3 Takeaways for Engineering Leaders from Elevate Fall 2022

At Plato, we kicked off fall with Elevate, our virtual conference for aspiring engineering leaders. We welcomed 1000+ engineers from tech companies around the world and heard from top industry leaders. Our speakers — which included CTOs, SVPs, and Heads of Engineering from Slack, Okta, Brex, Amplitude, Reddit and other tech companies — shared their wisdom, experiences, and practical tips for becoming a thoughtful technical leader. They reminded us that even though we are in an economic downturn, and we can't hire at the same rate as before, there are plenty of things we can do to make an impact and deliver results.

Here are our top three takeaways from Elevate.

1. Be Conscious of Your Technical Debt

Sagnik Nandy, the CTO and President of Technology at Okta, emphasized the the importance of fixing and updating systems to ensure problems do not outpace growth once a business moves past its early stages of development. One of the most common fallacies that new companies have is thinking that their business is unique. The truth is that there are very few businesses that are truly unique, and every part of a company’s system will eventually become obsolete. Luckily for us, Sagnik outlined four areas of focus for leaders who are working to avoid technical debt.

Every System Will Need Rewriting. There are two pieces of advice within this point, the first is to be proactive. The easiest solution when facing an obsolete system is updates and improvements. The second piece is to create an adaptable system. It is easier for engineers to update one part of a system that has become obsolete instead of updating an entire system built around an obsolete part.

Play to Your Core Strengths. Over time, companies tend to spend less and less time on the parts of their business that differentiate them. Staying true to the value proposition of the business and investing in expertise within the industry will help ensure the continued growth of the company.

Prepare for Bad Things and Automate Best Practices. Beyond just preparing for mistakes and issues, leaders should be continuously analyzing the systems that are in place to monitor for problems. A leader should always be asking: if there aren’t any issues being flagged, what am I not seeing?

Actively Monitor and Focus on Developer Experience. The people who create and update a company’s system are the developers. Their overall experience and happiness with their company and their leaders affect how the system performs, and how problems are addressed. Developer experience should be treated as a system feature to ensure that it remains a priority within a company.

2. Focus on Impact and Not Features

Chris Slow, CTO and founding engineer of Reddit, and Shadi Rostami, Senior/Executive VP of Engineering of Amplitude offered advice on how leaders can help their companies focus on creating impact instead of building features.

Strengthen the Relationship between Engineers, Product Managers, and Customers. Engineers need to own the product experience and understand the impact their system and features have on the customer experience. This creates a better understanding of the needs of the customer and how customers interact with the system. One way managers can push this connection further is by having engineers meet with customers, or be part of customer calls with product managers so that they are hearing directly from the customers. This needs to be balanced out with other customer metrics to ensure features are being built to impact all customers.

Focus on Customer Experience. Building new features is incredibly important, but features only create impact when the intended users adopt the features. One of the best ways to measure the customer experience is to build systems or features in iterations, and have customers test the iterations. Rolling out features and updates through iterations also helps save potential time wasted if features fail to meet the metrics needed to create impact.

Treat Technical Debt as a First-Class Priority. Too often, technical debt is viewed as a part of a business that is behind the scenes. Any experienced leader understands that technical debt will eventually start to negatively impact a company if it is treated as a second-class citizen. A balance must be managed between business outcomes and technical debt, and leaders need to be advocates for that balance to lead their company toward growth and success.

3. Build Trust with Your Teams

Company leaders always have a lot on their plates but one of the most important but elusive responsibilities for a leader is creating and maintaining trust. Our panelists — Rukmini Reddy, SVP of Platform Engineering at Slack, Xiao Guo, SVP of Engineering at Bolt, and Janice Little, SVP of Engineering at SheerID — shared strategies on how to work towards establishing trust, and how to know when you have been successful at building trust. All three panelists highlighted that trust is only functional when it is reciprocated between the leader and the team members, and that trust can be taken away as easily as it was built.

Building Trust. One of the simplest ways to build and maintain trust as a leader is through transparency. This can be implemented in several ways. One way that seems simple, but is very vulnerable, is admitting when you have made a mistake. This creates a level of honesty within a company and is also a way of leading by example. Mistakes are inevitable, but a leader and a culture that allows its members to be open about their mistakes is an organization built on trust. Another simple way to build trust is to get to know your team members. This can start with finding out their favorite hobbies or how they spend their weekends, and can build up to discovering what their goals and motivations are within the company.

Testing Trust. After working towards building trust, how do you, as a leader, know when you have been successful? One way is through a stress test. When your team goes through a stressful period, are they working together and looking to their leadership or are there cracks forming? While effective, the stress test has a strong sink-or-swim component that could cause more problems than solutions. One of the simplest and low-risk ways to see if your trust-building has been effective is to ask. Check in with your team several times a year and ask, have I, as a leader, been effective in building trust? This method is not only straightforward but the vulnerability and openness of the check-ins is another way to build trust.

While the topics and takeaways at Elevate Fall 2022 ranged from managing technical debt to delivering impact to building trust, the overarching theme from our panelists is building for the future. The best leaders are working on today and planning for tomorrow. They are always learning and evolving, regardless of the systems they create, the culture they invest in, and the time they devote to their teams. Watch the recordings of all the Elevate Fall 2022 sessions to learn more leadership lessons and grow to new heights.

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