Interview with Isabel Nyo, Engineering Manager, Technologist, Writer, Speaker, Mother

Published on May 8, 2018

5 min read

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Current role: Development Manager and Head of Front-end Engineering at eBay
Location: Sydney, Australia

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

I graduated with a bachelor and master of Computer Science from the University of Wollongong in Australia and worked in hands-on technical roles before becoming a manager.

My journey to management is not unusual but not one that I had anticipated or planned for. I have always considered myself to be entrepreneurial and I had co-founded a startup and ran my own consulting business before so I always thought I’d work for myself one day than climb the corporate ladder and take on a managerial role.

But a few years ago I was in a place where I was really excited to mentor developers in my team, helping them with their career development, helping build a good engineering culture for my team. All those activities made me feel happy because I was feeling like I was making a bigger impact than I had ever made as a developer. Long story short, I took the plunge, spoke to my manager and became an engineering manager. And the rest, as they say, is a history.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

My biggest challenge is always thinking about and balancing the three factors in software development; time, quality and cost. It would be great if we can have all three but the reality is that we need to make trade-offs all the time in software development. As an engineering manager, it’s my job to 1) make sure my team and I are aligned on the decision we make and 2) communicate effectively with the business and stakeholders so they understand why we make certain decisions and get their full support. It is a tough challenge but it makes my job interesting so I like it.

What is your approach to hiring?

Funny you should ask. Hiring is something I really enjoy doing. My approach to hiring is actually simple, there are 3 steps to it – 1) Preparation 2) Execution 3) Evaluation. And no surprise, a lot of the work is in preparation, being clear with the what, the why and the how.

I spoke about this topic, hiring the best technical talent like a boss, at a CTO summit in Sydney last year and shared my strategies and frameworks. Feel free to download my deck. I enjoy hiring for a few reasons, it is a critical task, one that is both important and urgent and it can transform the culture of a team to better or worse.

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

Everyone has to start somewhere. Don’t be disheartened if you feel like you are not being a good manager. You can always learn to become better at anything if you have the will. And if you think you are a good manager, then that’s good but guess what, you can become an even better manager. I wrote about how I survived and thrived as an engineering leader to encourage and teach new engineering managers so feel free to take a look at it. My one advice, or rather my one belief, is that to be a good leader, you need to be a servant leader.

Whats your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?

I am a mum, so I have a lot on my plate but I have a pretty good work-life balance. I wrote about the art of work life balance as a working mum before. (Ha, it seems I have an article for every question you ask. We should collaborate more.) My typical work day looks like this: my husband and I drop our daughter at school, we go to work (different companies, different industries – thanks god for that, haha), pick up our daughter after work is finished, go home, eat dinner, do other routines like bath, homework, etc and when my daughter goes to bed, I either do chores or work on my computer or just relax. At work, my first priority is my team so I’ll resolve blockers and take actions that enable them to do their job well – whether it’s answering a technical question, or speaking to a stakeholder or giving them resources that they need.

Being present is a key to work-life balance for me. When I am doing something, I try to focus on it 100%. So if I was lying in bed with my daughter before bed, all I do is talk to her and enjoy that time. If I am writing an article, that’s all I do at that time. I won’t be trying to have a 1:1 with my team member at the same time.

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

Everyone has a different definition of success. My definition is this, a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What is Success?

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics

and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;

To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by

a healthy child, a garden patch

or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed

easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

And my personal habit to achieve that kind of success? It’s taking actions that align with my goals consistently.

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

I have many tools that I like and use. Google products like Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides for personal and work projects, and then Slack for communicating with my team members.

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

Find Your Why by Simon Sinek. It’s a book to help discover purpose for you and your team.

Speaking of books, I am currently writing a book but it’s not just for managers, but it is for anyone and everyone who wants to feel happy, successful and fulfilled in their career and life. Please subscribe to my mailing list if you’re keen to get a preview.

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

I am pretty active on social media so you’re more than welcome to follow and connect with me on Twitter (@eisabai), LinkedIn (eisabai) and Facebook (eisabaiN). I also write on Medium regularly and share resources and thoughts about technology, career, leadership and life on my website.

Thank you for this opportunity!

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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