Interview with Hampton Catlin, Sr Director of Engineering, Rent the Runway

Published on Feb 2, 2018

5 min read

image for Interview with Hampton Catlin, Sr Director of Engineering, Rent the Runway

Location: New York, NY
Current Role: Sr Director of Engineering, Rent the Runway

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

I did go to 3 years of University for Computer Science but eventually dropped out. I had real trouble finding a job (this was the post-bubble tech world!) and ended up taking odd jobs for several years, but I kept developing as part of my passion for making and creating things. I originally got into management kind of by accident. I got my first real developer job, and things were going great. Apparently, I was good at it! The managing partner of the company left, and I ended up taking over some of the roles of managing the business, because there wasn’t really anyone else to do it. To me, the goal is always the result and the impact it has on people… it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m typing code or not, or if I’m coming up with the ideas, or if I’m managing. Either way, it’s about how I can get the best results for my efforts.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

As far as being the best leader I can, I’d actually say my social anxiety is my biggest challenge! I come off as a very outgoing and talkative kind of person, but I’m just really good at hiding it and overcoming it. It’s simply that social interactions slowly grind me down over a day, so I have to carefully manage myself and try and grab moments of solitude and introspection in between being social. Because managing is interacting with people! I’ve met some managers who can have 1:1’s back to back for days at a time, but I find I can only do 2-3 a day.

What is your approach to hiring?

I have found that there are a couple things I’m looking for when I hire… empathy, a yearning to prove yourself, and understanding of technology. I mean, generally I do things most other people do, but with some twists. I care a lot less about what you’ve done and a whole lot more about what you want to do. I also believe that anything that resembles an algorithm interview is… totally absolutely harmful and not useful.

I believe you’ll learn way more about an engineer’s skill level if you just have a casual nerdy conversation about what interests them in tech. When I hear a candidate talk to me about their preference for Postgres over MySql and they can articulate why… you can figure out exactly what type of developer they are and how skilled they are. Or, a great one is asking people what they’d change about their favorite programming language. What features do you hate? What features does it need? Where do you find pain and do you have ideas to fix it?

I don’t care if you can balance a B-Tree or find a palindrome or fit golf balls in a plane.

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

Focus on how you can get to the results. I don’t mean KPI’s or numeric results… though if you are passionate about those, then go for it. I mean, the final product. Your job as a manager is to manage people who need to build and maintain great stuff. Part of it is making sure your employees are happy! Part of it is making sure their career goals are clear! But, all that is in service of just producing great work.

If you think of it that way, it can be a lot easier to optimize. For instance, what percentage of the time should you be coding vs doing softer projects? Well, it depends on the team size, the project, your skills, etc… but it’s easier to figure out that formula if you keep your mind on the goal of the outcome you are looking for.

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

It’s a mix of side projects, 1:1’s, planning meetings, lunches, code reviewing, resume reviewing, meditation, more planning meetings, some documentation… all in a different mix depending on the day. I tend to try and use slack for everything, and I run everything I do very ‘event driven’. That is, I tend to focus on what needs to be focused on today or this week or this month. Part of my job is to smooth out the workflow of other people, to make sure that they have clear deliverables and know the plan. And, what that trades is that my time is a lot more unpredictable, as I try and use my time as the resource that can get reallocated to what needs focus.

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

I love to learn all sides of a project and I find that that helps with planning and coordinating. My job is not just to make sure that enough code gets written, it’s that it’s the right code and it will work into the future. So, I spend a lot of time making sure I understand what other teams are thinking, other leaders, whole other departments (legal! finance! PR!) and I think that that curiosity can have a real tangible positive impact on what my teams deliver.

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

Google. It’s really amazing what you can find on there.

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

Don’t read management books, if you are a manager. If you aren’t a manager, go ahead and learn about them! I think it’s much better to learn about some other discipline or to learn about other modes of thinking. Every day you are learning to be a better manager. I put little stake into the conclusions of others, because if you want to really be better than anyone at managing, listen to people’s experiences, but avoid trusting their conclusions.

Seriously, go read about how government works, or how to build a house, or physics, or music theory, or how to write an opera. Drawing from people different than you is much better than inheriting someone else’s thought process, who is in a similar situation.

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

You can listen to my podcast– “We Have a Microphone!”. Trust me, you won’t learn much about managing there, but we do talk about a bunch of random nerdy things. It’s basically a simulation of what it’s like to go out and get a drink with me and my husband, and talk about stuff we are passionate about (which is, as you can tell, a LOT of different subjects).

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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