Interview with Rama Kulasekaran, Sr. Director of Engineering at Optum (UnitedHealth Group)
Published on Feb 28, 2021
22 min read
Vidal: [00:00] Good morning. Today I have with me, Rama Kulasekaran. How are you?
Rama: [00:07] Good Vidal. Doing well, how are you?
Table of Contents
- What’s your background and how did you get into management?
- What are the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader?
- Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?
- What is your approach to hiring?
- What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
- What does it take to be a great engineering leader?
- What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, calendar, etc.?
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
- Share an internet resource, app, or tool that you can’t live without.
- If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
- What is your approach to developing, mentoring & coaching members of your team?
- Where can we go to learn more about you?
What’s your background and how did you get into management?
Vidal: [00:10] I’m good. Thanks for coming on ManagersClub. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how specifically you got into management.
Rama: [00:19] Thank you for having me today. Great to be here. I started off as an individual contributor as a consultant, and I was able to get experience in different industries. The music industry, electronic manufacturing, mortgage, textile and landed on the retail industry. During my early days as a consultant at Accenture, I was able to progress into team lead roles that I enjoyed even more than an IC. Thankfully one of my managers discovered my strength and management and suggested I move into a more formal management role, with direct reports and et cetera. He saw me in building relationships and building a network, getting things done.
I have not looked back ever since I was asked to backfill a role that was run by another senior manager that I respect a lot. And I still keep in touch with him, his name is Ryan Doubet. The advice he gave me was two words, “be confident” in it was a large security initiative involving PCI compliance, et cetera.
So you, he said at any point you have questions, to the senior management folks that I’m working with rather than asking. Someone, how do I do it? Rephrase and ask, what do you suggest is the best way to get it done? They’ll open up with the additional context.
I’m just sharing some teachable points of view, as in, as part of my experience, fast forward I have been blessed with working on great projects and great opportunities. I’m a senior director of engineering at Optum, part of United Health Group. I lead an incredibly talented group of individuals and a team of 60 plus diversified engineering teams.
I’m a developer advocate. My role encompasses management of large programs maximizing engineering efficiency end of the day. Delivering solutions for the business.
Vidal: [02:08] Nice. I’m just curious when you’re promoted to be a manager. Did they give you any training?
Rama: [02:18] Manager Training IT, at Accenture, when I joined and in terms of, managing teams giving some tips in terms of, scenarios they talk you through. And, but not everything can be, trained right. away in a course, you have to actually experience yourself.
So by looking at how others are doing it. And then also there are certain things that you learn by yourself, but it’s a combination of things I would say.
What are the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader?
Vidal: [02:45] Could you describe what are some of the biggest challenges you face today as an engineering leader?
Rama: [02:52] Yeah, writing code is easy, right? Managing humans is not, I would say the biggest challenge is more around people. Team dynamics and talented individuals. Sometimes it is easy to miss the team mindset. As a manager, I encourage the team that goals can be achieved as a strong-knit team. And technology challenges are easier to solve comparatively as a leader you would want to make sure all are clear on the roles and responsibilities.
Your team needs to have a clear sense of what your core is. The questions a manager needs to ask is, have you set clear expectations, and did you put a process in place? Is that a good charter in place? Even if it doesn’t have to be too formal? Is culture good and funny enough? What is coming in between so that you can help, right?
There will be times you will be having difficult conversations, so be prepared for discomfort. One way that I have learned and dealt with this is, separate people from the problem so you stay objective.
Vidal: [03:59] Yeah, I’m totally with you. That computers and technology are very predictable and dealing with people can often be unpredictable. So it’s a big challenge when you move to the realm of people.
Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?
Vidal: Could you share with us a lesson you’ve learned as an engineering leader?
Rama: [04:20] I would be happy to share. I look for feedback continuously. Feedback should be bidirectional. A couple of other things that come to my mind is to be intentional and foster, an engineering culture where a team believes they are part of the change and influence, right? Otherwise, there’s no point. Have empathy for your team and help them through challenges as that is one of an engineering manager’s primary mandates.
And be an example of the culture you want. You want to foster a culture of appreciation, culture of accountability, culture of blamelessness, and a culture of sharing. As a manager, you need to model these behaviors, and especially, when you move up, when you can coach others to coach their teams is when you truly scale.
And I watch leaders that I respect, right? What are they doing? Why are they doing? How do they model the questions, when they are in discussions. So I would recommend, observe and learn how your manager works and leads. I started making a mental list of good and bad things I saw. For the bad things I decided that if I was ever to be a manager, I would not repeat those. So those are some things that, as a manager, you, when you go through, when you work through many managers and when you work at different organizations, you have to actually make a mental list is what I would recommend.
Vidal: [05:44] That’s a good point. It’s so interesting. When you observe the managers and as I say, sometimes it’s not as easy as it looks, but it’s a good point to observe what you admire and maybe why other people could do better. So what I’m hearing and to be the role, try to be the role model lead by example.
What is your approach to hiring?
Vidal: What is your approach to hiring and recruiting? This is such an important function for engineering leaders.
Rama: [06:09] It is. I have some thoughts on this as it is a tough market right now. Now you need to know about your engineering landscape and engineering landscape in general, right? Engineers are one of the most in-demand professionals. You want to look at hiring a good diversified team. I always ensured that I have diversified teams in my organization.
When I say it’s diversified and experienced in geography, ethnicity, and gender. And managers should be intentional about it as much as possible. Just remember diversified teams bring diverse ideas to the table. How do I go about it? I identify the talent gap first. I first look for internal roles and see if any of the junior roles can move upwards.
For external hires, obviously, we go through recruiting channels. Every organization does that. And as well as continuing to look for external bootcamps, meet-ups, et cetera, to have a chance that attracting engineers, you need to know what a typical engineer is looking for beyond compensation, for example, opportunity. They need to know they’ll be making an impact. That’s number one.
Number two is I would say challenge, right? They want to be working on difficult and challenging problems. And three is, culture and community, engineers want to work in a supportive environment. And we want to make sure that we’re just going through this to ensure that we are finding the right talent, right?
Resume only shows what the candidates can do, not what they will do. ’cause so so I intentionally look for culture and motivational fit, and we look for candidates that do side projects. We, obviously we review the git pages contributions does the candidate write blogs, and did they present at a conference?
That those are some good indications of how passionate the candidate is. So yeah, those are some things that I can think of.
Vidal: [08:04] People are interested in hiring diverse teams, right? You started with that, but it’s difficult. It’s sometimes difficult to get a recruiting pipeline of diverse candidates. You mentioned bootcamps, but do you do anything else? Do you have any advice for people who are trying to build a diverse pipeline?
Rama: [08:22] Yeah. It’s not easy Vidal. As you said you have to be very intentional about it and you have to keep looking. I think I work with our hiring teams and there are different paths we look at. We look at college grads. We look at boot camps and then we continually look at internal and external hires to see whether we can actually bring in a good external candidate because it is not going to be straightforward and I will tell you for sure.
One thing that I would do is I can think of is I also talk to my network. And I go to LinkedIn, I actually reach out to my contacts and say, Hey here’s what we’re looking for. Please let us know. Here’s the recruiting pipeline that we have, please reach out to this person if you find anyone. So I, and I do that as well. And that has helped me quite a bit.
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
Vidal: [09:06] Okay, so asking for referrals using your network. You mentioned at the beginning when you first became a manager advice that was given to you, what would be your advice today for managers who are just starting out?
Rama: [09:21] Yeah, I love to share because there’s just more than one piece of advice I can give and I’m still learning. I’m a learner. I would start off by saying, be self-aware and understand the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and the people around you. Be empathetic. And as a manager, you need to also delegate like your job depends on it.
You don’t want to be doing everything by yourself. Engage your team to take on the responsibility. I would say that’s probably the second one. And then the third, and I would say this is very near and dear to me is I strongly believe that awesome engineering managers know the importance of building trust.
Team trust is like psychological safety in building high-performing teams. I use a Berkeley lab YouTube video on my conference talks and when I go and talk at meetups. I’m happy to share with the manager’s club audience. But this is a very important aspect, is psychological safety, making sure that the team is able to speak their mind and during conversations without having to fear that they are being judged, right? That is a very important thing. I would say a piece of advice I would give to managers that when you are fostering an environment, that environment is where your engineers are getting up every day and get excited to go to work. And you have a greater responsibility in fostering that environment.
I cannot stress enough on that one. And then the other, I would say for engineering managers is that you should have the courage to learn something new and essentially, unlearn and drop old habits. It Is vital to your career growth and development. You may have done certain things a certain way for a number of years but do you want to be able to, unlearn things and ready to pivot and stretch yourself. How do you do it? You reach out to other managers that you look up to and get feedback, do coffees, that sort of thing, right? And a couple of other things I can think of is, you always want to make sure that you create a blameless culture where everyone feels safe. Very much tied to that psychological safety that I touched on. So that people are willing to, bring their ideas forward and collaborate. And most of all as you start any project or a program, or when you have leaders under you or teams under you.
The most important thing is that you understand the expectation of the organization’s goals. You set a clear vision for your team, be explicit about the roles and responsibilities, right? And I use a RACI tool, right? The matrix tool to make sure that, who’s responsible, accountable, consulting and informed and all that.
So that it’s, everybody knows what their boundaries and accountabilities are, and actually, that becomes even more necessary when you’re working in a matrix organization, there are different teams coming in and contributing to a project. So it is very clear, to sum it up, you want to put your team members in a position to succeed, right? Both by giving them tasks that play to the strengths and the ones that stretch their skills.
Vidal: [12:25] I think it’s great you mentioned psychological safety. A lot of people talk about that. I look forward to watching this video that you recommend.
Rama: [12:32] Happy to share.
What does it take to be a great engineering leader?
Vidal: [12:33] What does it take to be a great engineering leader?
Rama: [12:36] You would want to surround yourself with capable people around you to get inspired? I would say, be curious I’m fortunate to be surrounded by great leaders and managers who can challenge me and keep me honest as a leader, you want to focus on execution, if you ask, okay, how to be a great new manager. You absolutely want to make sure that you’re focusing on execution, right? At the end of the day, you may have great ideas. You’ve got a lot of things planned. You have a project plan and program plan and all of that, but you want to really make sure that you’re focusing on execution and you’re lining up your teams to help you get there, right?
The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest in a bunch of individual stars in the world. But if they don’t play together it doesn’t really help. So make sure that as a team they’re coming together and focusing on execution. So that’s what I wanted to add as another point in terms of advice for a new manager starting on.
Vidal: [13:37] I can tell you have real-world experience, because yes, maybe it’s a little cynical, you can have psychological safety, you can have all these great things.
But if you don’t have execution like you’re actually being paid to execute. And it’s a problem if you don’t execute and deliver this stuff.
Rama: [13:51] Yes. Yes. Good. I’m glad. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for saying that. You will.
Vidal: [13:54] Yeah. so the end of the day, and that’s why some people can get away with a lot of bad behavior because they’re actually able to execute right.
Rama: [14:06] Totally. Totally. Again, I can’t agree more.
Vidal: [14:09] Yes, you want to do it in the right way, but at the end of the day, if you don’t execute, you have a problem.
Rama: [14:14] Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s the exact reason that I just wanted to highlight that. And so awesome.
What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, calendar, etc.?
Vidal: [14:21] What is your workday like? How do you manage your time, emails, et cetera?
Rama: [14:28] Yeah. My typical day goes like this. I get up and do cardio for 30 minutes. And in spite of working remotely, I get ready as if I’m going to the office. I learned this from one of the engineering leaders in the industry and has been working really well. So that’s number one, right? And I create a prioritized list of things that I want to complete for the week and block off time on my calendar to get them done.
First thing in the morning is the best time for me to do my best work and I protect that time. And I put barriers. I really loved your time management book. It’s a great tool and a handbook. And in fact, I’ve shared that, with my teams as well and that has got some great tips.
So time management, a lot of times people think, Oh yeah, just you have a calendar, you just have to go block your calendar, do your work. That’s not what it is. It’s really about how you are being very intentional and cognizant and methodical about it. SoI thank you for sharing your experience, Vidal on the time management book.
Vidal: [15:37] Thank you. Thank you. And the interesting thing about being an engineering leader is yes, you manage your time, but you can also, you have a lot of effect on the time of your team, right? You can multiply their time or you can also waste it if you’re not careful.
Rama: [15:50] Exactly. Exactly. And I spend time on, my one-on-ones, my skip-level meetings and those are very important to me, my time is split across areas like I’m in a team management stakeholder, vendor management, learning new skills, technology, recruiting and then there’s some administrative in a component to it as well.
So I think those are the areas that I primarily focus on and that just keeps me grounded so that I know that going in, that I have to be prepared to actually spread my time across
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Vidal: [16:23] What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Rama: [16:30] I would say reading and networking, right? Those are two personal habits. I’m not afraid to reach out to people that I didn’t know before. That comes naturally to me. And that comes in handy for me as well in my career. I take time to get to know my team members, by one-on-ones and check-in meetings.
It turns out that taking time to learn about and express interest in the lives of each team member helps build genuine relationships. And I’ve seen this over and over again that it can help to improve communication and psychological safety that we talked about before because the ones you actually get to know at an individual level build trust.
You can resonate with certain experiences and your team members go, yes. Okay. Now my manager knows my situation and I believe in a flat organization, right? It’s an open-door policy. Teams can come and talk. And so the opening up the venue is very important and it helps create a type of environment where everyone can do their best work.
So I would say, reading and networking and before the pandemic, I used to go and participate in meetups or conferences, and now everything’s virtual. And again I still take the opportunity to reach out to people via the tools that we have available today to connect. So those are some of the habits that have been helping. And one thing I want to I’m very good at this, and I enjoy doing this at the end of the day. It’s all about your team, right? As a manager, and you have to remember that. And I tell my teams, they are awesome for all of their great work.
Every engineer deserves to feel that the team they’re currently on is one of the best teams they have worked with. Awesome engineering managers asked the teams whether they think the team is awesome. If the manager doesn’t think it’s true and the team members don’t think it is true and there is some real work to be done.
So you have to recognize and acknowledge that your team is awesome and make sure that the team members are empowered to do the best work.
Vidal: [18:34] Great. I always tell my engineers, I set a goal. I want them to feel that this is the best engineering team I’ve ever worked on. And of course, easier said than done, there’s obviously that’s a high bar, but I think that’s really great that they want to feel the team is awesome.
And I think networking is so important for engineering managers so I love that. And we’re going to get to reading in a second.
Share an internet resource, app, or tool that you can’t live without.
Vidal: Could you share, is there maybe an internet resource or an app or something that you find really useful, maybe you couldn’t live without?
Rama: [19:04] I can think of a few. One is the Blinkist app and for other applications or tools that I use LinkedIn, Slack and YouTube. With the Blinkist app, I get key insights into leadership and management books. In 15 minutes, you get the gist of it in 15 minutes.
LinkedIn is one of my favorite tools, I reached out to my prior and new connections. I stay in touch. I go to people, ask for help. Recently I’m in a, by the way, I’m actually currently working on a number of initiatives including standing up in a site, reliability engineering organization. And I reached out to leaders in the industry who are very passionate about SRE and through my network, I got in touch with one of the former SRE engineers at Facebook and he’s doing some additional fun things. And he put me in that with someone who actually is doing meetups in Australia. So I’m actually attending 1:00 AM meetups happening in Australia, but things like that. So you don’t know what kind of connections you’re going to get? Not that I’m going to be attending 1:00 AM calls every day, but it’s just an opportunity. So LinkedIn is clearly a favorite tool and I am a big fan of LinkedIn Learning.
And also Slack channels. I subscribe to some of the Slack channels, like the Michael Lopp Slack channels and some of the engineering channels that I subscribe to.
And of course, YouTube, you can pretty much pick anything from there. Learn a lot. So that’s my therapy. Actually, if you ask me what are some things that I do, I enjoy spending time with family and taking the kids to activities, and doing things and outside of work. And anytime I get free time I just see what other leaders are doing in terms of engineering management. What are some practices there? They’re following and things like that. So those are the tools and reasoning I go to Vidal.
Vidal: [00:20:54] Those are all great resources and I was a big fan of LinkedIn even before I worked there. It’s a great professional resource and YouTube, you can find anything. It’s crazy what people like. It’s unbelievable. So these are all really good.
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
Vidal: If you could recommend one book to managers and maybe two recommends if you want because I know you love to read, but you’re going to recommend some reading to managers since you like reading what would the book be and why?
Rama: [21:21] Yeah, I can definitely think of multiple books. I can think of, I can say, let me take a second here. I’ll say perhaps three books?
The first book Managing Humans by Michael Lopp and that book covers kind of handling conflict in managing wildly different personality types. And it is figuring out how to build a lasting and useful engineering culture. No matter where you are in your career you want to read this book. You will understand your boss and other teams as a leader, you will understand your role a little better and probably pick a few nuggets up.
The second book I would recommend is The Manager’s Path. And this book does a great job of walking you through a typical career path right after a software engineer. From individual contributors, I would say all the way up to an executive. It’s a great read for all, not just managers.
And if you are, even if you are still early in your career, if you’re just getting out of college, or just, going into any other tech startups or any organization, you will definitely find this book valuable. And it has got some great outline of what to expect, even later in your career, as you progress through. And what are some things that you could do to accelerate your growth? That’s the second book.
The third book I would recommend is a Radical Candor. And this is a very good level-setting book on being direct. And it says a very well thought through a well-written book, and it’s around personally, still, you want to challenge directly, when you say care personally, it starts with career discussions, good one-on-one, good discussions with their team members. And challenge directly starts with asking for it and taking criticism yourself. It’s bi-directional right when you’re a manager and a leader you want to be able to listen to, some criticism and while you’re also ready to provide constructive criticism to your members. So I think essentially it comes down to, listen, clarify, debate, decide, and in a persuade, right? You want to think and learn in that order. That’s what that book is about.
So those are some books that I can think of with all, there are a lot of others, but those are the key books that I refer to.
What is your approach to developing, mentoring & coaching members of your team?
Vidal: [23:35] Those are all really great books. Those are some of the best books. What is your approach to mentoring and developing members of your team?
Rama: [23:50] I have been fortunate and blessed to have mentors throughout my career journey. Okay. I still keep in touch with all the leaders. And I really want to name all of them, to be honest. And I know that we won’t have enough time. And they’re wonderful mentors along the way.
I ask my mentees when they come to me, “where do they want to go? What are their goals? What are they seeking? What do they want to get better at?” Some know what they exactly want. Some won’t know quite yet. And you want to guide them to discover their inner passion based on their values. And once you get to what the values are, then you can actually shape up.
Depending on their motivation and what their goals are and then see if they align with the organization and team goals. And as a mentor, want to make an impact, I suggest for those ones to have a conversation with the mentor, spend some time to think about what your clear goals are.
And I follow when it comes to career aspirations and I follow leveling guide, every organization has its own leveling guide. On what is expected in each of those levels. And then I have bi-monthly, quarterly check-ins to see how they’re doing in that angle. I mentor and coach teams while they are in the project, as well as after they leave because he doesn’t have to be only during the course of their employment and that organization that they have to mentor and coach. And they can do it even beyond. And I still do that. In fact, I get mentored by some of the leaders that I have used to work within previous organizations. So I’m paying it forward. And one of the questions that you asked me before Vidal, what are some lessons learned or advice for managers? always think about paying it forward. I think that’s a great way to do it.
Coming back to this. Mentoring and coaching also apply to all levels of your mentees: mentor and coach. I enjoy doing that all the way from college grads coming in as interns, and then as they join and then whether they’re with the company or not. Most of them actually I used to mentor them three, four years ago. They are in different other tech organizations and I still keep in touch with them. So you always want to make sure that you enjoy doing it right as you are mentoring and coaching.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
Vidal: [26:06] Okay. You’ve been great. Thank you so much for your time. You’ve been super generous with your time. Where can people go to learn more about you or connect with you
Rama: [26:19] Yeah, I am primarily on LinkedIn. So you can find me on LinkedIn. And feel free to reach out to me. I’m always looking to learn from other leaders or engineers. It doesn’t matter. I’m looking to network and help. And so feel free to, find me on LinkedIn and that’s a primary place people can find me, Vidal.
Vidal: [26:42] All right. I’ll share a link to your profile. So again, thank you so much for coming on. It’s great to talk with you.
Rama: [26:49] Thank you so much for having me, Vidal. I think this is a great venue for engineering managers and leaders. What ManagersClub is doing is pretty impactful because every engineering manager experiences challenges in their own ways, but there are some common themes.
So having an opportunity like this, for someone like me to be coming in, listening to what other managers and leaders are experiencing and also the best practices they share is a great way for me to grow as well. And thanks to you for doing this. Really appreciate it.
Vidal: [27:22] You’re welcome.
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