Interview with Mike Oliver, VP of Product Engineering at Runkeeper / ASICS Digital
Published on Feb 28, 2018
4 min read
Location: Boston, MA
Current Role: VP of Product Engineering at Runkeeper / ASICS Digital
What’s your background and how did you get into management?
I have a traditional technical background with a Computer Science degree from Northeastern University. When I graduated, I can’t say I thought much about leadership or my career path; my goal was simply to work on interesting projects and solve hard problems. I was tapped for my first management role at a reasonably early stage in my career, as I had worked my tail off, gained the respect of my co-workers, and was lucky enough to be working at a growing tech company that didn’t know any better than to promote me.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
How much time you got? 😉 The constant challenge is probably time management: making sure that I’m able to focus my efforts on the most important challenges my team is facing at the moment. There is never enough time in the day, which makes it vital to delegate challenges to my team and focus my own efforts on impactful problems.
What is your approach to hiring?
I started working in mobile development in 2005, when mobile meant primarily financial software on Blackberry’s (I promise, that was relevant at some point!). I had the fortune of working ahead of the curve as iPhone and Android development exploded, but it means I’ve spent most of my career hiring in an environment when no one has platform experience. To this day, I believe strong engineering skills are more important than platform / domain knowledge, and our hiring strategy reflects that. I’m looking for strong engineers with a passion for solving problems in our space; anyone who fits that mold can pivot to develop in whatever platform we need.
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
Recognize you are now doing a different job. You’re likely still contributing at an individual level if you’re a new manager, but that doesn’t mean you develop as much as you used to and have a whole bunch of new responsibilities; that’s not how time works. You are no longer the “top doer”; it’s now your job to nurture and support other top engineers. You won’t be able to take on every glamorous project like you used to. In fact, you’ll need to be happy not taking on the glamorous or hard projects and instead find value in teaching others to accomplish these tasks. If you can’t get enjoyment out of helping others succeed, management might not be for you.
Whats your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?
Every day is different. I always take stock of my calendar before the start of the day, and I generally have a good sense of which days I’m in meetings all day, and which days I’ll have time for independent work. We have roughly 5 engineering pods, all of whom have stand-up meetings in the morning. My goal is to make it to the stand-up of every team at least once through the week; ideally back to back with a 1-1 with someone on the team. I’m a silent participant in the stand-up meeting; my job is to listen and understand what’s going on. This eliminates the need for written status reports, and allows 1-1’s to focus on strategic problems instead of team status. I also have a number of automated reports I look at in the morning: nightly automated test runs, analytics, Fabric crashes, etc. This allows me to ensure there aren’t any fires brewing.
As for emails, call me old fashion but I practice Inbox Zero, and I take the same approach to Slack direct messages. The trick with any communication tool is turning off the noise. I don’t need emails every time someone updates a JIRA ticket, nor do I need a Slack notification in the catsvsdogs room. Give yourself 30 minutes to turn some things off, and you’ll add a dramatic amount of sanity back to your life. Oh, and unsolicited vendor email? Do us all a favor and mark them as spam. The more you do it, the more email filters will learn for all of us.
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
I started keeping a very simple todo list that I keep on my phone, and I got over the idea that it was rude to add to it during 1-1’s. Think no frills; a simple text document was all I used for years. Generally speaking, I can remember the things I need to get done, or use email / slack / calendar to keep me honest. For everything else, there’s the todo list.
Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.
Giphy. Seriously. Adding humor to your communication is a great way to get people to really engage. I put gif’s in long emails to get people to read them, all our retro’s are governed by trello cards with gifs, and slack gif’s are a constant part of daily communication. Also, it’s a hard G. Don’t @ me.
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
Managing Humans, by Michael Lopp. It’s required reading for all the managers on my team, and I run leadership training for new managers where we have detailed conversations on some of the tactical chapters. It’s chock full of good management tips and strategies, and an easier read than most management non-fiction thanks to his writing style.
Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, Github, etc.?
The best place to find me is on Twitter @moliver816. If you’re more the professional type, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelgoliver/. Looking forward to hearing from you!
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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