Interview with Tom Bartel Germany-based software developer, engineering manager, speaker, and author

Published on Jan 9, 2018

4 min read

image for Interview with Tom Bartel Germany-based software developer, engineering manager, speaker, and author

Location: Düsseldorf, Germany
Current Role: Product Manager and Talent Lead

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

My background is in classical Computer Science, specializing in software development. I stumbled into management when my current employer, trivago, was growing rapidly, and additional management capacity was needed. My boss asked me if I was willing to take on management responsibility, and I accepted.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Keeping people challenged and making sure they get the maximum out of their time with trivago, besides their paychecks and an entry in their CV.

Additionally, preventing the team from splitting up into different camps who pursue different philosophies. As a development team grows, this can become a real danger.

What is your approach to hiring?

First of all, I ask myself if the team size is really the bottleneck here. I have seen people being added and speed of execution go down.

If the answer is “Yes, we need more people”, then definitely do some skill tests, but start with really simple ones to make the candidate feel comfortable and build up some confidence. I like having a certain set of standardized problems and questions for comparability, but an interview should not be too robot-like.

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

Embrace the fact that it’s a different job, and that the qualities that make you a great engineer will not help you much in becoming a good manager.

Find a mentor (not necessarily your manager, not necessarily from your company), or a peer group, and read at least two good books about management.

Find your own management style and allow yourself some time for that.

Management takes time. Step back from deep technical involvement for a while to free that time up.

Finally: If, after some months, you are clearly unhappy with your role, then consider returning to a technical IC role.

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

I try to start early and use my high-energy time, i.e., the first two or three hours in the morning, on the currently most important issue – preparing an important presentation, thinking about strategy, thinking about a hard problem, etc. Before that, during my commute, I usually write for my blog, or a book, or I just write some thoughts down.

I try to push email to the lower-energy hours around lunchtime. One-on-one meetings I usually have in the afternoon. Of course, unforeseen events happen, and I face interruptions, so I cannot always strictly implement my schedule.

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

Hm, difficult question. I have been contemplating about this for a while, and I think there is no one thing, but many small ones.

So let me pick one: One great habit is to always finish what you begin, which is a recipe to build up willpower. I learned that from Dandapani (https://dandapani.org), who has given some workshops at trivago. “Finish what you begin” applies to hundreds of situations in our lives.

It can mean making your bed after you get up, by which you finish sleeping.

It can mean washing the dishes after dinner, by which you finish eating.

It can mean writing in your journal before you go to sleep, by which you finish the day.

It can mean writing your interview evaluation right after you had the interview, by which you finish the interview process before you begin anything new.

And all that, you do even if you don’t feel like it right now. This builds up tremendous willpower over time, which will enable you to do things you did not think you were capable of.

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

Reminders to myself, whether it’s Slack’s “remind” function, or an email variant like followupthen.com. Reminders are great for both relationship building (e.g., if you know somebody has an important exam in three days, set a reminder to ask them how it went) and for your own productivity: You don’t “fire and forget” when asking somebody else for their part of the job, but you will follow up at regular intervals if nothing seems to be happening.

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

Probably “High Output Management” by former Intel president Andy Grove, because it clearly transports the thought that, as a manager, you are the mini-CEO of your sub-organization, and encourages you to act accordingly.

If you feel like that book is too old for you, I would recommend “The Manager’s Path” by Camille Fournier, because it is full of practical advice about how to take ownership and be effective, both as an individual contributor and as a manager.

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

On my blog at https://tombartel.me, I write mostly about communication and management in the software development context. There are also some downloadable assets, and some information on my guide about the transition from software developer to manager.

Other than that:
Twitter: http://twitter.com/twbartel
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/twbartel

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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