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Episode 19: Finding a manager of managers role with Dr Claire Knight

    Guest Biography

    Dr Claire Knight is a Senior Director of Engineering; Ecosystem & Emerging Products at Netlify. She served plenty of time in the coal code mine before making the move into wrangling folks rather than just bits. With many years of engineering leadership at companies such as GitHub and Six to Start, Claire now leads many engineering teams at Netlify, defines strategy and expansion, with particular focus on the platform and SDK. Claire lives in Barkshire, UK, with her husband and three cats who from time to time also like to be involved in video calls. When not working, she likes to lift heavy things, only to put them down again and is a 2023 AWPC World Champion Powerlifter.

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    Transcript

    Patrick Kua: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Managing Managers podcast and I’m delighted to have Dr Claire Knight today. Dr Claire Knight is a Director of Engineering; Ecosystem & Emerging Products at Netlify. She served plenty of time in the coal code mine before making the move into wrangling folks rather than just bits. With many years of engineering leadership at companies such as GitHub and Six to Start, Claire now leads many engineering teams at Netlify, defines strategy and expansion, with particular focus on their platform and SDK. Claire lives in Berkshire, UK, with her husband and three cats, who from time to time also like to be involved in video calls. When not working, she likes to lift heavy things, only to put them down again and is a 2023 AWPC World Champion Powerlifter. Welcome to the podcast.

    Claire Knight: Thank you very much for having me. Great to be here.

    Patrick Kua: Wonderful. You’ve got such an amazing history and diverse career in tech. I love that. If I understand it right, one of the first things that you were doing was typing in and contributing code to printed magazines. So that’s quite a history. Tell us how you ended up in the management track.

    Claire Knight: Yeah, yeah. So yeah, just showing my age there with the printed magazines when we had to go buy them and type them in. They weren’t even, yeah, well, maybe we had tapes. We had tapes for some stuff. I ended up in the management track almost accidentally although I absolutely love being here now, otherwise I wouldn’t have made this my career. But it was case of almost stepping into the voids that existed in some companies and realising there’s a combination and there’s different skills obviously, but combination of project management and being able to perceive how people are feeling and behaving and trying to share that upwards and a bunch of those things at various sizes of company that honestly made me go, you know what? I can see these people doing really cool tech stuff and I’m not going to get there anymore. I’m not motivated enough to learn the bits I need. But I am motivated enough to learn all of these things around how do I do people stuff? How I handle this ambiguity. What does taking a chance mean when you’re managing people versus, ok, let’s deploy this code and see what happens? So that’s a super high level version of that. But yeah, I’ve been involved since I was a teen because my Dad was in mainframes back in the day. So he got one of the early Amstrads. So that’s how I started out.

    Patrick Kua: Well, that’s quite a lot of history. I do remember, at least with a Commodore 64, typing some stuff in with cassettes. But I didn’t get to play with an Amstrad.

    Claire Knight: We were super fancy. We had the one with the three inch disc thing that it had as well as the tape player.

    Patrick Kua: Oh great, excellent. So given that you’ve been in management for a while, can you remember when you made that transition from managing individual contributors or managing a team to managing other managers?

    Claire Knight: Yeah, that was only three years ago. So it’s not that, compared to my early history, it is not that long ago. I think it came about because, well, I sought the growth. It was one step of it because I’ve gotten to the point where I might, OK, I’d done my team. The team is executing really well. Everything’s moving along. I don’t really have major worries. Usual things. Every quarter of the planning stuff. Then I’m like, I don’t have enough to do. I didn’t see the opportunity to get that where I was. So that’s when I started exploring that. I certainly can’t say I’ve enough to do now. I have plenty to do. I’m not good at being bored. It was a case of, okay, I’ve done it a few times now. I’ve got a team running smoothly. The day to day of running a team. I feel comfortable with it and I personally wanted more of a challenge. Much like engineers want to progress. I wanted to progress in a different way. Then I got that opportunity. It’s definitely different, managing managers and having to worry about multiple teams rather than just one.

    Patrick Kua: Great. And can you tell us a little bit more about how you got that opportunity? Was it an internal transition? Was it an external transition? How did you find out about that and how do you then end up in that role?

    Claire Knight: It was a bit of both. I can’t stop being an engineer. It depends. It was a case of where I’ve been given a cross-team initiative by my skip to challenge me and have growth. And actually that went really well. I enjoyed having then more to do, as I said. Then when that was coming to an end, I’m, well what now? So then, when I was looking for other roles, I was looking for that next step up. I know some people say don’t job hop. Do it internally if you can. But I’d done it internally. I just hadn’t got the official title. So I’d already figured out how to do a bit more stakeholder management. A bit more cross company collaboration. That kind of thing.

    Claire Knight: So then when I went looking for my next role I was able to get one where it was, hey you’re gonna come in, you’ll have two teams. I actually merged them back into one temporarily because I can’t be in multiple ceremonies all of the time. Then hire managers and grow this thing out back when we were all exploding in growth unlike now. So that’s how it went. By that metric I succeeded in the sense that I went from 10 people and one team, through to 4 with 25, I think it was, by the time I left.

    Patrick Kua: That’s great. Yeah, and it’s great that you had that informal experience. Maybe without the official title. Had some chance to build up some of those skills. I heard leading across the organisation, cross-departmental and probably having to influence quite a lot. When you did transition into that formal role and it sounds like in a new company context, what surprised you about the difference of managing managers versus managing individuals?

    Claire Knight: I’d already learnt the overall scene I got from an engineering perspective. About one of my very early learnings as a mid-level developer, my tech lead said to me, there’s nothing wrong with this person’s PR. It’s just not how you would have done it. That has truly stuck with me for the last fifteen years. I had to remind myself about that because I might have done something a bit faster or something else a bit slower, or I would have planned it differently. And I’ve had to learn to let people be themselves in how they manage because everybody has their own style. For me to make them clones of me is not ideal at all.

    Claire Knight: So that was something that was interesting for me. And for people that you hire in you can screen for characteristics that you look for. But when you inherit managers you have to learn their working style. Learn What they’re doing. And course correction is different. I think with an engineering thing, it’s like not this PR is broken, but like I think we need to move more in this direction. Again it’s more influence than telling or trying to get them to see the benefit and I would say that definitely having a coach has helped me accelerate that perspective on things.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Can you tell us more about your coach? Is this an internal coach? Or is this external coach that’s independent from the company that you’re working with?

    Claire Knight: It’s external. Yeah. I’ve had a break for a while. I had it when I was going into senior manager and then I’ve had it again now I’m officially a director. I’ve definitely had mentors internally within companies. I’ve reached out to people above me and alongside me. But having somebody external means they’ve got no skin in the game in the conversations. That allows you to maybe be a bit more honest about certain things or to even vent honestly. Sometimes that’s what you need.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely. I mean a common theme I hear talking to people in your role is that loneliness. It’s difficult to be open with some themes, as you say. Maybe it’s involving some of your team or a peer. And you’re worried about how that might affect some of your relationships. And having that external definitely gives you that independent space and as you said, a good opportunity to vent or rant sometimes. Heavily needed.

    Claire Knight: And interestingly in one situation, about six months ago, it was a case of you need to use more mouth words. Like you need to speak up here. I’m like, oh okay. I was almost playing it too nice. I needed to get my point across in a different way.

    Patrick Kua: Got it. Excellent and then with your coach, that’s a great aspect of having some support. As you stepped into that formal role of managing other managers, what other elements would you describe as part of your support network or your support structure?

    Claire Knight: I definitely keep in contact with engineering leaders at other companies I’ve worked at. Not all of them, all of the time. tThat will be a bit weird. But yeah, in a few, X slacks where we talk or occasionally hop on a call. I do find that very very valuable because, again, they’re outside of my day-to-day. But also exactly the sorts of problems I might be facing and the people side of it in a general sense. So that’s been invaluable. You mentioned in the intro actually about powerlifting, that is one of the ways I cope. That’s where I go to switch off. That’s my mental health break. As well as a physical health break.

    Patrick Kua: That’s great. How many days a week are you training? Or is it different, I guess, as you head into competition time?

    Claire Knight: No, it’s generally three days a week. Because I’m doing big lifts. We’ve already alluded to my age with typing and programs, so recovery and everything else is a little bit slower the older you are. So you just have to be smarter about how you do it. But yeah, those three days, at least for those 3 hours, I absolutely can’t think about work because I’m having to focus very hard on exactly what I’m doing otherwise I’ll hurt myself.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great to have that physical distraction versus the other mental distraction of other hobbies. So I think that’s a great balance of activities.

    Claire Knight: Yeah. You get the… I know not everybody enjoys exercise but this is one form that I do enjoy. I definitely say do something you enjoy. I also get the endorphins from exercise as well. I do feel that taking that break and then get back online doing some work, I can be really quite productive in those afternoons.

    Patrick Kua: Excellent. Was that a hobby that you started picking up as you started to move into management or is it something that you’ve always been doing?

    Claire Knight: I came to it later in life. I think I always wanted to. I played with it a little bit years ago. But it’s an intimidating place up until you get a certain level of confidence and then you’re just, like, I don’t care anymore. I had a coach that did kettlebell type stuff and then I got into that and I’m, like, actually I really enjoyed the barbell stuff more. I enjoy the process more. Earlier this year I changed coaches to powerlifting specific. Everybody thinks you get to a certain level, you know it all. You don’t. You have to talk to people. You have to learn from other people.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, there is always some aspect that you learn from different people. Personally I’ve also just found that just having a different perspective is also good right? You have people that are focused on one element and maybe you try somebody else and you actually get a very different perspective.

    Claire Knight: Yeah. It’s been an interesting path but one that I’ve stuck with this for nearly two years now. I’m on a three day a week cycle. I enjoy the process. That’s what’s important to me. If I don’t enjoy the process I’m not going to turn up am I?

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a bit like a lot of work. If you don’t enjoy the environment, it’s hard to turn up. That gives us a good pivot point into your current role then, as director of engineering at Netlify. Can you tell us a little bit about what your org structure looks like?

    Claire Knight: Yeah. So I’ve got four/five, depending on your definition, teams under me at the moment. I have a product counterpart and each of my EMs has a product counterpart. So it’s a fairly standard hierarchical tree. Myself and my product counterpart report into the SVP of Engineering. Standard engineering hierarchy that you’ve probably seen in a bunch of places. Design and docs and things are adjacent. They’re not embedded within the teams because they’re a smaller team serving all of engineering. But I’ve got all of the engineering and product stuff so they work together.

    Patrick Kua: Excellent. And how many peers, in terms of perhaps, other engineering directors do you have?

    Claire Knight: Five. There’s a couple of folks that I don’t interact with as much just because of where my area is and what it does. But then there’s others that I do talk to more. Although we speak at least monthly. But there’s some that get the daily pings on slack that kind of thing. I also work closely with my product peer. He and I will talk about a bunch of things.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, excellent. Let’s talk about maybe some of the ceremonies then. So can you tell us a little bit about the ceremonies that you run with your team in terms of, I’m guessing, EMs? What ceremonies do you run with your product counterpart?

    Claire Knight: Yeah, so I try to have a staff meeting for each person. Because I think talking about people’s issues and individuals sometimes needs to be distinct from let’s talk about Q4 planning or whatever the other conversations would be. Also again it’s trying to keep those conversations within people that are people managers versus anybody else. So I have those once a week. But what if nobody’s got anything to share, it can get cancelled, or if, for example, the one I’m having later today only has one thing on the agenda at the moment, so we won’t go for the full time. Then in the middle of the week we do have one with the product leads and the EMs and myself and my product counterpart where it’s like what’s happened? What progress have we made? What blockers are there? What needs to be called out? The usual project management at a higher level than the individual team. So that we can share dependencies or talk through problems or even just go, hey everything’s going well. We do sometimes take that async because going from Tel Aviv or Israel time zone through to the west coast is an interesting scheduling challenge.

    Patrick Kua: That’s a very big number of time zones.

    Claire Knight: Yeah. I think again, it’s like, have that face time until you don’t need it. So I leave it in my calendar and nobody else can book over it and then we have that conversation. So they’re the two key ones. But then my product counterpart and I will do some async admin on the Thursday. So slack each other about that. But we try and avoid, in a completely remote company, if you have too many synchronous ceremonies, you just eat up time.

    Claire Knight: Which is why I’m not a big fan of all of the heavy scrum stuff in a remote environment because you end up with 15 hours of meetings across the week and that just feels like a lot of distraction.

    Patrick Kua: Yes, yeah, excellent. Then if you were to describe your average week, I’m guessing, there’s probably not an average week, how would you classify perhaps activities percentage wise?

    Claire Knight: I’m lucky because I get focus time in the morning with one of my teams is online. But one team when you have multiple is actually not too much of an issue because, again, you’re not doing the day to day with the team. It’s just if issues come up or whatever. Then I will say from about one or two o’clock, local time, through to the end of the day, I’m in 90% meetings. That’s a mix of direct 1-1’s. Periodic skip levels. Talking with other EMs or Directors. Just maintain those relationships. Talking with marketing and product marketing. So that’s my stakeholders that I need to loop into things. Obviously the meetings that I’ve already mentioned are the staff meetings and the planning meetings. That’s the usual coverage I think that I get in. I do like that focus time in the morning and then I’ll do some work. Head to the gym on the days I’m going and then come back ready to talk.

    Patrick Kua: And what are some of the activities or things that you do in your focus time?

    Claire Knight: It can be a vision and strategy documents, if that’s what’s needed. Again, it depends on what it is and and how much I’m coworking with product or I just need to drive some stuff. It’ll be obviously reviews at review season. It’ll be reading things people have sent me that I’ve not been able to read in the afternoons because we’ve been in meetings. It’ll be getting a pulse again on what’s going on in the org. Keeping an eye on slack and email and github and those sorts of things that are very hard to quantify. But I find that I’m constantly drinking from the firehose just to get a pulse of what’s going on. So that falls into that thing. Maybe replying to emails. I mean a default to slack with my colleagues. But obviously with customers or with legal or whatever again, the seniority thing is generally email. You have to reply to those things.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Yeah and I can imagine that one of the things that maybe you describe in the strategy side of your tasks is thinking about org structure for your teams. One of the things that you said earlier was the fact that you merged two teams and then decided to split them later. Can you walk us through the thought process around that? What were the conditions? Why you wanted to merge them? How did you end up splitting them? And why did you split them in the way that you did?

    Claire Knight: So in that particular case this was pre-Netlify. It was because it was a company that had embraced remote through the pandemic and they had moved their office online. Which is not the greatest way of doing remote for me. So there was a thousand and one ceremony meetings and I just couldn’t physically be in all of the duplicated meetings I needed to be in. So it was a case of how do I get up speed with the company and keep an eye on what’s going on with the teams and make them feel like I’m listening when I can’t be in all of the standups and all of the planning meetings?

    Claire Knight: I also looked up engineers’ calendars and I’m like how do you write code?

    Patrick Kua: No focus time?

    Claire Knight: Yeah. They were like, well it’s a bit tricky. So again, you don’t want to walk in day one and completely enact change but for my own ability to do this job I need to temporarily merge you. But we’ve got this growth plan. We’re going to hire and people were generally on board with that. Then further I went, I killed a lot for meetings and then when the EMs came in, I’m like if you want them have them. If you don’t, don’t. You do you. But respect people’s focus time. That’s what was my particular guiding principle at that point with them.

    Patrick Kua: Great, Excellent. Yeah and such a useful one that I am sure your individual contributors on the team would have really appreciated.

    Claire Knight: I did get some positive feedback about that. Even from a couple of people who were initially hesitant so that felt like a good win.

    Patrick Kua: Great and in your current organisation at Netlify have you had to lead any team changes or structural changes there?

    Claire Knight: That’s a question. I was leading directly a team when I first joined because as part of building things out, but then also, we’ve been through about three reorgs. So yeah I’ve had to lose teams. Gain teams. Gain overall headcount. A bunch of things like that. So I will say I had input into those processes. Particularly one of the latter ones. But despite some of the EMs thinking you get control of that, you don’t. There’s stuff above you that happens. There’s business things. Decisions get made. The SVP makes the decision or says I want it structured like this for whatever reason and you have to make it work. That’s part of the job.

    Patrick Kua: Right. And in terms of you communicating that to your managers. How easy or hard was that and what was your approach? Can you walk us through one of the examples of the transformation that you made?

    Claire Knight: So I’ve tried to give people a heads up if they were gonna be affected. I would do that in 1-1s because, again, I need them to feel comfortable venting at me if that’s what they feel they need to do. Or asking hard questions or rolling with it because I’ve definitely got a couple of managers that are quite adept at rolling with change which is a good skill to have. But again, even with those people you need to make them feel supported. So I would start the conversation there and I’m, like, heads up. This is what I think is coming down the line. We’re now at 80% certainty which is why I’m telling you. Then we try to have that EM bring the teams in just before it happens rather than immediately as it happens so they’re not completely blown out of water in all hands. The one caveat I’d say is here where we had to do a reduction in force. That you can’t prep people for because you can’t tell people that we’re going to have the reduction in force even then comes with a reorg. So in that situation that was not as ideal. But the conversations are different then. It’s more, like, well I’ve got a job. Okay I’ve got a different manager but I’ve got a job versus, OK, I’ve got a different manager or the team’s moving. What does that mean? I think people’s focus is a little bit different for the first few days after one of those than the general reorg.

    Patrick Kua: I can imagine. Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about your team then. So if I understand right, it’s engineering managers that report to you? Do you have any individual contributors that directly report to you as well?

    Claire Knight: Not at the moment. I have them still within teams. But I also reach out to several of them and will ask their advice on certain things where it crosses team boundaries because they’re in the ground. Their EMs know I’m doing this. They know I’m doing this. I have had them reporting to me at Netlify. But where we’re at at the moment, it makes more sense to have them be on the team and help level the team up as well as helping me rather than focusing on me and the team bigger side effects.

    Patrick Kua: Great.

    Claire Knight: It’s about looping them into things and pulling them into other conversations as well and most of them are a chill with that.

    Patrick Kua: Excellent, great. The EMs that you do have, are they people that you ended up hiring or people who grew or is it a mix of different people?

    Claire Knight: I don’t think I hired any that I have right now. One of them I facilitated an internal move but the other people are people that I’ve now managing through whatever reasons the teams are under me. Always when you take on new people, you have to learn about them and figure out how they work as well as them doing a reverse with you. I, unlike some leaders I’ve worked for, not at Netlify, I want to clarify but where they expect people to trust upwards by default I don’t. But I should trust downwards by default until I have a cause not to. So that’s been interesting in some of the conversations I’ve had. They’re like well what about this? I’m like, what do you think? And they’re like what? I trust you. What do you think? That’s been an interesting challenge for some.

    Patrick Kua: Great. Yeah I think aligning approaches and probably what people have been used to with their previous managers. There’s always that synchronisation process I guess. One aspect I think for you I guess is setting expectations about what success looks like for your engineering managers. What’s your approach to doing that and what does success look like for your engineering managers?

    Claire Knight: Clarity. I think you need to be clear on expectations because otherwise how can you say you’re meeting or not them. I hope it’s clear from what we’re delivering as a team. and as an organisation because we are very much product engineering. So I can lean on that. So for example, when my teams launched some stuff last week we did shift the date by a few days at my suggestion but it was for reasons outside the engineering team. So that all shipped in that timeline. We’ve had great press.

    Claire Knight: We haven’t, as far as I’m aware, had anybody say it’s exploded a bunch of stuff. There’s been some good things and that is a success for that whole team. The EM and everything else. Other teams are maybe working towards something towards the end of the quarter. With the team that I’m integrating, it’s a case of well we need to ramp down older processes and ramp up newer ones. So their measure of success would be slightly further out. This is, where as a director, you’re no longer just thinking about the next month or three months. You’re thinking 6, 12, 18 months. Although I don’t want eighteen months for getting a team embedded. That would be horrible for the team. But it’s about working out what success means for each team within context for me. There’s no blanket, this is what you will do. Because if you have more of an infra team then success is probably the infra is not falling over. But if infra is falling over because engineering teams are doing something stupid then you’ve got to balance that out and work out how you can solve it together.

    Patrick Kua: Great. In your bench of engineering managers, do you have engineering managers that have a lot of experience? Do you have anyone that needs a lot of support because they’re relatively new to that role?

    Claire Knight: I have a mix. But I will also say years of experience in management is beneficial because you’ve seen stuff and you’re less afraid of certain situations. But some people seem to have a real aptitude for the people side of things I’ve found. They have an instinct. They don’t just fall back on the process. Because again, most of us, if not all of us, have been engineers, sometimes when you see people struggling they’re double and tripling down on the process which is what you would do in engineering.

    Claire Knight: They’re like, oh we need to tick this box. I’ve had that conversation. Tick this box. Have that conversation. It’s not a box ticking exercise. You might do five conversations with that person. One with that person and and there’s a couple of people I’ve been lucky enough to encounter here that have got really good instincts.

    Patrick Kua: Great. That’s really fantastic. In terms of support for your engineering managers have you had to help people fill in different gaps of skills or capabilities that they didn’t have before and if so how did you go about doing that?

    Claire Knight: Again it’s context dependent. Really sorry.

    Patrick Kua: No. No. I mean feel free to share a story. Tell us about an example.

    Claire Knight: Yeah. It’s situations of helping them see why something could be advantageous or reflect better. Rather than saying you’re not doing this. You need to do it. It’s like you’re not doing this and I think if you did that this would and sometimes they’d be like, oh yeah, I hadn’t thought that. Or yeah I’d been thinking about it but I needed the push to do it. And occasionally it would be, well I’m not sure. Is this what the outcome is? And again I like to be challenged in that way. I shouldn’t be always be solutionising for them. I can steer them and suggest things. But if they have better ways of achieving the end goal then I’m all for that. That’s certainly both context and EM dependent. I’d say something that I’ve spotted regularly though with EMs, and honestly people stepping up to the Director level, is their ability or inability to handle ambiguity. Again I think because we’re all from an engineering background whether it’s ambiguity is considered bad. But yeah, there’s a huge amount of ambiguity in my job. Sometimes it’s, like, I don’t know. I’ll go ask my EM. Other times, it’s like oh well I haven’t thought of that but we’ll figure it out. I think you have to be willing to take some bets. Take some risks. But also act in the best interest of the information that you have.

    Patrick Kua: Great. You’re absolutely right, which is I think all leaders and managers have to deal with some level of ambiguity. What are some strategies that have helped you for dealing with particularly large parts of ambiguity?

    Claire Knight: For me, if I can understand, for example, the C-suite or the Exec’s vision, like where do you want to be? I can then determine, OK, I think these are some good first steps. It doesn’t even matter if we have to take a sidestep at some point. As long as we’ve moved forward a little bit, we’ve learned something. We’ve either learned that it’s good or bad and we can recalculate. It’s that age-old diagram that goes around in LinkedIn every so often. You don’t have a straight line from start to finish. You have a line that hopefully is narrowing towards that and getting there. It’s being prepared. Being prepared to take risk but a calculated risk. I think this would be a good step. Yes, you do need to have buy in. Maybe from upwards. Maybe from peers. Maybe even from your EMs and teams. It depends on how radical it is. I’m also prepared to say, okay, this is what the business cares about right now, and for teams to say, well we’ve been thinking about this. And I’d be like, yeah, let’s try that. So it’s allowing people to have a level of autonomy too. As long as I’ve got the right guardrails. i.e. is the business going to care about this? It lets EMs and teams flex their own muscles as well.

    Patrick Kua: Great. When you notice other leaders or managers who aren’t as good at handling ambiguity, how does that come across?

    Claire Knight: Usually in repeated questioning. Or very detailed questioning and wanting something at a really low level. Or what I consider a low level now. It’s like, well, why didn’t we plan for this? Well because we didn’t know about it. Well why didn’t we know about it? Well that’s just the way it goes when you work with C-suites. Sometimes they’ll drop a grenade and it’s your job to figure that out. Or it’s, I think it can also be partly a learning thing. I think also in times of stress people go back to what they know where they start grasping onto the fine details. For me, my fine details are more about are we delivering that then than what that function signature looks like? I have mentally moved away from that but I think that’s just because I’ve been in this role for a bit longer and trying to do that across the completely varied surface area I have now would be something else.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about one of the things that you said in the biography which was a little bit about talking about strategy. So strategy is a little bit of a nebulous word for a lot of people. Can you give us an example about what is something that you were thinking about that you would consider strategy? How would you define that?

    Claire Knight: Oh that’s a very good question. I don’t have a particularly great answer. I don’t think in terms of how I define strategy. I think you can look at it that the C-suite will have set a vision or an end goal. And if you flip it the other way, the engineering manager is very tactical. How do we deliver on this project? But I think the strategy comes in what projects are going to join those dots? What projects can we do that might influence the right outcomes that the business cares about? Then, obviously, you need it depending on if you’re working with a product or your more infra based but product buy-in and maybe product bring that to the table. It’s operational thinking. I’d say any EM is a lot more tactical. A lot more in the weeds and the strategies, like, well we need to be over there. How can we do that at a high level? Again, that’s not particularly nailing down the term for you. But you have to think, well, if we have this library or this product feature I think that might help us. Then having the right relevant conversations with the right stakeholders and either going for that or not. But again that comes back to making the bets situation. If I’m allowed to name drop a book here.

    Patrick Kua: Please.

    Claire Knight: Yeah so. Annie Duke, from the world of poker, actually did a book about thinking in bets and that really changed my mindset on this.

    Patrick Kua: Fantastic. It’s a great book.

    Claire Knight: Yeah. You can make a decision with the information you have at the time and it would still have been the right decision even if the outcome is wrong. People don’t disassociate these things. That freed me up to make some of these bets I think. To try some stuff and to advocate for what I believed in. Yes I will disagree and commit. Yes I will take product or business feedback that they don’t want to head somewhere, totally. But if I have an idea then I will try and justify it that way.

    Patrick Kua: Great, Excellent. Yeah, it’s a really great book reference and it’s also helped me. Also like you. As you said I think engineers have that want of certainty. Have a formula. You have the right outcome because you have that formula or algorithm. It’s a very different approach when you’re dealing with people.

    Claire Knight: Yeah, people don’t fit into a formula. They really don’t.

    Patrick Kua: So one of the things that we’ve talked about the difference, I think, is engineering managers being on that more tactical level. Directors being in that more strategic level. How would you else describe the differences between perhaps a manager of teams and a manager of managers? What are other example activities that you take care of for instance that your EMs don’t need to worry about.

    Claire Knight: I do a lot of sidewards talking. I actually think EMs should all talk to EMs in other orgs because I think that’s good to build your own network. But obviously I do the talking with other engineering directors. But I’m also talking with other functions of the business. Sales. Marketing. Product marketing. I will be pulled into certain things in advance of the EM. Especially if they want to have an engineering leader on a sales call. That’s something that you get pulled into. It’s not that my EMs can’t, necessarily. But they may also be focused on their area whereas I bring a wider perspective. I think, often, in sales and marketing activities, that’s actually what you need. Up until you get to the point of solutions engineering and actually getting stuff done. So I’d say that’s something that I do a lot more off than I used to. So talking talking around the business. I can’t actually think of a huge number of… I can talk about what I don’t do.

    Patrick Kua: Yeah. Sure. Please.

    Claire Knight: From a different perspective. As an EM, you would hop in on code reviews. Some of the time. Even though I could, And occasionally I get an itch. That’s not my role anymore. I shouldn’t be doing that. Yes, if we have engineering.. so many reviewers are needed and everybody’s out of office or it’s an incident. Totally I would approve something then. But in general I don’t do that. I also try not, and again this is me having to train myself because my default is to want to as the ex-engineer, to solutionise. Is to like how do you solve thi? And to ask those open questions whereas I see the EMs maybe being more opinionated on that and I try not to be. I also think I shouldn’t be. If I’m spending time upskilling engineers, that’s me not focusing on the right audience from my job. I think that’s that’s down to to the EMs. Yes. Maybe I talk with Principal Engineers more than I talk with with other tiers of people. But again, it’s not I’m certainly not educating them. They’re probably more technically adept than I am at this point.

    Patrick Kua: Great, Yeah, no, That’s some fantastic contrast I think as to the differences at the EM team level. Maybe hands-on approach versus your broader approach and the activities. I can imagine both in that remote world and the number of teams, just communicating sideways probably takes up quite a good chunk of your time particularly when things are moving quickly. I guess that alignment part gets harder as there’s more people involved and things are shifting really rapidly. So that’s also really insightful to hear the conversations that you’re in that perhaps your EMs won’t normally get pulled into.

    Claire Knight: Yeah, yeah. I mean around some of the planning and direction. We might have some coming top down and we do have some bottoms up. But some of that top down, some of those early discussions we will have in advance of pulling everybody else in and things like that around it. As you say, around the alignment.

    Patrick Kua: Great. So some really fantastic insights and snapshots into your world. I love it. I have three closing questions for you.

    Claire Knight: Okay.

    Patrick Kua: So one of those questions is if you were to give advice to a person who’s about to step into a role about managing other managers, what advice would you give them?

    Claire Knight: The ambiguity one for sure. Because I’ve just seen that so much. Learn to be more comfortable with it. You will feel unhappy. But learn to sit with that. and don’t think, much like, when you go from being a senior engineer, to the staff plus level as we have them now, that shouldn’t just be a senior++. Don’t think this is EM++. You have to start talking to different parts of the business. The problems that you solve are going to be very different. You will probably be doing more coaching than mentoring because you need to get the EMs to be their own EMs. Whereas there are hard and fast, it’s wrong and it’s right when in engineering so you can actually mentor sometimes and have to. So I think that would be the top level of a few things to think about.

    Patrick Kua: Great piece of advice. The second question is, if you were to recommend a book, we heard the Thinking in Bets book, what other book would you recommend for somebody transitioning into that role?

    Claire Knight: Ooo. That is also. I’ve read a lot of the usual suspects. I honestly think Camille’s book, The Manager’s Path. Because you can read that up until the level that you’re at and it goes a long way through the various levels. So when I read it, I didn’t read all of it and you can go back to that. There’s a lot of stuff for engineering managers around caring about the people, which you absolutely should do, but at a director level, you have to care about business. I got more of a sense of that from that book.

    Patrick Kua: Fantastic. Yeah, it’s a great book. We’ll make sure that appears in the show notes. Then my final question then, is where can people reach out to you or connect with you?

    Claire Knight: They can find me on all the socials. Probably all of them now. My handle is krider2010 everywhere. Linkedin. Twitter. Threads. Instagram. Mastodon. Bluesky.

    Patrick Kua: Literally all of them.

    Claire Knight: I may not be super active on some of those but I am out there. That’s probably the best way to first ping me. Because I get so much random mailing list junk in my emails that I’ll pick up one message quicker, even if we then go to email for more detail.

    Patrick Kua: Fantastic. We’ll try to put as many of those into the show notes as possible but the handle is very useful.

    Claire Knight: Yeah. One consistency for my own sanity I think on that one.

    Patrick Kua: Ah, yeah, that’s really fantastic. Thank you very much for spending the last hour with me. I’ve really enjoyed the stories, insights and the experience that you’re sharing. ‘m hoping the listeners will also enjoy it as well.

    Claire Knight: Yeah, thank you for having me. Hopefully somebody learned something.

    Patrick Kua: I’m sure they will.

    Claire Knight: Thank you.

    Patrick Kua: Thank you.

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