Having started his career as a developer, Mrinal has been across the globe working in various consulting and product organisations and has been in leadership roles for quite a few years.
Being passionate about DevOps and its values, he has shared his experiences at a few tech conferences in NZ and abroad. He feels strongly about developing a fun and safe team culture, all the while focussing on continuous improvement and delivery of outcomes.
Mrinal currently works at BNZ in its Wellington office and contributes towards improving engineering practices at the bank. He has been mentoring engineers to consider leadership roles and decided to leverage this conference to share his experiences so that the broader community could learn from them.
Mrinal lives in Wellington and loves to hike, try out different cuisines, and ride his newly acquired motorcycle.
Nerd to being heard: Leadership without losing your inner geek
When the three of us were discussing what we going to do about the last talk, we had to work out, right we've had all these talks that go over org level, industry level stuff and yes, our speakers would have done a very good job at holding it down to what can you do as an individual, what is the path, how do you fit into culture and how do you influence it or how might it impact you.
We realized we need to look for a talk that is a bit closer to an individual, your personal growth, a story, and that is what Mrinal is going to offer for us today.
So please welcome to the stage Mrinal, an engineering manager at BNZ
Okay, can you hear me all right?
So the last talk from Jenny was amazing.
DORA metrics is something which a few of us have been playing around a lot at our workplaces as well and I have so many questions for you, so many that I would want to use a dedicated conversation with you after this.
That talk was so good that I have completely forgotten what I have to talk about, so if I, if I get stuck, please excuse me and you can blame it on Jenny.
So when I look around this room it also reminds me of my school days in India, like I see the front rows are by and large empty.
I see the breaks and when people pile into the room it's like a cacophony of sounds and then Prae comes and claps her hands and basically tells us all to shut up and then we do.
So, yeah thanks for reminding me of home.
Last talk of the day and then it was great talks today.
Learned quite a lot of things.
When I look around this room there are quite a few people, so a quick check, try to guess the number of people who registered for this conference.
How many think that it is more than 150?
Okay, let's say 150 to 200, how many feel 150 to 200?
Okay, how many feel 200 to 250.
Okay, how many feel it's 250 to 300?
Okay 300 to 350?
Okay 350 to 400?
Okay, so what's the right answer?
I have no clue.
I was just hoping to have you all exercise your hands a bit after the heavy lunch.
Those mushroom things were really good by the way.
So today we talked about leadership.
So when we talk about leadership, it's mostly around when we look at that word, it's something always to do with people.
Having said that at the very onset I would want to caveat it with the fact that there is a possibility of being a thought leader in your own aspect.
It's absolutely fine to not even have leadership as an aspiration.
It's okay to be in a position wherein I am leading as an individual contributor.
I'm creating designs, creating patterns, inspiring people to do some good things.
So please don't take it as a fact, that I am pushing people to move towards leadership.
It's absolutely fine to be not.
Whatever drives you, whatever gives you that sense of fulfillment, that's what matters.
However, for the duration of the talk I would be focusing on the more traditional aspects of leadership, which invariably has something to do with people.
So with some of the other conference talks I've done in the past, I have this reputation of coming onto the stage and tearing my stomach open and talking about some of the bad things which I have done.
I think that's a way to show the fact that we are all humans, we all do strange things.
We have our motivations for doing things but then perhaps you could learn from me and not repeat those same mistakes.
So the story is some years back, thanks to a restructure in our organization,
there was a leadership role which opened up.
I used to be a Dev at that point of time,
and that role was basically handed to me on a plate.
I was told, that Mrinal you seem to be good enough, go for it, if you so prefer.
I had my motivations for the role.
Some of them were very standard like it came up with a salary hike, it gave me a role, a designation, which was quite good.
It suited my ego.
Both these points worked quite well.
I was like, "yeah why not?"
So once I went in for that role, my understanding or my expectations for the role was something around the fact that, well I was doing well in my last role, so if I was doing well, clearly the expectation is for me to continue to do the same thing.
So I need to perhaps play that same role perhaps a bit more better.
And with that expectation set, I went in for those roles.
And then the problem started manifesting within a few months, wherein I was looking at two or three teams.
I was thinking I was doing a good job so I remember writing a test suite on my own and I said, "Hey teams, this is the fun stuff. You need to start using it."
Pretty soon I realized that I'm right in the middle of the delivery path of two or three teams.
People were expecting things of me, people were not taking that ownership on their own to do things, and I was spending quite a lot of time trying to fix mistakes, made mistakes of my own, was losing my own credibility and of course getting burnt out.
In the panel discussion today, there was a discussion.
I think Rahul raised the point around the fact that there was an expectation to be right all the time, and I didn't really prepare for it.
But then that thing struck a chord, and I thought that yes, that was something which was playing on as well.
That I was always under the impression that I am the smartest guy in this room and I need to be that person coming in and making the right decisions always.
So that burnout aspect was starting to trouble, and I realized pretty soon that this is not working out.
So either I leave or I look for another role somewhere, or perhaps go back to my last role.
And that's when I started working with a mentor.
Now, that person was someone who I respected. He worked at the same place where I did, a person who inspired me.
For that matter, he's actually sitting in the same room, and I don't have his consent to talk about his name.
But then I basically had a chat with him, had lunch, basically talked about politics, life, cricket, and we also talked about what's going on in my life at my workplace.
And that's when he started talking, and he started scribbling on a piece of paper, which I'm trying to reproduce as part of this drawing.
Sorry for a pretty rough-looking drawing, but this is the best I could manage. My skills on PowerPoint are really bad.
So the thing is, basically, even though it's quite ugly, and it looks even uglier when I see it on this big screen.
Let me see if this mouse pointer works. Yep, there it is. And there it is.
But, let's say that we are starting from somewhere here, and we have multiple ways to move up.
We can move towards a tech leadership role, we can move towards architecture, product (that's how I write P, by the way), we can move towards engineering leadership, or you could go towards any other area.
You could go towards sales, advertising, creative arts; there are lots of areas where you could move into.
But more traditionally, these are some of the standard things which we as technologists move towards.
And there are ways to move to those areas. You could move straight up or you could move literally along. You could go down once in a while.
I used to have a manager who went right up to the head of Tech roles and then decided that well he wanted a bit of peace of mind and went back to being a developer.
Some of the folks in this room would actually know him, and yes, it's absolutely fine, whatever gives you that sense of fulfillment, going back to that first point.
Anyways, so wherever we go in this chart, we go up, down, sideways; there are certain things which change.
The first thing is the diversity aspect which comes in. So when we say diversity, we talk about diversity of thought, diversity of the type of roles you are working in, diversity of the type of source codes which you have to deal with.
One day you are working with mainframes, the other day you are working with Java, the other day you're working with .NET, you're looking and talking to people with different skill sets, right?
The scope increases; at some level, you're looking at one or two code repos. Down the line, you may look at at least five or six repos.
You are working with clients, you're working with vendors, right?
One thing which we need to be mindful of is that the more higher you go, there is a high potential that you would have less and less time.
You would spend less and less time on the tools. Be mindful of this aspect; a lot of us, me included, went for these types or go for these types of roles thinking that we would continue being on the tools.
Trust me, it becomes difficult after a while.
Some people are lucky; some people have that privilege to still be on the tools and have that sense of fulfillment. If that is what drives you, many of us aren't and have seen people struggle.
It is a real struggle out there, right?
So I just thought that I'll use the stock to remind people that if you aspire to move for some of these leadership roles, bear in mind some of these things.
The other thing is around weaknesses and biases. The more higher you go, there is always a possibility of your weaknesses and biases being ruthlessly exposed.
You can still hide it in some way or form at a lower level. The higher you go, at the most critical junctions, you would notice that some of those things are being called out quite often.
The other aspect is also around relationships. The big one is around relationships; everything with a capital E works on relationships, at least in my experience.
We can leverage our relationships to try and sort out problems, we can leverage our relationships to try and collaborate on problems together.
A difficult conversation can be done in a much better way if you have that relationship going on with people with whom you are talking.
The aspect of difficult conversations comes on as well. The higher you go, the more the... I mean, the frequency of those difficult conversations.
When I say difficult, I mean awkward conversations, tough conversations, conversations you don't really want to do; those things start coming up as well.
There is no hiding from it; you can say that well, I am a nice, charming guy, I can manage my way through it.
It does not work like that; there, you will end up in a situation wherein on a pretty much on a day-to-day basis, you will have to have those awkward conversations.
My mentor also reminded me that when we talk about leadership, he reminded me that have a look at your job description.
The job description on the first line said that your role is to build teams or to empower teams, and the question to me was that, "Hey, Mrinal, are you going in and building teams, or are you doing the work for those teams?"
And that, to me, was an 'aha' moment. Like, so far, me, I don't know about all of you; I looked at the job description, I was like, yeah, right, whatever; people just go on writing some of these things.
But then that job description has a lot of things in it, so it is important that you look through that description and be familiar with what is being expected of the role.
We talked in this conference a lot about safety, and this is something which I feel quite passionate about as well around from a team standpoint.
Like, people out here, when you were kids, some adult in your family tried to help you ride a bicycle, so this is normally the scene which happens: you take your kid on the bicycle, you push it along for a while, and you know, after some time, the kid is fine cycling away, and within 10 seconds, there is a crash.
And it's fine to crash; it's okay to crash if that's what it takes for us to learn; it's absolutely fine to crash.
As a parent, as an adult, our role is to try and provide that safety, that helmet; that's important; that is our role.
We need to be able to provide that helmet; we need to be able to provide safety.
When we talk about as part of our day-to-day role, we are doing a lot of these types of things, perhaps not even knowing it.
Pair programming is a good way of doing it, of having that safety in teams.
Peer reviews are another one.
Test-driven development; a few of us talked about it in this conference; that's another way to provide that safety for teams, that here is a test case, go ahead, try to create it; it will not move past that pipeline if that test fails, right?
So that's the way we are providing safety.
So basically, what we are... we are already doing some of these things; perhaps we need to be a bit more mindful that why are we doing some of these things if we need to aspire to move towards some of these leadership roles.
The other metaphor which comes to my mind is as a leader.
I believe that a lot of our roles are like being a party organizer.
We invite the right people to the party; we make the right connections; we introduce people to each other; we ensure there is enough food and beverages for people.
And of course, we throw the drunks out.
Likewise, you know, when we're looking at a team, we are looking at inviting the right people, like recruiting the right team.
We talked about building a diverse team.
I loved Katrina's talk this morning when she talked about diversity, and that's something which is close to my heart.
So thanks, Katrina, for calling it out.
Making the right connections is around, like...
I confess a lot of my role is being the communication hub, that, "Hey team, your test strategy document which you have written is amazing; that could be used by some other team out there; that pipeline which you have written, can you make it a bit more robust so that it could be used across the organization?"
So that sort of work is something which a leader is expected to do pretty much all the time, and that is where your networks, your relationships come in handy.
And so, there's enough food and beverages.
As a leader, you would always have people who may be reporting to you or who are people who are genuinely inspired by you; it is your role to ensure that they have some good fulfilling work; they are happy; you care for them; you genuinely care for them.
And lastly, there are difficult conversations which need to happen; there is no shying away from it.
When I say throw the drunks out, that doesn't really necessarily mean you hold them by their collar and throw them out, but at least there needs to be some accountability; if there is bad behavior.
So, these are some of the lessons which I learned thanks to that conversation with the mentor.
The way I implemented some of those things... I could talk about it, but then again, it's contextual; some things may work for you; some things may not.
So please take it with a grain of salt; these are things which worked for me.
I would urge you to look at the broader pattern and figure out ways in which you could help move in that direction.
The first thing is around a mentor; try and grab a mentor; identify one.
If you had to take one thing out of this talk, I would urge you to take this point.
If you have those chats with this mentor, that mentor could potentially help you try and identify some of the areas you would need to improve on or fix.
A question which comes to me is that how do we go around identifying who a mentor is, and my one-point answer would be like look for someone who genuinely inspires you, look for someone who has played that role before, who has credibility, who has experience; there is a limited amount of success you could have talking to a mentor who is speculating on what the role is all about.
Look for someone who has played that role before; remember that drawing which I drew up in the last few slides back, those leadership roles where you could go, there are roles which people have already played.
So, you don't need to be the pioneer to go there and try and create what that role looks like; there are people who have played it, so go ahead, talk to them, use these mentoring meetings for feedback; ask, and take that feedback with a pinch of salt as well.
Just because a person feels that this is something wrong or something which could be improved, that doesn't always necessarily mean it's true; be rational about it; talk to a few other people; try and see whether you had an echo about it from others, and come prepared.
I believe it is quite... It is a mark of respect if you respect that time and be mindful of the time of your mentor.
So come prepared with it; like, these are the things which I want to talk about; I mean, some of the things which I want to try, some of the things which worked for me, some of the things which failed.
And basically use him or her as a bouncing board for your thoughts.
Nothing is as... as boring or as useless as having a doddling conversation with a person who you really trust and aspire and be inspired with.
So remember that drawing which we talked about earlier; the scope was widening, and what can we do at our end to prepare ourselves for that widening scope?
So, I have the slides not moving, but I could do with some help, my friend, in the meanwhile.
So, when we talk about scope, one of the first things... And it's a controversial topic.
We were talking about it during the breakout here as well.
That there are Vision documents which come from the top management, so it's a vision and strategy document; a lot of them have a lot of words on it.
Now, a lot of us may include...
Ignore those things; we feel that they are like words; they don't mean anything; people come up with strategies; like a domain, in general, comes up with a strategy that in this quarter, we would focus on XYZ stuff.
At least when I was a developer, I never really cared for it; I always thought that, well, that's my source code; they are big people; they go on talking about random stuff; who cares, right?
If you are looking for leadership roles, my strong advice is to be mindful of some of those... of that language; it gives you an indication on where the company is moving, what they are trying to do.
What I mean...
I also hope that, in that situation, you don't end up...
I mean, those things don't change every year so that you are constantly context-switching.
But then, by and large, if you are able to shape your actions, shape the work you do, shape the words which come out of your mouth in line with that strategy, that vision, it definitely helps.
The other thing is around being curious.
Curiosity has me there in the slide; there is around who is the customer.
A lot of us work on applications which are back-end applications; we don't even know who the final customer is; perhaps we don't even care, and that is the last thing which we need to do.
I mean, if you're looking for leadership roles, we need to be mindful, acutely mindful who our customers are and need to work in that direction.
Other things are how are others doing it.
Be curious about it, like, "Okay, for example, this conference, I work for a bank, and in this conference, there are at least three other people from three banks I have spoken to to talk about how did they solve some of the problems which occurred a couple of months back."
So this is a sense of curiosity in general that I am doing something; is there a better way of doing it; how are other people handling the same problem; how can we network more to try and crowdsource some of those problems; understand what are better ways to solve it.
Teams, how are teams organized?
So, there has been a couple of references to these two books in the last few slides; we have stolen my thunder, but then...
But yeah, these are two books which are really, really good; please make it a point to try and read through it.
If you are too lazy to read through the entire book, and yes, I agree too, I think Katrina made the point that Accelerate is quite a boring one, but then...
You know, there are YouTube book summaries which are available; there are blog posts which are available which explain these books in a nutshell; please, at least, be aware of some of these aspects and use that awareness to try and retrospect on how your teams look like, how are teams organized in your workplaces, how are teams measuring you, and have those conversations, start probing, probe and have those conversations.
Relationships, again, super, super important point and something which we all need to be mindful of if you're moving towards a leadership role.
While preparing for this presentation, I was speaking to one of my peer engineering managers, Nataleigh, around, "Hey, Nataleigh, how did you go around preparing for a leadership role, and how did you work on the relationships?" And she gave a beautiful answer.
I mean, and then I was like, "Well, I don't think I can ever manage to do it as nicely as you said."
So, I encourage her to provide us a video so that she could speak to all of us on my behalf.
So, let me see if this works.
[Video: Nataleigh Elston]
Hi, my name is Nataleigh Elston, and I'm an engineering manager at BNZ.
My pronouns are she and her.
In my opinion, building healthy and strong relationships in the workplace is one of the most powerful things we can do in our career, regardless of our level.
Besides improving overall productivity because we understand each other well, relationships with our colleagues help us grow and learn as individuals.
I think of each relationship as some form of informal mentor, even though we might not realize that.
Making connections with our peers and leaders will ultimately help us see different perspectives, open our minds, and more than likely help you in the next step on your career journey.
My final comment is my absolute favorite and one that I think about often when I'm reluctant to take that next step.
"The brave don't live forever, but the cautious don't live at all."
I don't think I could beat her in how to talk more about relationships and how to sell it.
Some of the things which I have tried is that my company, my organization, allows hot desking, so I move around places, sit at a different location, try to talk to people, I try to solve problems for other teams if I can, and try to be of use.
One of the things which a friend of mine, who I really admire, talked about sometime back when he was having a chat with me, I don't think I should name him in this conference, but who cares, right?
Ben Hartman, who's sitting right there, so Ben, they talked to me about...
The thing around...
Oh, well, I took his consent before asking, but by the way.
So, he did impress upon me this aspect of genuinely caring for people.
That's something which I really...
Actually hit me, and I've noticed it time and again that the more I care about people, the more deeper relationships I have within teams and the better bonding I have with my own teams as well.
Strengths and weaknesses is another thing; there is a school of thought which says that you need to be accurately aware of your weaknesses and biases and start working towards it.
Bias is definitely yes.
I also feel that, well, there is an opportunity cost; there are your strengths as well, so do you want to spend that time working on your strengths, or do you want to spend that time working on your weaknesses?
Again, my answer would be very different than yours; think about it.
I had a manager who was really bad at admin work; he was really good in everything else. He was a good technologist; he was a good people person, but he was really bad at admin.
And on my first one-on-one with him, he made it clear to me that, "Hey, Mrinal, I am bad at this; I can spend my time improving all this, or I can spend my time having good conversations with you on how can we make things better, and if...
If you can collaborate with me, then maybe we could...
We could compromise a bit on the admin side; you perhaps...
You could help me out a bit, and we could work together."
Think about it.
I'm starting to wind down this presentation, and one of the things which comes to my mind is that if you are looking to aspire for leadership roles, there are people you will be seeing who are pretty articulate in trying to...
You know, explain the problem, talk about how big or how gnarly or how hairy that problem is, but then there are people who basically give you that confidence and say, "Yes, I'll get it done."
Be that person.
Anyone who runs the organization, I promise you, notices that that confidence, that, "Yes, I'll get it done."
Likewise, I've also seen people who run after projects which are like the nice plum projects, that, "This is a project with high visibility; I really want to be part of it."
My advice to them would be like, "Don't worry too much about the size of the project and the visibility and the plum projects and so on; whatever work is given to you, try your best to nail it; the more you can do that, the more you get observed, everyone gets that trust and confidence on you."
If you're looking to move towards a leadership role, that trust and confidence from your senior leadership is really required.
This conference has been amazing on engineering culture; there have been so many people who talked about so many nice things.
I was hoping to summarize all of it, but it's way too much talk.
So, what I could just say that I've used this talk to remind you of what some of these leadership roles look like, some tips and tricks on how we could go around making things better.
If we make that small improvement in being a better leader, we can make our teams a bit better; we can inspire other teams to follow and thus influence the broader engineering culture within an organization.
Please make an effort to know what these leadership roles are like; don't just jump for it for the heck of it; go there with your eyes open; prepare for it, and think long and hard about it.
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