In this edition of Above the Glass, Nataliia Ilchenko, Director of WWCode Kyiv, speaks with Monika Puchalska, Engineering Manager at Zendesk. They discuss the many aspects of management, leadership styles, professional development, and the path that led Monika to career success.
Tell us a little bit about your responsibilities as an engineering manager?
Zendesk is a huge, global company. My team is located in Krakow, Poland. In Krakow, we build Zendesk Sell, a product that supports self automation. We work on data stores. We support the product by providing storage solutions from SQL data stores to file storage, whatever is needed for customers to retain their data while using the product.
How many people are on your team?
Six engineers and we are still hiring, we have two more open positions.
What criteria do you put in the first place when choosing their candidates?
We have precisely defined what kind of technical skills we are looking for in each role, what kind of experience with different technologies, and overall experience. I'm also looking for a sense of ownership. We're looking for people who want to own their work from the very beginning until the very end. People with a passion to build great products and a passion to learn and grow.
Is your team diverse?
We do have different backgrounds. I'm, for now, the only female on the team. We have people from three different countries. We could work on that a little more and we're trying to do it in our process of hiring. We’re looking for passionate girls. That would be super awesome, to get a female engineer on our team.
How do you inspire and encourage your team to develop and learn new technologies? How do you keep your knowledge and skills up-to-date?
We have a pretty good process defined at Zendesk. It's a lot of guidance from the company for the managers already set. We use our development plans that we try to set for each and every employee, plus individual goals and OKRs. Setting up goals and development plans is halfway. You have to get the commitment to actually do the stuff. Then, make the room that is needed for that development. So, encouraging people to take some time and spend it on development. Cut it out from your schedule. Don't overburden yourself with the day-to-day work so there's no more time. I'm committing with them to achieve goals.
I'm also recommending every single person to get a one-to-one meeting with someone who is maybe on their career path but one level up or working in the area that they might aspire to join. Talk to them, meet with them on some kind of regular basis to see what the role is about, what's the day-to-day stuff, what are the challenges, and how did they end up being in the position.
How often do you have one-on-one meetings with your team members?
We agreed to have them every single week because we've moved to working remotely since this situation with Covid-19. At least for now, that's been working for me and my team.
You chose the direction of our information technology immediately after school, how did you start?
I started when I was in primary school. My dad bought, for the family, the first computer. My dad showed me a book, The Basics of Turbo Pascal Programming Language, and in the end of that book there was a code for a game. He said that I can write down that code, rewrite it into the computer, and then I will have a game I can play. In my primary school, there was this program for kids to start learning to build computer programs or websites. I was inspired by that history with my dad. As a teenager, I had tons of different ideas for my future. I ended up focusing on computer science. That is how I ended up building my career from early ages around computers and consciously moving forward.
After you decided to continue your studies, did your managers support you?
I started my studies at University and the first couple of semesters were really hard and really heavy. Later on, things got pretty loose and a lot of my friends started getting jobs. Second-year at the university and you get a job was a cool concept. One of my friends said we have a position in the company I'm working for, why don't you try to jump in.
I started working for this intern reporter, still studying. I realized that what I'm learning at the university is not even close to what I can learn working. I fully committed to keep working there, finished my studies, and focused on building my knowledge and my expertise at work. I finished the bachelors degree and stopped for a while because combining university and working was a bit overwhelming. I focused on just working for a couple of years.
Later on, it felt like I had so much time and I still didn't do my masters degree, so why not go back. I had already started running large projects in my company so Applied Computer Science looked like a good idea. I had to bring it up with my manager and see how that works. It was amazing. He was very excited and he agreed to crazy working hours. I would not be able to do that without the support of my manager, his open-mindedness, and his trust. It is beneficial for both sides. You get a super happy employee with this mission to accomplish and then feel supported and trusted. That can help with retention and growth with your employees.
There is a lot of talk about time management but I know that everyone has their own secret. Please share with us how you plan your day.
At the end of a week, I think about what's important in the next one and create a list of the tasks. If I have time I will split it to prioritize the ones that are most urgent or going to be the hardest. I like to go through it every single day. I'm not putting specific time slots in my day to work on that. Something one of my previous managers mentioned to me is for a manager, being at work is being with your people. Reports and other stuff, you can do later. First and foremost, be with your people when they need you. I keep kind of an open calendar. Whenever somebody wants to talk to me they can just jump in. If I really need to focus, then I'm going to book the time, but I try not to do it. Having that list keeps me focused. I can make sure that I'm addressing the high-priority stuff on time.
What is your vision of goals and development as a manager?
In my current situation, I do not work as an individual contributor at all. I used to work in data engineering, that's kind of my field of expertise. Now I'm leading a technical operations team. There is overlap in some areas but there's still a lot that I need to learn. I'm focusing on the management part of the work and making sure that the road map and the projects in the future of my team are secured. As a manager your biggest priority is no longer delivering code, but enabling your team to deliver the code.
There are a lot of women that are afraid to apply for a leadership position. What advice can you give them?
It would depend on what you’re afraid of. If you're afraid that you're not going to get that role, what kind of evidence do you have? Let the people who are hiring evaluate that. If you're hesitant because you don't know if you're going to like it, learn as much as you can about the role. The worst thing that can happen is you'll learn that you don't like it but you will still learn. You know about yourself only as much as you've been tested or you test yourself. Go ahead, just try it.
Tell us the main characteristics of a leader. Are people born leaders or can everyone learn to become a leader?
At Zendesk we want people with the confidence to make decisions but humble to realize that they still need to learn a lot. Are people born leaders? I honestly don't know.