Interview with Lena Reinhard, Director of Engineering CircleCI

Published on Sep 23, 2019

8 min read

image for Interview with Lena Reinhard, Director of Engineering CircleCI

Location: Berlin
Current Role: Director of Engineering

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

After a career in finance, arts, and media, I got into tech. I started out in marketing and key account management in a small SaaS company, and at age 26 co-founded my first software company and became a CEO. As part of a longer-term consulting project with our company, I started managing distributed, fast-scaling engineering teams, quickly realising that this work was really appealing to me, and was a good match with my prior experiences and background. Ever since, I’ve been supporting distributed engineering organisations around the world, helping them scale quickly, learn steadily, and deliver great products in inclusive teams.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Time zones are definitely difficult for me. They are specifically an ongoing challenge for our globally distributed teams. And helping them make sure their processes are set up sustainably, and supporting them in developing a good mix of asynchronous and synchronous collaboration and communication practices, is a big part of my work.

For me personally, the majority of my primary team and staff are based far West of me, and synchronous time is scarce, all of which can be quite isolating, and also means that whenever I meet people, I’m often approaching lower-energy times of my day. This is why I treasure any face-to-face time we get and put a lot of work into ensuring we make best use of the little time we have together, and work well together asynchronously. I’ve also had to learn adjusting my own expectations towards myself – especially in Winter, when it gets very dark here very early, it can be difficult to keep up my energy levels, which means I’m not necessarily at my best.

Despite the challenges, I’m still a firm believer in distributed teams and organisations, especially as they allow us to bring much more diverse perspectives and backgrounds into our teams. I also believe that working with distributed teams forces us as managers to be more intentional and deliberate about our communication and actions – much less happens organically in the way it does with a co-located team. Which puts us into a position where we have to consciously and deliberately adapt and watch out closely for any signals, all of which that make really great managers.

What is your approach to hiring?

In hiring, I find it really important to set up an inclusive hiring process, and throughout its design and execution, provide a positive candidate experience, positive interviewer experience, and fair evaluations.

To me, standardised interviews and evaluations are the foundation for inclusive hiring processes. I usually don’t build whiteboard interviews into hiring processes, as I think they don’t adequately test actual engineering aptitude. They also don’t map the complexity and scale of real-life systems very well, and bias towards specific demographics like less experienced engineers, and recent graduates. Instead, we build out our interviews to resemble the role the candidate has applied for as closely as possible, and represent the daily work and interactions they’ll have with their team and other stakeholders.

For any job posting I set up with my teams, we review them as a team and run them through screening systems to eliminate as much biased language and make them as inclusive as possible. I try to get as many different perspectives on a candidate as possible, and make sure that everyone who’s involved in the process has a say in the hiring decisions we make. I find it important that interviewers are trained on topics like unconscious biases, how to run an interview, and how to utilise behavioural questions.

Last year, we redesigned our engineering career path framework at CircleCI, and incorporating this system into our interview evaluation design was a really important step to ensure a seamless integration and set the basis for digging into different aspects of a candidate’s experience and of the role they’re applying for. Especially when hiring engineers, it’s tempting to over-index on technical skills, but given the distributed nature of the organisations I work with, other core skills are really important, such as communication, collaboration, leadership, and user value delivery. I’ve found it really useful to dig into candidates’ technical skills, but also have interview stages designed around software architecture, as well as process, product, and culture, to get a well-rounded picture of how a candidate could add to our values and culture. I like using behavioural questions a lot; combined with follow-up questions, I find them really helpful to understand a candidate’s experience and approaches in all those areas.

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

Understand your position. – I find it very important to understand and acknowledge the power that comes with formal leadership roles. Explicit and implicit power comes in different shapes, and in addition to role-specific power, other factors like tenure, specific expertise, gender, or other factors can add to it. Especially when moving from peer to manager, it’s important to understand how the impact of your words and actions changes, and how your behaviour, as well as what you encourage or discourage in others’ actions, contributes to normalising certain behaviours and building culture.

Recalibrate your internal success metrics and sense of accomplishment. – To me, being a successful manager is about enabling others to be successful. This can be tricky to navigate, especially for engineers moving into management, even more when your personal sense of accomplishment has been closely tied to shipping features, fixing bugs, and other work where the work and reward are closely tied in your experience of them and the timeline. Management work is much broader, and entails much higher degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty, which often can’t be resolved immediately, or even ever. This shift can easily mean feeling like you’re not getting anything done, and spending all your day in meetings talking. My advice is to address this in two parts:

  1. be conscious of this dynamic, and work to find ways to deal with it. Set clear goals and expectations with the people around you (including your own manager, your reports, and your organisation), to help you understand what those around you need to be successful, and to develop a new reference system for what success means.
  2. recall why you moved into your new role, and determine which aspects about it matter the most to you and your identity. This can include changing your value system and recalibrating your internal reward system to new success metrics and emotions.

Level others up. – Many people move into management because they’re experts in a certain domain. Becoming a great manager means moving from expert to enabler. A common pitfall is to remain the expert. Instead, focus on leveling others up: help them gain knowledge, expertise, and experience, and resist the temptation to do everything yourself. Learn to delegate, and actively seek out opportunities where delegating a portion of your work can be a chance for someone else to grow (I’m still working on doing more of that myself).

Manage in different directions. – Becoming a manager goes beyond managing your direct reports, helping them understand goals and direction: it also means that you need to be much more deliberate about managing up, in how (and what) you communicate to your own manager, and how you handle disagreements with them. In addition, your peer group changes. Your fellow managers become your primary team, and you need to learn to communicate and collaborate effectively with them.

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

Since I work from home, I usually sit at my desk with a cup of tea between 8:15 – 9 am. I usually spend the first 5 minutes going over my to-do list for the day; over the years, I’ve developed a day-based, recurring to-do list system that helps me prioritise work easily, and focus on the most important tasks. Afterwards, I spend around 30-60 minutes catching up on Slack, email, and document updates; I usually go over all areas superficially at first, answer or working through anything quickly that takes less than 2-4 minutes, and highlight what I need to look into again, work through, or think about.

Whenever my teams and I hiring, I spend a good 30 minutes in my morning going over the roles I’m managing: reviewing new applications, monitoring candidates in progress, reviewing interviewer feedback (and following up where needed), and deciding who we want to move onwards with, as well as communicating with candidates. I also go over our hiring reports to keep an eye out for what’s going on across all our open roles.

Afterwards, I review my preparation for the day – I usually prepare all my meetings at least a day beforehand, so I’ll go over each meeting, check my prep notes, complete agendas. Then I spend some time heads-down on proposals, documents, reading materials, or write-ups. At around 11am, I go for a short walk to get a coffee around the corner and sit in the sun for a bit; some days, I take a longer break around that time to go to the gym, my piano lesson, or run errands.

Given the current distribution of my teams around the whole globe, midday is usually when the majority of my meetings start, usually a mix of 1:1s with my peers, manager, and direct reports, or other people across our company that I work closely with, and some team meetings. These last until 7 or 8 pm my time, and I’ll take short breaks in between to have a tea or sit on the balcony for a little while.

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

I’m very curious and love learning new things; I try to always learn something new, both in my work and in my personal life. I’m also a fast typer and quick note-taker, and taking thorough notes helps me remember, process, and find content again easily.

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

I love Pocket. I’ve been using it for reading (though, frankly, more saving articles than reading) for many years, and continuously add content and maintain existing information. At this point, my archive within Pocket contains hundreds of articles on topics related to my work, such as people management, agility in organisations & agile process, diversity and inclusion, hiring, and many more, and it’s become my go-to source when I have questions, or to help others out.

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

I think a big portion of the ability to be a good manager is about being able to form deep interpersonal relationships and build trust. Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly” builds on social research on and gives practical tools for self-reflection, as well as very good guidance for leaders for how to transform their own role, their teams, and organisations.

“Accelerate” by Nicole Forsgren (PhD), Jez Humble, Gene Kim, is a great look on how to practically apply research to building and elevating engineering organisations.

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

I focus on asking a lot of questions (ideally: good questions) and channel a lot of my natural curiosity into mentoring and coaching – I work with lots of people around me who are tremendous leaders and bring lots of experience, and asking good questions also helps me learn from and about them. The better I understand where they’re at and what they need, the better are the questions I can ask to help them develop paths forward. I found “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier a great primer on coaching, and often refer back to it.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Twitter: @lrnrd

LinkedIn: Lena Reinhard

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