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Leading Engineers in Uncertain Times: A Conversation with CircleCI, Blockchain.com, and Oliver Wyman

Conor Bronsdon
Published: January 1, 2023

It’s no secret this has been a difficult year for many companies in tech. The truth is, it’s easy to be a leader when times are good. It’s less easy in the midst of a storm.

That’s why we assembled a panel of some of the smartest engineering leaders we know at Interact to talk about the leadership principles that help guide an engineering organization no matter what is happening in the world.

Today’s episode of Dev Interrupted features Michael Stahnke, VP of Platform at CircleCI; Lewis Tuff, VP of Engineering at Blockchain.com; and Carolyn Vo, Partner & Head of Engineering at Oliver Wyman. 

Episode Highlights Include

  • (2:16) The current economic climate
  • (8:50) Engineers complaining about too many meetings
  • (14:36) Maintaining morale
  • (22:43) Building a culture that’s actually fun
  • (27:40) The importance of experimentation
  • (34:36) Owning your own message
  • (41:44) Seeking out mentors
  • (44:13) Acquiring new top talent
  • (51:00) Is now a time to be more or less aggressive when hiring?

Episode Excerpt

Conor: So let’s start by getting to know you all a little bit better, make sure our audience can understand the context of who you are. Lewis, I wanna start with you. You’re the VP of Engineering at Blockchain.com. How is the current economic climate affecting you?

Lewis: Sure, great question. This has definitely been an exceptional year for a different macro and micro impacts and events on all businesses. For us, in the crypto currency industry, we’ve been building and preparing for this for a long time. In the last kind of decade, there’s been a lot of challenging volatility in the markets, in the industry, whether it’s kind of regulators or countries or big entities coming out saying that it’s doomed to fail. And I think now they’ve reported many, many times over the last few years that Bitcoin is dead and it continues to bounce back. So I think for us, we’ve been kind of preparing to diversify our technology stack, our products, and also set expectations as a team that it’s not gonna be a smooth ride and rarely that of when you’re building new technology and pushing boundaries is it kind of a linear path, right? You’re always gonna take a more complex direction to get there and so really it’s about focusing on core product, focusing on the value that you’re creating for your users, understanding what it is that provides utility and making sure the team is kind of really brought into the long-term mission.

Conor: That makes sense and I think it’s something that Michael can probably speak to as well. Michael, before you became the VP of Platform at CircleCI, I know you were at Puppet for eight years. You’ve been on that forefront of building new technology and innovating. What have those experiences done to shape your leadership style today?

Michael: Well, I mean, I think a lot, I look at a lot of it about who are the customers you’re selling into and what are the problems that they’re having. You know, it always starts with if you understand what your customer is trying to accomplish, then you can probably help them achieve their goals and that’s gonna really kind of soften the blow for whatever’s happening for your company or help it or you know, whatever, I guess. If you remain customer-oriented, I think you, you’re gonna do the best. Now, the issue is, you know, you have to figure out, “Am I helping existing customers? Am I trying to attain new ones? Am I helping a certain vertical more than another?” So there’s a lot of nuance in there, but I think, you know, as I look back at the last 10 years of working in developer tools in one way or another, efficiency doesn’t go out of style and so, you know, people wanna be more efficient, they wanna be more productive with what they have and so you have to kind of focus on how can you show that to your customers and how can you really double down on that? I think when the economic times aren’t so certain, you have to kind of say, “Okay, we’re gonna focus and we’re gonna peel back on maybe some of the bigger bets that we were gonna take. We’re not gonna do every bet or every little small bet. We have to stay a little more focused.” And it kind of comes back to, you know, you can do everything, but you can’t do, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

Lewis: I think that, just to echo that, I think that’s a great point that really what these environments do is act as a forcing function to focus on the truly highest-impact endeavors. And so like in like a very flush bull market where venture capitalists and public markets and everything is going up, you will take a lot of the weird and wonderful best experiments and that also breeds inefficiency because there’s no need to optimize, and so, yeah, for us, that’s been like a big effort over the last few months is to really just kind of, yeah, peel back the layers of complexity and understand, okay, what is the most high-impact projects we could be working on and where are the inefficiencies and how do we better deploy every dollar within the business, whether that’s in the team, whether that’s in new technology like Circle CI to like optimize some of our developer experience or whether that’s actually just cutting off kind of inefficiencies that we’re left to breed.

Conor: And Carolyn, I’d love to get your perspective on this as well. You’re a Partner at Oliver Wyman. You kind of have a unique perspective on this panel. You came up through the engineering org there and have grown in your role. What kind of has that progression, your experience, taught you about this same topic?

Carolyn: So the nature of the work that we do in consulting, right, you sometimes can have like the feeling of feast or famine when there’s uncertain economic times because your work, your workloads and the type of work you get from clients’ needs and demands fluctuates based on what the economic trends are looking like, right? And so you basically have to just go with the flow. It’s just interesting, right, because if you normally see a lot of like advisory and build demand in normal standard economic times, okay, great, and then when things are facing like an economic downturn, companies are tightening their belts and they’re being much, much, much more judicious about what they do with their spend and their budget. And as a result, you’ll see the nature of the work and the needs and skills just kind of shift. And I feel like I’ve been able to sell, be relevant, we’ll call it, as an engineer in a management consulting firm because I do both oversight of the delivery stuff and the build stuff as well as the advisory stuff. I don’t know, it’s just, I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, but it’s just, it’s such a strange different business model from a typical product engineering or services or platform kind of place, right?

Conor: No, I like that we’re getting these different perspectives because I think it’s a really important thing to point out. This can be different for every business, right? Like, okay, sure, you may be need to focus on core products as Michael and Lewis are alluding to, but there are service models that have nuances to them and I think understanding that and understanding that not every person in the audience has the exact same approach and you need to kind of adapt it for your business and your team is really important. And I’ll say one of the things that I know all of you deal with to be successful in this is communication with your teams. It becomes extra important in these, as we call them, uncertain times, to make sure your team understands where you’re going.

Source: dzone.com