Interview with Matt Newkirk, Engineering Manager at Etsy

Published on Jan 22, 2018

5 min read

image for Interview with Matt Newkirk, Engineering Manager at Etsy

Location: San Francisco, CA
Current Role: Engineering Manager at Etsy

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

Over 20 years ago, I learned to write code for The Two Towers LPMud. I designed features, wrote code, worked with a completely distributed volunteer staff, and took on leadership roles there for 17 years while doing other significantly less technical things in the real world. The last 4 of those years were while I studied for my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. I left the MUD world to take a paying job as a QA Analyst, then another as an engineer, and then accepted my boss’s offer to become a QA Manager and build a team.

That first management position was monumental for my career and taught me how little I knew about management. An abridged synopsis of “You know nothing, Matt Newkirk,” includes:

  • When you build a new team, you will have to figure out what those people do.
  • When you ask an entire product development organization to apply your process, you’ll need them to understand why and buy-in.
  • When your job’s success relies on making other teams more productive, you should build allies with (at least) the leaders of those teams.
  • When you require political and monetary capital to improve your productivity, you should build relationships with the people who provide that capital.

I fumbled my way through those challenges, hired some terrific people to do an amazing job (despite having me as their manager), and along the way unlocked my passion for engineering management which led me to lead 3 teams at my current company.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

As an individual, the biggest challenge I face is finding time on my calendar for action items. I’m directly responsible for 14 people and indirectly responsible for another 5. Narrowing my focus to make time for each of those individuals is my daily struggle. Fulfilling my responsibilities to my team, my boss, my peers, and being home for dinner is tough but manageable.

One of the harder parts of being a manager is giving your team space to solve problems. One of my biggest challenges continues to be holding those solutions back. I have two new managers reporting to me and as I build out plans, process, and context for my other direct reports, I run the risk of eliminating those managers’ abilities to find even better solutions than mine. Managing engineers who work in tech stacks foreign to my experience made this effort easy: all of my reports are far more knowledgeable than me about how to solve those problems. Managing new managers is much more difficult for me, but I work on this by being very candid with them, inviting them to try something different than my approach, and including this challenge in my quarterly development goals.

What is your approach to hiring?

Identify the required skills and values for the role. Turn that into an inclusive job description using Textio. Aggressively share my vision with my hiring panel through a position-specific, values-aligned document and a pre-huddle meeting. Continuously calibrate in post-huddle meetings to ensure that we’re all assessing for the right skills and values. Iterate. Sell, sell, sell.

I saw a terrific talk from Jay Goel at OSCON called Humane Interviewing. One of the biggest takeaways for me was to remember who your candidate is, and what they’re giving up to spend time with you. I tell my panel that it is more important to provide a good experience for our candidates than to get great hiring signal. We can always call the candidate back with another question later if we need to, but it’s so much harder to change their impression of our culture.

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

Risk over-communicating with your reports on everything: why you’re trying to change a process, why you’re asking for something, what impact they’ve had. Talk to your peers about how they’re tackling different problems, and find a mentor within your company or outside of it.

Empower your reports to solve their problems; you don’t have time to be an action bottleneck for your team.

You have a new job, and you need feedback to guide you. Set the early expectation that you welcome feedback from your reports and reward them by listening when they give it to you.

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

Most of my work days are full of productive meetings designed to share context, gather context, or both. I have weekly 1:1s with my reports and boss, and 1:1s of different frequencies with business partners, skip-levels, and other peers. I try not to use e-mail filters for fear that something will get hidden, so I skim a few times a day for e-mails that look like they require me to read them. I mark a lot of e-mails as read without having read them (shhh). Likewise, with Slack I tend to ignore conversations that haven’t called me or one of my groups out; I use the Activity Feed constantly.

For action items that must be done, I use a personal Trello board with a “‼ One thing only today ‼” list to keep me focused.

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

I constantly prioritize everything that I’m doing because there just isn’t time to do more than that. Some things are delegated to my reports, some things stop happening because they just aren’t important. This also gives me a little time to be flexible to respond to requests.

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

Slack, or more specifically the Rands Leadership Slack. I’ve found a great deal of community there, as well as mentorship by a diverse set of leaders. When I’m faced with a challenging decision, need some copy-editing, or need help processing how I feel about something, I seek help there.

Outside of that slack, I rely heavily on Twitter for insights from other leaders.
@lara_hogan, @maascamp, @KieranSnyder@EricaJoy, et al. They all make me a better manager and human.

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

First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman is a wonderful book for managers. I keep their 12 questions in mind when I think about team culture and happiness and keep that list handy in all of my note-taking systems. It also introduced me to the concept of managing for someone’s strengths rather than using performance management to highlight their weaknesses.

I’d also recommend Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. There are clear lessons about recognizing your first team that I wish I’d learned earlier in my career, it’s a short read, and the parable has been relatable to my experience.

Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, Github, etc.)

I write semi-regularly at https://matthewnewkirk.com, you can find me mostly retweeting on Twitter, and on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewnewkirk/, usually promoting one of my or a neighbor’s job descriptions.

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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