Interview with Himanshu Gahlot, Director of Engineering, Lambda School (ex-Amazon)

Published on Oct 18, 2020

20 min read

image for Interview with Himanshu Gahlot, Director of Engineering, Lambda School (ex-Amazon)

Vidal
Hey, good afternoon. So, with me today, I have Himanshu Gahlot. Welcome to ManagersClub Himanshu!

Himanshu
Thank you. Thank you. Vidal

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

Vidal
Himanshu, maybe just say a few words tell us what is your current role? What do you do?

Himanshu
I’m currently a Director of Engineering at Lambda School. I started working at Lambda School in October of last year. I’ve been leading two teams there right now: Admissions Engineering and Learning Engineering. Before I joined Lambda School, I was at Amazon, where I was for about seven years. About three of them were as an engineer, and then I became a manager at Amazon Music. And before that, I was an engineer at CBS Interactive, and before that a student.

Vidal
How many people are on your engineering team? How many do you manage Himanshu at Lambda School?

Himanshu
Yeah, right now I have about 10 people reporting to me, in both the teams Admissions as well as Learning engineering. The teams are growing. Lambda School has recently raised series C so we are going to grow a lot right now.

How did you transition from being an IC to a manager?

Vidal
That’s great. A lot of people who listen and read Managers Club want to become engineering managers. Could you talk a little bit about your transition, and how you got into management at Amazon?

Himanshu
Yeah. I initially started as an engineer with a background in machine learning and natural language processing. After my master’s from Carnegie Mellon, I joined CBS interactive as an engineer working in the same field. Then at Amazon working in ads and search. During that time, I realized that I had been good at managing things, not people yet. I was actually good at managing things, managing my projects, leading them and delivering them on time, and so on. I had also mentored a lot of interns and engineers, I was also involved in a lot of university recruiting. I was also a trainer at Amazon’s SDE Bootcamp and organized a few hackathons at Amazon.

I was realizing that I was moving more and more towards a more management-oriented role, where I was trying to take up a lot more ownership than just as an engineer. I realized that moving into management is something that I want to do and is also the right next step in my career.

During one of my training sessions at Amazon’s new hire SDE Bootcamp, which was at Amazon Music, I was meeting one of my former managers. This person was my manager at CBS, which is my first company. And we were talking, and his name is Dustin. Dustin said that he has a manager’s position open on his team, and he would like me to consider that role. I got back home, did some analysis, and I figured this is the right opportunity for me to take. So I interviewed with his team, I got in, and thus became a manager.

Vidal
That’s great. How did you find it? I mean, as you transition to manager from being an IC?

Himanshu
Actually, after a few months, I realized that I was made for it because I liked it a lot. A lot of the things that I was already doing as an engineer, were in the realm of managing things, except for actually managing people reporting to you. One of the things that I had been already doing was organizing things and organizing chaos, which is also one of the values that I follow.

So when I became a manager, I started with making sure that everything is set up correctly. E.g., my team should look perfect. My team should have a wiki; my team should be discoverable. My team should have up to date documentation about exactly all the things that we are doing. Anyone should be able to just go to my team’s wiki, figure out all the things that we are doing, figure out all the things about our projects.

When we start a project, everyone should know exactly where we are, and the projects are really well organized. I should always know who’s working on exactly what project so that I can make the right decisions about assigning the right engineer to the right projects. And like setting up the right meetings creating the right processes. I think it was just the way I had approached projects as an engineer, keeping them all organized, making sure they are discoverable, making sure all information is available to anyone as a customer of that project. I took the same approach to management to make sure that my customers, and customers of my team, understand my team and that they are able to understand the things that are going on in my team. And I’m able to create the right kind of processes in the team, which will allow me to be a little bit hands-off manager, and things should just operate smoothly.

Vidal
Wow, you are really organized. I have to say lots of engineering teams and organizations I’ve worked in things are not always so well organized or documented. So that’s pretty awesome.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Could you share with us what are some of the biggest challenges you face now as an engineering leader?

Himanshu
Yeah, so I made a big move from a big company like Amazon, having worked there for almost seven years, to a relatively lesser-known, and very early-stage startup like Lambda School, which was in Series B when I joined it. There were ample challenges for me when I made that move. A lot of the things that I had heard from people talking about the challenges I may face when I’m making this change were mostly that it will be difficult for me to adjust to this new way of working. There’s going to be new processes, or basically, there won’t be any processes. And that there won’t be a lot of things that you can use from your experience at Amazon just because it’s a completely different company. I faced some of those challenges. I definitely had things that were not organized; definitely, there were little processes to start with. But those are also opportunities for me to actually use my learnings from Amazon. To think about the ways in which they can be tweaked to work at a startup and then implement them in a way that I can always iterate and figure out what’s working, what’s not, and then move on.

For example, one of the challenges was that a lot of our customers were filing a lot of bugs on the engineering teams. A lot of those bugs were just getting lost, there were almost 200 to 300 bugs in our engineering backlog. We did not have a process to go through those bugs. So, I took learnings from Amazon’s on-call process and floated this idea that we start a very lightweight on-call process at Lambda School where we always know what bugs are prioritized. We always know that there is an owner for these bugs, every week, so everyone understands what is the process to file a bug and who to reach out to whenever there is a bug. So people are not talking to everyone on the engineering team whenever they have a bug, rather to a specific person.

This would make sure that bugs are getting resolved. People can reach out to a single person about engineering issues and know the status of different bugs. This person would also not be working on any other project, except bug resolution, during that one week. I floated this idea and wrote documentation on how this could work. It was very well received. At the same time, there were lots of suggestions because it was a discussion among the team. There were lots of suggestions from different team members on how this can actually be tweaked to work at Lambda School. We made all those changes and we started with a very lightweight process, which actually turned out really well. We started churning through our bugs backlog. We also reached a stage where we started organizing bug bash sessions. If our backlog would grow to more than 50 bugs, we will charge back, and that worked really well.

Vidal
That sounds good. So you have a good on-call process now and the people on on-call they focus on burning down the bugs it sounds like.

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

Vidal
Could you share with us a lesson you learned either at Lambda School or Amazon as an engineering leader?

Himanshu
In hindsight, I think being empathetic, and building loyalty matters a lot. Whenever I look at the teams that I have led, either at Amazon or Lambda School and whenever I see other teams led by other engineering leaders, I do see that successful teams really operate as a unit, where there is little competition where they know that they have each other for support. They have their manager to support them. They know that their manager has their back, those teams are the ones who do really well. And they’re also the ones which will not shy away from working with their leader on tight deadlines, going above and beyond, and actually making sure that things get done.

So, keeping a tab on the team’s health, for example, matters a lot. I use a tool called Officevibe at Lambda School, which is very similar to a tool that I used to use at Amazon. I roll out weekly surveys to the team, where the team gives me scores on different things that they are doing on a day to day basis. For example, are they satisfied with their manager? How was the workload, how’s their work-life balance? They score all these aspects through this tool and I take a look at it, on a weekly basis.

I think building a really healthy team, and always keeping a tab on the team’s health and offering them mentorship, always making sure that you are listening to them, providing them regular feedback, discussing their issues, having their back, is important. All of that matters a lot when you’re an engineering leader. So, build a solid team.

Vidal
That’s really great. You mentioned this tool, Officevibe. I’ve heard of the tool. And doing like weekly surveys with the team actually haven’t done that myself. But I kind of one thought I have sure some other people have is that like too much? You know, it’d be sending people surveys every week, it sounds like that, that works well, for you, though…?

Himanshu
It works well for me because the survey takes like two minutes. It’s just simple button clicks, and it’s a weekly survey. So it’s not on a daily basis like at Amazon which was actually too much, I would say. At Amazon, we used to receive a daily question. It was a mandatory question that everyone at Amazon had to answer.

Vidal
I’ve heard of that. Yes.

Himanshu
A lot of people may also be just pissed, and they would just answer ‘whatever’ to those questions. But it worked well for managers. At a startup where people are busy with so many other things, it’s better to have weekly surveys.

What is your approach to hiring?

**Vidal
**Could you talk a little bit about your approach to hiring and I guess you have very different experiences? You’ve worked at Amazon, which is a very big famous tech company that everybody wants to work for. And now you have a startup. And so it must be a very different challenge I assume. For you. Or tell me what’s it like?

Himanshu
Yeah, coming from Amazon, hiring was definitely different. It was kind of a culture shock. Well, I shouldn’t say that it was a culture shock, I was expecting that it’s going to be difficult. I worked on a lot of things which has made it much smoother now. One of the big things or advantages that you have at Amazon is that whenever there is an open position in your team, there are so many internal transfers. You can always hire one of those. You can either reach out to people who are interested in your job postings or there will usually be people interested in your job posting, so it was relatively easy. Unless it is like a senior position, then you’ll have to wait for months to get the right candidate. At Lambda School, with such a small team size, there are virtually no internal transfers. You have to always reach out to external candidates as a manager. Recruiters are definitely doing their job. They are doing a lot in terms of sourcing. But as a manager, you also have to spend a lot of time in actually sourcing candidates, reaching out through your LinkedIn profile, reaching out to different candidates on different platforms and sourcing, and then making sure that the candidate is having a great experience when they are coming on site.

When I had been at Lambda School for a couple of months, I realized that our hiring process needed some improvement. I used a lot of learnings from my experience at Amazon and created a more streamlined process. There will always be a pre-brief before an interview. Anyone attending the on-site interview i.e. the whole interview loop will know exactly what competencies they are going to test a candidate for. All those competencies need to be well defined. These things actually didn’t exist at Lambda but they are pretty common at big companies. So everyone would have well-defined competencies. They would have to write on-site feedback based on these competencies and would have to be very objective about their reasoning in terms of a hire or no-hire decision. The reasoning needs to be unbiased based on evidence, rather than just the feelings. I documented all this, e.g., this is how we should provide feedback, this is how we should make a hire and no-hire decision, this is how we should conduct debriefs, and so on. I worked a lot on that. The process is much smoother now. It’s also fully documented. I think our hiring process has evolved a lot.

Vidal
Yes. Like you really organize it and put some good structure and stuff on it, that’s great.

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

Could you say what would be your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Himanshu
I would suggest two things. One is to get mentorship. Not necessarily a mentor. But mentorship where you find people who are good at different skills and ask them about those, e.g. how they are doing in those skills, how they are managing those skills. So that would be my first advice and I can expand on that.

The second would be to resist the urge to do things yourself and try to delegate as much as you can, or at least try to move towards a framework where you become a really hands-off manager. The team should be able to operate without you, eventually. So you should have that kind of delegation in your teams. Obviously, you will definitely be needed but you need to try to move towards a future where the team is running itself. That’s how you will scale.

Vidal
Yeah, like a self-organizing, self-managing team is what you’re aiming for. Yeah, I think that’s really important, you know, that the team should operate….like if the team falls apart when the manager leaves, then that’s a sign it wasn’t really a good manager, you know? So, yeah.

Himanshu
Managing a team means that a framework has been created.

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

Vidal
Now, I know you said earlier like you’re super organized. So I’m curious, what is your workday like? How do you manage your time, emails calendar, like all the demands put on you?

Himanshu
My day usually starts, and a lot of people disagree with this, actually checking my emails. I devote about 30 minutes to checking my emails. Sometimes, obviously, it may be a time sink when you are spending more than you’re required to on your emails, but I try to make sure that I’m taking action on some of the most important stuff. I don’t want to miss out on the important events at the start of my day. My calendar is mostly already organized because all the right meetings should already have been set up before the day starts.

I follow a manager’s versus a maker’s schedule in terms of setting up meetings. I read about this concept through Paul Graham’s essays, who’s the Y combinator founder, and I used to follow it at Amazon. I liked it. According to it, it’s basically a manager’s job to take up all the burden of meetings and processes. They need to make sure that they’re clearing a path for the makers i.e. the engineers on the team.

Whenever I’m organizing meetings or creating a new process, I’m making sure that I’m not creating obstacles for engineers. So, for example, if I’m setting up a meeting, I try to set it up so that my schedule might be disturbed but my engineers’ meetings are just aligned with one after the other. I usually do not set up a meeting right in the middle of the day with an engineer, just because it’s convenient for me.

Vidal
That’s fantastic.

Himanshu
Well, so, I mean, it’s a bit disruptive for me. But I think it’s fine for managers to have disruptive meeting schedules. And it’s actually not too disruptive. Because anyways, a lot of my time during the days are spent in meetings. I have specific blocks for working on different things. I’m also not actually writing code, which requires three to four hours of concentration at least. So it’s fine if I am spending like 30 minutes going through my emails, and then 30 minutes in a meeting, and then 30 minutes  answering slack messages, and so on. It’s not too as disruptive for me, as it is for the actual makers.

I also write a lot. Whenever there is a meeting, I make sure that there are action items after that meeting. First of all, there is always an agenda. Whenever I’m organizing a meeting, there is an agenda where people know exactly what to expect during that meeting. During the meeting, I usually take notes, but if I am busy, I assign someone else as the note taker. There are always action items, and I assign DRIs for all those action items. They are the ‘directly responsible individuals’ and are the owners of those action items. This basically helps in making sure that there is action being taken on those action items rather than nothing happening at all.

Since most of my day is actually spent in meetings, my main goal is to make meetings as productive as I can. I try to reach conclusions and decisions by the end of meetings. If we are not reaching decisions then making sure that there are proper action items with clear owners so that the next steps are very clear, and things can move along.

Vidal
That’s a very complete answer. That’s very, you have a very, very well thought out process. I’m curious, though, when you say you try to schedule meetings. So your engineers have uninterrupted work time, then how do you do that? Then? Are all your meetings with them at the beginning or the end of the day? Or how do you — how do you do that?

Himanshu
I look up their calendar and I see what other meetings they have. For example, if they already have a meeting at say 12:30, then I would set up my meeting from like 12 to 12:30 or from like 1 to 1:30. So I just try to get my meeting right before or after another meeting that they already have on deck.

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

Vidal
I see. Okay, Could you share a personal habit that contributes to your success?

Himanshu
Firstly, I actually owe a lot to Amazon for the awesome leadership principles that they have. I am a very firm believer in Amazon’s leadership principles. I follow them even to this day. I’ve added a few Lambda values to those Amazon’s leadership principles. I’m realizing that I have two personal values which I can actually map to two of these principles slash values. One is organizing chaos, which is one of Lambda Schools’ values, and the second one is bias for action, which is one of Amazon’s leadership principles. In my day to day life, I try to keep things well organized. Also, I try to make sure that things are moving along, e.g., I always maintain a to-do list in my cell phone.

Whenever me or my wife has a grocery item to order and say if we are watching TV, and we realize, “Oh, we need to order this,” I just put it down in my list of grocery items on my phone. When we actually order things, there is a list that we can use. I don’t like having a list on a refrigerator, because then you’ll have to move, go to the refrigerator, pick up a pen and then write it down. I rather prefer having a list on my cell phone so that I can just take out the cell phone, right then and then, and write it down in the cell phone.

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

Vidal
Yeah exactly. Wow, I can tell you are really organized. That’s awesome. Could you share maybe an internet resource or tool that you use for work that you can’t live without?

Himanshu
Um, oh, does it have to be related to work? My morning routine is usually just going through a lot of news. Specifically, news about startups. I’m a very avid follower of TechCrunch. Every day, I go through all the newly published articles on TechCrunch. I make sure that I’m reading each and every article, which means that I’m, hopefully, not missing out on any startup related information. TechCrunch is my go-to resource on the internet to expand my knowledge about the startup and tech ecosystem in general.

Vidal
I see. Okay, so you read TechCrunch to understand a lot to understand about the tech ecosystem, and what’s going on.

**Himanshu
**I mean, it’s not just TechCrunch but it’s the primary source of my startup information. I follow many people on Twitter, although I do not have a great Twitter following, I follow a lot of VCs and founders on Twitter. A lot of the articles from TechCrunch are basically just tweets, which have been happening the previous day. And the next day you see a lot of those published as TechCrunch articles.

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

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

Himanshu
Start With Why by Simon Sinek would be the book that I would recommend. The reason is that I believe that every engineering leader should have a touch of product management in the way they work. This is because engineering leaders are not just building products, they are building products for a reason. There’s always a customer, there’s always a reason why you’re building something. So you should not just build things, you should build things because there is a problem, or there is a need for it. This book teaches you what is the best way to judge if you’re working on the right thing or not by always asking the question, why you are doing the thing that you’re doing.

This theory also helps me out a lot when I’m writing documents or suggesting ideas. When I start writing a document, I usually start them with a very, very basic framework. I would create three sections. The first section would be ‘why’, the second would be ‘what’, and the third would be ‘how’. Then I would start filling in information about why I’m suggesting this idea, what is the actual idea? And what would be my approach to actually implement this idea. Then I delete the headlines Why, What, and How, and I put the actual headlines in there. Usually, Why is replaced by the premise behind the new product I’m suggesting. What is replaced by the different aspects of it. Then How is replaced by, say, the timelines or this is how we will implement and so on.

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

Vidal
Yeah, that’s a really good book. He has a good Tech Talk too — TED talk. I think it was on this which I saw. What is your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?

**Himanshu
**I have I schedule. Firstly, I have regular one on ones that are on a weekly basis. Every alternate one on one is fixed for career-related discussions, always. I actually call them career-oriented one on ones. In those one on ones I set up a fixed agenda item where I only discuss, not only but like the first agenda item, that we discuss is anything related to career growth.

I’ve seen that a lot of people are just shy about discussing their career path or discussing exactly where they want to go. in their career. They’re just not very comfortable in speaking about these things, just because they think maybe it is not the right time for me to have this discussion, maybe I just need to continue to show more progress and deliver more before I can even start having a discussion about exactly if I want to get promoted, or if I want to move to management, or if I want to move to product management, and so on. I encourage people a lot through these one-on-ones. By keeping a fixed agenda item to open up and start discussing their growth path, I asked them.

I have been following this model called GROW, which is popularized by Google, where I asked them the four questions, which are under the grow model, where the questions are mostly centered around:

  • What are you doing right now?
  • Where do you want to go next?
  • And what do you think you should work on if you want to get to where you want to get to?

It forces people to think about their career a lot more. A lot of my team members were initially a bit amused by this. They wondered why we were doing this. Then when I actually asked them the questions, they were like, yeah, we never thought about it and realized that this is a good way to think about their career. One of them actually also said, ‘I had not thought about this but now when I’m thinking about it, I think I want to be a product manager.’ He is on that path now.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Vidal
That’s interesting how you every other one on one, you focus it on career or at least start with that. That’s really nice. It’s very, very nice. Yeah, well, where can we go to learn more about you? If people want to read more about you, I think you said you’re doing some writing,

Himanshu
I have started contributing to medium. So far, I’ve only contributed two articles, but I have lots of private notes. I’m turning them into public blog posts and articles mostly through Medium. Most of the information about my background is on LinkedIn. You can get in touch with me on LinkedIn. I’m also on Twitter and GitHub.

Vidal
OK. Himanshu, I’ll post links to those in the interview notes. So you’ve been really generous with your time. I really appreciate your coming on to ManagersClub today and for reaching out to me. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Himanshu
Thank you Vidal for having me.

Vidal
You too. My pleasure.

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