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Episode 17: A unique leadership journey and avoiding swirl with Sally Lait

    Guest Biography

    Sally Lait is an Engineering Director for Trust & Safety at Bumble Inc. – encouraging kind connections that demonstrate integrity, equality, confidence, and respect during all stages of any relationship, through our apps like Bumble Date, Bumble For Friends, Badoo, Fruitz, Official etc. Prior to that she’s been VP of Engineering at Farewill, led engineering in Operations and Financial Crime as well as Monzo’s web discipline, ran a digital transformation consultancy, and worked for a global digital agency. What’s really important to Sally is building a strong culture, and creating supportive and inclusive environments for people and teams to thrive and do fantastic technical work. She’s a strong advocate for building software and teams alike with empathy, responsibility, and accessibility in mind.

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    Transcript

    Patrick Kua: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Managing Managers podcast. Today we have Sally Lait. She’s an Engineering Director for Trust & Safety at Bumble Inc. – encouraging kind connections that demonstrate integrity, equality, confidence, and respect during all stages of any relationship, through our apps like Bumble Date, Bumble For Friends, Badoo, Fruitz, Official and more. Prior to that she’s been VP of Engineering at Farewill, led engineering in Operations and Financial Crime as well as Monzo’s web discipline, ran a digital transformation consultancy, and worked for a global digital agency. What’s really important to Sally is building a strong culture, and creating supportive and inclusive environments for people and teams to thrive and do fantastic technical work. She’s a strong advocate for building software and teams alike with empathy, responsibility, and accessibility in mind. Welcome to the podcast Sally.

    Sally Lait: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. I know we’ve been talking about this for a while. So it’s great to finally make it happen.

    Patrick Kua: I’m really excited to talk to you about your story and you’ve got such a fascinating background across the different companies and your experiences, so why don’t you tell us about how you got into tech and how you especially started to get into the leadership or management track.

    Sally Lait: Absolutely. Yeah, well, it all started out for me when I was hanging out on message boards. Originally back in the day. All the people there, all the cool kids had their own website so that was my spark to get into tech in the first place. I then followed that on because I was thinking about what to do at uni and I knew that I wanted to go and do something related to computers and the internet in particular so I did an internet computing course. But actually had a bit of rubbish time and when I actually started my year in industry I decided to drop out. I instead, did Open University, which started my love of remote as well, interestingly. So I got the paperwork but then I realised I was just learning so much more on the job doing the work day in day out, so I decided to continue working. Basically so I started out as a backend, as a developer at an agency that did a lot of flash work at the time.

    Patrick Kua: I remember that.

    Sally Lait: Yeah. Exactly. I think a lot of us do. A lot of us don’t. And yeah, decided to become a bit more generalist as well though because HTML5 really took off. The front end really matured. Became really exciting. And as part of that I eventually moved into a solutions architect role as well and then I got offered the chance to start managing. I think when my manager’s role became available and they approached me to see if I was interested in that and I think a large part of what gave me that opportunity was because I’d focused on really growing my core skills like my communication, my leadership skills as well as the pure tech. So at that point I decided to take the leap and went from there really.

    Patrick Kua: That’s fantastic. I love how you have a slightly untraditional way into tech and still working in tech which I think is fantastic. I think we need more people to share their stories because I know of so many successful people who haven’t taken that traditional route and still continue to work in tech. So one thing I understand is that you’ve had a baby quite recently. So firstly, congratulations!

    Sally Lait: Thank you very much.

    Patrick Kua:

    And I understand also you went then through a job hunt. So how did you end up in the role that you’re currently in now?

    Sally Lait: Yeah, it was a period of lots of change in my life. This is my first baby and I’ve always been somebody who’s been really passionate about my career. I really enjoy it. It’s been quite a core part of my identity as well. So when I was thinking about leave and trying to plan and get ready I really didn’t know how I would feel after the baby was born. I didn’t know whether I’d be one of those people that just wanted to come back a couple of weeks afterwards or if I’d want to be off forever and just you know, look after my kids. So I tried to actually keep my mind really open. So we planned for me to be off for the full amount of time and I did take that in the end. But then I was a little bit naive and I had an extra gap between when my child could start nursery and when I needed to go back to work.

    Sally Lait: So I had been thinking a lot about what I wanted that balance between work and life to be like. So it felt like a really good opportunity to make some changes. So I spoke to my employer at the time and that then I decided to take some interviews and it was definitely a learning experience to be interviewing whilst also caring for a young child. So I wrote a blog post about that. But yeah, the Bumble opportunity really stood out because trust and safety is such an exciting problem space. It’s got some overlaps with my experience and the areas I’ve worked in before, particularly in Monzo. But also just for me the opportunity to work somewhere with very visible women. And not only women, but women parents as well in leadership roles. A lot of the company values hugely resonated with me. It gave me such confidence to make that change. It was a really a period of lots of thinking and lots of introspection. But I couldn’t be happier for having made that change.

    Patrick Kua: I’m really pleased for you and I think we don’t really talk about parenting and tech that often. I don’t have kids so I can’t really talk about it from my experience. But I remember talking to a friend recently who’s job hunting here in Berlin and there’s not many good interview processes, particularly in startup land for parents. Particularly young children or fresh babies and I think we can definitely do more to support people looking for those sorts of roles and even think about some of those part-time roles which may be more suitable, or you know, be more flexible around some of that as well. But I’d love to hear a bit more about the trust and safety role and your role that you have, so tell us a little bit about what your role is about, what you’re responsible for, what does your current org look like?

    Sally Lait: Okay, so as trust and safety we basically work across the range of the Bumble Inc brands and we have a mission in our area to help grow kind, healthy and equitable connections by designing and operationalising the safest and the most trusted connections platform in the industry. So I am so lucky that I get to work, I know that everybody always says it’s about their team, but I generally have a fantastic team. So I’m responsible for the tech team. That spans all kinds of different shapes of software engineer, data science, machine learning people and we’ve got engineering managers, data science manager. So in terms of my org structure I’ve got multiple managers reporting into me both directly and indirectly. So I’m not actually managing ICs which is a first me. I’ve usually sort of done a bit of both and had a bit of a mix. And I then report into one of our VPs. He leads our core services and data platform part of the business who then reports him to the CTO. So it’s a part of the business that I’ve played a large role in forming since I’ve come in as well because there’s been lots of expansion. Lots of pulling together the different disciplines. So that’s a really key thing that I’m working on into the future as well.

    Patrick Kua: Wow. It sounds like a really diverse role and also a lot of touch points across different product lines. Across different teams. I can imagine you’ve got a lot of touch points both with your peers and other people across the business, so what’s your strategy for keeping aligned given the number of touch points you do have across both your organisation and other parts of the business?

    Sally Lait: I think it’s a super interesting space. We’ve got loads of operational elements and it’s quite similar to the time that I spent at Monzo. I worked in customer operations and financial crime as well. For us cross-functional isn’t just product, engineering and design working together in the classic triangle. It’s everything from our member safety organisation who have folks that work on policies, who have folks who work on the customer support side, the moderation side. We’ve got relationships with legal. We’ve got more traditional relationships as well with people like the Head of Data science on a very across the organisation level. I think it’s so important to me to build those relationships. To build the trust because when we’re working in these problem spaces, it’s never a purely tech solution to a problem. Extremely rarely should I say is it just a pure tech solution. It’s so important to make sure that we’re communicating. That we’ve got visibility. That we’re collaborating. We also have loads of different people in different time zones as well. And because we’ve got multiple officers. Just thinking about how we can actually collaborate has been a really important pillar that I’ve tried to set up and coming into this role and being very deliberate about the rituals, the communication channels, things like that.

    Sally Lait: So some of my closest peers, people like our product director Michaela, who’s just going out on maternity leave, which is very sad but absolutely thrilled for her. But also just the team that I work with directly is always really important to me so I’m investing lots of time as well trying to help to develop our engineering managers and to give them some of my experience as well. But also just to learn from them because we’ve got people who have such fantastic domain expertise as well. So it’s very much a sort of collaborative effort when it comes to being cross-functional for me.

    Patrick Kua: Great. I heard there’s some really interesting things that you talked about such as setting up some communication channels and also dealing with lots of time zones.

    Sally Lait: Yeah.

    Patrick Kua: So what are some of the things that have worked for you in your organisation? Which channels have you set up and how does that work across the time zones that you’re in?

    Sally Lait: Well I think whenever you come into businesses that have gone through a lot of change. So we’ve opened offices. We’ve changed the way that we’ve operated. We’ve grown as a company and matured a little bit. It’s great to have pause points and to be quite deliberate about things. So I’m quite a big believer in trying to kill meetings that we don’t need.

    Patrick Kua: I love it.

    Sally Lait: As I’m sure a lot of people are. I love the idea of, I think it was first, Lara Hogan that I came across it from, and the idea of the calendar defrag. Taking everything out. Really reassessing what problems you’re trying to solve and who needs to attend. Whether there’s other ways that you can solve that need. And then starting to take those building blocks and put it back in at the right cadence with the right people at the right times. That kind of thing. So a lot of that really fundamental thinking about what are we trying to solve for? What do we need to do? But not only that. Just how can we also build some relationships? How can we not miss out on the nice to haves and the fluffier side of things as well? So being quite deliberate about the cultural side too? I think the other part of it is a very practical stuff of giving visibility at the right times. So things like our reporting channels that we have on slack. Making sure that we have. Are they open? Are they private? Do we have the right people who can collaborate or just come across things and be able to ask questions and things like that and try to foster that culture where that’s possible? So they’re just a few examples. But it’s by no means… the work is never done in this area. I’m sure you’d agree

    Patrick Kua: Yes.

    Sally Lait: But it’s something that I really really like getting quite deliberate about.

    Patrick Kua: Oh great. I love the idea of killing meetings. I can imagine that’s hard because people are used to this. I know in shopify, I think the founder, Tobi is famous for resetting everyone’s calendars at the beginning of the year. That’s quite extreme I think. How did you go about doing it considering that maybe some people really wanted those meetings? How did you broach that subject with people?

    Sally Lait: Well I think for me, it’s always about getting different people’s requests and looking through it. So I don’t want to be, rightly or wrongly, that’s not how I operate in terms of coming in and sweeping everybody’s calendar out. So for me that was never going to work. I have things that I find set me up for success. But I’m really open to the fact that I might not have seen the best way to do something. So I’ve invited a lot of input from other people in terms of seeing if I could learn from them as well. But I’m also mindful of the fact that when you’re at different levels, so if you’re at a manager of manager’s level, you have a different level of visibility. You have different time pressures and other forums that you’re in generally. Whereas actually when it comes down to things like the team rituals, I’m a lot less opinionated, generally. And so I like to provide some nudges. Some questions. Maybe for the folks to ask themselves some principles that they might want to think about. And again get them thinking a little bit differently about why maybe it’s right to let go of a meeting or why it might be good to consider doing something a little bit differently. But in general it’s a balance for me between me going, hey, folks this is what I would find useful. Here are some things that I think you might find useful. But let’s fill in the gaps together.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Excellent. Speaking of meetings and time zones for you? What does your time zone span look like? Do you have very early mornings and very late evenings or what does your weekly schedule look like?

    Sally Lait: Surprisingly normal actually. Sorry this this might not be a very interesting answer. I think going back to what I was saying before it was really important for me to design, well to come into a role that would let me have some control. So actually working at bumble has been fantastic in the sense that we are empowered to plan our own days. And to flex when we need to. So I tend to start depending on the chaos in the morning roughly about eight thirty or so. I get up earlier than that but there’s a lot of a lot of things that I’m learning you have to get done with the child in the mornings. I tend to start at a fairly normal time and I quite like that a lot of my mornings are a little bit quieter. So I use that very often more as focus time.

    Sally Lait: We also have, every couple of weeks, we have focus Fridays as well. Of which today is one, so that’s great. We also then have our more collaborative meetings more in the afternoon. So I tend to work slightly more into the evening and on some days because that’s when the US folks come online. And they’re the main crossovers but we’ve also got people in other countries as well, so it does depend. I tend to go into the office every now and again. More based on what’s going on and whether there’s a need. But it’s nice to see people and nice to get some excitement because I don’t live in London so it’s always nice to go into the big city and have a day out.

    Patrick Kua: I think that’s exciting and I think it really helps with building those relationships as well.

    Sally Lait: Yeah.

    Patrick Kua: I think everyone I speak to in a remote world, particularly fully remote, I think those offsites where people get together makes such a huge big difference and I know even though mixed hybrid remote people really still miss that day in the office also just to connect with their teammates.

    Sally Lait: Yeah, yeah, it’s always good.

    Patrick Kua: So being able to not have to do a London trip journey every day I think that’s good. Makes it a little bit more special each time then.

    Sally Lait: Exactly. And it’s yeah, it’s a complete balance for me. It takes me a good couple of hours to get into the office and to get somewhere. It’s the classic, if I don’t want to do it. If I’m just gonna go in there and sit in a meeting room and be on calls anyway, then it is great when I can go see people. I’m still at that stage where I’m still finding it really motivating. Really energising to be back in an office environment and it gives me that little sense of it’s almost me time in a way, outside of parenthood. So yes, still really enjoying that aspect.

    Patrick Kua: That’s great. One of the things I heard you say is that you’re investing in some engineering managers. So can you describe how many engineering managers are within your time zone? How many are more in a different time zone and what do you mean by investing in engineering managers?

    Sally Lait: So I’ve got, in terms of my immediate group, 3 managers who are working in the UK time zone. I’ve got one who is slightly ahead. And then one who’s even more slightly ahead. So I don’t have any EMs who are over in the states at the moment. It’s all within a bit of a range which means that we do find it quite easy to book in group time at the moment. But yeah, it’s always you know, always that challenge more than anything to find managers’ schedules and the gaps in those overlapping more generally?

    Patrick Kua: Always lots of meetings.

    Sally Lait: Yeah, exactly. Everybody loves that. In terms of investing in managers I think for me, as a manager of managers, it’s really important to recognise the potential sphere of influence that you have when you… I’m trying to think of how to say this. Your managers can basically magnify and help reinforce all of the good and all of the bad and so for me coming into a new role and coming into a new organisation in particular I want to invest a load of time in understanding my team, understanding the fantastic work that they were already doing, how I can support them as individuals? But then also if there’s anything that I can really help them to level up in to help us supercharge that work then it’s a bit of a balance between what are the fundamentals that I would want to be in place in any situation but then how can I help them make the most of their strengths? So it’s a bit of a combination between the two of making sure that we’ve got really solid foundations to build on things like everybody has great expectations about their roles. Everybody can feel that sense of psychological safety. We can have a team bond and be able to support each other’s and have the framework to sort of processes to put that in place. But then to also work with the individuals on their specific situation and help them to be the best manager they can.

    Patrick Kua: That’s fantastic. I love the focus on people’s strengths. I understand people will lead teams differently because of their strengths as well. And also trying to clarify some expectations about the role, as I know a lot of engineering managers struggle with the, “What am I supposed to be doing and what is expected of me?”

    Sally Lait: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    Patrick Kua: One of the things also coming into a new organisation with engineering managers is you have your expectations about an EM and what good looks like, so how would you describe what does good look like for an engineering manager? How do you know they’re doing a good job?

    Sally Lait: That’s a great question because I think it’s hard to sum it up with a little sound bite. I think for me, there’s all the nitty gritty which I would hope could be captured in things like role expectations or progression frameworks or the organisation setting out very clearly what is expected of managers. But I think in terms of myself, a great engineering manager is able to take ownership and take responsibility for an area. To balance different factors. So to balance the delivery of great work and supporting their team to unblock problems and come up with the best solutions and make tradeoffs and prioritisation and all that good stuff.

    Sally Lait: But also somebody who balances that with really understanding the culture. Really supporting their people and helping them to grow as well. Like I said you can radiate all of this out and really enhance that I think across the organisation. So somebody who cares about the culture and the impact that that can make. But who also doesn’t forget about themselves. Because I think that’s very easy for us to do as managers and leaders. It’s always so easy to put everybody else first and to forget about yourself. So somebody who is continuing to be aware of how they can grow, where they want to go next and feed that back into their org as well I think is really great.

    Patrick Kua: That’s a great answer and a very well-rounded one. I especially like the fact that you focus also on highlighting don’t forgetting about themselves. Because you’re right, is that I think a lot of engineering managers can almost self-sacrifice themselves at the cost of their organisation, their people and they quickly burn out as a result. So I think that’s fantastic. I’ve heard setting role expectations, what you think good looks like. One of the challenges I think for managers of managers, is how do you assess this with engineeringing managers considering you’re generally further away from work and further away from the people on their team. So what are your mechanisms of what you know what good looks like but how do you actually gather data around that?

    Sally Lait: Yeah. That’s a really great question because it can be very different in different organisations. I think for me, there’s always an element of, particularly if you’re coming into a new role, trying to suss out how everything works, trying to look at the different flows of information. The different reporting channels. Some of this that I’ve really talked about. You know, making sure that you’ve got all that in place before you can really judge. I think it’s interesting when I was thinking about onboarding, making sure that I’ve had time with individuals to really understand the lay of the land and what the baseline is for everything. Because I think very often when you come in, you can form opinions. You can see opportunities and things that can maybe be better, but it’s very easy to not know all the background. To not know the subtleties. To not get a sense of some of the challenges or even low-hanging fruit that may make things better quite easily.

    Sally Lait: So I think getting a sense of all of that is really useful. Then I think it’s about not relying too much on any one source of information. So personally I don’t like to just focus on one to ones and soaking up information directly. This might be a factor of working a little bit async as well. So I like to do things like reading proposals, making sure that I’m in the right forum. So if there’s some decisions on technology being made, maybe I don’t know loads about it but it’ll be a really great learning opportunity. Post-mortems and things like that I think can help me get a sense of how everything is going and where maybe we need to improve but I’ve also done a load of other things in the past. So I’ve done things like go on a tour around different teams and spend some time with the day to day and the rituals. You know, really observing. I’d love to do that again. But I’m always mindful of doing it at the right time. Needing to build some relationships and trust. Some safety. Because if you can start popping up every day on standup, whatever, it’s quite disconcerting for some people.

    Patrick Kua: Oh a Director. What does she want?

    Sally Lait: Yeah, exactly. So try to avoid that if I can. But yeah then I think for me one of the topics I struggled throughout my career is as well as the credibility. Especially again becoming more senior. Managing through more layers and now managing across lots of different domains as well, some of which I don’t have a background in, it’s really important for me to work out how I can understand some of the basics and some fundamental concepts just so that I can participate. I can be useful. I can critique and challenge where necessary, but also accept that I’m not going to know everything. I’m not going to be able to go super deep on topics. So I think knowing how to manage and assess at different levels of direct experience is super powerful and definitely a skill that I’ve had to learn to develop over time.

    Patrick Kua: Great. I think you cover a really important topic is that when you are managing managers and a breadth of scope, you are often managing other people who are working in fields that you’ve not had that background in. So what are some concrete examples that you’ve used in the past to really try to come up to speed to at least get to know enough about what they’re talking about?

    Sally Lait: I have done a range of things really. One of the things I really enjoy doing is to say, okay, onboard me like an engineer. So actually then you get the full experience or you might get a slightly tweaked experience. But let’s say the full experience of everything from getting your environment set up, looking at the state of the documentation. It’s the end to end experience. You might then hear some frustrations of, this always takes ages. Let’s go and get a cup of tea or whatever. So it’s just looking for those opportunities to have more natural engagements and to really understand how something works. What the pain points are. What the opportunities are. I personally find that really valuable rather than sitting down and reading a book or something like that. But I like doing things if you can get people to feel comfortable with you, I like going for deep dives. Sitting down with somebody. Actually not being the annoying person looking over their shoulder or anything like that but having them walk you through something that they’re really proud of can always be really lovely to go through.

    Sally Lait: Then I think for me, it’s always a balance, especially now with time outside of work. I’m a very passionate person about the fact that you shouldn’t have to code outside of work. Life is very important but I do enjoy it. I’ve done things like Advent of Code in the past. Little pet projects and things like that. And so going back to our focus fridays, I try to do things like take some courses online because we’ve got access to things like that. So again just to get my base knowledge and confidence up. Then I ask lots of questions. I think that could be quite hard again when you’re sort of in a leadership position to really show those gaps in your knowledge and to be vulnerable. But for me, it’s one of the easiest ways to just fill in those gaps as well.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, it’s very practical. I think it does require some confidence. Self-confidence to better ask those questions, so kudos to you for asking those questions and getting your hands on as well. Maybe let’s go back a little bit further into your past. So maybe you could help us understand a little bit about your role at Farewill. What was different there and what did your org look like there compared to your current org?

    Sally Lait: So it was a slightly smaller org but it was wider in terms of the sort of the skills and the individuals that I was leading so. There I was VP of engineering. I sat on the exec team. I was the most senior technology representative and I was responsible for engineering and data and IT. I was primarily managing, direct line managing, the heads of different areas. But as I said, also ICs when needed. So it was quite an interesting role. I originally started out as a Head of Engineering there and then transitioned after our CPTO, Tom, left. So it’s a nice evolution but it also gave me a sense of the differences that you can get at an organisation between the Head Of level and then the VP level as well. It’s really interesting.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely. One of the experiences of also sitting on the exec team also means that you’re probably interacting with people from very different disciplines. CFO, marketing or different areas. What was that experience like for you?

    Sally Lait: I think for me, it was a great experience to get exposure to the processes of things like making company level decisions and just the time horizons you have to think about. The fact that you’ve got responsibilities to the board very directly. The information sharing and the storytelling can become even more important at that point as well. Just the fact that you’re the person who has their name on something as being ultimately responsible. So for instance, we were doing some due diligence for some major partnerships and I’ve been involved in all of those things before. But it is very different and I think takes on another level when you are the person directly responsible. I think breaking out of that mindset of what do you want as an individual? What is best for the business? What fits with your philosophies and your personal integrity and how do you smussh it all together and create something that is a saleable strategy and vision that all of these different people combine into? Whether it’s the board. Whether it’s the engineers. Whether it’s your counterparts in different areas of the business. As you say it’s a really really interesting space and an interesting, different level of challenge.

    Patrick Kua: Fantastic! Thank you for sharing your experiences there. I’d like to learn a little bit about the wideness of that organisation that you were leading. So you were also leading data and IT. I understand that’s probably not your background, what were your strategies for managing that and also working out how to support the people who were leading those areas?

    Sally Lait: Yeah, so I think this was when I took on the wider responsibilities, that was the first time that I can think of that I had actually managed directly out of the engineering world which is something that I was very comfortable in at that point. I think that this goes back to what we were saying before about having that ability and learning how to manage outside of your immediate IC experience and areas that you feel comfortable being very in the weeds with. So I think my general strategy is to learn enough to have that baseline. Like I said before, to really understand the fundamental concepts. The things that can impact those different areas. What the concerns are? What the opportunities are and really just get a sense of that. I think that I always want to be able to support people and to challenge them and grow them as individuals but also to realise my boundaries of where it’s maybe more appropriate for somebody to have a mentor or somebody who’s specifically from that background.

    Sally Lait: So also I think growing my network so that I could point people in other directions as well was super helpful. But also developing my ability to trust people I think. To know when to trust and how to sort of judge whether that trust is well placed sounds. That sounds quite evil. But I don’t mean it like that. I mean it in terms of, just again, knowing enough to basically know when to let go and when to push harder and actually really challenge and dig in a little bit. I think is a skill that I definitely had to learn to develop.

    Patrick Kua: Great. I could definitely empathise with that. I think the trust and finding that balance is hard. It’s not the blind trust and it’s not the full micromanagement. It’s about when is it and and what level do you need to provide. I Think that’s fascinating.

    Sally Lait: Yeah, absolutely.

    Patrick Kua: So you’ve done a number of roles managing managers and so you can compare your experiences across them. What would you say are some similarities that are common for all managing of manager roles?

    Sally Lait: Some similarities. I think in some of the fundamental challenges. Some of the experiences that you can have don’t change. So take for example, managing some interpersonal conflict. Even managing that as a manager of managers. Like supporting people on different teams and maybe supporting your managers who have a disagreement or a technology disagreement where you need to be the decider on things like that. I think having a good sense of the range, the breadth of those fundamental management experiences and seeing what you do feel comfortable with. What you haven’t yet experienced. All of those things can set you up really well to know, just generally how equipped you are for the day to day stuff I think. and I also like to think about it in terms of I feel like I’ve got a toolkit I can pull from. Whether that’s resources. I’ve got a ridiculous amount of bookmarks and things that I found useful. That can either be for me or as a manager of managers, if you have somebody coming to you, you can say, here’s somebody to speak to in my network or here’s a resource that you might find useful. I think just just building that up and understanding what those similarities are likely to be is super super helpful.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Some really practical things. I appreciate also the focus on that network. I think a lot of people in engineering forget about their network and how it can not only help them but also help their team as well. I love how you always connect people or think about connecting people to other people who can help them.

    Sally Lait: I try to.

    Patrick Kua: What about differences? What would you say are differences across some of the managing manager roles that you’ve had?

    Sally Lait: Well as you said, I’ve managed. I like variety and so actually I haven’t jumped from a similar industry role to a similar industry role. So there has been a lot of difference for me and I think everything from the stage of the company, the size of it, the scale of it, the maturity, the processes. But then just down to more specific things like depending on, budgets, you might have people who invest heavily in management or or even philosophy because some places see management as very different in different environments. That might tie into things like how under pressure the managers are. How much free time they have for other sort of wider initiatives. Things like that. So it will really vary I think depending on so many factors. I think that it’s very interesting as well, when you look at the different industries, different problem spaces, I have a huge appreciation for the value of subject matter expertise. I think particularly when it comes to bringing people into new industry I always feel very grateful and very thankful that people want to invest that time in me. Because as I say, I think in my current role in trust and safety, there are a lot of crossovers with some of my previous experiences but it’s not a 100% match.

    Sally Lait: I think that as a manager, some of those differences can really really play out in terms of it could be a vastly different tech stack. It could be, you know, completely different third parties that operate in that space. It could be all sorts of areas where you might need to really rapidly ramp up the bits that you don’t know and or understand what you don’t know. I think there could be huge amounts of differences depending on, well for me, there’s been loads of loads of differences as well as lows of similarities across those roles. I’m sure it would be similar for other people as well.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Thank you and I appreciate you sharing and articulating those differences. Let’s go back even further and I don’t know if you can remember when you first transitioned into managing managers for the first time. Can you remember any of the challenges that you had as you went through that transition if there were any?

    Sally Lait: It’s a little bit hazy. It was a long time ago now. So that was back and that’s actually my first company that I worked for, which was called Lightmaker. When I started managing some people. But then I started managing a manager when I became head of technology. So I started managing the technical manager and I, as far as I remember, I think I was just sort of invited to do this and I think we had some discussions about the structure of the org and promoting this person into the manager role as it was at the time. Looking back I feel like it’s that thing of, you cringe at probably all the mistakes you must have made and all the things you feel you could have done better, and you probably know more about now. But I think some of the key differences for me were learning how to work through another layer. To try to balance that and the balance between being really directive, trying to empower people, thinking about starting to coach people and not always just give them the answers. So I think that was quite new to me and something that I needed to work on a little bit. I think another thing for me was really the fact that the person that I was managing was completely new to management.

    Sally Lait: I was probably the first manager that they’d had as a manager. I can imagine that they saw me as the beacon of what to do and what not to do and so actually really starting to think about what my style is. How thinking about how deliberate you need to be and how it’s important to balance leading by example, showing what good looks like, but also encouraging people to find their own style. As a manager I would never want anybody to just try and copy everything that I do. I have my own flaws as well. I think that was super interesting but the main challenge I would say was also the fact that the person I went on to manage had once been a peer. I started out really junior, so actually I’d learned a lot from this person as a peer as well. So navigating that shifting relationship and being mindful of the the dynamics and the potential challenges that can come from that, I think has always sat with me and. It’s actually really shaped how I tend to approach relationships and power dynamics in particular I think going forwards.

    Patrick Kua: That’s really fascinating. Yeah, thank you for sharing that. I think one challenge for managers is people feel lonely and I think as a manager of managers, that can feel even more lonely, so I think a support network is often quite important. What does your support network look like for you?

    Sally Lait: I love this question. I think this is so important. It’s really really great for people to think about this and something that I always try and encourage my own managers to do as well. I, personally, have a sort of collection I think of people that I used to work with. I guess the challenge is sometimes that it is a small industry and you can go on to work with people again. So just being mindful of that can be really important. But I’ve got a whatsapp group of a load of women EMs actually, that I used to work with and it’s been just fantastic seeing everybody’s career progression and the different paths that they’ve taken since we’ve all worked together. I also try to form really strong relationships with peers and similar but maybe adjacent roles in the company. So a good example is my product director counterpart at the moment. We do work very very closely together but if there are other people who might have similar challenges in a similar sort of role but not exactly day-to-day, I think that could be a really valuable source of support. I also am very open about the fact that I have a sort of network of people like a coach, and also a therapist. I think that they can really help. It’s fantastic to be able to vent in a way that may not be healthy or even very interesting to your friends or the people around you. So I think that that could be super useful.

    Sally Lait: I think another one just finally for me that is a really interesting topic in that I’ve somewhat withdrawn I suppose a little bit from social media, with the fragmentation and things that have gone on of late. But over the years social media has been a really great source of support for me. But I think as a manager, it’s always you got to be really careful what you share and particularly when you’re having challenges around individuals. You just can’t put stuff like that out there. But it can be just a great place to find other like-minded people to build those relationships and hopefully then be in a position where you can bring up a really really strong support network around you.

    Patrick Kua: That’s fantastic and thank you for sharing all of those details and also highlighting the importance I think of having external people like a coach or a therapist. Professional people who can help you. I think a lot of people forget those are really valid and really important options as well.

    Sally Lait: Yeah, if you’re in a position. Not everyone I think is able to. Not every company is able to pay for people like coaches as well. So I think I do feel very privileged but it’s definitely helped me in the past as well.

    Patrick Kua: Great. As we were preparing for this podcast, one of the concepts that you sort of talked about was this idea of creating or minimising swirl. So can you explain, what do you mean by swirl and what does that have to do with managing managers?

    Sally Lait: Ah interesting you picked up on this. Yes. This is actually, it’s one of my current colleagues who keeps using this phrase. I love it. For me, this is all about how, as a manager of managers you, again, just thinking back to sort of the scope and the influence and the fact that not all of your relationships are direct. People might not know your communication style very well or be able to read between the lines. It’s about the impact that you can create if you’re not mindful of or deliberate with your asks. With your communication. You can very easily sow the seeds of worry. Of fear. Maybe you want to ask a simple question but actually people then take that and run with it and come back to you with this fully formed enormous presentation and you were like oh I just wanted to know a number or something. So for me, this is one of the biggest tips I suppose or bits of advice that I would give to somebody else who’s starting their manager of managers’ journey is really just to be so mindful of the unintentional ripples that you can send out and the ways that you can influence the the culture, the community, and the day-to-day of the people around you because your words carry weight. Your actions. Your body language. Everything will be read into. Everything will be interpreted. That can either be for good or for bad. So you can leave this trail of chaos and swirl in your wake. Potentially if you’re not mindful of that stuff.

    Patrick Kua: Oh this is bringing me back to my early days. It’s a wonderful piece of advice and thank you very much for sharing that. I have one last question for you which is if people would like to reach out to you or find out more about you, where would they do that on the internet?

    Sally Lait: On the internet, they can reach me on my website which sallylait.com. Or if you don’t know how to spell that it’s also available sally.dev I’m on fleetingly on at Mastodon mostly. So I’m sallylait on mastodon.social. I’m also more on Linkedin nowadays and but I tend to only really connect with people that I know. So though I’m quite bad at going through and just proactively messaging people, but feel free to get in touch and say hi there. I’m always happy to hear from people.

    Patrick Kua: Fantastic! We’ll make sure that all of those links appear in the show notes as well for this episode. So thank you very much Sally. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. It’s such an interesting journey that you’ve presented in your career. I’m really looking forward to what you end up doing at Bumble Inc and it sounds like they’ve got another great engineering leader with them. So thank you very much for sharing your experiences on the managing of managers podcast.

    Sally Lait: Well, you’re welcome. Thanks so much for having me and yeah, it’s been a delight to talk to you as always.

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