Interview with Katie Womersley, Director of Engineering at Buffer
Published on Mar 16, 2018
4 min read
Location: Vancouver, BC
Current Role: Director of Engineering
What’s your background and how did you get into management?
My background is completely liberal – I studied Economics and Philosophy and am a self-taught developer! I really loved coding and building little websites and that’s how I got into software (and web) development. I was a web developer for a while and joined Buffer as a full-stack engineer, but transitioned to an engineering manager in my first six months on the team. I’d always felt a pull toward leadership and people management and I loved joining teams that were having challenges so I could unblock them. Sometimes that was being the engineer, but I realized often the issues were broader than the technical challenge and as an engineer, I learned to listen to people, ask questions, figure out priorities and untangle human motivations 🙂 I loved doing that, so becoming an engineering manager full-time was a natural step for me. Since then I’ve been focussed on engineering management as a craft, both as an EM myself, and now as a Director where I’m supporting and leading other EMs.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Right now, probably diversity and inclusion. We’re growing our team with both engineers and managers, and we’re actively focussed on changing the demographic makeup of our team so ensuring we have a truly diverse applicant pool is constant work. I’m really proud of what we’re achieving building an inclusive team culture, but I’m the first to admit that there’s so much to learn here and it’s an ongoing journey, so I’d say this is still the hardest, most nuanced challenge that I’m facing.
What is your approach to hiring?
My approach is very analytical. Before interviewing for a role, I take time to craft our all the interview questions and I outline the attributes of a great answer, and of a less than ideal answer. Then during an interview, I ask candidates the same questions and I score them against my previous definitions of ideal/lacking answers afterwards. It’s really important for me since gut instinct is often based on bias or someone’s confidence in speaking, rather than the content of what they say (which is what I believe matters). At Buffer, I believe in hiring for the unique cultural contribution toward our values and to building an inclusive team (our team’s broader goals) and then once this is clear, I use the technical screening interview to ensure they will do a great job as well. Another way is to optimize for the most impressive technical candidate, and then ensure they won’t “damage” the culture. That’s valid too, it’s just not what the emphasis that we’re choosing for building strong, trusting and inclusive teams.
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
Build yourself a Voltron. Finding support – from peers, from other new managers in Slack groups, or from a professional coach – is crucial for surviving and flourishing in the transition. I recommend all of these steps! Once you have the right support network, you’ll have the guidance and emotional strength you need to navigate the new challenges. Practically, I recommend Camille Fournier’s book “The Manager’s Path”. You can’t go too wrong if you follow her advice.
Whats your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?
I start early, at 7am to catch up with folks in Europe – we run a distributed team at Buffer. I have my Slack notifications permanently set to Offline (you can read about that here) which helps me single-task through my work.
I also colour-code my calendar with different kinds of meetings, focus work, admin etc and I take a moment before each event to set the intention for each task. Managing my energy is overall more important to my success than hours in the day, so the usual advice about daily exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep are important to me. I don’t work more than 40 hours, and I think it’s really dangerous for leaders to overwork. It not only sets a poor example, but it damages one’s ability to make decisions and empathize so I try to stay really aware of that. I’ve written about what I do to not overwork here. Having buddies to help you is key!
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
I’m not afraid to ask questions, or say that I don’t know something. I can’t imagine learning and growing nearly as much without this habit. I also go to bed early and sleep quite a lot. I think this helps me think clearly, handle stress better and be kinder and more empathetic as a leader.
Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.
Lara Hogan’s excellent blog (http://larahogan.me/blog/) has an insightful post on so many topics – definitely one for eng managers to bookmark.
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
Camille Fournier’s “The Manager’s Path”. It’s jam-packed with practical advice and outlines really clearly how to succeed at every stage of your management career.
Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, Github, etc.)
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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