Location: Dublin, Ireland
Current Role: Senior Director of Engineering at Intercom
What’s your background and how did you get into management?
I studied Electronic Engineering in college but quickly realised it wasn’t for me. In my first full time role I worked as a Systems Admin for Ireland’s first Internet Service Provider. This is where I cemented my love for computing and the Internet.
In 2005 I moved to Amazon, one of the world’s most iconic and successful companies, as a Systems Engineer with no management background. Although Amazon had 40,000 employees globally, I was the first hire of only six total employees in Dublin. After nine months the VP of Engineering asked me to take on a Project Management role leading the creation of Amazon’s first data centre in China. When asked “Why me?” he replied “Well there’s nobody else to do it and you seem like you have the hunger and drive so we’ll give you a shot”. This was my first step into project management and a life beyond writing code. I went on to be a Technical Program Manager in Amazon, managing more data centre launches as well as managing Amazon’s green data centre initiatives.
At Amazon, I had the opportunity to mix with world class engineers and when I first began I remember thinking that it was going to take me a long time before I was as good as them. What I was good at was figuring out who was the smartest person at the table and helping them speak up and be heard. This gave me insight into what working as a people manager was like and I realised I wanted to do it full time. With my engineering skills, my newly gained project management credibility and my love for working with people it was a natural progression. I began by managing engineers and from there I managed managers.
My last role in Amazon was Senior Manager for all of Amazon’s internal DNS and low balancing capabilities, before I began working as Director of Engineering in Intercom and most recently, Senior Director of Engineering.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
I’ve been lucky enough to work for companies that grow fast. They hunt for really strong managers and engineers that align to the company’s culture and way of thinking. Hiring continues to be my number one challenge– the market is hot so there is a general shortage of people. It’s a constant struggle to attract the right people. At Intercom, we don’t “hire at all costs.” We are really focused on building out the team and hiring the right people who can do great things with you and have fun doing it.
What is your approach to hiring?
Intercom is a mission driven, product-first company with strong values and beliefs that shine through in our hiring approach. Our mission is to make business personal, and we’re unique in how we think about product. Within the Engineering/Product org we have strong values aligned around deeply understanding problems before solving them. We think of ourselves as builders, problem solvers and product owners who happen to have strong software engineering skills. We think big but start small, and we’re always trying to learn as we go.
We want people who want to help build our product, their career and help make business personal. We want people to do the best work of their lives here. Our approach is to be clear, open and thoughtful about our values – this ensure we’re attracting the right people We work to make sure our values and what’s important to us shines through in different ways – writing blog posts, giving talks, attending and hosting meet-ups as well as running our own Intercom events. We hope that being thoughtful, kind and honest will attract a diverse set of open, curious and enthusiastic problem-solvers who share those values.
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
My advice is get some really good mentors/coaches. Go out of your way to curate your own network. Find people who you admire, reach out to them to meet for a coffee. Share your current problems and strategies with them and seek advice. Do your best to get an old head on young shoulders. Read books. Take every training opportunity that comes your way. Develop your sense of self awareness, your sense of knowledge and your sense of empathy. My favourite book is “Radical Candor” (Kim Scott) followed by “Crucial Conversations” (Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan). These books helped me develop my own awareness and sense of empathy.
Whats your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?
I like to go out for breakfast most mornings. I don’t get into the office until 9am or 10am. I use this time to have an out of office, casual one to one with someone, to triage or to catch up on emails. When I’m in the office I bunch meetings together. I dedicate one day of the week for one to ones. I try to have a large number of scheduled chunks of focus time. I track my goals religiously from year to year, from quarter to quarter and from cycle to cycle which is on a six-week basis. I limit the amount of goals I have active to a maximum of five at one time so that I’m not swamped. I also have a wonderful admin assistant who helps keep me honest. In general, I try to be deliberate about what I’m trying to get done each day, each week and each quarter. If I didn’t, I’d be in a sea of reactivity.
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
A personal habit that contributes to my success is listening to audiobooks on Audible.com. I constantly have two audio books or different podcasts that I can flip between that are aimed at growing my knowledge or awareness around leadership, technology or history. I go through the equivalent of two to three books a month.
Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.
The PDF summary of the book Crucial Conversations is an internet resource that I can’t live without. An internet tool that I can’t live without is Audible.com for listening to audio books.
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
The book I would recommend is Crucial Conversations, written by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan, because as a manager having high stake conversations with your people about their career are one of the most important things that you’ll do. If you get it wrong you’ll lose people’s trust, almost forever. This book gives many good tools, tips, frameworks and mindsets to help you do this well.
Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, Twitter, Github, etc.)
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.