Interview with Bryan Gebhardt, Senior Engineering Manager at Microsoft
Published on Feb 12, 2018
4 min read
Location: San Francisco Bay Area
Current role: Senior Engineering Manager
What’s your background, and what is your current role?
I got my Computer Science degree from UC Berkeley (go Bears!) and lucked out getting the first position as employee 15 in an interactive television startup that I stayed with for 9 years. From there I pivoted into the mobile space joining a startup back when you could make millions of dollars off selling wallpaper and ringtones. In 2008 I got the opportunity to join Motorola and work on the team building back-end services for their Android phones. Since then I’ve managed teams at Walmart, Apple, and now Microsoft.
How did you get into to management?
I built services for 6 years and grew form tech lead to the manager of a services team. I’ve been in management almost continuously ever since. For me, I saw the bigger impact you could have coordinating more and more engineers’ work and enjoyed the integration and people challenges. I was also fortunate as in a rapidly growing start up a management opportunity became available pretty quickly for me.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
I’ve faced a lot of engineering and project challenges, but the most difficult challenges are always human, not technical. I’d say the most difficult I’ve faced is when you have to motivate and retain a team when you’re reducing your team or when your product is becoming less relevant. Starts-ups often refer to this as the moment you need to pivot to something new (although it’s probably too late by the time you’re making deep cuts). These pivots happen for teams in big companies all the time too. I’ve faced a few of these in my career and have found that being candid and hopeful with your team is key. The people you hired are smart and can smell issues as well or better than you. So I always try to engage them in the solution.
What is your approach to hiring?
Hiring is the hardest job a manager has. You’re making a huge team decision based on very little information (only a few hours of data usually). The best approach is to hire talented people you’ve worked with or referrals. Of course, that’s not always an option.
One of my early bosses used to say he looked for skills, knowledge, and attitude in hiring. In our process, we put in a lot of questions and challenges to help assess each.
- Skills – Can they design me a service on the spot? How do they approach coding problems?
- Knowledge – How deep to they understand the technologies they used? Can they teach me something in the interview
- Attitude – Behavioral questions help here. “Tell me about a time when…” I look for how they persuade and deal with conflict. A favorite is to ask “What was your biggest failure?”
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
When you start there will be a lot of pressure to “make a mark” quickly. Resist moving too fast. While we can now ship code weekly, daily, even hourly, people are slow and it takes time to get to know your team. Don’t change anything right away and focus on building a relationship with your directs. The faster you get to a place where you trust each other the more effective your team will be. You really want to create a space where your team is confident to push themselves. That’s key to high performing teams.
It is also very useful to find out from people in other teams what they think of your team, where your team is doing well, and where it is falling short. Set up short 15-minute informational chats with people your team works with. Do this even if you were an IC on this team before.
Finally, don’t forget that your peers are your team. Get to know your peer managers as that trust relationship is as important as the ones with your directs.
Read and learn about leadership just like you do for technologies. Leadership can be learned. My favorite advice comes from Manager Tools (www.manager-tools.com). They have a whole roadmap for what to do as a new manager for the first 3 months and beyond.
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
I follow the “Getting Things Done” methodology for tracking all my work. I started this years ago and it has been key in being able to funnel in work coming at me, filter through it, delegate what I can, and prioritize what’s needed. I’m not perfect, but it sure helps. The two biggest ideas that have stuck:
- Write down your work all your work (your work inbox) and go through it daily. Don’t try to keep that list in your head. You’re not very good at remembering things and you’re using precious mental energy better spent on work.
- If it’s only 2 minutes, do it right now.
Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.
- Manager Tools
- OmniFocus for managing the 100’s of todo’s
- Lot’s of non-engineering podcasts, but on the engineering side Software Engineering Daily has turned out to be quite good. my commute is long 🙂
- I’ve grown to both love and hate (one more inbox to check!) Slack
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
There are so many…
I like a good framework I can apply and even better I like simple frameworks that I can easily remember. 5 dysfunctions is a great one applicable at all levels of the org in any role.
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
- Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t
- The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win
- Andy Grove’s High Output Management
Management book I’m reading now is “The Manager’s Path.” It came highly recommended.
Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, Github, etc.)
Connect with me on LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/bgebhardt
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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