How to Communicate and Motivate Engineers with Charles Weindorf, Senior Vice President Of Technology at Avertra Corp

Published on Apr 6, 2021

25 min read

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Vidal: [00:00] Good afternoon. Today I have with me Charles Weindorf. Welcome to ManagersClub. 

Charles: [00:05] Thanks, Vidal.

Vidal: [00:06] Charles, could you tell people a little bit about your current role? What do you do now?

Charles: [00:09] Yes. I’m currently serving as the senior vice president of technology at a company called Avertra, and we specialize in software for utility companies to bridge that gap between the traditional automation that exists and the personal service that you can provide through portals and mobile applications so we’re bringing those traditional businesses up into the future of technology.

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

Vidal: [00:36] Great. I was looking at your background. You have a lot of experience in management. How did you get into management originally?

Charles: [00:44] Yeah, I think that one of the ways you get into management from the software engineering world is that you’re willing to do it. It is a very common goal of many software engineers to say I want to be in charge of people someday. You have a bit of an advantage if you have an interest in it, which I did.

So I was invited to try that out about age 30 after I’d been a technical leader for some time. And I want to say I’ve served as both people and technical leader since. I consider myself maybe a Master Sergeant or a player-coach in which I can still get into the trenches when I need to.

But hey, the most talented folks nowadays are the ones that I’m mentoring and building them up to be the leaders of the future.

Vidal: [01:24] All right. I know you have a new book coming out. It’s on communications. What prompted you to write a book on this topic?

Charles: [01:31] Over a number of years, I’ve been communicating in writing to a large team of IT folks. So at one time, the team spanned about 700 people, and it was very difficult to have any kind of consistent communication with them. So I started writing to them stories, themes, things that we all should work on together and much more efficiently than 700 one-on-ones.

The thing I would try and do inside of my communication with the entire team is to call out those things that are positive in thought, like the optimistic view of things. I don’t like the idea that we would ever be caught without a solution. So how do we prepare to avoid those kinds of pitfalls and following the passion of what you like to do?

So all those themes came into what became this book? So over time, I was able to accumulate a number of themes, and then they crossed 20 different major categories that I placed in the book. And I said when I’m communicating about optimism I can communicate in such and such away. And when I’m communicating about the personalities of engineers, I take certain approaches that, let’s say, ring true to an engineer, and I can always play the old, I was one yahs. And so I can make a connection at that level as well.

Vidal: [02:46] What are some things that people make mistakes about or misunderstand about speaking with engineers or some pitfalls.

Charles: [02:56] Yeah, I think the pitfalls are relatively easy, and the reason they’re easy to fall into is that engineers think a bit differently. They’re very binary people. If you were to ask an engineer, Hey, look at that wall over there. What color is the wall? And they’d say this side of the wall is white, and I’m like, so they’re not going to assume that the other side of the wall is painted at all.

And so right away you started saying, okay, I got to be very complete in my thinking when I talk to an engineer because if I allude to things, or if I ask for reading between the lines, that’s not a core skill for some of the folks in engineering. So it’s helpful to communicate clearly. But also to use analogies that ring true to an engineer.

And a little bit of humor goes a long way. Understanding the fact that hey, some of these folks are super focused that are head-down geniuses, and they love to do great work, but they’re less so on the making themselves clearly understood. The other part of communication is you got to do some digging.

And so if there is something you’re not terribly clear on with an engineer, I see if you get their attention and have them go a little bit, step by step in what they’re asking you to do for them. Cause I’ve made that leap of faith or the jump of the conversation beyond a true understanding, and that does cause problems and misunderstandings.

 It’s a bit painful really to do communication with engineers, especially if you’ve got the picture in your head, but it doesn’t come out quite sharp for the engineers as you’re describing.

Vidal: [04:28] This is great. I was laughing when you said that example about the wall, you know what this side is painted, but the other, we don’t know, that’s such an answer an engineer would give. So I love that Charles is one of the things I love about your book I was reading through it is you just give story after story, with examples and examples of these scenarios.

And I love those. They’re very actionable. Could you share with us what are some of your favorite stories from the book, a few of your favorite ones?

Charles: [04:58] All right. I will try and pick a couple of quicker ones. One that I really enjoy is working with introverted individuals. And there were a plethora of them in my day cause we actually. Who’s going to stay focused for eight hours a day plus and do good code. And I was a bit the opposite.

I could do that, but I also had the gift of gab. One gentleman, I used to be paired all the time. He was exceptional in code, and I could do more of the conceptual speaking and other things in order to bring things together. And we were called the Penn and Teller of our company because just like the Penn and teller show, there’s one guy who doesn’t say much, and the other guy never shuts up.

And that was—that guy. So we were also pitcher and catcher on a softball team. So we spent a lot of time together and just to illustrate how great a concentration, the folks of the introverted type are and why they’re good at this job is this, this fellow was unflappable, and we once had a game, and I’ll do the short version of this.

Close game against an undefeated team. And right, as we’re at a critical point in the game, a dog comes running across the infield, and as this dog is running across the infield, I’m yelling dog in the infield. The rules of baseball are that if the pitcher has started a windup, he’s got to complete it, or the other team gets a free base, and they had the go-ahead run at third base.

So while everyone’s chasing this dog around, he just goes and makes the same motion, throws the ball in there. And I catch it. And strike three. Cause the umpire said, no, I didn’t give you a time out. You know the pitch was in progress, even though there was a dog in the infield. So all sorts of yelling, people arguing, pointing at each other and stuff.

And I look over, and there’s my buddy walking nice and calmly over to the bench and unflappable, like he always was. And I do think that’s as one of the things that I talk about, folks who have that great degree of focus internally is able to do that sort of thing. And another story that I’d give you is I’m very fond of Navy analogies. My old man was a Navy man. And

Vidal: [06:50] I was in the Navy too. So that’s….

Charles: [06:52] Oh, I knew I liked you already, and we had themes of the Navy pop up frequently, and technology changes fast, but sometimes our applications live for many years. So you’ve got this push me, pull you have a high-tech. Trying to displace old tech, but old tech having incredible value.

And the story I’d like to share with that is we’ll look at the Navy. The Navy is great at this. The Navy will trott out an aircraft carrier that was made in the seventies or the eighties. And this aircraft carrier is intended to go through three or four waves of modern fighter planes.

Only start with very basic jets back when the Nimitz was being designed. And now they’re up to the F35s and other generations of fighters. And there’s another generation of fighters already being developed, and very likely, every single aircraft carrier is in service. We’ll see those fighters come to service.

And that’s a theme that I use quite a bit. To be able to say, Hey, look if that old, dependable tech is still serving you, and it connects to what you got. Let’s keep it. Let’s quit trying to replace everything and boil the ocean. And so I use just a balance of things that try to illustrate how we should think about things.

Why we should be optimistic about our jobs in the future why our personalities are a little different. One chapter I have is about uncommon sense, and it is about a whole bunch of stories about us engineers doing very ridiculous things without knowing it. And it seems to other people think we’re crazy, but really we’re just preoccupied.

One gentleman walking out the door of the business with me walked all the way out to a parking lot and then stood there and looked around and said, I didn’t drive today. Can I have a ride? So he had actually thought he was going to find his car there until he realized that he had been so preoccupied with work didn’t realize he didn’t bring his car with him. 

That’s, I love to see the humor in things. It’s the mistakes we make. We don’t make the kind of mistakes that would be in, let’s say, the medical profession or heaven forbid I’d be an air traffic controller or something important. Because I work in software, I get I can have a Mulligan once in a while.

I can have another chance to do things, and people who liked that way of experimentation end up in this job family.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader?

Vidal: [00:08:58] It’s so interesting. The stuff you mentioned about the Navy because while we could talk a long time about that but that’s cool. . Besides communications. . What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader today?

Charles: [00:09:11] That’s a great question. Even though I’m an old-timer now, I tended to be drawn to newer technologies and see how do they apply to us now? So I love the idea of Hey, okay. I started an assembler, BASIC, COBOL, and all that fun, but I was one of the early proponents of low code applications.

Current weapon of choice is Mendix. And the concept seemed very clear to me, and I adopt change easily. But I think the biggest challenge I have is that each generation of engineers tends to get into a certain technology that they’re great at. And once they get great at it, it’s really hard to pry the fingers off.

And I was a little kid, I’d get my baseball mitt, and I’d go to bed with it, and I’d be hugging my baseball mitt cause I love baseball so much and these guys are hugging their compilers and it just, Hey guys, you can let them go and try something new. And then if I try something new that I’m not going to be the most senior guy, I’m not going to have the kind of value I’ve got today because I’m the guru of X and breaking that mindset to have that great talent refocused on the next great thing is my biggest challenge personally.

And. It’s a two-edged sword because those technologies do tend to last a while you like the people in your current technologies. But I think that over a long course of a career, and I’m at about 43 years now of doing software professionally, if I’ve been doing the same thing the whole time, I’d be a little batty by now.

And it really does keep the spice of life to have the learning be part of it and to convince others that learning won’t kill them. It’s a boost to your career, not an impediment, and Hey, you’re just as talented now as you were when you were a young one, learning whatever tech you learn first, just start learning a new one and become just as valuable again.

And it’s giving folks that little nudge is enough to do it sometimes, but it takes time. It takes some convincing, and it is what, I think, the lifeblood of modern IT is to adopt new tech and move there at the appropriate time.

Vidal: [11:06] That’s a really interesting challenge. Yes. Cause I agree. I think that’s one of the great things about our industry, right? It’s always changing, and you have to have this approach of learning and keeping up to date. It’s like literally every six months, the industry changes massively. In my opinion….

What is your approach to hiring?

Vidal:  Charles, can we talk about another thing central to management. What is your approach to hiring? And, especially now, a lot of people are in this remote workplace or work from home scenarios.

Charles: [11:32] Yeah, hiring. It has changed a lot in my view when I was younger we had. And over-attachment to, let’s say, those who could code, but then that was the meter for how we all did things. What was the amount of high-quality, high-performing code accurate to the requirements that you could produce in your workday and your workweek? And over time, your code became some very valuable applications and served the business.

One individual back when I had started could do a predominant amount of work in an application. So one person’s influence over a large app was significant. Now, when I’m interviewing, I am actually looking at what elements contribute to the team of talent that you need to produce an application due to the complexity of layers of technology.

The business complexity. And let’s say the specialization of the talent. So I have to be able to see, not only that yeah, you can do the logical technical work of putting an application together, but how are you going to work with my other experts? How are you going to change for the future?

So I do know. The newer tech will change faster than the older tech and talk about type a and type B development of technologies. How do I obtain folks who are learners and folks although introverted individuals who can concentrate long periods of time, certainly very valuable?

They also have to have a bit of a balance. I have to be able to talk to my analysts, my QA experts, my architects. I have to understand their viewpoints. It’s a little bit less written out black and white and paper today with the agile methodologies. It’s more about concepts and application. Implemented in such a way that I have understood it, maybe just beyond the written word and a little bit about what the user experience has to do in motion versus just the plain piece of paper in front of me.

So I’m looking for flexibility, team ability, technical knowledge, of course. And what’s my way to learn and adapt to the future.

Vidal: [13:37] This is great. I was talking with someone else, and they told me what you’re saying about coding. They’re like, nowadays, engineers aren’t necessarily coding so much. They’re assembling stuff. They’re building on code that other people have written. And so you’re talking about user experience. And stuff. It’s very interesting because I think a lot of people are still focused a lot on the coding part. 

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

Vidal: You have a ton of experience in engineering, leadership. A lot of people listen to managers club; they’re new to management, or they want to get into it. What would be your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Charles: [14:09] Okay. This is a great topic for me because I roughly learned by making about a hundred mistakes a week. And, I was really good at it as far as learning from my mistakes. Just, of course, my bosses would have preferred fewer mistakes along the way. Here are the things I would suggest.

 As a new manager or especially even now with a new group of people, I come in and say, Hey, look, I don’t know your job as well as you. It’s very important to me to let them know, even if I been in that tech and I’m actually am pretty sharp at it. And I know some things I defer to them as the expert and say, okay, you’re my guy, and you are going to be telling me what the best way to do things are I trust you and your skills.

And I need you to explain to me why your ideas are going to work. And I think the best thing for me as a manager is to defer to their ideas so that I can get the flow of communication coming to me. I think it’s a poor plan to go and be very directive in the IT area. I’ve been in engineering a lot, but the game’s changed a bit.

The subtleties are different. And I don’t want to tell anyone how to do their jobs at this point. Now, the themes of what they must accomplish their goals the, what it must provide to the company. Let’s say the non-functional requirements, you’re going to have enough memory and enough disk and enough everything to run this.

Aren’t okay. I can ask all those questions, but I really want to give my software engineers the freedom to put things together by a standard of their design, and it’s important. I think to then draw out the talent and insights that they might have in their head. Cause I mentioned there was there’s quite a few folks that are very bright, maybe a little quiet, and the application that will build with me giving all the orders is going to be very average.

The application in which we’ve talked together about this and obtain the best ideas from a broader team are have a chance at excellence. And so that would be my recommendation is to trust your team. You still have the responsibility of judging their performance. And so I come back to quality.

If your work is of quality, and you’re doing things at a reasonable speed, we’re going to be just fine together. Holding the high bar of quality is one of the things they must do and the theme of teamwork and that we can only win all these techs work together and we bring them up to speed.

That’s what I would expect my group. And I’m just very clear about that. I like to say, Hey, I’m only a high school graduate because colleges didn’t teach the computer systems I want to work on. So I just went right to work. I was a hobbyist and went right in the workplace. As the biggest pain in the neck and the whole company, probably to try and manage because I had so many ideas and the like, but the truth is I want to see that same energy on that new tech and insights, that group that really knows it.

I want to empower them to do their best, and sometimes that’s me getting out of the way.

What does it take to be a great engineering leader?

Vidal: [16:56] That’s some great advice. What does it take in your mind to be a great top engineering leader?

Charles: [17:03] Okay. There are a couple of themes that I would really point at. One is you have to be able to set your pride aside. In some cases, one story from a book I had come in my chief engineer at the time was someone who looked just like Grace Hopper. Then, if we’re talking about the Navy again, the Admiral who was just brilliant in sciences and she was just, her IQ was out of sight.

And I sat there, and I’m smiling. One of my first days at work, I’m going to hear from the guru here, and she says, I just want you to know to be prepared. You’re not the smartest person in the room. And I said what gave you that impression, you tell in two minutes with me, but she said, no, it’s not an insult. She says I think that the average IQ in this room is over 130, and we have hired some folks, scientists, physicists, and mathematicians and things where the talent wasn’t coming from the schools in. It was coming from other fields. And I said we’ve got some really smart people here.

You’re one of the people who’ve come in, who actually knows computers first and not all this other stuff. And so you’re going to have to set your pride aside and say, okay, these are people who are really smart for me to have them trust me. I’ve got to give it. And so it’s the same thing I would say is that setting pride aside is something that lets an IT leader and an engineering leader, especially.

I hear those insights of folks with experience or those insights of folks who let’s say had that aha moment or they’ve Eureka. I figured something out. I need to be able to listen. So that’s one element. The second element is even more gritty or maybe even more military sounding is my old man would tell me is just, don’t give up.

Each time we come across something’s going to go, we’re trying to build things that no one our company has built before. We’re using technologies that nobody uses in some cases we have. Infrastructure, that’s still being put together and might be a little flighty, and we have our own challenges and mistakes.

We make ourselves, each of those things are solvable, and each of those things should not discourage us or prevent us from doing our best work to recover. And I think there, there are some individuals who will get into this field and might maybe have seen the money, and that is a great white-collar job to have.

And but maybe just aren’t quite wired for you have to be a little tough and you have to be a little stubborn to be able to say, I’m going to beat problem after problem until this thing is working. And so I would come with my second skill is encouragement to the team to say, look, we’ll work on it together.

Don’t worry about it. This is normal. And I would love to be able to say that there’s been some boring days that I could take it a little easy in IT and engineering, but the truth is there’s always been something that is going on and a challenging project and dark on it.

If I don’t quit then, the team won’t quit. And if none of us quit, we’re going to do just fine.

What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, calendar, etc.?

Vidal: [19:42] What’s your workday like, and how do you manage your time, emails, calendar, all the things an engineering leader has to do.

Charles: [19:51] Yeah, I, this is where I must admit I’m not the textbook example of a good day organizer. When I was younger, I worked a ton of hours, and my boss finally said, I’m going to sign you up for time management, and that’s okay, great. That sounds like a good idea so you can be more efficient with my day and.

I ended up getting on three projects that were so crazy. They had to cancel my seat at the time management course. So the director of the human resources group, he’s right up on my boss’s desk yelling. And I’m like, this is the one guy in the company you got to get to this. You

Vidal: [20:23] Oh, my.

Charles: [20:25] organize it.

Just, I use that as a humorous way to say, yeah, I’ve always had a bit of a challenge. I do like to take it’s a people first approach. So the times that I have to have. Face to face or zoom to zoom contact with people. That’s always first. There’s always those list of things that have deadlines, but they’re the emails and paperwork and other things.

I set those aside for quieter hours. Maybe a couple of my extra hours are done doing that, so I can free myself up to really focus on the coordination and communication with people. Cause that’s the part in the core business hours that I cannot miss.

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

Vidal: [21:03] what’s a personal habit that contributes to your success.

Charles: [21:09] I think a personal habit that I would recommend is that, I just loved seeing this whatever mysterious new technology we have or whatever technical challenges put in front of us. I love seeing the possibility of the solution and being brought into it, working and to benefit the folks who were building these applications for.

So I think my excitement in seeing that journey and enjoying the steps along it are key to success. Everybody knows someone who has experienced a burn, where you have an individual that’s great at what they do. They’ve just overdone it, and they get disillusioned with this particular field.

And so, if you’re in a field that burnout is common, and that’s a warning sign that we can do too much of a good thing. I must admit, I want to say I had a flameout at one point and said, Hey, is this really the right job for me? But it was more about the stress of deadlines and less about at that time.

Trying to enjoy the journey of automation and technologies. My habit is nowadays is to say, Hey, we’re going to look at the positives within what we’re trying to do. If the chips are down, I’m going to go find help. Cause that’s really my role right now. And I really don’t want to see charges of mine going, let’s say beyond what is customary in IT and getting to the point where they become disillusioned.

So it’s keeping the positive vibe in the job and really enjoying what we’re doing is my key.

Vidal: [22:36] I see. Okay. So trying to keep it positive, enjoying it to try not to burn out, and encourage people not to go overboard in a way is what hearing.

Charles: [22:47] Yep. I said, so there’s, you’ve got to have a bit of work-life balance in order to enjoy a couple other things, too, so I can go and golf poorly and have a good time and then come back and work. I, it’s that’ll be glad I’m an engineer again.

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

Vidal: [22:59] Nice. Could you share an internet resource app or tool that you couldn’t live without?

Charles: [00:23:07] Yeah. I’m surprised that if I had not been using Slack before, I was familiar with it, but I think in terms of. The COVID era and the collaboration right now the variety of things Slack does for me in my day, in terms of the connection to my team, the ad hoc communication the keeping, the history of that combination conversation in such a way that I can refer to it.

That’s been quite powerful for me to keep track of my larger team and my hundred percent remote team, which is the for an old goat, like me who was worked in the same city block with hundreds of individuals, I get out of my chair and go see any of them. It was a big switch, and I think Slack has been, for me, a great collaboration tool to be able to keep a more personal touch than I thought was possible.

Vidal: [23:55] Great. Do you use any like the public Slack communities also?

Charles: [24:00] I am in a couple of those and as a busy body that I am in technologies that we have some AI groups and some, specific technology groups that I love to go in there and see what the really what the folks are on that leading edge you’re talking about because those really.

It might lay a kindle of fire if, say, someone might spot folks ought to look at that. That is exactly where we ought to go. So I think it’s important to get that broad impression from the technical community on technologies. You’re interested.

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

Vidal: [24:29] Besides your own book. If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

Charles: [24:37] Yeah, thanks. And I do different styles of management to see where I land. There’s a book called It’s Your Ship: (Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy). And

Vidal: [24:44] a Navy book!

Charles: [24:45] I know we’re going back to the 

Vidal: [24:46] I love it. I love that book.

Charles: [24:48] and it’s built with what I would call the kind of discipline that you need to reach excellence, but it is a type of discipline that, that isn’t something that’s heavy-handed or micromanaged or it’s the challenge to the individual to become, Hey, I’m going to be part owner of this ship, and I’m going to do my part, and I’m going to have that pride and excellence, and I’m doing my part. And it’s both discipline and encouragement at the same time. And I think, wow, what if boy, if I could do that would be fantastic.

What is your approach to developing, mentoring & coaching members of your team?

Vidal: [00:25:18] That’s great. That’s great. What is your approach to developing members of your team either through mentoring, coaching? What do you do to develop members of your team?

Charles: [00:25:27] And developing members of the team is it’s interesting. We don’t have a lot of folks that are, let’s say, trapeze artists or high-wire act people. They’re very methodical, thoughtful, And sometimes lacking in a bit of confidence. So part of the things that I try and do is to give safer opportunities.

So let’s say I have an individual I think is ready to be a lead of a small team, let’s say, four junior engineers. I want them to lead that group in a project. I would probably select a project in which. Let’s say others know how it should go and would be at the ready to give recommendations to this individual, but let them go and make a couple mistakes at the same time, but have something that would be plenty of help in order to fix and correct should we run into some trouble. And then when I would do assessments of how we are doing with the individual, who is taking that risk, taking that step to go to the next level, I really. Balance the fact of any kind of failures or, Hey, you’re learning as we go. So in my mind, that’s not bad. I’m going to reward the risk-taker, and I am going to downplay the minor mistakes of things.

Certainly, there, there will be those things as a manager, I have to step in, and I have to say, okay, when we’re dealing with people, there are certain things we can and cannot do. We’re going to work on those together, but my expectations are to follow certain principles in dealing with people.

But I try and give the leader freedom as they’re getting into the more influential positions. How do you develop your own leadership technique? Because mine’s not a hundred percent for everyone but you will, you’ll do well. If you could learn a couple things for me, but you develop your own strengths as well.

So part of it is let’s give them a safe space to try new things. Let’s give them adequate time to do it. So I’ll put them on a critical path where they’re under fire right away as trying to take their next step. And another thing is it’s being very transparent, very black and white in expectations.

So then when we have an expectation that we really cannot miss or there’s no grayscale. We have to do certain things just to be very straight with our engineering team and say, Hey, for mentoring purposes, these are things to focus on that you really have to be good at.

And if I give them that kind of advice and I give them enough slack to be able to go ahead, try things, and make some managed mistakes. The individual then begins to develop their own confidence and their abilities then to take that next step.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

 Vidal: [27:50] Charles, you’ve been really generous with your time, and you’ve shared a lot of really great advice. Thank you so much for coming on to ManagersClub. Where can people go to learn more about you or connect with you afterward?

Charles: [28:02] I’d be more than welcome to have folks reach out to me. charlesweindorf.com is I didn’t stay up all night thinking up that one. So that is one way to get to me. I love hearing from folks on LinkedIn. So charlesweindorfengineer, I think, is my handle on that side of things for the book site. If you’re interested in more of that content leading software engineers.com is the place to go for that.

And I also have the small publishing house that I’m using, it’s called Mudsox Sox, M U D S O x.com. And that’s the name of that silly softball team that we had all those years ago. That is the publishing house where the book will be coming from.

Vidal: [28:42] All right. Awesome. Thanks again. It was great to have you here.

Charles: [28:46] I’ve had a great time doing this and appreciate what you’re doing within the community, and the and stories and information you’re sharing is awesome.

Vidal: [00:28:54] Thank you. 

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