to address are the velocity of development or like sales and customer services feel that product and engineering are not building any of the things that they’re hearing from customers that are a priority. Or bugs and issues are not being addressed in a timely manner, etc. So I think the planning process and their roadmapping process is a very very good time to set that alignment across the business and between even between the different engineering teams to really decide, OK, this is what we’re trying to do as a business. These are the inputs coming from all the different parts of the business and this is what we think we can do with the capacity we have. And then when you involve all those teams into that process, you can first ensure that you actually have all the knowledge of the business. You know what matters. Influencing those decisions. But also it helps set expectations with those people and understanding why certain things are prioritised or not. Then when you go into engineering as you have all your agreed plans, you can start seeing and talking about dependencies at a higher level earlier rather than leave it at the moment of execution when then is down in the teams fighting with each other because they have incompatible priorities, and they’re both, different teams are optimising for different things. So for me, establishing that rhythm of like you set priorities and agree on what you’re going to be doing. Whether it’s on a quarterly, six month basis or whatever the cadence is for the business, I find that adds a huge amount of value on providing clarity and helping them with the execution down the line.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah I completely agree. I can imagine a lot of companies, as they grow organically they use their planning processes and there’s no incentive to change that. Then Maria comes in and sees all of these maybe stakeholders who aren’t involved or dependencies identified very late who want to improve this. How have you gone about getting buy-in to change this process? It affects a huge number of the organisation. Probably a lot of senior stakeholders. What’s been some of your approaches to improving that product planning process?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think for me, it’s always understanding the problem and what you’re trying to solve. Then getting the right alignment and buy in from the main stakeholders on what you’re trying to drive and do. And once you make that decision. Okay, this is a problem worth solving. This is what we’re trying to do with the outcome that we’re going for, probably the most critical thing is identifying who’s going to go on that journey with you.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah.

    Maria Gutierrez: And who’s going to help you to actually execute on that. And that’s super critical because you need it. You both need subject matter experts on the ideas that are going to be impacted. It’s not just like product engineering, like somebody from the go-to market, somebody from CX. If you have the right people that bring in the right input from the different organisations and then they go and set expectations with their org about what is happening and like how we are contributing to that, you are already managing a lot of the change management that you need to do down the line when you decide to go with that approach. So I think finding those key people that represent the different stakeholders is super important. Then once you come up with some options for it. I think you should always have different options because if you just come with this, this is what we’re gonna do. Is like well, what else have we considered. What else could we do?

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like a choice right?

    Maria Gutierrez: So I always like to have at least 3 options so you can decide. That’s what we’re optimising for in each of those things and these are the tradeoffs. Then it’s just about testing. Especially on a large scale, with larger organisations I think it’s pretty risky to just go and change something and then hope for the best. So there’s always that one team or manager or somebody that is super keen and really wants to see that thing fixed and that is quite open. You know they are quite open to some changes. So do some trials. And then when you demonstrate that actually that has solved the problem, then you can go to the rest of the company saying hey these are the results and this what we learned and this how we’ve actually improved based on the feedback from the trial. Some of the implementation. Once you have that data, it’s a lot easier to go and do a full-on rollout because you can actually give actual information about the improvement.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, amazing stories of implementing change and getting that buy-in. I can recognise a lot of similar things that I’ve seen as successful techniques during consulting as well. Like finding those stakeholders. Finding those really keen people who are the early adopters and maybe getting them as part of the experiment to fail fast as you talked about. I think a lot of leaders when they step into this and then drive a change like this they think, oh, you know, we’re going to make this change. It’s going to be really quick. The way that you describe it, of talking to stakeholders, involving people. It feels like there’s quite a time lapse to making this change happen. So if you think back into past places where you’ve helped to improve, maybe that product planning process, what would be, finger in the air, the most optimistic timeline for changing a process. If you were to say we started this and then at some point later we have that what would be that timeframe?

    Maria Gutierrez: It depends. So when we did this at Freeagent, it was a smaller team. So at the time I think there were maybe sixty/seventy people in the product organisation and we just went and said like let’s do it. Like we know this is broken. We have a good path. We talked to people but like when it came to implementation you were very hands-on and you were going through the whole process. So it was a new quarterly cycle and it’s like, okay, let’s try differently because what we have clearly is not working.

    Maria Gutierrez: Like when I joined, for example at Twitter, we had some biggest big challenges around setting priorities and conflicting dependencies, etc. And that was like that was not a place. I mean we’re talking at the time for a thousand people in product and engineering is like you know you can’t just change it all. So then it’s more of an incremental. It’s like, hey, we would like to get here so this first quarter we’re going to tackle this piece so you get a little bit more strategic on how you sequence kind of the problem. It’s no different to building products. You’re not doing a big bang. It’s like, ok, how do we incrementally add value and learn from it. I’m a big fan of moving with urgency. So I think actually the time that it takes can kill the success of the process. So you don’t want to be talking about something forever and not see results because that, by itself, makes people feel like we’re not making any progress. Clearly this is not working. So I have a bias for like, no, actually let’s do this thing. But you need to assess the risk of what you are doing and how strong or not you want to go with the change.

    Patrick Kua: Great, amazing. Now I get a sense that these improvements you have for organisations. It’s something that’s a personal passion and there’s this idea of making operations more effective and I find a couple of your more recent roles are really interesting because they’re unusual titles. So one of them is the VP of engineering strategy and operations at Twitter and now VP of engineering and operations at, so tell us more about what does operations mean? What does that encompass? Because it’s not a typical engineering thing. When I think about operations I think okay infrastructure operations. But this feels something a little bit different.

    Maria Gutierrez: This is organisational operation. I think there’s different in the past. You know you can call it business operations or I think different companies call it different ways. So the reason that I go more into operations was, as an engineer and leader, like I found especially I’ve worked in quite a few companies that were going through very rapid growth. What I found myself all of the time and seeing my peers as well was that you ended up focusing more as a leader on managing the scaling of the organisation than actually defining as a strategy for the business or other strategy, technical strategy or focusing on the quality of the solutions and like what we were pushing out there and the delivery. So I started to get quite worried about this because it’s like oh my god. I’m not spending time on this. I’m not doing those things. They are core things from my job and instead I’m hiring all day. I’m figuring out planning processes. I’m figuring out ladders and careers. So I started to do more of those things and I realised actually the more I have a clear system. You know, blueprint for how we operate, the faster we actually go then on the things that we’re trying to deliver. So when I was at Intercom I made a pitch, can we create an operations function for product and engineering. So that we have dedicated people that can be running those processes and programs. Obviously all of the leaders were the stakeholders and a lot of times we were defining what needed to change and the subject matter expert or engineering managers or principal engineers, etc. But we had dedicated people that were responsible to be on top of where this was going and how we were going to embed it to the organisation and making sure that actually those things were happening. For me that was like completely life changing.

    Maria Gutierrez: That’s when we started to define more clarity for the organisation. Leader then you get involved but you don’t have to be a program managing everything and ensuring that the right people are connected and getting the input from everybody. So that was very successful at Intercom and the team kept on growing and we kept on bringing both like operations people. Also the TPM team was growing and they were getting more embedded with this group. So I was running both product engineering for a part of the organisation and this ops role and the role at Intercom ended up being similar. Like at Twitter. They said, hey, actually we need somebody to do this full time for us. We want somebody that comes from an engineering background. Has had experience as an engineer. As a manager. As a director. As a VP so that we can make sure that whatever we implement resonates with the way that we build. That was the role that I took.

    Patrick Kua: So to make it a little bit more concrete. So I heard you say that the operations part would own some processes. What would be an example of a process they own versus other teams?

    Maria Gutierrez: So at Twitter we owned the strategy planning process. So how do we get all the engineering organisations set in a strategy on a cadence and ensure that those strategies were aligned with each other and with the business goal. Then managing the planning process for the organisation and then I had TPMs as well. So then managing the execution. How did we track all the work? How do we report it on the big programs? Then we also had people programs. How do we manage working with talent acquisition on our hiring plans? Headcount plans? How did they align to the different organisations? Onboarding plans for the team and then managing your budget as well was a big part of that exercise.

    Patrick Kua: Excellent.

    Maria Gutierrez: It’s like how do we run the business?

    Patrick Kua: Yeah I mean that’s a great example. Lots of very concrete things and it’s also one of those things that when I think about some organisations, these are often part time responsibilities for managers who are already busy. As you say they just don’t have that capacity to really think about these things or to do them as effectively. So it makes sense to have a dedicated focused group who can focus on this full time and not let things slip through.

    Maria Gutierrez: I think the key is obviously involving the subject matter experts. You don’t want this group, or me, on an ivory tower, deciding things that impact the work of everybody else when I am not exposed or know the ins and outs of the problems. But if there’s good collaboration and inside then that can be actually pretty powerful.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Yeah, my mental model at the moment has been having a lot of conversations around team topologies. It’s the platform team for the engineering leadership.

    Maria Gutierrez: Yeah, pretty much.

    Patrick Kua: Effectively helping people be more effective with their processes and like a good platform team, you have to talk to the consumers to try to understand what their needs are.

    Maria Gutierrez: Exactly.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Love it. So let’s talk about your current team then at What does it look like now? Do you manage managers directly or ICs or what’s that shape look like?

    Maria Gutierrez: A mixture of a little bit of everything. So I have a little bit of a dual role as well. So on one side as an engineering leader I’m responsible for our platform team which is infrastructure, developer experience, and one of the product engineering teams that manages a part of the core product. Then on the other side I manage all the operations for the product engineering organisation. That’s a mixture of how that organisation works and what we were saying, budgets etc. But then program management, technical program management. Our product compliance team as well. So there’s a little bit of two sides. But the exciting thing is it gives me a full view end-to-end of what happens at From a team that is more product-focused to all the way to the platform and then how do we set those processes. So I have Directors of Engineering reporting to me, or senior managers, staff+ engineers. And then some program managers and technical program managers and operations people as well.

    Patrick Kua: Sounds like a very busy role.

    Maria Gutierrez: It is just now. I’m still settling into it. So we’re building the team and the organisation you know.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, that’s great. I mean it’s an exciting opportunity to have such a broad view across an organisation particularly as large as is now and to have an impact and influence over the way that people work and in that structure. So it’s a really exciting opportunity. I’m very happy for you.

    Maria Gutierrez: Yeah, but thank you so much. But going back to what you were saying of managers or ICs. I actually think it is super important if you are an engineering leader to have both reporting to you I think. You can get very biassed on your view of the world if you’re only talking to managers. Not that they are just giving you one, you know on purpose, one view but that experience is different from a staff engineer or a principal engineer that is looking at the problems of the organisation from a very different lens. And I always really enjoyed having those two sides of the coin because I feel like I make better decisions when I get the full picture of what’s happening.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, fantastic. I mean one way that a lot of managers managers do that, I guess is through skip one to ones. Is that something that you’ve already started and what’s your cadence for that? How do you choose where you so spend skipped one one ones considering you probably have a very large organisation?

    Maria Gutierrez: Yeah. So that’s something that I’ve started but I’m figuring out, especially as I’ve taken some different responsibilities. I’ve got some key leadership gaps in my organisation that I think I need to fill before I can go full on and dedicate more time into that. But it is either you do regular planning but like if you are constrained on time, I tend to focus on the areas where I think we need to put more focus or that I think there might be a little bit more conflict with the rest of the organisation or something very critical that we need to push through. And prioritise those areas a little bit.

    Patrick Kua: Great! Love it. So maybe heading towards the tail end of our podcast here, I’d like to wrap up with quick fire advice around your perspective around managing managers. So as a manager of managers, what does your support network look like these days?

    Maria Gutierrez: I am very fortunate that I’ve got a very strong support network. Family and friends first of all. Like if it wasn’t for my husband, my son, it would be very difficult to do what I do. Then you know friends as well that keep me grounded. Especially I’ve got a lot of close friends nearby. None of them in tech and I think this a lifesaver because like if you know when you’re talking to nurses and doctors or other people you get a very different perspective about your problems versus and the problems that other people are going through. So I love that and then work. I put one of the most important pieces of advice that I would give to anybody is the investment on their relationships with your peers. Like other engineering leaders or product leaders, etc. Just is so important that you have the support network. People that you can sanity check your decisions and talk through problems and then like more in the industry and outside like I’ve been very lucky that through the different companies that I’ve worked at, I’ve built a very strong. Like those people in my internal network then have become friends and forever peers outside other companies or people that I have met, like yourself through the industry that I feel I have quite a lot of people in the industry that I can very quickly go and get some sanity check or advice if I need to.

    Patrick Kua: That’s fantastic and I’m really happy that you’ve got such a broad, rich network that you can draw upon. So that’s really fantastic. What do you think has been the maybe most useful book or books that have helped you manage other managers?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think one one that I really like and I think it’s probably the first time that it was written more clearly. What is that expectation and difference, was Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path. I think that was the first time that I read very clearly, like okay, what’s the difference. Does that fit with how I feel about it or not? Obviously this book wasn’t there when I became a manager of managers, but probably the most influential for me in my career and if you’ve heard me talk in any other conference or any other talk that I’ve done, is I always mentioned The Advantage from Patrick Leconi. That was a book that came at a perfect time for me and really helped me kind of start thinking more about the systems and like my role as a leader to provide clarity to the organisation and to actually work very closely with my peers instead of just managing my slice of the pie instead of trying to align what we’re trying to do as a leadership team. So that’s probably by far the most influential one.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, fantastic books. We’ll make sure that they appear in the show notes as well. If you were to go back in time. Probably quite a while to when you were transitioning from being a manager to managing managers for the first time, what advice would you give yourself?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think because I grew… I was pushed to different roles very very quickly probably before I felt confident then that I was ready for them, I second-guessed my thoughts. A lot about what was right or was I doing the right thing. And in hindsight like I wish I would just have more confidence in my spidey sense. Actually I think something is not quite right there. Let’s go and see what it is versus, just like, okay well, it’ll be fine. It’ll fix itself as you do sometimes at the beginning of your career. So it’s just that trust of, like, you normally know, when something is not quite right and that should be guidance for you to go, ok, let’s get an answer. Let’s see what is happening. And then be more open as well. To other approaches and just because I prefer doing things one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. So I think that earlier on in my career that would have been useful.

    Patrick Kua: Amazing. I mean you’ve probably applied those lessons learned now throughout the rest of your career. So a lot of people will benefit from that as well. Finally, where can people connect with you or reach out to you if they’d like to connect to you?

    Maria Gutierrez: I think these days I would say Linkedin. Maybe I would have got a different answer a few months ago. But I think Linkedin. You can get me there.

    Patrick Kua: Great and we’ll make sure that the Linkedin link appears in the show notes as well. Well thank you so much Maria it’s been a fantastic hour speaking with you on this topic. You’ve got such an amazing rich, wealth of experience. I wish I could talk to you more on lots of other topics. But we have run out of time and I really want to thank you for sharing your experiences with the listeners.

    Maria Gutierrez: That’s great. No. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve loved talking about this.

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