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Managing the expectations of a role

Sudhir Tonse

Sr. Director of Engineering at DoorDash

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Problem

There was a senior engineer with a lot of passion that had joined Uber from another large company in Silicon Valley. I inherited this engineer from another team when I joined Uber. He was very much into delivering papers and research, and he came up with a lot of ideas. However, Uber has a differentiation between data scientists and engineers, and he found it hard to focus on engineering tasks and hard to convince fellow scientists and engineers to go with his ideas. We have quarterly performance reviews, and the feedback from one of these reviews, coupled with the work he was delivering, did not paint a good picture.

Actions taken

Prior to the quarterly performance feedback, I had used one-on-ones to discuss this issue. However, he'd always brush it off and would say that's just what I felt and that his ideas were indeed good and well executed. However, the feedback from his colleagues to the contrary hit him hard. My first step was to go to the engineer, to talk him through the feedback. This helped to ensure that he understood and internalized it. While he was good at thinking through complex ideas from an academic point of view, he wasn't able to transfer his ideas into actionable tasks. I acknowledged that he had good ideas from a scientific perspective, but argued that for him to be successful, he needed to deploy things to production which needed good tactical plans, passion for details, focus and collaboration. Unless ideas are put into production, none of them will see the light of day and he will not see the impact of his ideas come to life. He would be an "idea box" rather than a Thought Leader. We then decided on an actionable plan for improvement. This consisted of a number of steps:

  • I bought him some engineering books, and while this may seem silly, they helped talk him through good engineering practice.
  • I found a mentor for him, with a scientific background, who had been successful, so he had someone similar to him who he could learn from.
  • I talked to him about how to focus, and we agreed that for an entire quarter he would focus on just one project.
  • I set up expectations with teams involved with the projects, so they could also hold him accountable. These steps resulted in him getting much better feedback in the following quarter, and he delivered successfully on the project.

Lessons learned

It's possible to change people and their philosophies about work, but it takes a lot of work, both from managers and from the individuals themselves. Peer feedback can also be key to changing somebody's perspective. This engineer stayed for two more quarters, but he realized that he wasn't passionate about the work he was doing, so he found a more research-based position within the company.


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Sudhir Tonse

Sr. Director of Engineering at DoorDash


Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesTechnical ExpertiseTechnical Skills

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