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Using a Business Mindset for Engineering Teams

James Rowley

VP Engineering at Gliffy

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Problem

"I joined Oracle pretty early on and always worked on business products. What I always noticed was that Oracle thought of things in a Sales mindset. When going into meetings with department heads, I'd watch as week after week we'd get swallowed alive by whatever Oracle's sales department could pitch. When the head of engineering finally got the chance to have our say it would inevitably always be negative, as he felt he had to bring the rest of the organization back to reality, but this resulted in engineering's voice becoming white noise."

Actions taken

"We were clearly not at the same position at the table, and were not being respected or listened to. I realized I needed to admit that I didn't understand what sales were saying. My brother was also working at Oracle as Head of Sales and Financial Services, so I spoke to him, and explained my difficulty. I then asked him to ask a Head of Sales from another division to allow me to be a pre-sales person for a year, and was given a role. What I learned in that year was mind blowing. I sat in deal after deal, learned about how Sales closed deals, and what they had to go through to sell a product. This gave me a completely different perspective on how hard they did in fact work."

"This experience changed my entire career. After working in sales, every time I sat down at the table I'd say 'Of course we can do that! It's software it can do anything!'. I then go on to explain how much it would cost them in time, people, and money. When going into a conversation with this positive framing, it changes the entire conversation you're having."

"These lessons also completely changed my approach to managing engineers. My approach now is to remind my engineers every day to think first about customer wants and needs, by asking how changes or updates will affect the customer, rather than focusing on what the engineers would like to change. When you let your team know that it's your job to do this, they realize that you're not challenging the piece of technology or picking on them. Instead, you're asking them to run you through their thinking from the point of view of satisfying customers' needs and wants."

"My engineering departments are now run as a business, in every aspect - project management, accountability, goals, OKRs, and budgets. I train engineers from the beginning that there are consequences to the decisions that we make. I spend half an hour every month mentoring my engineers, and during these sessions talk to them about the business. The engineers are now much more concerned about the business, and want to know how the business is going, and what products the customers are using most."

"I also now train all my managers in this way - I make them go to budgeting and finance classes, I value people having an MBA. Engineers are expensive, and if you approach managing your team from a business perspective, you understand this."

Lessons learned

"If you start to look at your engineering department through this lens, you'll start to understand why engineering teams are often seen as difficult. By training them to look at engineering through a business lens, the company will come to understand and respect them more."


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James Rowley

VP Engineering at Gliffy


Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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