Interview with Lior Gavish Senior Vice President at Barracuda Networks

Published on May 20, 2019

18 min read

image for Interview with Lior Gavish Senior Vice President at Barracuda Networks

Vidal: Thanks for speaking with me today. I really appreciate you joining the call

LIOR: My pleasure.

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

Vidal: Just tell us a little about yourself, maybe your title, where you’re located.

LIOR: Sure. I am the SVP of Engineering of the Email Protection team at Barracuda Networks. It’s a cybersecurity company. Our office is in Campbell next to San Jose. I live in San Francisco, happy to be here today.

Vidal: Well thanks. Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into management? A lot of people are interested in knowing how they get into management.

LIOR: I originally did my bachelor’s and master’s in computer science and I’ve worked for several years, both for larger companies and smaller companies, startups that is. I did all of that back in Israel, where I grew up. And then at some point I wanted to learn more about management. I went to Stanford to get an MBA and I learned many good leadership principles – it was a really, really good experience. It brought me here to Silicon Valley and I actually decided to start a company, to join friends and start a company with them right after. It was called Sookasa. And Sookasa was really where I first kind of took my first steps with management. When we started out, the team was pretty flat and we all worked together.

LIOR: But over time, I found I was taking on more and more responsibilities and I really, really wanted to win and wanted to drive our success and our product, so eventually my co-founder, who was the CEO, asked me to officially take the VP engineering role. And so that’s how I first became a manager. We were a small team of five engineers. We later grew to 10 and got acquired by Barracuda Networks, which is where I work today and within Barracuda, it was essentially the same story. So I was always trying to take more responsibility and to make the team more successful. And so over time, I was asked to take responsibility over an increasingly larger team of engineers, by now there are probably 70 or 80 engineers in my organization. It’s been a path that was very enjoyable for me and where I learned at times, just starting out as an individual contributor and taking on increasingly larger teams.

Vidal: That’s great. How long have you been in management? How long was that transition from when you started to here?

LIOR: Probably seven years since we first started Sookasa and I took on a small team. It took four years until we got acquired and then three more at Barracuda Networks.

Vidal: That’s a great growth trajectory. That’s awesome.

LIOR: Thank you.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Vidal: Could you … You’re welcome. Could you say a little about some of the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader and manager?

LIOR: Sure, so two things come to mind. The first is actually, I think one of the key things that I learned is that teams and especially good ones are made up of very different people with varying degrees of skills and various personalities and various ways of doing things. And I think one of the things that I keep trying to do and it’s challenging, is to figure out how to make everyone as successful as they could possibly be. And that means that I work with every person a little bit differently and focus on what motivates them and how they like to work and the type of projects where they would shine and so it’s just trying to learn that. A lot of people couldn’t tell you if you ask them directly, what’s going to make you successful?

… how to find out all these things and uncover how every person wants to work and how every person is going to be the most successful they can

LIOR: They wouldn’t be able to tell you that, so it’s always like a learning experience. And for me the challenge is, how to ask questions and how to find out all these things and uncover how every person wants to work and how every person is going to be the most successful they can, so that’s one thing. The other thing that’s challenging to me personally is, I started out as an engineer. I really love engineering. I’m super curious about all the different technologies and all different ways of doing things. And to this day, I love it and I like going through the details. I like knowing everything about everything, but at some point, that doesn’t scale. And so the challenge for me always is how to get into the right level of details and know enough about things to be helpful to the team and to be effective in my role, but also satisfying my curiosity and the things that I love learning about. So that’s always been a challenge.

What is your approach to hiring?

Vidal: That’s good. Yeah, I mean engineering is great and that’s really good. You want to understand all the details of it. All right, so an important thing for engineering leaders is of course recruiting and hiring. Could you maybe discuss a little bit like your approach to recruitment and hiring?

LIOR: I actually think this is the single most important thing you can possibly do for your team is to make sure that hiring and recruiting works well because at the end of the day, you as a manager, you’re not going to be able to do everything on your own. You have to trust that people will do great job and so you have to have the right people in place. When I look at engineers and engineering managers, there are several kind of traits that I’m typically looking for. Obviously we want to all hire technically strong people that understand the technology really well and know how to code very well. But what I found predicts success more than anything else is, how much does the candidate actually love what they’re doing?

LIOR: I typically look for people that are absolutely passionate about coding in general and about the specific challenges that we have in particular. And I find that that passion and that love for the job and the idea that they would be doing this exact same thing even if they were not paid for it, actually is a great predictor of how effective they’re going to be and how curious they’re going to be to learn about what they’re working on and be the best that they possibly can. And so I keep looking for that trait. And of course, the other side of it is … I’m looking for people that are focused on outcomes and on customers, people that think about how what they’re doing is going to impact the product and the company and customers.

LIOR: And that brings some level of discipline and focus that leads to things being shipped to production and things that actually change people’s lives and make the business successful. And sometimes that’s at odds with doing the most perfect thing from an engineering standpoint, but it is important and it’s something that’s very valuable in engineers. That’s what I typically look for. The hiring process in my book, is really a little bit of a dating process. You want the candidate to learn as much as possible about the company and the team and the opportunity and you want them to fall in love with it. And on the same token, you also want yourself and then your team to fall in love with the person and to get to know them and know how they work and what sort of work they can do.

LIOR: And so we’ve designed a hiring process that has three components to it. The first is actually a take-home. We spent a lot of time coming up with take-home projects that are designed to be a good reflection of the type of work that the candidate would be doing at the company. And so that’s a great opportunity for the candidate to see whether they’re going to enjoy working on what we do. It also create opportunities for us to see exactly what we’re going to get out of the person and whether they can focus on coming up with an outcome fairly quickly. And it’s just a, what you see is what you get kind of exercise and it’s been really, really helpful in finding good fits and also selling what we do to the candidate.

LIOR: The other component of the hiring process is a handful of personal conversations with team members. The conversation may be around a technical topic or a technical question or sometimes it might be a follow-up to the take-home project. But the goal is not necessarily to evaluate technical strength, but more to evaluate how the person thinks and how they work effectively with the current members of the team and do they enjoy speaking with each other about a technical challenge? Can they develop an idea together? So it’s more of a behavioral thing than a technical filter. The final part of the hiring process is actually reference calls, and this is something that I often will do myself. For every person that joins our team, I’ll call a couple of people that have worked with them in the past and I’ll ask questions and probe and try to learn more.

LIOR: How did they work with that person? What level of familiarity they had? What was outstanding about the candidate? What are some things that may help them become successful in the future? And most importantly, the number one question that I’ll ask is, how would you rank this candidate versus all the other people that you’ve worked with? And what I’m looking to learn is whether the candidate that we’re looking at really stood out for the reference and really stood out as one of the best people they’ve ever worked with and that’s a really, really good sign about people. So I’ll oftentime ask that and gauge theresponse. So yeah, I guess that’s how we do it, happy to answer any follow-up questions if you have.

Vidal: That’s fantastic. I have a question on the take-home assignment. In this competitive job market, sometimes how do you deal with candidates who perhaps don’t have the time, maybe don’t have the luxury to have the time to do a take-home project or they interview at other companies that aren’t asking for these extra take-home projects, how do you deal with that?

LIOR: Great question. I’ve been going back and forth about how to deal with that and eventually what we came up with is that, we actually make it a strong requirement in our process. And we do that with the understanding that for some candidates, it just might not work and they may drop out at that point and we’re feeling okay with it. Practically speaking, it’s actually pretty rare that people won’t do the take-home. In fact, most people, if they’ve … We do the take home after an initial screening call. And so for most people, if they’re a potential fit for the company and if they’re excited about the opportunity, nine times out of 10, they’ll do the take-home. And so we feel comfortable requiring that and we’ve been very successful with that.

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

Vidal: All right. Moving on then, what would be your advice for managers who are just starting out?

LIOR: Sometimes it will align with your own personal interests. Sometimes it will be a detriment to your own personal interests. But I think in the long-term it pays out and it’s something that people appreciate and that will make you a better leader over time and will make you more successful. And so it’s really important to remember that you’re there to serve the customers and make everyone more successful, not just yourself or just your team. The other thing I will give as advice is, and this is advice that I got as a young leader and I really carry this and it was really helpful for me, someone explained to me, you don’t motivate a team, you motivate individuals.

LIOR: A great question. I think my number one piece of advice maybe is think like an owner. So you might be leading a team that’s part of a bigger whole, maybe you work for a very large company or a medium-sized company and your part of a system, but always think like an owner. Think about how you’re going to make the customers win and through that, how you make your company win and how you make your boss win and how you make your team win. How do you always start from that. It’s very easy to stay in your little neck of the woods and try to optimize for that, but always keep in mind the bigger picture. Seek out ways how to make the entire company more successful by serving customers better and going through that.

I think my number one piece of advice maybe is think like an owner

LIOR: It’s important to remember that when you work with other people, they may not have the same motivations that you had as an individual contributor and they may not have the same motivation that their teammates have. So some people care about solving hard problems and some people care about making customers happy and some people care about compensation and some people care about getting more responsibility and everyone has different things that drive them. And it’s your responsibility as a manager to find out, uncover, what motivates every person and tailor your message and how you work with them to meet their goals and to meet their motivations to make them successful. And just remember that it’s not one silver bullet that will solve all your problems. It’s something that you really need to tailor for every person on your team.

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

Vidal: That’s really good, that’s really good. Yeah, so focusing on their motivations, also making the whole team and the company win. All right, managers can be super busy. A lot of managers complain about being really busy. Could you describe what your work day is like and how do you manage your time, emails, calendar, et cetera?

LIOR: At this point in time, I spend most of my time in meetings. I’m not always happy about it because I really miss doing engineering work, but it is what’s important to be successful in my current job. And so I think what I’ve … what I spend most of my time on is obviously one-on-one with the people that report to me, skip levels with people that report into the people that report to me. Skip levels are very important to me. That’s how I learn what’s going on and how the managers are performing and how people feel in general and what are some of the problems that don’t get escalated to me. I spend time in various work groups we’ve put together around initiatives like if we’re trying to get some strategic projects done, I might have check in meetings around that every once in awhile.

LIOR: I also spend time on roadmap meetings, just to make sure we’re doing the right things, we’re listening to our customers and we’re aligned with our overall goals of the broader organization. So that’s where I spend a lot of time. In between, I’ll try to be very responsive on email and Slack. I read a piece of research once that showed that the faster you respond, the more trust people have in you and I found that to be true in practice. I think people really, really appreciate the responsiveness and it’s really an example that I try to set for my entire org to never delay others, to always be responsive to them, to never be the bottleneck so we can all move faster, so spend a lot of time on that.

LIOR: And the final piece of it, I also try to spend as much time as I can with customers. I know it’s not something that … oftentimes engineers won’t want do that, but I think it’s actually very, very important for the engineering team and for me in particular to know how our customers feel about our product, what’s working well for them, what’s not working well. And that’s the thing that allows me to communicate that to the engineering team and to help the team get more aligned with our customers. So that’s another place where I spend a lot of time.

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

Vidal: That’s really great that you spend time with customers, that you block time for that. And that research you mentioned, that sounds really interesting, cool. Could you share a personal habit that you feel contributes to your success?

LIOR: Two habits that are really helpful to me. One is every morning when I wake up, I’ll actually take an hour for myself. I’ll sip coffee, I’ll read things that I’m curious about or just relax and stare at the window and that hour really grounds me and allows me to start the day relaxed and focused and have the right level of energy to go out there and help the team and and do all the things I need to do, that’s super helpful. The second thing I’m really disciplined about is every day I’ll pick one or two things that I think are really important for me to get done that day, things that I absolutely cannot go home without completing. I’ll write them down and I’ll make sure to find time during the day to do them. And so I’ll drop the ball on a lot of things, but the one or two things that actually matter that I think are most important, I’ll almost always going to get done. And that’s been very helpful for me to explicitly state and know what are the things that are most important.

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

Vidal: That’s really good. Could you share an internet resource or tool that’s very helpful for you in work that you couldn’t live without?

LIOR: Actually the one resource I really love is the First Round Capital Review. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to read it, but it’s a blog that’s being managed by a famous venture capital fund called First Round Capital. It’s a really, really high quality resource on a lot of things that relate to my world. It’s about technology and leadership and engineering and product management and growth and hiring or recruiting. It’s a little bit more targeted at startups than larger companies, but I think there are a lot of, a lot, a lot of useful tools and frameworks there and really, really great interviews with people that are world class at what they do. So I’m definitely a subscriber and I try to read most of the articles they publish.

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

Vidal: All right. Yes, I think I’ve seen it. I’ll include a link to it in the interview. If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

LIOR: One of my favorite books, period and specifically when it comes to being a manager is Daring Greatly. It’s a book by Brene Brown. I think there’s also a TED Talk that she gave about the topic, but I really recommend reading the entire book. It basically talks about vulnerability and it explains in a very easy going way how vulnerability actually drives a lot of our behaviors and a lot of our actions. And generally speaking, there are two paths you can take. You could either let vulnerability take over you and prevent you from doing certain things and prevent you from saying certain things and prevent you from going through certain experiences that are frightful for you or painful for you or feel really scary or… you can lean into it and go and do that.

LIOR: And also share some of your feelings and some of your concerns with the people around you. It also talks about how to build resilience and how to deal with vulnerability and how to embrace it and not let it rule your wellbeing. And I thought it was incredibly insightful and inspirational. It has I think a lot of relevance to being a leader because oftentimes you’ll be doing things that you’re not entirely comfortable with or that you’re scared of. And it’s really important to create some self-awareness around it and to know how to embrace it and how to talk about it with others and how to inspire others to do things that they’re vulnerable with.

LIOR: And I think it’s really a very key skill in developing people and making them the most successful they can be, truly helping them deal with their vulnerabilities. And the only way you can do that is by actually being vulnerable yourself and putting yourself out there and being an example for others on how to do this. So I think a lot of great leadership insights there and something that really resonated with me and hopefully has also helped my teams and people that I work with.

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

Vidal: That sounds really good. One last question, what is your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?

LIOR: Good question. I think we touched a little bit about it earlier. There’s no silver bullet around that and I think what’s been important to me is just to be aware of that and to develop a relationship with every person I work with that’s a good fit with their personality and with the things that are more challenging for them. And so what I try to do is figure out what level of support people need, what type of support and different people will have very different needs. Some people need help with technical challenges that they have. Others need help with cheerleading and telling them that they’re doing a great job and that they should keep going and other people need help with how to get promoted or how to get a managerial role that they really want.

LIOR: And I see it as my job to try to find out what are these things and how I can be most helpful for every single person based on their own experience and their own background and their own ambition. One kind of framework that I like that’s been helpful to me is, it’s pretty well known, it’s called situational leadership model, worth googling if you haven’t heard of it before. It basically talks about four different types of mentoring and coaching, again, depending on the person’s motivations and on the person skills and how to adapt yourself as a manager to these needs, so highly recommended reading material.

Vidal: Yeah, that was Situational Leadership, right?

LIOR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Vidal: Yeah, the audio cut out for a second. All right Lior, thank you so much. You’ve been really awesome. This has been really valuable and I think people will get a lot of good insights and value from listening and reading this interview. Where can people go to learn more about you if they wanted to read or learn more about you?

LIOR: Thanks Vidal. I am on LinkedIn, just search for my name, Lior Gavish and please feel free to reach out to me. If you want to connect or if you have any questions or if I can be helpful in any way, shape or form.

Vidal: Thank you, thank you. You’ve been super helpful and I really appreciate it.

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