Interview with Debjani Sarkar, Director of Engineering at Nuance Communications

Published on Oct 4, 2018

5 min read

image for Interview with  Debjani Sarkar, Director of Engineering at Nuance Communications

Location: Reston, Virginia
Current Role: Director of Engineering in Nuance Communications

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

I am not just an engineer by training but one by heart! After my undergraduate degree in engineering, I started my career in Digital Image Processing / Graphics engineering and in a couple of years transitioned into Software engineering. I spent over a decade designing and developing software products and solutions for a wide range of business domains including Telecommunication, Financial regulation and then Healthcare. It was an enriching experience that helped me broaden my perspective and get into technical leadership roles. I knew there was so much more to learn, and I endeavored to learn. I went to graduate school and earned my MBA.

In my role as a principal engineer, I continued to lead engineering teams and product development initiatives and when there was an opportunity to directly manage a team of engineers my manager encouraged me to take up that position and I accepted. Although I didn’t actively seek this opportunity, I knew this is what I wanted to do, and felt ready for this transition. Over the years I have had the privilege of leading many R&D teams with talented and motivated individuals, striving to make a difference each day.

My leadership role in Nuance has been a rewarding experience as we strive to build solutions for our healthcare customers to drive outcomes. We foster a Client-First mindset; We orient our goals and focus our energy towards exceeding our clients’ expectations.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Over the years, I have learned to embrace challenges and work hard to overcome those! There are challenges in bringing together largely distributed teams to collaborate effectively and efficiently towards specific goals and deliverables. I work and lead global teams and this challenge is very real for me.

Another challenge that is perhaps common to many of us, especially those in product and solution development, is to keep a balance between meeting business and market demands and fostering innovation for the future. To keep up with technology changes, we need a talent pool who is engaged in continuous exploration and innovation and as leaders, we need to sponsor that.

What is your approach to hiring?

I emphasize on aptitude and attitude over proven expertise and knowledge. When I talk directly to a candidate, I take the time to explain our bigger goals and priorities, why the job matters and who the candidate would get to work with. The selection process for the right candidate can be arduous and time-consuming however it is always worth the effort. Mostly the hiring process includes phone screen followed by face to face interview for in-depth discussion. The actual interviews differ depending on the role the candidate is applying to –  for engineers, the process involves significant technical discussion including writing and explaining algorithm and code. The algorithm is not expected to be complete or perfect – however, it is important for the candidate to be able to explain his/her approach and logic. Feedback and recommendations from the interviewers are reviewed holistically for a final decision on the candidate. The hiring process is ensured to be inclusive and transparent at all times.

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

I truly believe in leading and motivating people and not managing. People can manage their tasks and time well if they have clarity of goals and responsibilities. As leaders, our job is to provide that clarity and enable them for success. My mantra has been to engage, enable and empower folks and success will follow.

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

Like all working professionals with kids, work days are packed. I try to take some time early in the morning for work out, to get ready for the day! Typically, I have many meetings on a given day with engineering teams as well as cross-functional teams and leaders. I look for opportunities to interact directly with our clients and product users to hear their feedback and to learn how we can do better. I block time my calendar for focused work without distractions. I also set aside time for 1:1 discussions which are critical for effective connection and alignment.

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

Prioritization and planning are two essential elements that help me do what I do. Before starting my work day, I do a quick review of my calendar and mark meetings that are critical. I also create a To Do list for the day in the order of priority. This can be a list on a piece of paper or an online note in Google Keep. I enjoy striking off items on the To Do list as the day progresses! I don’t enjoy sitting for a long spell – so working off of the standing desk or walking when on phone calls help me stay active and focused.

How do you mentor team members to help them grow as leaders?

As leaders, it is imperative that we create a culture for learning and growth. I approach this as a close partnership built through open conversation and trust. It is important that we listen first and then offer guidance and solutions.

In one-on-one conversations, I try to focus on individual career objectives and goals and ask questions to bring clarity. I have mentored engineers who wanted to grow more laterally as well and also those who aspired to take on leadership roles. The next step is to assess what it would take for the person to get where she would like to go and draw up a plan to reach that goal. Setting realistic expectations and measurable goals helps to set a target. Sometimes, course corrections are necessary and as a mentor, it is important for me to be honest and practical and have a candid conversation with the individual. For leadership openings, we always consider aspiring internal candidates first in a way to motivate and groom future leaders. In my experience, people get motivated most by the prospect of growth and career advancement at work than anything else.

I am a proponent of continuous learning and I encourage everyone in my team to set learning goals, just the way I try to do it for myself. This is the best way to grow, both professionally and emotionally.

I want to mention that peer support and mentoring is also a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Inspired by the concept of Lean-In Circle, we have formed Nuance circles which is a forum for Nuance colleagues to meet and discuss topics of common interest, exchange thoughts and ideas and engage in peer mentoring.

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

Each day we use so many tools and products to do what we have to do! Skype and HipChat are two such tools that help us connect and interact, each day.

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

I would recommend the HBR Ideacast podcast for those who enjoy listening. Each week there are insightful discussions and diverse perspectives that are helpful to form a macro view. At the end of the day, our leadership styles are reflections of who we are and what we believe in.

Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, GitHub)

This series asks engineering managers to share their experiences with the intent of helping other engineering managers learn and improve. Have someone you want to see featured or questions you think we should ask? Contact me.

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