“Transitioning From IC to Manager, and How To Lead If Management is Not For You”: Slack Engineering Panel

March 8, 2022

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Angie Chang: Our next session is a slate of technical women from Slack, from engineering managers, to leadership beyond the management track. I’m so excited to hand it over now to our Slack panel moderator to get things started. Welcome, Brooke.

Brook Shelley: Thanks Angie. Yeah, as Angie said, we’re from Slack. My name’s Brook, my pronouns are she/her, and I am a manager in the infrastructure group at Slack. I manage two different teams, one for asynchronous jobs, and one for data management. I’d like to start us off by just going around the group. And if you want to name, pronoun, and then what got you into engineering or development in the first place? So Leena, you’re first on my screen, why don’t you go ahead?

Leena Mansour: Sure. Yeah. Hi, my name is Leena Mansour, my pronouns are she/her. I’m an engineering manager at Slack. I run a team of mobile developers.

Leena Mansour: What got me into this is I was 16 and I did not want to follow my parents’ footsteps. So I didn’t take any biology because they were all in the medical field. And where I grew up, your options were you were a doctor or your engineer.

Leena Mansour: So I went into engineering. I thought computers were cool. It worked out for me. They are cool, so here I am.

Brook Shelley: They’re still cool, right? Otherwise, I got to find a new job.

Leena Mansour: Yeah. Yeah.

Brook Shelley: Mina, how about you?

Mina Markham: Hi. So my name is Mina Markham, my pronouns are she/her, and I’m a staff engineer here, and I got in engineering by accident. I used to be a graphic designer professionally, and so I taught myself the basic HTML and CSS so I could build a graphic design portfolio website so I could get a job. But as I learned how to do that, I found it interesting, so I kept learning how to do more and more web development things. And eventually I realized, “Hey, I could actually get paid to do this instead of the design stuff.” So I shifted my attention to learning more about that and eventually got a job as a front developer and kept learning and growing in that. So it was organic, but by accident.

Brook Shelley: And I heard you start working at Slack because you thought that’s your best way to meet Beyonce, right?

Mina Markham: I mean, yeah, obviously I’m still waiting. I’m crossing my fingers, but yes.

Brook Shelley: I mean, we know a few people who are pretty cool use Slack, but maybe she doesn’t yet. We got to let [crosstalk].

Mina Markham: Maybe not yet, but if anyone out there has a connection, just hook me up.

Brook Shelley: That’s right.

Mina Markham: I’m waiting for it. I’m waiting for it.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. Mina’s information is in the things, and she’s serious. Find Beyonce for her.

Mina Markham: I am dead serious. Yes.

Brook Shelley: Hi, Rukmini. How about you?

Rukmini Reddy: Hi everyone. I’m Rukmini, my pronouns are she/her. SVP of Engineering at Slack. I run Slacks platform. I wanted to be an engineer since I was eight years old. This has been my dream. I’m a total geek. I love building things, and yeah, I’m happy that I was able to realize an early childhood dream.

Brook Shelley: Heck yeah. Tracy?

Tracy Stampfli: Hey, I’m Tracy, my pronoun are she/her, and I’m a Principal Engineer at Slack. I also got into tech by accident. I started off studying mathematics, and originally thought I was going to get a PhD and become a professor of mathematics. I know that’s a very glamorous career choice, but then midway through grad school, figured out that wasn’t actually what I wanted to do, and ended up leaving. And by accident, getting into tech, starting off in QE and then working my way over to development. But now I’ve been in tech for very long time, and have found it really, really great and fulfilling.

Brook Shelley: Start with you, but can you say what’s your title at Slack? Because I think people don’t quite [crosstalk]

Tracy Stampfli: I said my title, Brook.

Brook Shelley: Oh, you did. I’m sorry.

Tracy Stampfli: I’ll say it. I’m a Principal Engineer, and I’ve never… I’ve stayed [crosstalk]

Brook Shelley: That’s the highest level here, right?

Tracy Stampfli: It is the highest level at Slack, and I’ve stayed on the IC side of things. I’ve never switched over to management. And I’ve really found that for me, at least, I’m interested in having impact on the direction of product, and planning, and all those things, technology decisions. But I want to do it from the standpoint of being more of a tech lead, and not from moving into management.

Brook Shelley: Yeah, that makes sense. And myself, I guess I should say I started off in literature. I wanted to be a writer. I still am a writer, but I needed to make money, and it turned out fixing computers was a better way to make money. So I started off in IT, moved into Ops and SRE work. And now eventually back into management and I wrote promo packet as Rukmini says. We have a thing at work called Manager Olympics, where we have a series of events that take place over a few months, and we just finished. So now I’m just celebrating.

Brook Shelley: But yeah, I like working with people better than computers these days. They’re harder to troubleshoot, but they’re more rewarding when you do. Computers, just say 200, okay. People might cry, or say thank you. It’s nicer. Let’s say the opposite side of Tracy, Rukmini, what made you want to get into management?

Rukmini Reddy: That’s a great question. So I started my journey being an individual contributor. It was a very tiny company. So me being a principal engineers nowhere equal to Tracy’s Principal Engineer at Slack. Woohoo. But I was a principal engineer in a tiny company, and my CTO then came to me and it was like, “You are really good with people. I always feel like you can give hard feedback. You’re able to drive for clarity. You’re hyper-organized and you’re bringing everyone together. Have you considered moving into management?”

Rukmini Reddy: And like most of you, I went through all the stages of grief I see go through when someone else says you should be a manager. And I was a like, “No, I won’t do it to, maybe I should explore it.” And the assurance I had from him at that time, which was very, very advanced for the time it was in, was if you hate it, you can go back to being in IT. So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to try.”

Rukmini Reddy: And I tried, and you know to Brook’s earlier point, people don’t come with debug statements. They don’t come with here’s how you are supposed to deal with me. And I just found it just so much more complex than programming, and also so much more rewarding.

Rukmini Reddy: I think that’s the part I want to underscore, because I realized that my purpose in life was to enable others finding their purpose, and their journey. And I just wanted to be that bystander and cheer them along, and brought me lot of joy in ways like coding did not. So I never look back. I say, I’m one of those people who just absolutely loves being a people manager because no two days are the same for me.

Brook Shelley: Now I’ve heard when you’re a manager, you never get to code again. Right? You could never do a personal project. You can never even open a computer other than for a meeting. Is that right Leena? Have you had that experience?

Leena Mansour: I believe it’s illegal, and the police will show up at your door if you launch any kind of code editor. Yes. That is true.

Brook Shelley: The stack overflow [inaudible]

Leena Mansour: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you definitely can. And I know I try every now and then, but you get so rusty and then you go try to touch it and you’re like, “Wow, I’m really bad at this.” But it is so still really fun to build little things just for yourself.

Brook Shelley: But I always try to over-engineer my stuff. My website’s built on Netlify, with docker containers and all sorts of stuff. Because I’m like, “Oh, if I can’t program at work, I’m going to do it way too much for my blog.” And Mina, did you have pressure as well? To become manager, become a lead in some way? I imagine so, because people [inaudible] quite a bit.

Mina Markham: So yeah, a little bit. There was a fork in the road in my career at Slack. And for a long time, I thought… Not just at Slack, but my career in general, and for a long time, I thought that to be a leader I had to go into management. Like that was the only way to truly lead anyone.

Mina Markham: And luckily I had a great manager at the time, who let me know, “Yeah, you can be a leader and not manage people.” Which is great, because I didn’t want to manage people. So I went the IC track instead. But yeah, for a long time, people kept trying to tell me, “Hey, you’d make a really good manager. You should look into it.”

Mina Markham: And not to say that I wouldn’t be good at it, but it’s not a skill that I necessarily want to do. I like coding. I want to stay more into coding, and more into doing architecting and strategizing. So the fact that I was able to shift into IC leadership, and be more of a mentor to people, versus actually managing people was great.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. That makes sense. And for me, I’ll say as a manager, I manage two teams. I absolutely depend on my leads. The tech leads I have, I wouldn’t be able to do most of my job if I didn’t have their advice, and their ideas, and even their mentorship with other people on the team. So, it’s pretty key.

Brook Shelley: What keeps you going every day? I know it’s been a hard time. We’ll start with Mina this time. But it’s COVID, there’s a war, there’s all this stuff going on. Whether you’re working with people, working with computers, there’s not a lot of respite sometimes. The Internet’s still there, so how do you stay motivated?

Mina Markham: I can answer that. I’ve actually disconnected just a little bit from social media, just because the onslaughts of information does get very draining. So I’m staying motivated by narrowing the focus of what I let grab my attention. I mean, that’s a little bit of a privilege, because I can turn off certain things and not pay attention to them, which is not what everyone can do.

Mina Markham: But yeah, I’ve decided to shift, to focus on more things, closer to what I can control. The sphere of influence I have, because I get really anxious when I see all these things happening that I can’t do anything about. So I’ve tried to stay motivated to like, “okay, what can I personally do?” And that helps me to find some purpose in getting up and doing the work that I’m doing. So yeah.

Brook Shelley: That makes sense. What about you, Tracy? What keeps you coming back to Slack?

Tracy Stampfli: For one thing, I think that one thing that’s nice about getting to the higher levels of being, and I see is that you really get to design what your role is yourself. No one’s really telling me what to do at this point. No one’s telling me what to do, and so I’m really figuring out what do I want my role to be?

Tracy Stampfli: I actually went through this exercise recently, where I tried to write down, and define, this is what I think my role is. This is what I think I should be doing with my time. And that was actually really interesting exercise to go through, and really useful, because it did make me think about what do I want to spend my time doing? And what do I think is important?

Brook Shelley: Oh, that definitely makes sense. How about you Leena?

Leena Mansour: Sorry. Yeah.

Brook Shelley: No, it’s okay.

Leena Mansour: I mean,

Brook Shelley: There’s a lot going on in the chat too, so.

Leena Mansour: There is, there is. Yeah, I adopt the stick your head in the sand mentality when it comes to most news. I hear about the big things, because you always will, but it’s hard when there are things that you can’t do anything about.

Leena Mansour: It’s also been hard because I’m in Canada, and Canada has been mostly locked down for a really long time. So you find your own ways. So I actually have my knitting right here. I knit through meetings, most meetings, and you just got to focus on the things that…

Leena Mansour: What I keep reminding myself of is like, “What do I truly like about the job?” And like Rukmini, I really, really enjoy helping people figure out what their goals are and get those goals. So if I’m having a hard time, I just focus, and have some of those conversations with my people and feel like I’m leaving some positivity in the world through that. And then we sleep, and we start over again.

Brook Shelley: Totally. And Rukmini, I mean, you’re a boss’s boss’s boss. So all the pain and suffering and emotions go to you, right? You’re sort of where it ends? Is that?

Rukmini Reddy: You know, actually I think it just comes down to, I think whether you’re in IT, whether you’re a manager, use your empathy. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. You are leaders in the company. When global events out of your hands are happening, first process the change for yourself and what it means and how you are going to show up.

Brook Shelley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rukmini Reddy: Because one thing that’s really important in a leadership position, whether a manager or not, you are a multiplier. People look up to you in moments of stress, in moments of uncertainty, and they try to understand for themselves how they should react. And this is where it’s okay to be vulnerable.

Brook Shelley: Yeah.

Rukmini Reddy: It’s okay to say you don’t have shit together today, and that’s okay. I didn’t last week, because I led teams in Ukraine for many, many years, and this has been very heavy on my heart. But just knowing to it’s okay to be vulnerable, having empathy, losing…

Rukmini Reddy: And keeping people focused on what matters. What’s your impact on the business? Why are you here? And understanding what motivates people. What do you want to be motivated by? And redirecting them to that, is I think the most helpful thing you can do as a manager or leader.

Brook Shelley: That totally makes sense.

Leena Mansour: Just to build on that, one of the things that I do often, I know I’ve seen some of the people on my team in the chat. I know they’re here. I have no problem telling people, “You know what? I need a mental health day.”

Brook Shelley: Yeah.

Leena Mansour: And I think that’s so important, because we all need mental health days, and it’s a lot easier or for your team when they see you taking mental health days to say the same and not be like, “Oh, I’m vomiting today.” That’s extra energy that they have to expend to make up something.

Leena Mansour: So be honest, you’re a human being, and so is everybody else. If you folks on the pod, the no bones and bones pod, we use it a lot in our channel to indicate our status of how much energy we have that day. But yeah, just be human.

Brook Shelley: I like that. I like that. I always just say my stomach hurts, but then I’m like, well, if my stomach hurts, I can still type. So what can you do there?

Mina Markham: No, I kind of agree with both Rukmini and Leena, that I am very open when I need a break. So I will tell people very clearly, “Hey, I need a mental health thing.” I don’t even try to fudge it with, “Hey, I’m sick.”

Mina Markham: No, I just, I need a break. I am burned out. I need a break. I will see you all in a couple of days. And my manager was very, very open, very receptive to it. So yeah, I try to model that healthy behavior. I’m like, “No, I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need a break. I will come back when I’m a hundred percent.”

Brook Shelley: And we have sabbatical now at Slack too, which I don’t know if any of y’all have taken advantage of it? I have a person on it right now. And you get like a week for every year that you work.

Brook Shelley: I always tell my people, I’m happy to approve up the two or three weeks, no problem. Past that, it gets harder to justify it, but take a sabbatical if you want to take off a month or two. That’s amazing. Tracy, you’ve been here for a while. Have you taken a sabbatical yet?

Tracy Stampfli: I haven’t taken a sabbatical here. I worked at a previous company that had sabbaticals, and I think they’re super, super great, and super wonderful, for avoiding burnout because everyone gets burnt out after a while, and being able to take a longer break is really awesome. So I’m hugely in favor of the benefit and have done it in the past.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. Yeah. It definitely helps to reset a little bit. Because otherwise, I feel like you go on a vacation for a week and by the end of the week, you’re starting to forget that you have a job, but then you have to remember and woof. Then you have to go, “What do I do here?”

Brook Shelley: One thing I wanted ask Tracy, especially, is, how do you find your ability to lead from the front, from being an engineer? In what ways are you able to influence product decisions or strategic decisions? How do you navigate that?

Tracy Stampfli: Well, for one thing, I think you have to find the right place, the right fit for you, the right company fit. I mean, I don’t want to make this all about how great Slack is, but you know. But it is a place where ICs really can be leaders, and where you can have that kind of influence, and not every company is like that.

Tracy Stampfli: So I think that’s one big thing is you just have to find the right fit for you, the right place where you are able to have that impact. And then I think a lot of it is just being willing to step forward and take ownership of things and say like, “Hey, I really have opinions about what the technical direction of this part of the product should be. Let’s talk about them.”

Brook Shelley: It is collaborative too, right?

Tracy Stampfli: Yep.

Brook Shelley: It’s not just like here, “I’m the sage star. I’ll tell you everything.”

Tracy Stampfli: Yeah. It’s definitely also a big part of it is trying to get other people to trying to bring forth the ideas from other folks on your team, or beyond your team, and say, “Hey.”

Tracy Stampfli: Part of it is just calling out. There may be some big issue that we need to address, now let’s try, together, figure out what the best path forward is. And then you, as the leader, can be the messenger for that to executive leadership or whoever.

Brook Shelley: And Mina, how about you? How do you influence all of us manager folks?

Mina Markham: How do I influence the managers? Oh, wow. As I’ve gotten to the staff level, my manager sees me more as a partner, as opposed to a… I don’t want to say, use the word support, because that’s not the right word, but basically we work together to figure out what the next steps for the team are.

Mina Markham: He’ll ask me for my opinions about, “Hey, what do you think we should be working on?” It’s more like what Stacy was talking about, about how defining our own path. Now he counts on me to see all the things that he can’t see, like where are the trouble spots in our code base, or the trouble spots in our processes.

Mina Markham: And so I use my heads down nature into more than the weeds to let him know what’s important, and what our team should be focusing on. And aside from that, I also let him know like, “Hey, I think this person would be good for this project.”

Mina Markham: So I help him to figure out how to best utilize other members of the team as well, and from what I know of, how they want to grow and what they’re capable of, and things of that nature.

Mina Markham: It’s become less of a, “Here’s what you need to do, Mina,” more of like, “Hey, Mina, let’s figure out what the next steps for the next quarters are together.” And I like that. I like it a lot.

Brook Shelley: Yeah. That’s really awesome. I like that. So one question I wanted to ask too, maybe for Leena and Rukmini, is as you got into your career and you started into management or into leadership, did you have someone that mentored you, or someone that you emulated or learned from, or sponsored you a bit? And maybe telling us about that? Leena, go for it.

Leena Mansour: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I had a lot of great role models that I worked with. I had to fight to become a manager. I had to quit jobs, and threaten to quit jobs, and leave and come back and do all kinds of things to get my people management role I really wanted. And I had a lot of people who supported me in helping me figure that out.

Leena Mansour: But I think that honestly, the most important piece and the most important and helpful thing in my journey being a manager is my peer mentors. I always, always, always have a group of managers who are on my level, but also higher. Just varying levels.

Leena Mansour: That is a small, small, small trust group that you can go with, with your problems, and talk out how you would solve it. It’s been the most helpful tool for me for anything, because you don’t just get one person’s perspective, you get a whole group try and solve your problems for you. Highly recommend.

Rukmini Reddy: Yeah. I have a squad. A squad that speaks truth that I don’t want to hear to me. It’s super important. With people who tell me I don’t have it together, and I need to fix things. And it’s really important to have that squad of people who think of your scope larger than you can think for yourself, right? They shouldn’t be like narrow you down, they should actually open things up for you.

Rukmini Reddy: And I rely on them to show me opportunities that I haven’t been considered for myself. And they’re extremely important for you at every stage of your career for you to have a squad.

Brook Shelley: I have my business boys. So my former founders of the company that acqui-hired by Slack. And I ask them a lot of advice about finances, and whatever else. They’ve founded companies, they’ve led stuff, and so I’m always just like, “Hey, tell me the secrets, business boys.”

Brook Shelley: I also highly recommend bicycling during and after work, because the computer’s not there and you can escape. So I think that we are out of time, but any last words of wisdom from anybody? Just take more breaks?

Leena Mansour: Breaks.

Mina Markham: Breaks.

Leena Mansour: Only take whatever path you actually truly want, not the path that you think you’re supposed to have. Find cool people to talk to you about what that role looks like, so you can actually understand.

Brook Shelley: Heck yeah. All right. Well, thanks everybody. Really appreciate your time and I’ll pass it off to Sukrutha.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much. Special mention to your amazing cat.

Brook Shelley: Oh yeah. That’s Snorri. He gets sad when I talk to other people besides him. He’s right here right now, hold on. All right, do you want to say hi to everybody?

Rukmini Reddy: Hi, kitty.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much to the women at Slack for sharing your amazing insights on leadership, from both the management side of the house, as well as from the IC side, the principal and staff engineer side.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Share this