Leadership Lessons — Swapna Savant Director of Engineering

Published on May 29, 2022

20 min read

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Learn to be a great engineering leader. This week I speak with Swapna Savant Director of Engineering at Headspace Health and founder of adaptUp. We talk about presenting to executives, the necessity of inclusive job descriptions in hiring, self-awareness, setting realistic goals rather than aiming for the stars, plus networking ideas, and more!

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[00:00] Vidal: Good afternoon today I have with me, Swapna Savant. Swapna is a Director of Engineering at Headspace and the founder of adaptUp.

Welcome to ManagersClub!

[00:13] Swapna: Thanks a lot for having me here. It is wonderful to be here.

Table of Contents


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

[00:00:17] Vidal: It’s great to have you. Swapna, tell people a little about your story, how you got into management.

[00:24] Swapna: Yeah. Sure. So as you said, right, I’m a Director of Engineering in Headspace Health. And currently, I’m leading engineering teams, uh, which are responsible for both, um, enterprise partners and healthcare. 15 plus years of experience. Started my career as an engineer. Uh, did my master’s here in the US.

Eventually, honestly speaking, I realized that if I need to get my creative juices going, um, then I should be moving to startups instead of being in multinational companies. And that’s how I got into startups.

And I’m very passionate about diversity and inclusion. And also one of the major thing that I’m passionate about is trying to step, uh, help people step into their new roles. With that in mind recently started, uh, adaptUp, which is a community that helps people adapt to their new roles.

So how did I get into management? Honestly, I got into management without even knowing that I wanted to get into management. It was one of those things that I was in a startup really used to enjoy, um, like kind of pioneering latest and greatest technology.

I pioneered Golang. I pioneered react js there. And then later on, because the workload was increasing, I got some engineers to work for the team and I actually built the team. It just naturally came to me that I started mentoring them and I started making sure that they are the ones who are actually building the code.

That’s when I realized that I actually enjoy building teams more than I enjoy building a product of building a technology. And that’s how I got into management.

[00:02:10] Vidal: I think that’s a great reason to get into management. So you enjoyed building teams, helping people to build stuff. I think that’s great. Swapna, what are some of the biggest challenges you face now as an engineering leader?

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

[02:25] Swapna: Oh, now I would say one of the biggest challenges I have is explaining technology to executives. So it is, I have to be very concise, precise, and I also have to make sure that the right message and the right summary is set in front of executives who might not have a technical background. So for me, it is like, I re recently learned how you have to go with actually your suggestion, even before telling them the problem.


So for me, it was interesting to actually change my story from summarizing the issue, talking about what, talking about why, and then talking about how to changing it to actually first talking about how and then talking about why and when, and all those questions come later on is what I realized.

[00:03:23] Vidal: That’s so interesting because I think it also varies by culture too.

Like how you have to speak to people. And so you find that your executives, you said they want to know the the, how, before the, why they want the solution. Before you explain the problem?.

[00:03:37] Swapna: Yeah, they basically want me to come with a solution and they also want to make sure that the solution that I’m coming up with will help them with business continuity.

So for me, the interesting part is to map business continuity with technology. Like if I start talking about technology or technical resilience for them, It makes much more sense when I drive it with business reasoning or I drive with operational reasoning. Whereas the engineer in me always first thinks about the engineering aspect of it.

So that’s the change in mindset that I’m learning and making sure that I understand the mindset across all the executives before I go in front of them.

[00:04:21] Vidal: Got it. Got it.

Um, could you share with us a lesson you’ve learned over the years as an engineering leader?

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

[04:31] Swapna: Oh, a lesson. Um, I would say there are many lessons I have learned over the years, but one thing that really strikes me is that around never stop networking.

That is one thing that as an engineer, as an introvert myself, it is hard for me, but more and more, I started doing it and more and more active started taking like smaller steps towards networking. It not just empowered me, but also helped me see different perspectives or not just leadership and management, also over-engineering and technology and help people even, uh, work towards any problems.

And it actually helped me grow in my career.

[00:05:17] Vidal: Could you say a little more about networking? Like, um, what do you do to network or especially now in this, uh, period now we’ve been in this pandemic

[00:05:28] Swapna: Funny. Pandemic actually has made it easier on me because earlier on whenever I had to like network and meet somebody for coffee, it never used to be like a 30-minute meeting.

It always used to be like two hours because I have to think about commute I have to think about where we are going to meet. All of that, but now it is the way I do it now is every week I make sure that I schedule at least a 30-minute meeting with someone. There are so many tools out there, like Lunchclub.com, where you can actually schedule meetings with people and just try to understand their journey and try to understand what excites them and learn more from them.

Um, one more aspect is I make sure that I have a LinkedIn presence. Something that recently has started in my, uh, journey and I have realized how much powerful it can be if it is used correctly. And when I say used correctly, I mean, Whenever I reach out to somebody. I made sure that I do my own research.

I understand their perspective. I understand what excites them. And if there is some kind of a synergy between us, I will make sure that I add that in my messages when I connect with them. And surprisingly, I mean, I’m not kidding. Many people actually respond to those and they will like to connect with you if there is a common theme.

[00:07:00] Vidal: I think that’s great. Well, you know, I’m at LinkedIn. I think it’s a great tool for networking and, and yeah, I’ve, I’ve met a bunch of people. You can send them an InMail or something. Right. And I mean, you’re not a recruiter, so you’re, if you’re genuinely trying to connect with them, I think a lot of people are open, open to talk.


[00:07:17] Swapna: And just to add to here, I’m not saying this because you heard in LinkedIn, this actually works.

[00:07:23] Vidal: No, no, I know. I know. I know. I know. I mean it it’s. It’s great. Yes. Um, well, since we’re were just talking about recruiters, then, uh, you know, hiring is a very important function for engineering leaders.

So what’s your approach to hiring?

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

[07:42] Swapna: Honestly speaking, I can go on and on about hiring because, for me, hiding takes a very special place in my journey. The reason for that is, um, a long time back, not in a Headspace. A long time back when I was then I was hiring or when my head of engineering said that we are hiring now, I was very excited because that was my first role as an engineering manager, where I was going to open a req.

And I had spent hours perfecting my job description and everything. I posted it in the job board, but soon I realized that there was something wrong in the, or there was something wrong in the pipeline that I was getting. I did not get any candidates with diverse backgrounds.

And that is one of the reasons why hiring is something that I take very seriously because I have realized that we need to make sure that there are certain aspects to our hiring that has to be focused on all of our diverse candidates out there so that they will actually reach out to us. Statistically, I mean, it’s, it’s all out there. And many people have said that, that women account for fewer than a quarter of engineers, and most of the time men will apply for jobs they are only 50% qualified for because they know that they bring different skillsets. Whereas women would like do like to. Uh, check all the boxes before they even apply. They disqualify themselves.

And that is one of the reasons why there are three aspects that I always look into. One is the job titles, while job titles do matter in other companies. And they also matter outside everywhere. Basically, the majority of men apply for a role regardless of whether they are full-stack or backend or front end.

So I would say one thing that I make sure of is all of my job descriptions are as generic as possible. The second aspect is the outreach. I always personalize my emails because I feel personalizing an email goes a long, long way. I have my recruiters who help me, uh, uh, recruit build the pipeline, but I will make sure that I myself go to events.

I will go to conferences and I will post my jobs in the job board out there. And last but not least is I make sure that my recruiters are using sourcing tools. There are a lot of sourcing tools out there, which will help you engage with all kinds of talents.

[00:10:27] Vidal: Yeah, I’ve heard this, I’ve heard this, that women if they don’t feel they meet all the things and the jobs are just, they won’t apply.

Right. So, and you also have to write job descriptions in like a neutral way. Be careful not to use certain language. So it clear you pay a lot of attention to that. I think that’s, that’s good. And then, uh, you know, besides the LinkedIn, what are some other sourcing tools you use them?

[00:10:55] Swapna: Yeah. So, uh, before Headspace, I used to work for a company called us Entelo and Entelo also had like an, a recruiting automation.

They used to provide some insights on candidates, which has to be really helpful for me. And that is one of these, uh, tools that I would definitely recommend people using. And there are a lot many which are similar to Entelo.

[00:11:17] Vidal: I’ll have to check it out. Um, what would be your advice for managers who are just starting out?

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

[11:25] Swapna: Oh, um, I personally feel that whenever a new manager is stepping into this whole new career, I call it as a career transition because it is, there is additional skill sets that you, you would now need to focus on when you are getting into management. And three things that I feel, um, are important.

And these are the common mistakes that people usually do is the first aspect is lack of trust. Like whether you are inheriting a team or managing your existing team, it is important for your reportees to have a sense of belonging. So it is important that you take responsibility for failure accepted when you don’t know something and listen, but then in that way, your team will feel the sense of trust in you.

The second part is, do not follow. It’s it’s okay to network. It’s okay to talk to people who are living your future at this point, but never copy or mimic them. Each leader has their own leadership style. It is important for you to be authentic. So understand what values you actually admire the most and follow that path.

And never shy away from giving constructive or direct feedback, because that is one of the aspects which might be difficult for you in the initial stage of your life, but not giving feedback can lead to a toxic environment. And you do not want that in your team.

[00:13:05] Vidal: Yeah, I think that’s one of the hardest things for new managers, right.

To give feedback because it’s uncomfortable. Right. This is interesting what you said about not copying people, because that’s kind of, I haven’t heard that before, but. You know, people say like, be your authentic self, but you’re kind of like, don’t copy other leaders

[00:13:23] Swapna: yeah. The reason for that is many people get inspired by some leaders and then they try to read as many books as they can.

They try to follow them as much as they can and then tend to follow them. It’s okay to follow somebody. It’s okay to understand that leadership style, but build your own, because the more you will try to understand what makes you comfortable in the leadership role or what makes you comfortable, what kind of conversations you can have and you cannot, will actually make you more authentic.

[00:13:59] Vidal: Interesting. Yeah. Well, also I guess a lot of those leaders that people, read about or written about, right. They’re very, uh, dramatic let’s say. Some of them right? Um, interesting. Okay. Um, Swapna you’re a director of engineering. And you’re also running this other project on the side.

So how do you manage your Workday? All the things you have to do just to? you must be very busy.

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

[14:29] Swapna: If you don’t mind, we’ll talk about how do I manage my week instead of manage my day. And the reason behind that is for me. Uh, this is something that has helped me work on adaptUp the project that I started and work on my current, um, role that I have in Headspace, health, I personally.

Have tied my core habits and rituals together because I’m a firm believer that it ultimately shapes your days and then your career. So I always plan my week on a Sunday and this actually happened accidentally one week, where I just planned my week, um, on that Sunday because there were too many things going on and I realized I actually was able to achieve a lot more.

And of course, I reevaluate my week, every day on a Monday to make sure whatever I have planned still makes sense. And I would like to achieve that if possible. And I start my day by being offered. I would be lying if I do. I would say that I don’t check my phone or anything.

That’s not the case, but having said that, I also make sure I don’t look at my work email or messages to be specific because I’m self-aware that I tend to get easily carried away and start my work. If I look at some messages and I will always be like, let me just quickly reply to something.

And I set honest expectations for myself. Like, things I have to do. And things if I do, I will be a rock star. In the past, many people had told me that set yourself in a way that you aim for the moon or something like that. And you will reach at least to the star. But that has never worked for me. I actually said minimal expectation because if I set minimal expectation and if I get it done, I feel like a rockstar.

[00:16:42] Vidal: That’s interesting. Yeah. Because a lot of people do they say the opposite of you, right. That they try to set a really big goal, but you try to have a conservative goal. So then you feel a sense of accomplishment. Yes. Right?

[00:16:54] Swapna: Feeling the sense of accomplishment is necessary when I end my week because that way I feel like I have achieved something and I’m ready to take my, the prize of like the weekend that I have.

[00:17:07] Vidal: Nice. Um, what’s a personal habit that has contributed or contributes to your success?

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

[17:15] Swapna: Uh, I mean, one of the things, as I’m, as I mentioned earlier, my having being able to plan my week has really contributed to my success. But one more addition to that is having one-on-ones with myself has had.

Yes, I do that. And I know it sounds weird, but once a month I will always run a one-on-one with myself where I just talk about what are the things I achieved for this week, for this month, basically. What, how does the progress look like? What were my personal goals and what were my basically business goals that I was looking for?

And some of the things that I have realized. After doing one-on-ones with myself is I also have started setting up my personal goals, like smaller things that I would like to do with my family. And once I achieved that, that feels good for me too, that I’m making a significant impact, both in my family and my guardian.

[00:18:20] Vidal: That’s really great. So you reflect, and like you said, it’s like a one-on-one with yourself. That’s so, so interesting. Um, We, um, we touched on a couple of tools earlier, right? We talked about this intelligence. It was about LinkedIn and stuff. Well, Headspace is a great product too, by the way, like it’s, it’s really great.

Um, are there any other tools or resources or apps that maybe, you like you might recommend to engineering leaders?

Can you share an internet resource, app, or tool that helps you as a manager?

[18:52] Swapna: Genuinely I’m very much focused into LinkedIn and lunchclub because for me, um, networking really helps. I personally feel that somebody is living my future, and I would like to connect with those people and understand how their day-to-day is. What are the things they did to reach where they are right now so that I can learn from them. I can learn from their success. I can also learn from their failure.

[00:19:21] Vidal: I see. So these meetings, you have to check out Lunchclub. I haven’t heard of it, but these networking events you do with people there are people outside your company or inside your company?

[00:19:31] Swapna: Outside of my company, sir. Yeah. I’ll send you the lunch club invite for sure.

[00:19:39] Vidal: Are some of them like your mentors, like once you meet them for lunch, do you like continue meeting with them? Or is it like one-off?

[00:19:45] Swapna: Yeah, it totally depends. I mean, if I really connect with them and if I feel that there is something there for both of us to keep going and keep connecting with each other, I will definitely do that.

One more aspect is I also like to give back. Because of that I am part of Plato and I’m a mentor in Plato. I’m a mentor in mentorship club also. So then, and I just make sure that I am available for others who want to get mentored or who want to get coached.

[00:20:17] Vidal: That’s awesome. I mean, do you, you do a lot to give back.

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?

[20:26] Swapna: So that one book, if I have to think about it, there is actually two books, not just one, but one is the Managers Path and the Managers Path is all about when I started as a manager, that book actually helped me because each and every chapter actually talks about what are the things that you can do to transition yourself from an IC to, to a manager. That really helped me understand little bit better around, um, what are the things that are expected for me? what are the things that are expected from me by my managers? So that is one of the books that you should definitely start with. The second one is I wouldn’t say that it’s like a book.

There is, there are a lot of Ted talks out there which are about management. And some of the tech tech talks really, really talk about what are the things that first-time managers should not be doing that are, that is if you Google something called us 10 Ted talks for the first time managers, you will actually get a link.

10 TED talks for the first-time manager

And there are 10 Ted talks there where they just talk about real 15 minutes, quick things about feedback, outcomes, what are the things that you should think about when transitioning, which is really helpful.

[00:21:49] Vidal: Interesting. I’ll have to check out that, uh, that book manager’s path is very, um, it’s very highly recommended.

Um, this all kind of seems in line with adaptup, right? Cause adaptup is about this topic of helping people transition into leadership, right?

[00:22:05] Swapna: Yes, because I am a firm believer that it is very common for us to step into leadership with minimum or no training. The passion and desire and motivation to make an impact is so deep rooted within us that we are willing to set foot into this unknown, knowing that that will be struggles.

And the way we actually cope with that struggle is by trying to find materials out there, trying to find, find books out there. And it’s a very common thing that we say fake it till you make it. But I don’t think so that it has to be that. So adaptup is all about building that dedicated advisory board because somebody is living your future so we just have to connect you with them.

[00:22:52] Vidal: I think that’s a great way to think about it. Yes. I mean, the people have done this before. They’re living your future and, and you’re right. I mean, when I started as an engineering leader, I noticed people are generally just thrown into it with no training, no understanding.

They don’t even know what the job really is. Now thankfully these days. I mean, there are more resources, right? Like this one just as I started my site, you’ve started adaptUp. There actually are some books. Now, like those books didn’t exist five or 10 years ago, uh, at all.

Um, as a manager, how do you go about, or what’s your approach to the career development growth leveling up your team?

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

[23:35] Swapna: Yeah. So the way I look at it is for me, every team member is different. Because to be very honest with you. I did have many managers reporting to me, or I see is reporting to me who were not necessarily looking for climbing the ladder or growing, or getting promoted.

They had different career aspirations. So that’s why I don’t like to set some kind of a performance plan for everybody because one size won’t fit all in this case. And that’s why I catered towards each and every team member. The way I do it is every month I ask them what their personal goals are. And I’m trying to make sure that we have a plan in place which will help them grow in their personal goals that they have.

Obviously, I always have 30, 60, and 90 plans for all my new hires and I have the expectations set for what it takes to make them successful in their current role. So, but apart from that, that understanding that personal goals help me. help them them to actually maneuver their career path in that way?

[00:24:47] Vidal: Nice. So every month you check in with them on their personal goals, like for the month or something.

[00:24:52] Swapna: Yeah.

So we set the personal goals at the beginning of the year, and then we just keep on checking on how they are doing, but those personal goals, if they have any, like some of my team members really like want to do some courses, two of my team members actually want to take leadership roles. So I also made sure that they actually have mentorship outside the company so that they can even cater towards that. And then we keep on talking about that every month during our one-on-ones kind of a monthly checking, which by the way, Headspace health also does that. We have monthly check-ins with all of the team members that helps us keep in touch with all their personal goals.

[00:25:32] Vidal: Okay. Uh, what does it take to be a great engineering leader?

What does it take to be a great engineering leader?

[25:40] Swapna: Oh, is there anything called a great engineering leader

[25:46] Vidal: or maybe you know better than most, right. Like a good one.

[00:25:51] Swapna: Uh, honestly I answer to this is I would say self-awareness because I personally feel, you need to know what are the limitations and strengths you have. This will help you to grow and make sure that you grow a team in a way that will complement you, complement your skillset, and complement. I help you with your limitations.

And the second aspect is just, what is the general persona that you are looking for as a professional? What kind of a leader you want to be?

So those are the two things that will help you grow in your leadership. So I would say self-awareness is something that is important.

[00:26:35] Vidal: Interesting. I just listened to this podcast on psychology and it said that like, um, 80 to 90% of people believe that they are self-aware, but in reality, only like 10% are, right?

There’s a huge gap there, which is so interesting. Um, Swapna, you’ve been really generous with your time and great to speak with you. Where can people go to learn more about you if they want to connect, maybe even have lunch with you afterwards?

Where can we go to learn more about you?

[27:09] Swapna: Yeah, definitely. I mean, LinkedIn. LinkedIn is the place where I would definitely respond and I will make sure that I would love to connect with people.

And I also have adaptup.org, uh, link, which is my adaptUp community. So if you want to get in touch with me, you can also reach out to me by that.

[00:27:26] Vidal: Awesome. Well again, thank you very much. And I’ll put a link to those in the notes.

[00:27:30] Swapna: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks a lot for having me. It was wonderful talking to you.

[00:27:34] Vidal: Likewise.


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