Interview with Rukmini Reddy, VP of Engineering at Abstract
Published on Jan 20, 2020
13 min read
Vidal: So, today I have with me, Rukmini Reddy. Hi Rukmini, welcome to Manager’s Club.
RUKMINI: Thank you, Vidal. Thank you so much for having me.
Vidal: My pleasure. Rukmini could you start out, maybe tell us a little about your current role, what you do.
RUKMINI: Absolutely. So, I’m currently the VP of Engineering at a hyper-growth startup in the Bay area. I lead a team of about 45 engineers and we are a remote-first company.
Vidal: That’s great. Rukmini I was looking through your background. Could you tell us a little bit about your background and I know you’ve been VP of engineering at many places. How did you get into management?
RUKMINI: So, this is an interesting story. I think…I’m not going to say how long though because it’s going to make me look like a dinosaur. So, this is a very long, long time ago, I was…I joined a company to be a software architect/principal engineer. I was an individual contributor who was coding and about four months into my new role, my then CTO and VP of engineering came to me and said they saw I had a unique knack for people and building relationships and wondered if I would consider transitioning into engineering management.
RUKMINI: Like most IC’s, I was very skeptical about that move because I was afraid I would lose my technical skills and it would become stale, but I asked them if I tried it, would I be able to go back to it if I hated it in six months. And, they gave me that security and they said I could. So, I tried it and I’ve never looked back. I worked my way to engineering manager, to VP of engineering. I have now been a VP of engineering for over four years in three different organizations.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Vidal: That’s fantastic. Could you say, what are some of the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader?
RUKMINI: I think it’s just the state of hyper-growth startups these days. You face tremendous challenges and I think this is very common in Silicon Valley, especially in very dynamic marketplaces, of keeping your team motivated, engaged, driving through with the same success factors. Marching to the same North star, that’s a challenge most of us leaders face.
Vidal: Is there anything, in particular, you do to try to keep your team motivated and marching towards that North star?
RUKMINI: Absolutely. I think clarity is really critical for teams to do their best. So, it’s my job to set up as much processes I can to make some of these… I’ll give you an example. So, if there are several initiatives that are active at the same time in an organization and you’re in a hyper-growth startup, it becomes really difficult to keep up. So, one of the things I use is a RACI framework. So, most initiatives have a RACI framework attached and I leave assigned… I assigned DRIs, directly responsible individuals, to lead this initiative, so that it makes it very clear to everyone what their roles are, how they’re contributing to an initiative and who the primary responsible individual is. So, when I need information, I need to provide support, I know who to go to and this is especially important in a remote company.
Vidal: Got it. Yeah, the RACI framework is popular. I’ve heard of it, so I’ll put a link to that. Since you mentioned a couple of times it’s a remote company. Could you say anything about that, maybe any of the unique challenges, in that I think a lot of people struggle with remote management?
RUKMINI: Yeah, it is hard. I think it’s… I’ve never been in a remote company before. I have done distributed teams, so I’ve had pods of teams in multiple countries, in over five countries at the same time. And, that has its own set of challenges, but this has been unique as in you and I, if we are remote engineers, we can be working from our home offices. Right? And, some of the challenges I think is just making sure you’re communicating very effectively. So, what I try and treat our time together in a very…treat it as sacred. So, for example, if I meet with you, I’m trying to… I have to condense may be an interaction where I could have had lunch with you or I was…I get to see you every day into like a 25 minutes phone call. And, it’s hard to… And, it’s essential to keep those human stories alive by also getting work done. So, some of the things I’ve done in the roles I’ve published recently is a framework for one-on-ones that we can use to make sure that most teams are successful and you can put trust in that environment.
Vidal: Oh, that’s great. I’ll, I’ll look for that and put a link. I think one on ones are critical, so that’s awesome, you have a framework.
Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?
Vidal: Could you, as you’ve worked in many multiple organizations as an engineering leader. Could you share with us perhaps a lesson you’ve learned as an engineering leader?
RUKMINI: Yes. I think the lesson I always keep going back to is, relationships transcend companies. We might be sharing the same company today, I know I’m working on the same job, but these relationships that you build with humans and their stories matter. I’ll give you an example. So, last year as I was leaving my role at Model N, I went to say goodbye to my team that I had in place for eight years in Ukraine. And, while on the last day, prior to me leaving, my team asked me if I would volunteer…having spend some time with youth were at risk and motivate them to pick up a career in tech.
RUKMINI: And, I said, “That’s a wonderful way to close out this journey and it would absolutely be my pleasure.” So, I did that. And, while I was talking to most of these students I realized that they didn’t know English, right? And, I had a translator to talk to them. And, at the end…towards the end of the meeting, one young girl at the back of the room stood up and said, “So where did you learn to speak English like that so well?”. I asked her what her name was and I said, she said, “Oh, my name’s Mary.” I said, “Hey Mary. Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a fun story to tell because I learned English in India as my first language.” “However” I said, “If I could take permission of this engineer standing in the back”, I had one of my principle engineers there. I said, “He didn’t know any English when we met eight years ago, and maybe he can walk through that journey on how he’s learned to speak English.”
RUKMINI: As I was saying this, she looked at him and they started giggling and I was confused. I’m like, “What’s going on? Do you know each other?”, And she said that was her father.
Vidal: Oh wow. It was her father? How interesting.
RUKMINI: And, it was so wonderful and I kept looking back to that moment and thinking, so Pasha who was one of my absolute favorite people in my early team members did not know how to speak English fluently when I met him. And, I had helped set up English classes for him for the previous eight years. And, I had realized, I’d come to the realization that day that our relationship mattered so much. It was beyond the time we shared together in that company, and the opportunities I was able to provide him have changed the opportunities he was able to provide his daughter, and change their future. And, that was profound. And, I think that’s what keeps me real and excited when I do this work.
Vidal: That’s awesome. That’s one of the great things about being an engineering leader when you can impact people like that. That’s a great story.
RUKMINI: Thank you.
What’s your approach to hiring?
Vidal: Could you speak a little bit about hiring? What’s your approach to hiring a lot of engineering managers. Obviously, you have to spend a lot of time on hiring and since you’re also remote, I wonder what you do hiring remote people?
RUKMINI: Yeah, so hiring is a tremendous challenge. Like I said, I think I spend most of my time hiring like most of the engineering leaders do. And, I think what is really helpful for me is to set clear expectations when I’m hiring. So, I tend to do a lot of data-driven hiring, Vidal. I keep that… For example, if I publish a role, I will spend a lot of time initially clarifying the job description and what I’m looking for in the role with my partners in recruitment. We make sure we create detailed rubrics and have a question bank and we make sure we have make debrief interviews with everyone as they join, especially in a remote environment, setting expectations on what we’re looking for.
RUKMINI: And, then we have panels that encompass the entire team to make sure we’ve covered cross-functional leaders, they’re checking from behavioral… they’re checking behavioral questions, technical questions. What’s unique is over the past year you’ve done a take home test, which has been great. I…I’m anti whiteboard challenges to be honest, I think it puts too much pressure on people and it’s past it’s time and what we do is we give our interview a take home challenge and we pay you for that take home challenge, because interviews are a two-way street and your time is valuable. And, then we interact with you on that pull request just like you would with…at work if you joined us. Right? And, that gives you an insight into what it’ll be working day to day with us. And, this has been very..this has been super useful for me.
RUKMINI: I’ve actually grown my team over 32% in the past year remotely.
Vidal: That’s great. I think that’s nice that you understand people’s time and you compensate them for the take-home test. Because it can take a lot of time to do one of those things. And, not everyone has the time to do them.
RUKMINI: Absolutely. If I look back on my own experience while I was interviewing for this job, I had no time to do the interview during the day. So, the fact that they were willing to interview me on a weekend was what got me interested in it since that first phone call. So, being flexible around people’s schedules. And, I think this is how you hire, for example, a mom like me, right? Who’s got a busy day life and got a busy family life to make time to come to an interview.
Vidal: Do you do these take-home programming tests for managers too? Or just individual contributors?
RUKMINI: Just individual contributors.
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
Vidal: Okay. What would be your advice for managers who are just starting out?
RUKMINI: I would say practice giving and receiving hard feedback. And…
Vidal: Could you say a little more? Sorry. Sorry to interrupt.
Vidal: Could you say a little more about that?
RUKMINI: Yeah, feedback is hard because many of us I think got taught that…they’re taught to think that performance is binary, right? Either you’re good or you’re bad and that’s not true actually, performance is non binary and even the best engineering managers I know, even I make a lot of mistakes. And, how we receive feedback, in positions of power, is just as important if not more to how we offer feedback to our team. And, feedback is hard and it’s messy and it’s hard to be patient with ourselves and not feel shame. Right? And, ask them the other person’s viewpoint. when you want…all you want to do is…you want to fight and you want to run away and hide. And, I think this is really crucial to building strong teams, when even we all need space enough to practice, I feel we can go and try together.
Vidal: Sorry about that, there was some noise there. So, you manage a large team, you said 45 plus people. Could you tell me a little bit…what’s your workday like? How do you manage your time, emails, calendar, etc.?
What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?
RUKMINI: That’s a great question. So, I actually am…I’m hyper-organized. I would say organization is my superpower and my strength. So, what I do is I, for example, have my calendar booked out at least six weeks in advance. I have color-coded my calendar, Vidal, so I have different color codes for one-on-ones, different color codes for my direct reports for my cross-functional peers, for recruitment activities, for interviews, for outside activities, for board meetings. Everything is color-coded. And, on Sunday evenings I tend to login and I look at my week to make me prepare myself of the upcoming week. So, is it going to be a recruitment driven week? Is it going to be a people-focused week? Is it going to be an offsite week with the exec leadership team? So, I can kind of get into that headspace to be prepared for my week.
RUKMINI: I am also a zero inbox weirdo. So, I set the first 30 minutes of my day just to make sure I scan through and respond to all my emails, make sure I have no unread messages and slack before I begin my day. I… The third thing I do is I block my time for my family. So, I treat my family time as an appointment on my calendar that is sacred and cannot be re-scheduled. So, I block a couple of hours in the morning, save a block for family time and I do the same thing in the evening and I will not use my phone, take meetings or participate in any work-related activities during that time.
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Vidal: That’s great. That’s a lot of really good structure you have around that. I can tell you’re very organized. Speaking about organization and habits, what would be, maybe, a personal habit that contributes to your success?
RUKMINI: I never give up. Being persistent.
Vidal: You have an example of a story about that perhaps?
RUKMINI: Yeah, yeah, I can absolutely. So, for example, most engineering leaders would tell the engineers, “Come get me if you need me.” Right? Some of them tend to do office hours and say, “Hey, I have two hours a week.”. However, I’ve noticed if you have this management style of come get me, most people won’t come and get you. So, what I do instead is for example, the minute you join my team as an engineer, I have a roster where I highlight people I have meetings scheduled with and I’ll put the one-on-one on your calendar three months from then, after you join and it’ll be a vectoring one-on-one, every three months after.
RUKMINI: So, I don’t give up, I don’t wait for people to come get me. I go in there, I’m persistent and I will show up for that meeting and that sets an example for my team that I’m serious about building trust and maybe, getting to know you and asking you what does support look like from me.
Vidal: That’s great. I think that’s really great. You proactively schedule those skip-level meetings.
Vidal: Could you share…Is there perhaps, an internet resource or tool or some app that you depend on that really helps you in your day to day work?
Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.
RUKMINI: I’m a huge fan of Medium. I spend about 15 minutes of my day reading articles on Medium. I love all the publications and the variety and especially around leadership, I think there are several journals that have very good articles to read and it offers me a different viewpoint and an insight into how others are doing leadership.
Vidal: Medium is a great resource. Yeah. Maybe if later you could share with me some of the journals and stuff on Medium that you like, I could include it in the show maps for people.
RUKMINI: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Vidal: So, speaking of reading, if you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
RUKMINI: I would definitely recommend Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. I love Brené Brown, I think she talks about human emotions like shame and courage and vulnerability, some of which I think in Silicon Valley, we’ve just…we’ve not actually done it, we’ve not been vulnerable with each other. It’s all about just work and progress and wearing this armor when we come to work. And, she talks about how leadership is not about winning or losing, but it’s having the courage to show up, knowing you cannot control the outcome. And, how you can build a support system and a squad around you to make sure you’re successful.
Vidal: I’ll have to check out the book. One more thing about your teams, could you maybe talk about how you approach mentoring, coaching members of your team, maybe their career development. Do you have any kind of process around that or thoughts?
What’s your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?
RUKMINI: Absolutely. I always tell everyone I’m mentoring or coaching that you have to be the CEO of your own career. And, what that means is…
RUKMINI: …you actively…you have to actively manage your own career. Whether you’re in a startup or a big organization, it’s up to you to manage your career path. For example, if you want to join a new role, you should ask your VP where fits an organizations priorities and where it will lead. At every review, you have to check in and you have to make sure you’re clearly able to articulate your goals and how you’ve achieve them.
RUKMINI: You have to set expectations and make sure you’re good on your commitments to your team and I…and also you need to have the ability to manage your effectiveness. So, if it means you have to say no, say no, so you can make sure you are able to spend time on things that matter and the goals that are important to you.
Vidal: Where can people go to learn more about you? I know that you do some writing as well, right?
Where can we go to learn more about you? (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Blog, GitHub, etc.)
Vidal: Sounds good. I’ll put some links to that in the notes. Well Rukmini, this has been great. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with us. You’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you.
RUKMINI: Thank you so much, Vidal. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
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