CTO Connection Podcast

Short Byte: Ramana Satyavarapu - Engineering management vs leadership

December 23, 2021 Peter Bell
CTO Connection Podcast
Short Byte: Ramana Satyavarapu - Engineering management vs leadership
Show Notes Transcript

Ramana Satyavarapu is the CTO at Finix - a payments solution for SaaS companies. Previously he was Head of Data Engineering Platform and Product at Two Sigma, Head of Engineering, Software Network Infrastructure for Uber and a Head of Engineering at Google running the Google Play search team. In this episode we discuss the distinction between management and leadership, dig into how he worked on developing the leadership principles at his current company, how he thinks about balancing product, process and people, and how he helps his team to determine whether the managers path is right for them.

Peter Bell:

You pick this this topic, which I feel like comes up time and time again. But it's just such a rich area that there's so much to talk about, which is leadership versus management. To you, what's the difference between a leader and a manager?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Great question, Peter. A leader is a person who people would love to follow people follow by their own choice managers or people have people working for them, but not necessarily follow them. That is the key difference. And through my career progression, I've always looked at what does it take for managers to become leaders? I'm excited on this topic.

Peter Bell:

So obviously, I guess they the two can be quite independent. When you think about, you know, principal engineers or staff engineers, they may have no line management responsibility. But they are often incredibly influential from a leadership perspective in terms of directing the technology choices, and the the the ways that an engineering org might move forward.

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Absolutely, absolutely. Leadership comes in different flavors, irrespective of discipline, level, or position. a technology leader, even from a staff, a principal engineer, can have equal or even more influence sometimes than the people managers. So they're highly complementary, in my opinion. Being a leader is truly showing by examples guiding by a set of principles versus a set of rules. Principles, will stand through the test of time, principles, like passion for your craft, Prince principle like customer driven, showing customer empathy, openness and honesty, all these principles, when led by example, become part of the DNA. And that's what people would love to get inspiration from, and follow the people who demonstrated consistently.

Peter Bell:

So I've got to ask, let's say that you are CTO and maybe a venture backed startup, you're starting to build and scale the organization. And at some point in time, you realize, oh, yeah, Amazon have leadership principles. Facebook has, like, we should probably do this thing. How do you go about selecting the principles to focus on?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

That's a great question. It's, it's not one principle versus the other. It's a combination of balancing the principles depending on the situation. Balancing, balancing and pragmatic leadership is very important to forward the business. For example, passion for your craft versus customer driven, say a customer is literally the market is requesting for a high availability feature. But we cannot say passion for the craft is the main principle, and we go build the rocket ship for that solution. And that will be delivered two years later, we've got to strike that balance on what would be the optimal positioning to make sure the customer is unblocked. So it's always comes to balancing these principles. In this example, specifically customer driven, what is the right time and the right solution in a pragmatic way to deliver to the customer, versus balancing it with the right passion for the craft and bring bringing in engineering excellence and scalability?

Peter Bell:

That make sense. So I got to ask, you've got this amazing resume when you were working at Microsoft Google, Uber, two sigma, which for anyone who doesn't know is an amazing kind of technology organization in the FinTech space, as you think through maybe were to hit Microsoft, are there any principles that you particularly liked from any of the companies that you've you've previously worked at?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Oh, absolutely. All these companies are great companies. I feel honored and privileged to work at these great companies. I always say this. There have been great milestones of my career. But Phoenix is the greatest milestone of my life.

Peter Bell:

It's certainly different when you actually get to build your own business, right?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Absolutely. Absolutely. There's nothing more rewarding than that. Each company has its own set of principles that make them what they truly are. For example, Microsoft, extremely, extremely careful and thoughtful on product centered leadership. The products are very, very well taught to Amazon very highly on customer driven Google. They take passion in creating the best of the breed technologies. If we take Google, Google is technically an ADS company. But no one thinks of Google as ads company. It's a technology company. So the passion for the craft? Yes, it's a combination again, Peter, what is the right set of principles that are applicable and balancing them, for your customers, and your business at this moment of time? There's no one thing as this is the principle and that will stand and work for the decade at the best of times.

Peter Bell:

So maybe to ask for an example like, is this a process you've had the time to go through FedEx share? And if so, what principles do you decide to focus on for your current organization,

Ramana Satyavarapu:

we have a strong set of cultural values and principles like honesty and integrity, passion for your craft, proactive, empathy, eagerness to evolve, staying hungry, staying humble, and always acting like an owner. And all these principles on the book, they don't mean anything, they have to become like I said, they have to become part of the DNA, part of embedded part of the culture. That's where our technology leaders have to demonstrate they'll leave these principles by examples. That's again, coming to the leader versus a manager, taking these principles and showcasing them by example, is the leader versus deriving a set of rules and applying the rules is a manager.

Peter Bell:

So when you first came up with the set of principles that finix, how did you figure out how to propagate and make that something that was lived rather than just you know, the poster on the wall that nobody ever looks at?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

First and foremost, it has to be a collaborative exercise to come up with the principles that resonate best to the organization. And the customers. Second, we have to live by it preach by demostrated it every in every thing, every standup, we do every JIRA ticket, we create every memory, right? Or a board presentation, or investors newsletters, everywhere we practice and demonstrate how we are making progress and applying these principles to make that progress at an accelerated pace. Yes.

Peter Bell:

So you also talk about this idea of the balance between product process and people. So how do you think about that from a from a management versus maybe a leadership perspective,

Ramana Satyavarapu:

the balance between product process and people is an important element to strike to make progress for the organization. A leader embodies all three dimensions and applies them to every situation. A manager might take one or two of these aspects and apply it to a particular situation. We strive to make it pure bliss to work at Phoenix, and delight our customers through awesome releases where at every point this balances maintained.

Peter Bell:

So when you have people who are moving into engineering leadership, it's often individual contributors, right? And there's always firstly, how do you determine whether you want somebody to move into into management or leadership? How do you have that conversation to figure out whether somebody is likely to change jobs successfully from writing code to supporting a team?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

That's a great question. That's a that's a question that every engineer will face at some point of their time, whether Should I take the management path, which is the people management path, or should I stay in the technical leadership? There is a distinction here, you can be a leader in any discipline, and we promote that strongly across all disciplines. But if specifically if someone is interested, to make it to grow into a people managers, the first and foremost is an open, honest direct conversation to understand how bested are they can others growth that is very, very important. A manager, a people manager has to put others interests ahead of their own interests, company comes first and other scope come before their own interests. Second, it's not as rosy as people think. We need to educate people on what will be the challenges of management, what will be the challenges of people that is the same and which I've experienced myself several times. systems are easy, people are difficult. So, it might sound like the mountain is always green from the fires. They don't know what they're getting into, until they actually get into. So we actually have a lot of programs to educate them. Provide mentorship, internal and external mentorship, provide them an opportunity to influence without authority. We always go in this phase of influencing without authority, whether you have the authority or not. The first bias for action should be how can we how can a manager or people manager people leader can influence without any authority, that it becomes the decision of choice. So with that, we also next if we have all these signals, then we go to the next step of even providing them some starting pilot management opportunities. We want to set up setup every one for success. It's expensive for the company, expensive for the individual, and the people working with that individual if things don't go the right way. But we have to evolve, we provide the opportunity, ample opportunity across the board. And we make sure that enough guardrails and resources for the individual to be successful.

Peter Bell:

So I'd love to dig into that as you as you let's say somebody was an individual contributor, they've experimented with leadership and influencing people without necessarily having organizational authority and they're in, you're excited about them. So they're bringing they've got maybe their first management role. What are some of the things you do to support them as managers or to train them into the skills required to be successful?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Fantastic question. First and foremost, what is management starts with a clear rubric, a definition of competencies required for a manager. Second, is the emphasis on soft skills. That's a very important aspect, people making this transition mostly usually undervalue or underestimate, the impact of soft skills. So that's a big area to focus on. Third, providing that mentorship providing a coach for every new manager in the organization. I personally meet them twice a week, to make sure they have enough support and guidance. We have to create this environment of openness, where they can surface the problems and discuss without the fear of like, oh my god, I'm expected to solve this magically. Right. Everyone needs help that openness, culture will go a long way and fought. We have a fantastic head of learning and development. As we approach to growing that program through both internal and external coaching. We provide material resources and training for managers tailored for managers. And all these combinations are mostly effective. But whenever there are situations where we see signals of like, hey, things are not progressing the right way. We have enough guardrails to protect the company, the individual and the team.

Peter Bell:

Makes sense? Now, another question I have is it feels to me that there are two very substantial transitions from individual contributor up to kind of senior engineering leader. The first one is where you go from building software to supporting a team right you become a manager but I feel like it's almost as big a transition as when you go from a manager where your job is primarily to support your team and to follow the processes you've been given within your engineering org, to move into a more senior role in some companies, it's at a director level in some, it's at VP or even the head of technology or CTO, where suddenly, you've got to build the systems. And in some ways, it feels like building systems is more similar to building software than this got a messy bit in the middle when you're primarily supporting a small team of people. How do you help people bridge that next transition from manager to actually building and growing systems for an org?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Fantastic question, Peter. Frankly, this is a question very close to my heart. Because early in my career at Microsoft, I was I was at that point of like, Hey, I'm an I'm a manager or a leader at for an organization or a team. But how do I get to the next level? So the magic aha moment is the realization that I have to think outside in versus inside out. Okay, let me explain a little more. The thinking of inside out, we think engineering first, how do we develop a system? Before we think about what impact it has on the customer? The moment I had the realization here, I have to think outside in which is the customer first, what is engineering engineering purpose is to solve a business problem, a customer's day to day situation to enrich people's lives. That's my definition of purpose of engineering. How do we enrich others lives? In order to do the enrichment, first, we have to think like the customer, and then tailor the solutions to meet that needs. So this game is I would be very honest, this did not come the easy way. It came through lots of introspection, lots of thinking, what does it take, for me to get to the next level of leadership? In the executive executive category, to think really like a customer, and what business problem are we solving? without answering that question? I would strongly recommend my fellow technischer technologists to please do not start coding. Hope that helps.

Peter Bell:

Absolutely. So and you bring again, you've got this this this great resume this great set of experiences that incredibly capable companies, what were some of the most useful experiences you had, whether it was formal training programs, or perhaps even personal mentors that helped you to kind of build the management to then leadership skills you needed.

Ramana Satyavarapu:

It's a combination of several things. But the most important thing is staying hungry. Do not accept the status quo, always stay super, super, super hungry. The kryptonite of complacency, in my opinion, is my biggest fear. That's the biggest inhibitor of engineering excellence. So the moment we get complacent, we do not question the status quo, we do not seek for new methods, new new ways in which engineering can solve business problems. So I was fortunate, I was fortunate to get ample resources in great companies like Microsoft, Google, Uber and to sigma. And, even more importantly, even continue to grow at Phoenix, where I have both an internal coach and an external coach who helped me grow continuously and evolve continuously.

Peter Bell:

I've seen that topic come up a number of times recently talking about the importance of coaching for senior leaders. Would you mind sharing, how do you go about identifying the skills you are looking for from a coach and then finding the right person to provide that kind of support?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

That is great. That is great question. There are two types of coaching. I think coaching at the same time, I'm a coach as a coach myself to several other engineering, aspiring leaders and stuff. So the two types of coaching. One is advisors. They come with the title coach but advisors, advisor, specifically advisor people on how to do presentations, how to do specific engineering problems, how to do how to develop a product muscle in a specific dimension specific area to get you better. The second is a generate coach, a coach who can act as a mirror, who can who with whom you can bounce off your thoughts. And most often, the coach is not providing the solutions. Just bouncing off your questions again and again, will give you the answer yourself. Because the best answer is always the one that is self realized. I would prefer the later though it takes time to build. But that aspect of coaching where the coach is really a partnership, working with you to truly, truly reflect your thoughts and find that self answer goes a long way.

Peter Bell:

And I feel like the the importance to its I know a number of successful engineering leaders who have coaches or therapists however they've structured it. And I think the value really is that often, the problem you think you have isn't the problem you have. And when you get an incredibly, some stuff is great. I've got to give a big presentation, I'm gonna get somebody to teach me how to look good in front of the camera. But once you start to get into Oh, I'm just like dissatisfied with my role here. Well, maybe you need to delegate more. Maybe you need to realign with your personal objectives that there are so many different ways that you can actually find that the solution isn't necessarily to the problem that you think you currently have.

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Absolutely, absolutely. You're 100%, right. Nine out of 10. Again, the problem is not what it seems. And the challenge is, if you're always hungry, if you're always seeking a solution, then you question the problem more and more. Is that the right problem? Is that the right problem? But there is a tendency to go more into the solution action mode. Yes, action is good, timely action is important. But let's make sure that equal emphasis on the problem. Get a different perspective. Zoom out from the situation, bounce it off through your coach body in different avenues to see and validate the problem. Before starting to code. Again, an engineering example.

Peter Bell:

Exactly what and that makes sense, right? Because it's like as a as an engineering leader. They would do a five why's retro, right or root cause analysis if the system went down over the weekend, but it makes sense to do exactly the same kind of analysis with the people challenges that you're facing as a leader?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Absolutely, absolutely. People challenges can have even bigger impact. And they do most of the times, then even system challenges coming to a point of people are difficult systems or Yes. We believe in a blameless retrospective. An exercise that we do for any part of the problem, whether it's product outage, a process failure, or a people failure. Just to give you an example, there is both desired and undesired desired attrition. Attrition could be due to different causes. The easy way out for any attrition could be Hey, that's not my problem. The market moved or someone offered hire. But we have to do a blameless retrospective and introspection to see why did the person even had to pick up the phone to seek a new opportunity? What was the gap? What were the missing? And it always comes to three aspects. First, is the Are they happy with the impact they're having? Do they have a sense of career progression? Third, are they having fun? That is very important. We are people and we have we all of us have limited heartbeats. We need to make every moment count. Any of these three missing would lead to people challenges and a true people leader a true people leader will always think about these three aspects and bring it to the forefront of every discussion. When I have my one on one, my first with any individual on the team internal external the first five minutes really going to listening. Listening is a fantastic gift. Listen to mentally calculate on a scale of one to 10, how's their happiness level? On a scale of one to 10? How do they feel satisfied? On a scale of one to 10? How do you how do they think they are progressing in their career. So once that is objectively measured, then we have a fence of how to take them which dimension is most important for them. And as a leader, it's all about managing the company's priorities, the businesses with the individual's aspirations, then that alignment happens. magic happens.

Peter Bell:

Final question I have, you've talked so much about the importance of principles, right, their cultural values, and by their nature, these kind of balancing cultural values vary from company to company. When you were before you decided to go build your own company, when you were still working for someone else's, how did the culture and specifically the principles affect your decision as to which company to work for next?

Ramana Satyavarapu:

They play a very, very, very important and key decision. A key factor into the decision, I cannot emphasize how important it is. And I would strongly encourage every individual career decisions are expensive career moves are expensive. So every individual have to ask this question, and we often undervalue it, that would be the last thing we would ask at the sell call. No, that should be the first thing to ask, what are the cultural foundations very important. So my decision making process was from lack three factors again. First, the total addressable market should be huge. Because we want to make an impact, which is going to be transformative. And Phoenix is well positioned for that this is a two to $5 trillion market. And this is an opportunity to create the next world number one company, and we are so excited about it. Second, do they have a differentiating mindset? Whenever the playground is big, there's going to be a number of providers in that space. But what shines Phoenix? Phoenix is different than the aspect of yes, we provide configurability control and cost effectiveness to the customers. Yes, there is a differentiate, accept, aspect. And last but not the least, this is the most important, what kind of people what kind of cultural values to the half. There's no place called as the perfect place. It's all about alignment, alignment of the company, the cultural value, the people, the grit, the tenacity, and the strong discipline that they have, do they resonate with your own individual interests and principles? So my first question, when I joined Phoenix, when I was discussing first with the founders and the board of Phoenix, my first question always used to be, what kind of companies? If we hit a headwind, how do you think they will come back? So those were the kind of questions to see the resiliency and the cultural aspects of the company. And things like openness, directness, in a very respectful way. That hunger in a very positive way. Passion, we are engineers, we are technologists, our passion, the big difference we are going to make is through technology, and we've got to make the world's best technology, the passion for the craft is very important. So these will be some of the aspects and there's more, but these will be some of the key principles of our cultural values that resonated closely with me at Phoenix. So here I am enjoying every day, every moment.

Peter Bell:

Robin, thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences.

Ramana Satyavarapu:

Absolutely. It's my pleasure, Peter. This is such a wonderful experience. And I'm so glad to have this opportunity to share my thoughts and I truly hope this is going to be helpful for some of you as you make the transition to the next level of leadership and execute. Please think outside them. Customer first