Interview with Eugene Bochkarev, VP of Engineering at Xero

Published on Oct 8, 2019

24 min read

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Vidal: Welcome Eugene. It’s great to have you here on the show. How are you today?

EUGENE: Hi Vidal. Thank you for having me here.

Tell us about Yourself

Vidal: Could you tell me a little bit about your role and what does Xero do?

EUGENE: I’m VP of engineering in San Francisco office of Xero. Xero is online accounting system for small businesses. We provide the whole spectrum of tools on web and mobile for a small business to do accounting on the go. You can do invoices, expenses, bills, manage your inventory, reconcile bank balance. of the most important things Xero provides is more than 800 tools and integrations with the different accounting and financial systems.

Vidal: I noticed your title. It says “acting” VP of engineering. What does it mean “acting”?

EUGENE: Acting means I’m temporarily lead the engineering in the San Francisco office during transition of the product development to different offices. It’s a good challenge owning a global product transition, being responsible for a lot of people. Make sure that my teams still deliver on committed releases, complete the knowledge transfer, and still feel positive and engaged. I think e biggest part of my role here is to make sure people feel motivated to come to the office every day.

Vidal: Oh wow. One of the questions I was going to ask is what your biggest challenge is. Is that your biggest challenge to keep people motivated and transition it successfully?

EUGENE: Maybe, right now yes. If you think about a general engineering manager’s life, I would talk about different challenges, but when you are in a transition, and it doesn’t really matter on which side of the transition you are, it’s always about how to make extra effort to keep people motivated. Because when you transition a product that you’ve worked for a long time, it’s always important to feel that the effort, years, and hard work you put in a product is not lost. It’s still there.

What I like about Xero culture, I can see that even with transitioning product development back to New Zealand, they still will be successful products. The products will continue to grow, provide good services to small businesses. I think that’s what motivates people to come to the office and continue to transition the knowledge. Good question by the way.

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

Vidal: That’s great. That must be very interesting to have to do that when the people know that work is going away. I think that’s a good approach you have to it. We’ll get back to the general challenge of management. I would like to hear that. I know your background. I know you worked for example at Intuit for a long time. You worked at Chariot. Maybe you can talk a little about your background and how did you transition into management?

EUGENE: I have a really typical for engineer manager path. I worked more than 20 years as an engineer. Honestly I didn’t really want to go into management. I was really happy to be one of lead engineers and working hard on engineering challenges. At the same time I was kind of pushedinto management position. Pretty typical where a new engineering manager would say, “Oh, you know what? You want me to be a manager? Fine. I’ll continue doing engineering and I do some management on the side.”

I’m lucky. I had really complicated first few years. I got in a lot of troubles. I made a lot of mistakes. I’m really grateful to the leaders I worked for before at if(we) who really supported me at that stage. That pushed me to stop and think: “Hey Eugene, when you learn new technology or a new framework, what do you do? You stop and you learn about it, right? You spend time watching some videos, reading books and articles”, but most of the managers when they are not part of the large corporation which provide all of these training, most of us just continue doing what we did.

I say to new managers – you need to study management, you need to learn it because you don’t want to be a bad manager coming from a great engineer. I want you to be a good engineer who migrated into the best manager you can be.

That was really good for me to stop and start looking at how I can learn to be a good manager? I start looking at courses, podcasts, videos and things like that. I say to new managers – you need to study management, you need to learn it because you don’t want to be a bad manager coming from a great engineer. I want you to be a good engineer who migrated into the best manager you can be.

Vidal: That’s a great attitude you have. I’d love to hear, maybe later, you could share with me, I can put it in the notes some of the courses, and books, and videos that you found useful. Because it’s a totally different job. It’s absolutely different. I’ll tell you even at big companies, I’ve worked at big companies, a lot of big companies don’t have any training at all either. People are just thrown into the job. Like here you go, you’re a manager today. Have fun.

EUGENE: Yeah. And a company lost a great engineer and have not so good manager. So, the company actually suffered twice in that case.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Vidal: Exactly. That’s very well said. You mentioned earlier you have a general challenge as an engineering manager. Maybe you could share what is that general big challenge?

EUGENE: I think for a different stage of your career, you’ll have a different challenge, but I would still say the most typical one in the Bay Area, is hiring. Hiring in Bay Area, with current compensation layout is extremely hard. You compete with large corporations, which can provide double of compensation your smaller company can afford. That’s a challenge. If we can talk later about the hiring I have specific examples how I did it. I think I did pretty successful hiring in some companies.

The important thing here don’t think about hiring as, “Oh I need to do it.”. No, it’s a part of your job. Basically every single day, you need to think about hiring. You need to think about building your team, creating the right layout, how to scale the team. This is why I do believe hiring is one of the top challenges, especially in Bay Area.

Number two is for engineering managers with a strong engineering background how to find the right balance between where you want to be about hands-on and hands-off. People have this and some of them don’t really realize it and this is where we have micromanagement, right? People just don’t understand where we are with deliveries, why any delays, and at the end, they just start doing the job of other people. You need to be really careful about when you are a line manager, you’re still involved in some engineering. At the same time you’re moving more into managers’ responsibilities like hiring, processes, being involved in the roadmap and strategy.

As you’re going higher, you cannot spend time doing coding. Even PR reviews, you cannot be a required part of that when you have managers reporting to you. But then how would you understand where you are with your projects progress? You need to trust people who report to you. That gets us back to building the team. Again, getting back to hiring. You see this is why I was talking about this because for a manager these challenges are top and they are connected.

What is your approach to Hiring?

Vidal: Let’s talk more about that. It’s true. If you are not a big-name tech company, FANG company, it’s really hard to hire here. You said you have some strategies and some ideas to succeed. I’m sure a lot of people would like to know. What are some things you do, when you’re not a famous company like that, to hire top engineers?

EUGENE: This is a great question. Thank you for asking. I talk to a lot of people outside of my company and in the meet-ups or just meeting someone for coffee. A lot of people think about hiring like that, “Oh Eugene. We’re fine now.”. Then you meet somebody in a couple of weeks and is like, “Oh my lead developer left, so I need to find somebody urgent”.

You need to concentrate on hiring as a part of your day-to-day job. It starts with a vision of your company. Where you want to be as a company. What is your strategy to grow? What is your roadmap? Then coming down based on your roadmap, what demand you will have for your team.

It’s not about, “We have a lot of money now. Let’s hire a lot of people.”. I’m pretty sure you got in a situation before where somebody came to you and said, “We got extra money. Let’s hire some people.”. No, wait. We have a roadmap. Based on our roadmap, this is the demand we have. Adding more people will actually slow us down.

It all starts with that. I think this is really important to understand that.

Second thing, especially in Bay Area, when you get in some situations when suddenly you get people leaving in a bunch. I got a situation in my experience, where a former manager stole a few senior engineers. I could do a better job trying to convince them to stay, though. In that situation, you need to have an open mind. You still need to deliver. Focusing on results is the number one goal for any manager. We need to deliver on our commitments. What are we going to do? The manager should be open for temporarily working with contractors, or finding some remote people, or even build an off-shore office.

You and I were actually on a meet-up two days ago about managing distributed teams. This is a really big thing right now in the world and that would be more and more important in the future. We need to think globally, not only locally.

Again, that will really help you to balance your budget. What about your short term and long term strategies? You need to have both of them.

Next thing which I believe is important in hiring is think about what team you’re building. It’s coming back to balance on your hands on / off and how to trust your people. You don’t just hire people you found. You have a clear layout and structure in your mind. You know who you need for your team to grow. For large corporations, you might have a team of only senior engineers, because they have room to grow. They might just move to a different team, so your team be stable.

If you have a smaller company and your opportunities to promote people is more limited, you need to think about what would be room to grow for every single engineer. As a manager, you need to have a succession plan for every single person on your team. It means you need to have junior level, mid-level, and senior-level engineers. For example, seniors might help junior engineers. You observe that and you see, where that person can grow into? Will he or she be a good manager in the future or will be a better architect? How they work with more junior engineers can help to decide. 

Another thing, which a lot of people talk about right now, that you need to keep diversity and inclusion in mind. We need to go an extra mile to make sure our team is diverse. We need to constantly be aware of bias that we hire people who are like us. This is where it’s important to involve your team. Your team should be part of your process. This is where, if you have already a diverse team, that would really help you to keep your team diverse. I think this is really important in our stage of work right now.

Vidal: This is an amazing, fantastic answer you’ve given. You have all the different parts. I totally agree with you when you’re a small company or you’re not such a name brand company, leveraging a remote, distributable workforce is really important. If you have a diverse team it’s easier to grow a diverse team. People are like, “Why would I want to come work there? There’s no diversity in your team do begin with.” That really helps. It’s just a great answer.

EUGENE: Oh, thanks.

Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?

Vidal: I was reading your LinkedIn and you had a story about a hard lesson you learned as an engineering manager. I wonder if you can share in your experience a lesson, that lesson or a different one, maybe a lesson you’ve learned in your career?

EUGENE:  Yeah. It’s a good question. I was asked that question during the interview. What were my hard-learned lessons? I could easily come up with few. I could not easily define what was the hardest one. When I came back I start thinking about it and this is where this article came from. The answer is the same for me today as well. When you are a hiring manager and you build your team, it seems, especially in the Bay Area, everyone has multiple offers. To hire, making sure somebody will come work for you, you need to fight for every single person.

Actually, on your site, I read really great examples about strategy, how to win a candidate. I’d really recommend people go and read it. I found a lot of good, interesting things for myself. 

When you build a team and people trust you, and layoffs happen which is not about a company good or bad, it’s about business. Every single company needs to survive. They need to continue to grow. When the team you build, you work well together, suddenly has to go. How as an engineering manager you go with that?

But I consider that when you’re the captain of the ship, you’re responsible for everyone.

This is a question which everyone will answer differently. But I consider that when you’re the captain of the ship, you’re responsible for everyone. You make sure everyone is on safe ground before you can leave the ship. Sometimes it’s too late and you stay on the ship. That’s life. That’s your responsibility. If you’re not ready to be that captain, you’re probably doing the wrong thing.

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

Vidal: I love that answer because I used to be in the Navy. I totally understand that. Let me ask, since we’re talking about managers here, what would be your advice to new managers or people who are just starting out as a manager?

EUGENE: Yeah, Vidal, this is actually a great question. I really like it because I think a really big part of being a manager is helping other managers to grow. This is a  big part of our job. The question is pretty generic of course. Right? On a different part of your career, you give different advice. For different people, it would be different advice. Somebody needs to be more technical. Some people need to be less technical. Some people need to be more involved in the processes. Some people need to spend more time with people. It’s so different.

I can think about a few, more or less, consistent advice or suggestions which I usually apply. Number one I would say for new managers who are reading this interview or listening to this podcast, I’ll say, “Go to Managers Club! class! On your website.”. You have a lot of good information there. You interviewed great leaders. There is a sea of good information out there. I spend time reading these interviews and found great information. And I’m not a new manager. So, I definitely recommend people start there at your Managers Club site!

…sometimes when I get in a situation and I’m not really sure how to resolve it, I stop and ask, “Hey Eugene, did you build a relationship?”

From my approach, what is number one for me is to build relationships. That is really important not only for new managers. It’s valid for every level of management. Even for myself, sometimes when I get in a situation and I’m not really sure how to resolve it, I stop and ask, “Hey Eugene, did you build a relationship?”. Maybe before trying to solve this, we need to spend some time and know each other. Get somebody for a coffee or lunch, discuss and understand who is this person. Maybe talk a little about myself, understand where both we’re coming from.

That’s why I think building relationships is really important. Again, this is a lot about doing one-on-one with your reports, peers, cross-organization, product and design, and of course one-on-one with your manager. That’s all really important. I think that people should be concentrating on developing tools you can use to solve some problems, issues, dependencies, but a good relationship will help you to do everything like that.

Number two, which for me, when I work especially with managers or team leads, I tell them — guard your team. You need to guard your team from me. It’s kind of trivial, right? If your team did a good job, the credit goes to people not to you. I’m your manager I know what you did. A big part of my one-on-one with engineering managers, I want them to talk about their team, not about themselves, but about their team, about every single person. How they’re doing, what they are achieving.

At the same time, if something bad happens, I want them to guard their team and say to me, “Hey Eugene, it’s my responsibility. I will figure out what happened. I will talk and I understand what’s going on, and why it happened. We will analyze it, we do postmortem and we will do learnings on that. But for you, it’s me who is accountable for”. That’s kind of trivial, but you need to teach people to use that approach by supporting that. Be careful not asking, “Okay, I understand it’s you, but who’s really screwed it up?”. You stop here and you say, “Okay, I trust you to understand how did we fail and how we can improve on that”.

And finally, I’d say — make mistakes. As I said originally, I think making mistakes made me a much better manager. I know people who have been managing much longer than me and they did not make a lot of mistakes and a lot of things they didn’t know how to do. For me it’s all about don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Make them. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and learn something new.

Here, again, you need to create an environment where people know making mistakes is safe. When you are a leader, support engineers and managers in making sure that you’re not blaming people, but help them to recover and move forward.

Vidal: It’s a great answer. I really like your thing about relationships. Because I find most often is they’re not technical problems. They’re people problems that you’re dealing with. Right? Unless you’re trying to send a man to Mars or something. It’s usually a people problem. Likewise, I like the thing with the one-on-ones, where you’re saying you ask the managers to talk about their team and not themselves. I think that’s very interesting advice.

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

Vidal: I wanted to move on to the next question. As a manager, there’s so many things going on usually. So many demands on your time, so many things to look at. I’m curious how do you organize yourself? What is your workday like? How do you manage your email, time, Slack, calendar? How do you approach that?

EUGENE:  Being an effective manager you have to come up with some techniques which you use, otherwise you will have no sleep. Three hours of sleep at night will not go far. Again, as a manager, I have a lot of meetings. My calendar has a lot of meetings. That’s why I use inbox and calendar as my tools. I use the Zero inbox technique, which I studied in one of the management schools, and I really like it

In a sense is you don’t spend a lot of time on your inbox. You use it like a to-do list. You have a lot of optimized filters, which are used during time, which move emails based on priorities. If I receive an email from my boss, it states important and put on I need to see. If I’m getting notifications about PR reviews, it’s going to my GitHub label, which once a day I can look and see what is interesting and which one I need to look.

At the same time on all emails which I have in my inbox, I can pull them into urgent, 24 hours a day labels, which gives me a different type of priorities. I try to work with my inbox three times a day, allocating specific time, just focus and making sure I can clear inbox. Then inbox items to my calendar, where I can decide what I need to do depending on priorities. Action item goes directly to my calendar as blocked time to take care of these issues.

This is where I come back to the calendar. I own my calendar. It means I review what I need to do twice a week. On Monday I see what’s going on with my current week and I make sure that my items have blocked time on things I need to do. Every Friday I can review what works well, what did I miss, what I need to move. Actually, on Friday I usually plan not my next week, but the week after. Your next week is usually busy already. But you have two, three weeks ahead where you have a lot of empty space and this is where, first of all, I define what’s important for me to be done.

Keeping my inbox empty is important to me and I use calendar as a tool, which helps you to organize your time, organize your deliveries.

Another thing I found works well for me is meeting with your product managers on Mondays. What is PMs most important goal or goals for this week or next week? And how I can support. That helps you to understand what is most important. You work only on the most important items. And your team will work on the most important items.

This is all coming back to the example with every one of us has a bucket and 25 balls and we only can put three balls in it. It means we need to figure out which three balls are the most important and we can work on that. Which five probably we’ll be able to fit in? And which ten we should just ignore. Without communication and being aware about what the most important goals or deliveries for the product organization we cannot really do it effectively.

I’ve done a lot of one-on-one and for me, one-on-one is a big and important part. I will always talk to my engineers and engineering managers and ask them what would be an appropriate time for one-on-one. I don’t want them to be annoyed by one-on-one. I want them to make sure they have undistracted time when they’re most productive. I can talk with them on a different time. I’m flexible about my one-on-ones. I will try to find the right time for engineers. Not for me, because they are producers. I’m here to support them.

The only difference is how I work with remote or off-shore teams. I try not to skip one-on-one with them because over communication with remote or off-shore is much more important. Sometimes I might skip one-on-one with my engineering managers or engineers when they’re local and really busy, but I try never to skip one-on-one with a remote. If they cannot make it I’ll just move it later in the week.

Couple other things which specific actually for the Bay Area. I live in East Bay and I use BART and I really, really like it. A lot of people don’t understand that you have 30 minutes of your life every single time, 30 in the morning and 30 in the evening, which is your time. Nobody can take it away. I spend a lot of time on BART, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, and reading books. I spend a lot of time successfully learning on the BART. I actually recommend it to everyone. I’m a big proponent if you can use your commute time to educate yourself, use it. A lot of people don’t understand it. I mean not understand it, they don’t realize it. That’s a really big tool you can use.

Last thing I want to mention toward development, I try to push engineers to block time on their calendar to have undistracted time. They know when they are the most productive. So I ask to block this time and let everyone know you’re working around this time. I think this will also help me to organize my workday. To make sure my engineers can work productively and deliver the most important things.

Vidal: Wow, that’s fantastic. A lot of really great tips there. I’m with you when I take the BART I always bring my Kindle or listen to some podcasts or audiobooks on Audible. I really enjoy that. It’s great. Sounds like you’re a really big fan of learning and that’s amazing.

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

Vidal: When you mention your calendar, I’m curious is there any particular, and I especially know is there some kind of app or tool or internet resource that you really enjoy using, that really helps you in your work? Is there anything like that? Is there any kind of calendar tool in particular that you like? Or any other kind of tool or app that you rely on?

EUGENE: You know, I actually tried quite a few and I realized I’m kind of really organized myself. For me, I don’t really need to use any tools aside from just making sure I’m really disciplined with my inbox and calendar. But I read some good suggestions on previous interviews on your website and I’m going to try them. So far, from a productivity perspective, I found that zero inbox and using the calendar as your tool is the core principle which lets you not really use additional tools.

Our calendars and inbox now are distributed. You have it on your laptop, you have it on your phone, and you have it on your tablet. It’s all synchronized. You can always be in touch with that and see where you are.

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

Vidal: All right. My next question might be difficult for you because I know you love to read and learn, which is fantastic. If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

EUGENE: Honestly, Vidal, I cannot recommend one book. I do believe in the different stages of your career you need a different book. When I started being an engineering manager “Peopleware”, this famous book was really helpful for me. That’s one book which helped me to understand how to be a manager, how you work for your team, how to organize your delivery with the team. That was really good. “Peopleware”, I really recommend for new managers.

“Lean Startup” from other sides when you get more interest in how product organization works and it’s good to read some product books. “Lean Startup” it’s all about how to make the production the most effective, how to use data to see what you need to work on and what you shouldn’t be working on. For engineering manager, it is important to understand your business, to understand your product. The way how your product organization works is really important. So, “Lean Startup” would also be high on my recommendation.

When you go in, as a manager you’re involved in a lot of different communication. For me personally, “Crucial Conversations”, a book that’s really good. I really like it. It’s opened my eyes on many things. I also like, it’s called, “Conversation Intelligence” book, which is on the top of emotional intelligence books. As a manager, we need to be emotionally balanced. And emotional intelligence is important. So, all books about emotional intelligence are good and “Conversation Intelligence” is on top of that. I recommend this book. I know a lot of life coaches use “Conversation Intelligence” as a course. So I would recommend it.

EUGENE: Next, my recommendation would be, and this is actually my number one preferred book, which I recommend to a lot of engineering managers, it’s “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud. That book about yourself. How to create an environment where you enjoy your life. For a lot of managers, who may be really successful, have a good compensation, and they still not feel they enjoy their life. I think “Boundaries” is a really good point to start. How to build a better relationship with people. It will help you to understand where you are in your journey. “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud would be my recommendation.

I like the books section in your website. I found a lot of things which I have already read, like Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Great book, really enjoyed reading it. A lot of things about managerial paths, books about negotiation, a lot of good suggestions there. I pick out a few books from that section for my a to-read list. So, thank you for doing this.

Vidal: You’re welcome. Those are some great recommendations. I have a copy of “Boundaries” here that someone gave me. That’s a good one.

What is your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?

All right. One more question here, more immediate question, is what is your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team? Have you often worked with career development for example?

…when people ask me what’s my management style I say – coaching. I do believe that coaching is a much better approach than anything else.

EUGENE: Coaching, it’s a really good question Vidal, because when people ask me what’s my management style I say – coaching. I do believe that coaching is a much better approach than anything else. Personally, for me coaching means ask questions and listen. This is coming back to one of your first questions about my background. When I started getting in a lot of trouble as a new manager, I start asking questions to my peers. I observe how my senior managers worked and I was like, “Oh, they understand the situation and they can do it.” I remember I invited one of the senior managers, Eric, to lunch, and I asked him, “Hey Eric, you manage that person, how do you do it? It’s really complicated.”. And he said exactly the same thing, he said, “I ask a lot of questions and I shut up and listen.”

That became the core for a lot of my managerial approaches. You ask a question and you try to understand what is important to that person. You basically build trust by understanding who this person is. You share about yourself as well that this is how you build trust, that you know that you’re both vulnerable to each other. You create a safe environment. This is where you say and really prove that it’s okay to make mistakes. Then you start working with that person by understanding where he or she wants to be.

You don’t want to push people in the way they don’t want to be. I made this mistake before and I learned on that in a hard way. This is actually what the Peopleware book is talking about. You need to work more on strengths, not on the weaknesses with people. I’m reading a really old book right now, not old book, but one of the famous book. It’s called, “How to transition from good manager to extraordinary manager”. There is data research which indicates and demonstrates that working on your strengths gives you much more improvements for yourself, compared to working on weaknesses, which was a standard practice on managerial school.

The question here is to understand where a person wants to be. Understand what the strengths of the person are and then how push him or her out of comfort zone to improve on their strengths, with a safe environment to fail. Because without failing we’re not learning and we’re not getting better.

I think that’s the cornerstone of the question. Asking questions, listening, building relationships, building trust. Understand where the person wants to be and help them to be there. Push them to grow in that direction.

Vidal: I think that’s a fantastic answer and approach, the coaching style that you’ve adopted. That’s great. All right Eugene, I want to thank you. You’ve been super generous with your time. I think you shared a lot of super valuable insights here. This has just been a great interview.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Vidal: If people wanted to reach out to you or get to know more about you what would be the best way to learn more?

EUGENE: LinkedIn is the best way. I accept almost everyone, except for when I see some phishing stuff. I like when people connect to me for different reasons. I’m open for getting together. Reach out to me on LinkedIn. You can just search for me by my first and last name. Connect if you look for suggestions. I connect to more senior people and I’m open to getting on my career growth. If you feel you might be teaching me something, give me advice, I’m open for that as well.

Vidal, thank you very much for having me today. It was a really good discussion. I hope we can make engineering managers to be better and to make the whole community of engineers much more a kind of as you call right now “servant leaders.” What it means to me is just more, and I concentrate not only focusing on results, but taking care of people. Making sure we have more enjoyable environment and culture where everyone really enjoy every day to go to the office and do what they like the most — writing code.

Vidal: That’s awesome. It’s been a total pleasure. A tremendous pleasure to have you here. Eugene, thanks again.

EUGENE: Thank you for having me.

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