Interview with Chaitanya Atreya, Director of Engineering at Teradata
Published on Mar 12, 2018
7 min read
Location: San Francisco Bay Area
Current Role: Director of Engineering at Teradata
What’s your background and how did you get into management?
I am a technologist at heart, with a startup mindset.
Currently, I oversee key aspects of Analytics Ecosystem and Platform at Teradata, a leading provider of business analytics and data solutions.
Before joining Teradata, I worked for some of the largest technology companies such as Adobe, Amazon and Walmart Labs, and fortunate in each case to be there during a time of tremendous growth and transformation. I was an early member on Amazon Alexa team, owning key areas in Alexa’s cloud services and mobile applications. At Adobe, I witnessed and contributed towards the company’s successful transformation from selling boxed software to a cloud subscription model. I also co-founded Crowdera (https://gocrowdera.com/), a free crowdfunding platform for nonprofits and individuals for social causes.
The geekier side of me in the past has had some interesting experiences, including being part of C++ Draft Standard review, and representing Columbia University at the regional ACM programming contests.
In the early stage of my career, my focus was Security, which included solving some very interesting and challenging online and offline document security problems. This opened the gate to a full-scholarship admission to Columbia University in the City of New York, specializing in Security, and working directly with a highly-decorated security researcher, Prof. Steven. M. Bellovin.
As a project lead for the research grant at Columbia University, I worked with various security technology companies as well as financial institutions to help build and evaluate novel authentication methodologies. This gave me my first management experience, early on in my career.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
At Teradata, we are going through a phase of rapid growth and change. There is a constant challenge of hiring for emerging markets, and hiring the right talent. We are betting on some of the cutting edge technologies in the industry, and it gets increasingly hard given the market demand for such talent.
As we continue to set the stage for advancements in Enterprise Analytics, one of the key challenges is to make sure we continuously meet the product-market fit for all the new product lines and offerings we are bringing to market. This implies achieving faster release cycles, investing in the right technologies, adapting to a move-fast-fail-fast strategy, ultimately hitting the sweet spot for our customers at the intersection of advanced analytics, cloud, and performance.
What is your approach to hiring?
I value many leadership principles, but few that I keenly look for are Bias for Action, Customer Obsession and Thought Diversity.
Speed matters in business, so I advocate and practice looking for talent that is able to take calculated risks and being comfortable dealing with ambiguity. This fosters creativity and timely delivery of results.
I strongly believe that starting with the customers and working backward holds the key to most successful business decisions, and the hiring approach should reflect this too.
The future is going to be one of Gig Economy. In such a world, diversity, especially, thought diversity, becomes more and more relevant to staying competitive. Be conscious of the blanket term Culture-fit, as it can become an anti-practice if not used carefully. In many cases, the term culture-fit tends to become a phrase that interviewers use to disfavor those that aren’t like themselves; this stems from unconscious bias, and in most cases leads to lack of diversity. [Facebook believes that Managing Unconscious Bias plays such a critical role in building stronger, more diverse and inclusive organizations that they have put out dedicated resources and research here – https://managingbias.fb.com.]
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
As aspiring managers and leaders, one needs to balance a lot of competing priorities and sometimes even competing principles at work. You end up spending enormous amounts of energy doing these balancing acts. However, know that each leader has a set of identities, the invariants, the legacy. These are the things you are known for. These are the things that when all else fails, you would still stand for. Make sure you identify at some point early on in the managerial journey what these are, and live every day and every decision by these invariants.
Along the same lines, chalk out the leadership principles that are most important to you. Reflect upon these regularly. Update them and upgrade them as you learn more and face different scenarios. Amazon’s Leadership Principles have helped shape my work and life, and think it should yours too: https://www.amazon.jobs/principles.
The antithetical thing about management is that, whereas it seems it’s about taking control, in reality, it’s actually more about letting go of control. Those who realize this sooner get comfortable faster. Recognize that autonomy is one of the largest intrinsic human motivators. The Russian proverb goes “Doveryai, no proveryai,” which means Trust and Verify. Practice this and it helps getting comfortable letting go of control.
Lastly and most importantly, know that it’s all about “people.” Put people first, and the rest follows.
What’s your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?
There are very few typical days. A work week is a combination of customer meetings, architecture reviews, product demos, escalations, drop-in conversations and a few contextual, ad hoc topics that pop up. At an organizational level, we have regular product alignment discussions, KPI reviews, partner meetings and broader initiatives that keep me busy with travel and evangelization.
My Inbox is my Todo list. I follow a modified version of Inbox Zero approach, in that, I deliberately mark certain emails as unread, right after reading them. Ok, let me give this modified approach a name here – the Unread Zero approach. An email is marked unread if I need to act on it, or need more time or information before responding. Given my natural tendency to eventually achieve an Inbox Zero, this strategy acts as a forcing function to follow-up on an unread email, sooner than I would on an email that is read but marked for follow-up.
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
In the managerial context, it is important to learn about the general wellbeing and motivation of your people. In my one-on-ones, I am eventually consistent in asking the question “What’s one thing going well? More importantly, what’s one thing not going so well?”
This habit has consistently helped me get early signs. It’s important to give this question as much time as is needed, and not ask passingly. It’s important to ask these questions regularly and consistently, and not just occasionally. It’s important to not let the questions go unanswered. It’s important to act upon and follow-through with meaningful actions.
By the way, it’s unclear if this contributes to my success, but at least it has kept the guesswork at bay, for the most part, of how people on the team are feeling.
Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.
In a fast-paced environment, no one project management tool fits the bill. Most tools (such as JIRA or Asana) are too granular or busy. There is still a need for an executive summary view of what-who-when.
monday.com (formerly Dapulse) is my current choice that fits this bill. The stated intention and simplicity of monday.com is that it only captures the Task, Person and Status (the what-who-when) on a single board. Although this tool allows inviting team members, I deliberately keep it a private sanctum. Going by its name monday (which, I think is a much better name than Dapulse), I block my calendar for 30-mins every Monday to review my monday.com board and update the ongoing programs and get ready for the week.
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
After having read, or skimmed through, a lot of business and management books, I see myself going back to one specific book. This is more of a reference book than a one-time read. My manager handed me this, and I have been hanging on to it for 2 years now.
The book is FYI: For Your Improvement, A Guide for Development and Coaching. FOR LEARNERS, MANAGERS, MENTORS AND FEEDBACK GIVERS.
Unlike most books, which you read and move on, this one happens to catalog an exhaustive list of competencies and practical tips that become handy on a scenario-to-scenario basis. A leader’s day is never the same, and that’s by design. Read this short and famous essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule by Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator. As you scale up as a leader, and your span of control broadens, the manager’s spectrum of scenarios keep changing as well. The book FYI: For Your Improvement helps exactly in such situations where you are facing new scenarios and you need to map it to a specific set of competencies, and performance dimensions.
Whether you are facing a specific scenario at work, or taking a step back occasionally and thinking about holistic leadership and blind-spots, or when a team member needs help or additional pointers, this book is going to come in handy.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
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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