Interview with Federico Soria, Engineering Manager at Airbnb

Published on Oct 9, 2019

14 min read

image for Interview with Federico Soria, Engineering Manager at Airbnb

Vidal: Hey, so good afternoon. Today I want to welcome Federico Soria or “Fede.” Fede, thank you so much for joining the show today.

FEDE: Thank you for having me.

Vidal: Fede, could you maybe tell people a little bit where you work and what your role is?

Tell us about Yourself

FEDE: Yeah, for sure. I’m an engineering manager for the Luxe hosting platform team. So basically Luxe, it’s one of the businesses inside of Airbnb and it’s everything luxury and what you might think luxury might mean. So gigantic villas, private islands. Sort of the highest tier of Airbnb. And how we deal with a hosts, guests, platform and everything, it’s kind of unique. Two years ago when the engineering team got started, I clearly remember one of the first challenges and everything we had to do was, we had to add a couple of zeros more to everything hardcoded number of minimum around Airbnb. It’s been a fun challenge.

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

Vidal: That’s great. Could you maybe say a little about your background and how did you get into management?

FEDE: Yeah. I’m a software engineer by trade, went to college at Arizona state, earned degree in software engineering. And then from there I worked as a software engineer for a couple of years and then it was on and off of doing my own business and managing other people obviously didn’t do so good at first and then it got better and better until I became CTO for a payments company here in the Bay area and then I went to be VP of eng for a couple of months at another startup. And then I joined as a software engineer here at Airbnb. And about a year into it I transitioned into management, engineering manager, which in Airbnb it’s not really a promotion, just a side step.

And then the reason I got into management here at Airbnb is because I cared deeply about people’s lives here at Airbnb, their professions, their careers. I always really like to help every engineer be the best engineer they could be. So helping them out, it became a natural thing for me and people really enjoyed working with me on that area. I’m like what if I do this for a living? And it’s like everyone’s like, yes, that’ll be very helpful and make it less ad hoc and more like providing you the toolset and control to actually help people become better in their careers.

I always really like to help every engineer be the best engineer they could be.

So that was my number one influence to becoming a manager. The other one was around upwards visibility and how do you work with leadership and setting sort of the structure and the direction of the company. Airbnb is very bottoms up. I mean that’s a very cliche, but the reality is that it’s up to the team to define what projects you want to work on and how you actually influence those OKRs or those signals that move the actual company forward.

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

Vidal: That’s a fantastic reason you gave for wanting to be an engineering leader. So I love that. And I think that also is the best practice at many companies. That’s great you have that parallel career track in the management track now it looks like an engineering track. I think you mentioned, you said you recently became a manager there and that at your previous company. Maybe what’s a hard lesson that maybe you’ve learned as an engineering manager or a lesson learned?

FEDE: Yeah, that’s a good one. One of the things that I’ve learned, and this is very common it goes across all disciplines, the hardest problems are around communication and talking to people at the right time with the right context, the right tone and we have a saying: expect best interests. If you come from a place that like hey, I’m here to work for you as a manager. That’s usually how I see things. But being able to have that empathy for the individual contributor who you’re managing, so they can see that you’re working for them as opposed to the inverse, I think it’s one of the biggest challenges and it’s all about, like I said, communication. And just making it clear that I’m here to represent you when you’re not around and help you get to the next level kind of thing. And trying to combine the business outcome with what an engineer is looking for and how do you merge those two so the business moves forward. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges.

What is your approach to hiring?

Vidal: Okay. Could you describe maybe your approach to hiring and in particular I’d be curious if you could talk about maybe diversity and inclusion. We were talking about this earlier, how well your thoughts on it.

FEDE: Yeah, I’m big a proponent, as you might tell, but diversity and inclusion, especially here at Airbnb… So one of the things for my approaches is to be proactively, so I help put together a lot of recruiting events inside of Airbnb. Even as much as traveling to different countries and setting up conferences and onsite recruiting. One of those places we just finished a month ago, we went to Mexico City and Guadalajara. We did a tech conference and event and then we had a full day of back to back on site recruiting. We sent ten engineers from here. And the whole thing, it was led by myself and someone else: David from recruiting.

So Airbnb once we told leadership this is what we want to do these are our goals and everything want to do, they’re like yes 100% go and do it. So it’s really cool to have a company that believes in representation and diversity that to actually put time and effort and to do it.

Vidal: That’s great that you got that support. Could you say a little bit, hiring is a big challenge for managers, especially here in the Bay Area because it’s so crazy competitive. And I know you’re lucky you work at Airbnb, which is a very high profile company, but do you have any thoughts for people who maybe don’t work at such high profile companies what they might do?

FEDE: I literally had a conversation about three weeks ago with my ex-manager around this. He’s now leading a different company and he’s like, “I never knew how hard it was” because he was here at Airbnb and basically we get to pick, oh this person looks great and that kind of stuff. But when you’re outside and he’s like, I’m devoting like 20% of my time to just hiring. It’s so hard.

I think how you differentiate yourself to others, it’s the whole empathy. Knowing that you’re providing the best value and work environment, and it’s just the whole part of representation, and it’s just like, hey come and join us. We’re going to do some cool stuff together. It can be great. Are you interested in this problem areas and that kind of stuff.

I think the more honest you can be, the more open, the more people will see you for what you are and they actually will love to work with you. I’ve had a lot of people there like, “Hey, I want to join Airbnb because I want to work with people who think like you.” And that is, for me like, okay, we’ve done a great job. What are the valleys of an Airbnb engineering or an engineering manager at Airbnb that people can relate to it and want to work on that. It just happens to be that we’re a big company and we’re an Airbnb and it’s pretty cool, but what people relate to is actually the human component, not the company component.

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

Vidal: That’s nice. So focusing on the human components. You mentioned earlier that you had transitioned, I know you said you were a CTO previously, but then you came to Airbnb, engineer, then you became an engineering leader manager. What would be your advice to managers who are just starting out or people who are just transitioning into management?

FEDE: I actually go back and forth between management and individual contributor. The only thing is I never stopped coding, I just now code for fun in my free time as opposed to get paid for it. But my number one advice is that think of it… So I think two things. One it’s a different job. Don’t think because you have managers you know what it is. You probably seen people fix your plumbing. That doesn’t mean that you’re good plumber. So it is a different role. It is a different job, and it’s fine to start from scratch, and you’re going to learn it and this totally fine, but you should treat it as such. Not like oh I know I’ve had millions of managers, I know how to do this kind of thing. Because once you’re in that position is it very different role as opposed to what you get to see as an IC having one manager.

I’d like to say is the best managers are the ones who had the worst manager and the best manager.

The other thing I’d like to say is the best managers are the ones who had the worst manager and the best manager. Because then you have the extremes and you kind of like self check yourself to say okay, would my worst or best manager ever do this or what would they have done? So that usually helps me a lot to keep a health check. How am I doing?

Vidal: That’s kind of funny. So it helps to have had a really bad manager in the past, a negative role model?

FEDE: Yeah.

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

Vidal: Okay. No, that’s fair. And I think so a lot of us have had that experience. All right when you’re an engineering manager it can be like super busy, everybody wants a piece of you. There’s so much to do. I wonder how do you manage your time, emails, Slack, calendar, all that stuff?

FEDE: Besides blocking time on your calendar? I’m actually the only one that I’ve seen so far from the people that work with me, but I’m an inbox zero kind of guy. What that means is if you look at my inbox at the end of the day there’s zero email, not even zero emails that haven’t been read, zero emails even if I’ve read it or not, it will be empty every day at the end of the day. And for me that’s important because that’s one way for me to never lose focus of what’s important, what’s not. If something’s important, it will stay on my inbox for no longer than a week and then by Friday it’s my job to clear it out. Either be with an action item or something. I need to follow up on that because it’s important enough that it’s still in my inbox.

That’s usually how I deal with emails. I’m pretty responsive on Slack. One of the things I like to do is always have context around everything that is going around me so I can make the most informed decision at any given time. If it’s something that takes a while, again it goes into my inbox and I’ll spend a week trying to figure it out. One of the things that Airbnb does that is super helpful for me, we have a thing that is like no meeting Wednesdays for managers it doesn’t really apply 100% of the Wednesday, but at least 80% of my Wednesday’s usually free and that’s usually the day to tackle bigger problems that actually I had to sit down for a couple of hours and figure it out, write something down and that kind of stuff. It really helps out on that.

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

Vidal: All right. What would you say, is there maybe a personal habit you have you feel contributes to your success.

FEDE: Besides the inbox zero? I think one of the habits that I have is, this goes on again with the… It’s almost like a ying yang kind of thing. When I was talking about the worst manager and the best manager. I try not to be pulling to the right or always pulling to the left. I’m not trying to be everyone’s friends. You know what I mean? While being a manager, because you have to make some tough calls some times. And I also don’t want to be “the boss” or anything like that. And the way you do it it’s not like you can never live in the middle.

It’s more like for every time you, not so much pull rank, but for every time you have to make a hard decision you should be also celebrating the wins and the outcomes of your team. You have to almost keep a balance, a checkbook of hey for every everything that pull from this jar, you need to make a deposit on this other jar. And having a good way to track that and work forward that, the team can see that you’re putting a lot of effort into it, that you actually really care.

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

Vidal: That’s great. That’s a great balance to try to keep. Is there maybe an internet resource or tool or some app that you find really useful like in your day-to-day you couldn’t live without?

FEDE: I tried a couple but then the more I try I realized that there’s none that worked for me. And this is really bad, but I end up in spreadsheets and Google Docs. I’m guessing Google Docs and Gmail. They make fun of me because I could potentially live with just an iPad. I really don’t need a computer anymore. For me Google docs I have, well actually, so for me having templates, I have a lot of templates because if I’m writing a memo, boom. And I just fill it in. If I’m writing an eng proposal if I’m writing… I need a decision to be made.

I have a lot of templates already so if you keep it consistent then people know how to skim through it and only go into the parts that you know you’re calling out or what you need from it. I remember reading from Tim Ferriss, one of his books when he says this whole invention that you need to eat different things every day, it’s super backwards. Because a human being, if you just feed the same thing to the stomach, the stomach will become a lean machine. It’ll know how to process that same food every day. I would say the same thing around like communication, emails and how you work. People expect one way of things and you can work more efficiently to it.

Vidal: That’s really interesting. So having a set of consistent templates that you use for stuff, not only just to make the work faster for you but also so it’s consistent for the people who receive it.

FEDE: Yes.

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

Vidal: Fascinating. Well since you mentioned Tim Ferriss, I always like to ask people, if you could recommend one book to managers what would it be and why?

FEDE: For me it’s easy. Pragmatic Programmer, which is not about program managers but is the best sort of book that I ever read and I have re-read it twice already. Because it depends, it’s one of those books that depends on the stage of your life that you’re at it. It will speak to you in different ways. Which is kind of weird for an engineering book, but it’s about mapping sort of engineering practices to real world and you can become more efficient and be able to tell those patterns. Usually what an engineer would do is find a pattern, find solution is how do you apply that to the real world. And for me that’s being very crucial to understand the small little details in the nuances of how you interact with other people.

Vidal: Okay. That sounds great. One more question. What is your approach to mentoring, career development, coaching, growing members of your team?

our first one-on-one I usually tell them “By the way, our next one-on-one is going to be about career progression and what do you want out of Airbnb and this team and myself.”

FEDE: So when a new member of my team joins my team, on our first one-on-one I usually tell them “By the way, our next one-on-one is going to be about career progression and what do you want out of Airbnb and this team and myself.” They’re like wait. I don’t know why people wait for this. This should be the first conversation. You’re dedicating 40 hours a week to this and this is your career. And it’s like, can you think of anything more important for us to talk about?

So it usually surprises them, but usually what I do is I try to hack it. So let’s say like what’s your goal in six months, in life, or in a year? And it’s like, okay, how does that translate to your goal as an engineer here at the company? It’s like, well this is what I want. It’s easy. Okay, how you get that? And it’s like, okay, what if I tell you it’s going to take you a year to get there? What would you need to do in six months? Okay, what do we need to do in three months? How about one month? How about next week? And then you map it out and, and for that person it’s like, Oh, okay, I guess doing this, this, this and that. It’s like, yeah, that sounds about it. And all we need to do is have some checks and balances. So every month we talk about how we’re doing with the original plan that we set and we can realign the plan or keep going.

That’s it. That’s my way to hack it. It’s career progression and mentoring and coaching doesn’t have to be this abstract thing. As long as the good thing about engineers is they’re really good at picturing the ideal outcome and then just reverse-engineering the whole thing. You’re like, well how do you get to that ideal outcome in like tiny goals? And that’s about it.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Vidal: I really liked how you bring it out right at the beginning. I think that’s fantastic. Well Fede, this has been really great. You shared a lot of really valuable thoughts here and you’ve been really generous with your time. Where could people go if they want to learn more about you? I think you also told me one day you have some organization you created too. I don’t know if you want plug that organization.

FEDE: For sure. So you can always find me on LinkedIn or Twitter. Those are usually the two… I’m oddly very engaged in LinkedIn. Not so much posting things, but like following people and reading articles and stuff like that. And I’ll follow through any conversation in someone on LinkedIn. Twitter is more like a random thing. Facebook, I don’t do Facebook. I do manage a Facebook group, which is where I engage the most, which is called Mexicans in Silicon Valley. We’re close to a thousand engineers, most them engineers in there. And it’s not just Mexicans, it’s LatinX mostly kind of been great. We meet every Thursday at 7:00 PM for drinks and talk about stuff that is on top of mind with maybe a couple of beers. So it’s great. I usually like to call a great venting mechanism for LatinX people to gather the mind kind of thing.

Vidal: That’s awesome that you created that. Okay. Well again, thank you so much. It’s been great to have you and I really appreciate it.

FEDE: Thank you for having me.

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