Leadership Lessons — Madhu Vorha Director of Engineering

Published on Jun 10, 2022

22 min read

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Learn to be a great engineering leader. This week I speak with Madhu Vohra Director of Engineering at VMWare. We talk about the ability to manage work, life, kids all of that, given that our lives and work have blended so well, the necessity of inclusive job descriptions in hiring, the importance of hiring, focusing on your strengths, relinquishing control, and more!


[00:00] Vidal: So good afternoon today I have with me Madhu Vorha a Director of Engineering at VMware. Madhu, welcome to ManagersClub.

[00:09] Madhu: Hey Vidal, thank you so much. And thanks for inviting me.

Table of Contents


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

[00:12] Vidal: You’re welcome. Madhu, could you say a few words about your background and how you got into engineering leadership?

[00:23] Madhu: I was born in India, started off my school, my life, my career journey a, in a very small town in India, in the central parts of India. My parents, both of them were working, which was very unusual at that time. My mom was a Ph.D. in statistics and she was my role model always. I saw her juggling home life, work, kids, all of that.

And it was phenomenal even then. And she was one major pushing force who was always kindness that, talking a few very relevant things that are applicable even today. Like women’s education, you need to be financially independent. You have to make a career for yourself. If you are going out there and doing something, be the best.

Those kinds of things. Learned from her at very early is my dad was at ultimate supportive. So it was me, my mother and my younger sister. And he was our three or five women, three of ours cheerleaders. So he was always there to support us in anything, everything. That was the start of my, what you would call us the leadership journey today, going through school, college engineering, that was the natural thing.

Very interested in computer engineering, as we used to call it back then, and I had never touched a computer and it just bugged me too much that there is something out there that I haven’t been exposed to. It was a very small town. So when I got into computer engineering, I was stoked and I was panicked at the same time.

But I made it happen. And since then it was a fun ride. How I switched into management there came a time in my career when I realized I’m better at a few things that are not only writing code, like aligning different people from different groups, aligning requirements, getting people together, finding a solution across a larger group of people.

I’ve always been surrounded by engineers who are smarter than me. But these were some of the skills that made me find my way through things. And I talk by not, I’m going to give it a shot as management. And when I did, I realized I totally love it. So that’s what got me to where I am today and I still love it.

[02:36] Vidal: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face today as an engineering leader?

What are the biggest challenges you face as an engineering leader?

[02:40] Madhu: We all have our own unique set of challenges. The biggest challenge I face today is the ability to manage work, life, kids all of that, given that our lives and work have blended so well in. And given that the work steady living demanding I have teenage kids, my sons are junior at high school. His schedule is pretty bad and I do want to spend time with him because he around. He’s going to be around for another year or so before he disappears for college. And my daughter graduated from her bachelor’s a couple of years ago and she’s working and she’s staying home and I think that’s a blessing. I want to spend time with her. So my biggest challenge is how do I balance these out and think through these, I think the biggest challenge everybody’s facing during these work from home blended COVID times is how did they manage their work-life balance?

I think about people in my team who have younger children. I have team members who have babies that were born during COVID and I, if I look back, it wasn’t the easiest of the time. I want to be supportive to them.

I’m trying to find my ways around it. I’m working with my engineers and my team members to allow room in their schedules to do what they need to do in terms of blended work and life, but I think that’s the biggest challenge I see around us today.

[00:03:57] Vidal: I agree. And then it’s also like in our industry, people, really, some people really idolize like workaholic, spending tons of hours.

So trying to find the balance is. It is definitely a challenge. Yeah. Do you have any other advice for people in that situation? Some people have kids and families, but some don’t like, do you have any advice?

[04:21] Madhu: So one of the things that I’ve very seriously and strongly work with my team on is blocking your calendars, block your time, block your outages.

When it’s events you have that. If somebody is stomping, Feel free to reject unless they come back and ask for a very specific request. You have a school drop off and there is nothing you can do to get around it. So you just go ahead and block your time for the school drop-off.

And if you need to be present for a meeting or a discussion or a conversation or whatever it is, once in a month, you will get those kinds of requests, make them for them. If you can, if you can’t find an alternate slot that works for everybody. Block your calendars is how I see it.

[05:01] Vidal: I think that’s great how you support that, right? Like it’s it’s a totally legitimate reason, to miss a meeting or something. We have a conflict because you have a school drop-off right. That’s a legit reason.

You’ve had a long career in engineering leadership. So I’m curious if you could share maybe a lesson or two that you’ve learned in your career.

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

[ 05:22] Madhu: So then a couple of things that I’ve always taken close to my heart and I follow them when it comes to engineering leadership. In particular, I’m going to talk a little more about people in both of these areas because I think our people are our most valuable resource in in the technical field today.

It’s all the people and intellectual property that, that matters at the same rate. So one of my mentors many years ago, as I was transitioning into management gave me a very key advice. And the advice was you have to be very conscious on who you are onboarding on your team. So basically you’re hiring is the most important decision you will make as a manager.

And the reason for that is you will spend more than half of your waking time for the people you choose to be your team members. And these are the people that you will be working day in and day out. And these are the people who will rely on you and you will rely on them. So you’ll be working hand-in-hand with them.

So make good hiring decisions that does not mean that make people who are or hire people who, are phenomenal or anything like that, find out the right balance. Does the person work well with the team? Is the team comfortable having a person that you’re trying to hire at this point around them?

It’s not just your life. It’s the entire team for the person make a difference? Will the team appreciate the help that they’re getting? All of those thoughts, because remember this is a person that’s not only me who’s spending more than half of my waking time with it’s also everybody else in the team. Is the person blending in with the right culture, bringing the right mindset, or is it a person who’s going to come in probably make a difference as well. But but maybe that the rewards are not as great? So there are many different points that you’ve got to think about. Hire team members very carefully. That’s the one advice I got from my mentor and I carry it close to my heart.

The second lesson that I’ve learned over the course of my engineering leadership is picking your strengths. You’ll spend a lot of time improving on your weaknesses with very little gains, but if you play to your strengths um, you know, You gain much more by very little investments in those areas because your strengths are what got you here. And your strengths are what will take you to the next level as well.

And it would mean learning a few things and then unlearning them at some point. But you know, Your strengths are what drives you.

[07:57] Vidal: Okay, these are great. And I love this first one about hiring because a lot of people talk about, you don’t hire like, brilliant jerks for example, right? Like software engineering, it’s a team sport and you have to able to play well with other people. So this maybe is a good segue into my next question about hiring.

So how do you hire for that and how do you, how do you do that? Because of course in an interview, everyone’s always on their best behavior. So. How do you select for that?

Hiring is an important function of management. What is your approach to hiring?

[08:28] Madhu: So there are certain things and, and a panel obviously helps, right? A panel can come in and assess in terms of what their reactions are.

But what I look for in, in most of my interviews is authenticity. I look for how authentic this person is. Who’s coming in. Who’s talking to us how they’re bringing their true self. On a bit answering my questions out is the demeanor’s changing based on my questions. So the direction that we are headed or are they at a spot, but I can sense authenticity coming from their gender answers.

And that is one of the biggest things that I look for in, in my interviews with them. And then of course it has to be a technical match. And my team’s does a great job at that. It has to be a cultural fit and we look for that too. But 2 cents. And all of this is go with your gut. If the person feels like the right candidate to bring in, by all means, that’s the right person.

[09:26] Vidal: So I know when I got introduced to you that you are very passionate about diversity as well. Do you have any advice on diversity in hiring?

[09:38] Madhu: I don’t. So I’m not going to say it’s applicable for diversity and hiring only. I’m going to talk about diversity overall. And how do you support diverse candidates? If I think about, it’s DEI and that E becomes very interesting, then I look at diverse candidates that aren’t maybe interview B onboarding the continued sustained career growth.

I tried to pay attention and focus to what would elevate this person to the next level, and that equity aspect of it. I don’t know if you’ve seen the diagram, but there is usually a diagram that says, there’s a branch of fruit and then there are different people of different types standing and fruits that are hanging from the tree and a shorter.

Would not be able to reach to the fruit, but if you give them a bigger stepstool, they will stand on the step stool and they will step up a little and then they will reach the fruit. So it’s giving that extra boost, right? So if somebody needs an extra boost, give them the extra boost. If there is a person is quite ill and it wouldn’t speak up in larger forums, make room for that person to speak up.

If there’s a person who is. Who has raised their hand and waiting for their turn and not being called on because everybody else in the team is just talking, make room for the person who has raised their hand to speak, and it could be a diverse candidate. It could also be your normal team member.

It’s like supporting.

[00:11:02] Vidal: I think that’s a great image, I haven’t seen this diagram, but yes, we always talk about low-hanging fruit, but then yes, giving people a boost to get to it. I like that. I’ll have to look for that image. Okay, great. Yeah. So I know you’re a director of engineering and you’ve been a director of engineering at other places too.

So I assume you manage other managers. What would be your advice for people who are just starting out as managers?

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

[11:27] Madhu: be your authentic self, bring in your true self to work and pay attention to the resources around you. They do your stress. And I think that’s the biggest thing.

The one thing that every new manager struggles with, I struggled with it quite a bit as well is relinquishing control. And it goes back to my unlearning piece that I talked about a few minutes ago is throughout your engineering career, as an IC, you learn to take ownership of things. You learn to take pride in every single line of code that you write, the bugs that you fix, the content that you deliver, all of that. And you step up.

And when you take ownership of a team, you start unlearning a few things in terms of, that other engineers in my team who can actually fix the bugs too. So I don’t have to be the first one to jump in and treat us, can I delegate? And it’s a little unnerving when you’re starting off, because it’s built into your DNA, but as part of unlearning that you learn new things that, oh, now I have a larger ownership across my org.

And now I’m responsible, not just for my own set of bugs, but the entire bigger chunk of bugs or not just my deliverables, but the bigger set of deliverables. And unless I make room for myself by dedicating some of the work that I used to do in my previous life, I won’t be able to take on new, so make room for yourself by making room for others to grow.

So give others more responsibilities as they step in as your support system, you get more room to grow yourself.

That’s one thing that every new manager will struggle with. That’s my advice.

[00:13:08] Vidal: No, I that’s a great point. Yes, because it’s a totally different job and people sometimes difficulty delegating or giving up some of the technical aspects.

[00:13:17] Madhu: We are wired doing that, we are wired to making technical decisions. We are wired to jump into and resolve the firefights.

[00:13:23] Vidal: Absolutely. Absolutely. I wanted to go back to something you said at the beginning of the answer, which is to be your authentic self. And I think you’ve mentioned this a couple times, like you’re interviewing for authenticity, people who are authentic. Now, some people will say.

That’s not so easy because especially if they’re a woman, underrepresented minority, sometimes people, you know, they, they think they feel that they present differently. Right. You know, at work, they have to put on a different persona at work. They don’t necessarily feel comfortable being themselves.

And maybe themselves is not going to get them as far. What do you say to people like that who are like, yeah, Madhu I want to be my authentic self, but maybe that’s, not so safe for work or that’s not going to get me where I want to go. Do you have any thoughts on that?

[14:05] Madhu: We all suffer from imposter syndrome at one time.

Well all do that, right? Not just, not about you know, this, oh, I have to adapt this persona so I can go forward. But there are moments when I am scared. I am freaked out that my project’s not going to be on time. And yet I portray strength for my team, because I want my team to feel comfortable say, you’re bringing your best.

You’re trying your hardest. And if we slip by a week, I’m going to take ownership of that. And I’m going to go work with my leaders to make sure all my senior leadership understand we’re slipping, but at the same time, while you’re portraying this strength that you don’t feel at that time, you actually would still bring your authentic self in saying,

“I know we are late. I know you’re all trying best. I know we are slipping by a lot. I know this was not what we promised. Yet, I’m going to work with you.” So while you’re showing strength by, that goes back to my imposter syndrome while you’re showing the strength towards your team.

You’re still not covering up. You’re still not making the wrong answers. You’re still being authentic and saying, I understand what you’re doing. Yes. You will go deeper. Yes. You will figure out why the slips were. Yes. You will take actions not to have and repeat those mistakes the next time. Maybe plan better all of that.

But you still authentic enough to say I understand that the snipped I’m going to take it to my senior leadership. You will come with an alternate plan. We will deliver. If you need more help, we’ll go out for more help. Yeah. If we have to meet that day, let’s figure out how we meet that date.

[00:15:45] Vidal: Yeah.

I think that’s one of the maybe uncomfortable or stressful parts of being an engineering leader, is when projects are late. And how do you handle that? And um, how do you, how do you work with your team on it and communicate it up?

Madhu shifting gears here. I think another thing that’s challenging for managers, right?

It’s all the things you have to do: emails, meetings, one-on-ones, all these things. How do you manage and organize your work day, your work week to get everything done?

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

[00:16:18] Madhu: Honestly, I used to have a formula at one point, but COVID took it away. Like I said earlier in the meeting, I tried to organize my calendar in such a way that if something’s slipping, you have to go back in a priority order and figure out which ones can slip now. And that’s the one thing I go with.

There are only 24 hours. I do prioritize family. I do prioritize health. I do prioritize one-on-one conversations with people. I do prioritize career growth for my team members, career conversations.

[00:16:46] Vidal: Okay. So just like prioritizing the things. Okay. What would you say is a personal habit that has contributed to your success?

What’s a personal habit contributing to your success as an engineering leader?

[00:17:02] Madhu: I try to take a breather every now and then, and I think that’s a personal habit. There are moments when you are too worked up about things and there are too many balls in the air and you’re trying to find out what the best solution is. How do I get from context switching? It’s always a steady context swithcing

I just can’t seem to formulate my thoughts. I did the art of living. The happiness program. There’s this guru called Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. They have this art of living course, which is called The Happiness Program. I did that and it’s, it’s a short 30 minute, deep breathing, focus, your mind type of an activity. I tried to do it at least, you know, after every long, busy, chaotic day to clear my head, once I close the day.

Organize my possibilities. And I think that gives me clarity in terms of what the next steps around a lot of things should be

[00:17:52] Vidal: okay. I’ll have to check out this course. So is it like meditation?

[00:17:56] Madhu: Yeah, it is breathing. It’s you know, you sit down and you just decompress your breathe for a few.

You can call it meditation. Yes. There is an aspect of meditation to it as well, but it’s, it’s more of breathing.

[00:18:07] Vidal: Okay. So it’s a breathing exercise. Okay. Now I think that’s good. You’re trying to step back from all the chaos and reflect. I think that’s very important because yeah. If you get caught up in that, right. Part of being an engineering leaders, to be able to step back and see the bigger picture

[00:18:21] Madhu: And it clears my mind. Without a mind clarity, I don’t know if I’ll be able to really resolve all the issues that I need to resolve.

[00:18:30] Vidal: If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

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

[00:18:38] Madhu: So I’m still in the middle of reading this book, but I actually really liked it. My lease from the library expired, so it went back and I only half read it, but there’s a book called What You Do is Who You Are.

[00:18:50] Vidal: I haven’t heard of this book. I’m curious to hear more.

[00:18:53] Madhu: Yeah. It’s by Ben Horowitz. It’s a book about building cultures. It’s a book about teams. It’s a book about bringing, the right kind of mindset within the team. And then I think it’s very insightful.

[00:19:05] Vidal: Oh, interesting. Okay. So about building cultures and teams at work, the book deals with that?

[00:19:11] Madhu: Yes, but it also connects back to history in terms of for example, how different historical leaders and they’re like military leaders, how they have done certain things on all different types of leaders, connecting the dots.

Very interesting.

[00:19:26] Vidal: I love that. Cause I love history and this is a book haven’t heard of, so I will definitely check it out.

We talked earlier about prioritizing things and one of the things you do is you prioritize career development, like super important. So I was curious if you could talk a little bit as a manager, what is your approach to like the career development leveling up of your team?

As a manager, what is your approach to developing & leveling up members of your team?

[00:19:46] Madhu: So each individual is different and I tried to focus on each individual as their own self, understanding what’s relevant to them. What’s important to them. Then what direction they want to get to what their strengths are. My lessons are mostly learned from raising my two kids. My daughter and my son, they’re two completely different personalities.

And it makes me think of my own two children are so different from each other with varied interests, very fast to get to the same goal, like completely different paths to get to the same goal. But my team’s doing the same thing. Every individual is different and it pay attention to that. And once I understand who needs, what kind of support, I give them that support.

I’ve always maintained within my teams that every person owns their own career growth. I am the facilitator. I am the supporter to get them, help them get where they want to get to, but the direction is theirs.

[00:20:44] Vidal: That’s so interesting. You mentioned that. Yeah. Cause I have kids and it’s just so interesting. How totally different two kids can be right. They have the same parents, similar environment. There are completely different

[00:20:57] Madhu: and they have so different methods of getting the same thing done. You give them a task. Both of them will do it, but completely different ways.

[00:21:07] Vidal: Yeah. Okay. So you try to like really personalize the plan for each member of your team.

How often do you meet with people to talk about their career? Is it like every one-on-one once a quarter. Okay.

[00:21:19] Madhu: That’s the minimum I do. I do once every quarter. It’s also based on if somebody wants to talk about it sooner than that, we talk about it. It’s also tailored. It’s not one size fits all again, in that respect.

There are people who are very comfortable talking once a quarter. There are people who actually don’t want to talk about it ever. And I talk to them once a quarter. There are people who want steady feedback. You learn from them when you’re talking to them. They’re like, what do you think about this?

Did you think I did this right? What should I have done differently? That’s there’s a steady ask for constant feedback. So that becomes so probably once every alternate one-on-one talk at that point. So it’s, it’s very tailored to what a person is looking for.

[00:22:03] Vidal: Yeah. It’s really interesting. Like some people are very ambitious to improve or get promoted, so they might ask for a lot more feedback and others maybe aren’t even comfortable even asking.

What does it take to be a great engineering leader? What should people aspire to, to be a great engineering leader?

What does it take to be a great engineering leader?

[00:22:21] Madhu: So some of the qualities that I have seen in people that I admire as great engineering leaders is again, going back to the same word that I’ve been using. I’ve seen engineering leaders who are very authentic.

I’ve seen engineering leaders, and I really admire them. I’ve seen engineering leaders who are very focused. They have a lot of clarity in their thoughts in terms of where they want to drive this bus that we are all on. Do they have the right people on the right spots of this bus and what is their approach to get to the destination?

[00:22:54] Vidal: Okay. Yeah. So having that very clear vision and all that.

[00:22:59] Madhu: Clarity in vision the right leaders in place and a very clear strategy to drive to where they want to get to.

[00:23:06] Vidal: Okay. If you could, maybe just like a minute or two, I’m curious. What if someone is like struggling to develop that?

 How should someone go about developing, this clear vision and direction for their team? If they maybe they don’t have one or they just got hired in and they’ve taken over an existing team.

[00:23:29] Madhu: I’m going to refer back to the book that I recommended earlier. The examples in that book on how different people have tackled these problems. Amazing read again.

So if there is a person who’s struggling to develop some of these things, right? Not getting respect from the team because they’re lacking a skill or not being able to settle into a team because the culture is not exactly what they anticipated, or maybe not a cultural fit either from the leader’s perspective or from the team’s perspective, you know, that there are differences.

There are multiple different ways of resolving those. If there’s a skill gap, can we provide this upleveling the skills can we provide and recommend a course that they could take? Can we provide hands-on training in different areas? If it’s a technical gap, I think that’s easy to do. You allow the person time to develop technical strengths and and that happens. If it’s a cultural fit misalignment that’s I think that it gets tricky.

That’s where you have to step back and see what can be done. Can the person be coached? Can the team be made more comfortable with the new person that come in? Is it a problem because of the existing environment of the team? Is it a problem because the person who’s coming in so that it’s a change, right?

It’s a change when a new person comes in. So going back to those basic four different stages of team development.

At what stage is the team struggling at? What stage is the leader struggling? How do we allow? So basically it, it would take a little bit of thinking through things to find out where the gaps are and what the resolution of that.

[00:25:05] Vidal: Okay, Madhu you’ve been really generous with your time. I really appreciate you coming to share with us some of your story and thoughts on engineering leadership. I think you’ve shared some really great stuff. If people wanted to reach out to you afterward, Madhu to learn more about you, and talk with you, what would be the best way?

Where can we go to learn more about you?

[25:25] Madhu: I’m always available on LinkedIn. My LinkedIn is open. Anytime. Feel free to drop me a note. I’m happy to talk with anyone.

[25:35] Vidal: Awesome. All right. I’ll put a link to that in the notes, but thank you again so much.

[00:25:40] Madhu: Okay, perfect. Thank you for having me.

[00:25:43] Vidal: My pleasure.


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