Contributing Effectively As a Newly Hired Manager or Head of Engineering

Kah Seng Tay

VP of Engineering at Airtable



"It can be difficult when you join a team as a new manager or Head of Engineering to figure out what to do, develop rapport with the team, and start being effective as quickly as possible. This is a transition that few take, and there aren't too many resources for help. The challenges faced here are two-fold: you're joining a new company altogether, and you're having to contribute and prove yourself in a management capacity. When I started working at drive.ai, a fast-growing startup, I was put in charge of half of the software team initially, and within four months, was given responsibility of the whole team."

Actions taken

"One of the common weaknesses you'll see when someone becomes a manager for the first time is weak cross-functional relationships. While they tend to do well with their team and upper management, they can struggle with working well with other functions in the company. When coming into a new company as a senior engineering leader, these are the first relationships you should focus on."

"My first step was to set up one-on-one with my peers and with various people in leadership roles. It's a good idea to set up one-on-ones with as many people in the organization as you can, including all your skip level reports if you have any. When you are a newcomer, the existing team has usually seen a lot of new hires so they may not bother setting up one-on-ones themselves. It really is on you, as a new manager, to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. No one would turn down your request to get to know them and learn about the company. During these one-on-ones, I got to know people better, was able to determine their roles and interest in joining the company, the expectations they had of me, and how I could help them out in their role."

"I got a lot of information from these meetings and began to notice key themes of improvement across these one-on-one's. I would recommend you try to solve these problems using first principles, and not try to apply what you read from elsewhere including here. For example, in my situation I realized we needed to set up some company values and best practices in product development. In your situation, you might have different challenges to work on. In addition, on the engineering side, I found there were some debates within the engineering team that needed resolving sooner, in order to maximize alignment and increase overall efficiency. But it would be hard to achieve given we'd need to meet to discuss and figure solutions and the engineering team was too big to fit into one conference room. So one solution I saw: we had to do this at an offsite location, large enough to house the team to hunker down and make decisions. And so within my first month starting at drive.ai, I was investing time organizing an Engineering offsite, so we could work as a team to agree on the best path forward."

"The next challenge then was how to go about planning and executing this offsite as only a single new hire (albeit in a senior role), while getting buy-in from the entire team. A common trap for newly transitioned managers would be to try to do everything on your own, but I knew I had to rely on the team I was inheriting for help. Doing this also helped me build trust and establish rapport with my peers and reports. I got the people who had pointed out problem areas to me to lead some breakout groups for those areas at the offsite. We prioritized six different areas, and I broke them into two sessions with three breakout groups in each session, organized by theme. After each breakout group session, the facilitators of each group had to present a summary and action items/decisions to everyone. One of the benefits of structuring the offsite in this way was that you could make a lot of progress across a wide range of areas, but you weren't burdening people with topics they didn't have interest in. Of course, it was a good idea to also include some team-bonding activities that allowed people to get to know each other better."

"The offsite turned out well and we started doing it twice a year. From the 1:1s, there were also many other useful tips I learned from people that helped me do well in my new role and team."

Lessons learned

"In this kind of transition as a newly hired manager or Head of Engineering, you'll have to rise to the dual challenge of doing well as a new hire to a company, while still performing up to expectations in a management capacity. Build trust and rapport with your peers and reports and lean on them for them to help you be effective."

"And in the subsequent challenges you see that you look to tackle: There may be a lot of formulas and solutions you can learn about from management books. While they often help you to widen your toolkit, what I've learned is that when working in management, or at any level at all, there is a lot of value in solving by first principles. Try to identify the problems and then try to tackle them in the best way you know how or what others might recommend. This process went well because I didn't try to use a cookie cutter approach to apply someone else's plan to the engineering team I was joining."

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Kah Seng Tay

VP of Engineering at Airtable

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