Interview with Aaron Cope, Director of Engineering, R&D

Published on Jan 1, 2018

4 min read

image for Interview with Aaron Cope, Director of Engineering, R&D

Location: Remote (Houston, TX)
Current Role: Director of Engineering, R&D

What’s your background and how did you get into management?

I have been in software for over fifteen years. I currently manage 13 engineers and quality assurance engineers, distributed mostly across the United States and several in Costa Rica.

I have a very good mentor. He convinced me I would enjoy management and excel at it, he coached me through the transition, taught me how to evaluate various dimensions of decision making and how to get to good results in tough situations.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

I work remotely. I see my teams about every quarter, sometimes more, sometimes less. While we are constantly in touch, I genuinely miss the face-to-face time that I would use to explore their interests on a more personal level.

I don’t suggest managing from home; it is difficult and requires constant attention to stay connected to the pulse. It can be done, but it takes a lot of hard work, discipline and finding the right touch on various communication mediums. Chat and phone are essential to my day-to-day. Video is great if your team(s) want(s) that. My teams are more of phone people, so that works best for us and we don’t use video often.

You need two truth-tellers on your team to be your eyes and ears when you aren’t there. It’s important to choose completely different people with different outlooks, perspectives and reads on people and situations. This keeps you from starving for information and visual cues. The primary reason this arrangement works well for me is that I have a substantial history and years of context with the company I work for. If you choose to manage remotely, and you don’t have that context, travel often at first to get acquainted and build relationships. I sincerely do not recommend managing remotely when in a role above a Director level. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to effectively communicate across an entire company with a myriad of personalities and professional disciplines sans visuals.

What is your approach to hiring?

I look for people who are smart, curious, and want to learn something new every day. I hire team players, not rock stars. I try to identify “matches” through thoughtful interview questions that probe critical thinking skills and allow the candidate a window into how we think.

I like to use internships and co-ops through local universities to source potential hires. In my opinion, students that work their way through college seem to be more driven, balanced and have realistic expectations of the workplace.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

I don’t recall where I heard this quote, but it isn’t mine: “Being a leader means you create and grow an environment for those to flourish within it.” In view of that maxim, I would offer the following tangible advice, some of which I took during my transition and some of which I regretfully ignored.

  1. Your job is now the three P’s. (People, Projects, Process). Coding is no longer your primary function. Your team(s) don’t need you to code, they really need your planning, staffing and ability to adjust a plan on the spot. Give them measurable value-driven goals that add up to a big picture idea. They need your strategy and your daily drip of encouragement. They also need to know they are building something that has meaning and value.
  2. Develop, socialize and publish your team’s values and principles. Ours are Quality, Service, Humility, and Pragmatism. Get your team(s) behind these values and acknowledge them when they’ve demonstrated these values.
  3. You roughly have a three-month honeymoon where you will be given some level of leniency on the decisions you make. If you need to make any major changes, do so within that period of time. It’s much harder to make bigger changes, later.
  4. You now own the result of your team and you own the input to your team(s). Make sure you believe in how that is working. If the position existed before you arrived, it’s likely it wasn’t working. See point 3.

Whats your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?

Exercise first. If I can’t take good care of myself, I can’t care well for others. Then I spend time with my children; this sets the tone for patience and consistency throughout the day. Then I make a large cup of coffee and head into the office.

I live by my calendar and by a cheat sheet I regularly review. I borrowed the cheatsheet from David Loftesness. See attached graphic for more information.

What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?

Actively looking for ways to care for others.

Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.

If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum – Alan Cooper

For managers coming from a technical background, especially those that are excited by rich features and power user configuration, this book helps uncover the problems with over-engineering and the dire need to work hand-in-hand with a product visionary and your customers.

Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, GitHub, etc.)

LinkedIn –

This series asks engineering managers to share their experiences with the intent of helping other engineering managers learn and improve. Have someone you want to see featured or questions you think we should ask? Contact me.

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