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71: Leading with a Developer-First Mindset with Kate Wardin of Target

Published March 30, 2021
Run time: 00:30:01
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When skilled developers become engineering managers, they often face a challenge in their transition from computer science to people science. Senior Engineering Manager at Target, Kate Wardin, joins the show to chat about how her own experience going from developer to manager resulted in her founding Developer First Leadership. She shares tips on how engineering managers can embrace the human side of software development, suggestions for companies struggling to fill open technical roles, and best practices for retaining tech talent within an organization.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • Why the career path for skilled developers often dead ends into a management position
  • What makes engineering management more challenging than traditional management roles
  • How to fill technical roles in a competitive landscape
  • How to diversify your talent acquisition approach
  • High-level tips for managers to implement for retaining technical talent

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded March 18, 2021 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Notes:

Constant Variables super-quick Listener Survey

Developer First website

TechRepublic article: Hiring developers is going to be your next big problem

Black Tech Talent

Grace Hopper

Radical Candor

Tim’s Developer First Conference Talk

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

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Today we are chatting with Kate Wardin, Senior Engineering Manager of Target Stores Mobile Technology. When Kate first shifted into a management position at Target, she was surprised to find that her new role didn't include formal training as a starting foundation for her new responsibilities. As it turns out, this isn't uncommon for new leaders. So Kate founded Developer First Leadership to provide leaders with soft skills and tactical methods to truly embrace the human side of software development. I had the privilege of speaking at the Developer First Conference last year, and given that we were all navigating the virtual conference scene together, I was truly impressed with what Kate pulled off, and I've been wanting to have her on the show ever since. So without further ado, here is my interview with Kate Wardin.

Kate, welcome to the show.

Kate Wardin 1:48
Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here. Tim,

Tim Bornholdt 1:50
I'm really excited to have you too. Why don't we kick things off with just telling us a little bit about yourself and why you started up Developer First?

Kate Wardin 1:57
Yeah, absolutely. So, my day job, I'm an engineering manager at Target corporate in Minneapolis. So for those who aren't familiar, we are a large retailer, have over 1800 stores and a very, you know, large online presence. So I lead a team there. We build mobile applications for stores, team members. And then yeah, as you mentioned, Developer First. So when I first was getting into the idea of getting into management, I was doing a bunch of research, and I was trying to figure out like, okay, like, you know, do I have the right skills? Do I have the, you know, right background? Like, am I going to be good at this role? And I had a lot of hesitation just by, you know, reading a lot of other, you know, folks' experiences of bad managers in the past. And so I was a little worried. But of course, you know, took on that role. And then when I got in the role, I found that I was just searching for books, resources, you know, anything I could find, I'd just consume, like, what does it mean to be a good leader. And I couldn't find anything that was immediate, that stuck out, you know. It's super easy to find a ton of like coding resources, you know, boot camps and stuff like that. So I found to get myself in my own personal experience. And so I started just to like, build a network in the community and wanted to just to provide resources for other folks who are going through that transition to an engineering manager. And so that's what Developer First really is, is like, you know, blog posts and articles, and we have a annual virtual conference, which you participated as a speaker last year, and then, you know, consulting, unique workshops for different organizations for their own energy management training programs.

Tim Bornholdt 3:40
Nice. I really loved speaking at Developer First, and it's so fascinating to me. This is my next question for you. I'm leading into it. I think it's always been fascinating to me to see that the path of growth for a developer is you go from junior, to just a standard developer, to a senior developer, and then all of a sudden, like, the only place you have to grow is to be a manager, and it's always just striked me as so odd. Because the skill sets that make you a good senior developer might not necessarily be the same strengths that would lead to you being a good manager. So why do you think that is, that that's the path that developers have to grow in their careers?

Kate Wardin 4:23
Yeah, you know, I think a couple of things. First is, it is exactly what you said, it's far too common, where, you know, the career kind of stops at that senior maybe lead level if you're lucky at an organization. And so I first of all encourage organizations, like please, try to extend that career path for folks who don't want to manage people so that you can get to higher levels and, you know, be compensated for more deep breadth technical expertise. So, like, let's get those principle staff level, you know, VP level but individual contributor roles if possible. So, you know, of course, that's not always the case.

But I think it is just really challenging because, you know, you're going from computer science to people science, and that looks a lot different on a day to day basis. And, you know, the success of your role looks a lot different once you are a manager. When you were an individual contributor, it's all about like, you know, of course, am I accomplishing enough? Am I delivering value? Am I ramping up my own technical skills? And then as a leader, you know, in my opinion, a good leader, it's, am I helping my team accomplish enough? And how am I helping others, you know, advance their skill set? So, success is just like a lot more indirect, which can be really challenging for people to feel like they're adding value right away as a manager.

But I think to answer that initial question, it's like, I think organizations haven't really, I think they've come to realize that, but they haven't put in that investment of like, Okay, we have to acknowledge that not everyone wants to go from, Hey I'm really, really good and deep in this technology, to, Okay, now I'm gonna manage people who are the same. Like, we should figure out ways to still elevate and promote those people into individual contributor roles, if they don't want to go from computer science to people science. So I think that's a mindset shift that I'm seeing happening, like, as I'm working with more and more organizations, and just, you know, keeping up on the trends, but a ton of organizations it is, it's like, you reach this peak of your career as an individual contributor, and you're at this fork in the road, and you're like, Well, I want to continue advancing at this company, and so I must have to get into management. Which I think is, you know, a shame for a lot of people, because then I'm sure as you've done some reading, like you lose those technical skills pretty quickly, once you get in the management path for a lot of folks, because your time is just consumed with other things. So yeah, it's definitely a problem that I've seen.

Tim Bornholdt 6:51
Well, and on top of it, it's like, managing is hard, just in and of itself. But engineering management is easily one of the most challenging roles you could see in tech organizations. What makes engineering management more challenging than, you know, any other kind of management role?

Kate Wardin 7:10
Yeah, I think, I've been kind of reflecting on this thought too, I think, you know, it's unique, because it's the intersection of like, technology, first of all. You have to stay, you know, well versed in technology. And then it's also a process. And then, of course, it's people. And these are three really, really hard things. And so when you pile those three on, it's like, Wow, what a challenging role. And, you know, in most organizations, in that engineering manager role, you're still like, on those frontline teams of the organizations, and so you're fighting fires, but you're also needing to be, like, strategic to help people set a vision and then work towards that. So I think it's just a variety of different challenges that you have to face on a day to day basis that require a ton of context switching, which, of course, is challenging in itself. But I think really like that intersection of tech, process, and people makes it that unique role that just is hard to build those well-rounded toolkits of skills that are going to allow you to be successful in the role.

Tim Bornholdt 8:18
Well, and I think a lot of it might be, I completely agree with what you're saying, first off. I'll throw that out there. I think adding on to it, in our community of developers, there seems to be a lot of praise heaped on to the kind of developer that is, you know, fresh out of college, willing to spend 18 hours a day sitting behind the computer, hacking away and just coding and also being, you know, lavishly rewarded for that behavior. It kind of makes you inward focused, as opposed to, you know, what makes a good manager is someone who's able to be outward focused and think about problems that are, you know, obviously, there's the problems that you're affecting day to day when, like you said, you're fighting fires on the front lines. But then you also need to be the person in the back directing the troops. So it's almost like the chief of the fire department going out with a bucket of water and dumping it on the fire while also trying to manage all the activity of putting out the fire. It's no wonder it's like a chaotic job.

Kate Wardin 9:19
Yeah, that's a really good analogy. I like that. It's true. It is true. That's how it feels a lot of days. I'm sure a lot of engineer managers could relate.

Tim Bornholdt 9:27
Absolutely. On a similar note here, you know, talking about 2020, a lot of companies are doubling down on trying to find tech talent. So not just engineering, like management, but just talent in general, which is great news for us developers, but it's not so great for companies that are looking to find them. Jenny and I when we were doing research found this article that said 61% of HR professionals are reporting that finding qualified developers is their biggest recruitment challenge of 2021. And, you know, we're noticing a lot of clients reaching out to us just because they have a need for an iOS or an Android role that they can't fill. What advice do you have for companies that are trying to find tech talent in this time where, you know, us developers are in crazy high demand?

Kate Wardin 10:14
I mean, first of all, what a great time to be, you know, in consulting at JMG. I mean, a silver lining, but that shows just like how, you know, talented and amazing the services that you provide are, but no, it is challenging. So like, you know, working at a larger organization, I think, like I am in that position of like, Oh, my gosh, we just feel like it's impossible to fill, especially some of these, like lead level positions, like folks who really could just, you know, they have their pick of where they want to work. And one thing that I've learned, and I'm sure this isn't like groundbreaking news, but it's really not about the money, you know, that money is a very temporary motivator. So we have to look at, you know, what else are we advertising. How can we show people what it would be like to work within this organization long term. And so some things I think are really cool that organizations who might not be like known for their tech, right, like, you're not GitHub, or Google, or, you know, but you're trying to recruit, you know, top level talent. Promote, like, external tech blogs, get your engineers to write about the cool projects that they're working on, like when you can release that type of information, so that the external community can see what that is, and so you can become more like a tech brand.

Other ways to do that, you know, contributing to open source projects on behalf of your company, give some volunteer time of your technical teams to help nonprofits, just get getting your name out there as a technology organization, when maybe that's not your first business, is a really great way to recruit talent. Just making sure, you know, you have those good ambassadors of your culture to do things, like I said, like writing tech blogs, contributing to open source, speaking at conferences about the cool stuff you're building, the cool technology you're building. Also, just like, looking at and being really thoughtful and intentional about where you're showing up to recruit.

So I know a lot of organizations just get stuck in that routine of, Okay, we're going to go to the same four year university every single year. We have good partnerships with this university, which is, you know, all good. But I think it's also important to say, like, Let's make sure we're also trying to recruit and give folks from diverse backgrounds an opportunity at these positions. So expanding where you're showing up, looking at other, you know, meetups and conferences, like Grace Hopper Conference for women technologists, Afro tech is another organization that I know we've been partnering with. So just like thinking differently too about talent acquisition, and where you're showing up to recruit, and then also, you know, trying to promote yourself as a technical brand, and a great culture to work for, from an engineering standpoint, is, I think, a good investment other than just trying to, like, you know, throw money at people to try to get them in the door.

And also, you mentioned 2020, and so like, obviously, remote is going to be a huge factor for folks. So thinking about like, Okay, what roles can we be flexible on offering remote positions? Where can't you be flexible? But just like, also taking this opportunity to think about that again, and create new strategies when it comes to what teams could we have all remote teams there, or which teams shouldn't be remote and just being a little flexible and adaptive there too. Because I know, you know, for a fact that a lot of people are going to say, Hey, I really like this situation of working from home, and I'm going to find my next company that will let me do that.

Tim Bornholdt 13:51
It's funny how much I've found running a tech company, a lot of people give us deference when we're in a room with them talking strategy, because we as technologists have this, like, you know, wizardry about us that we can just conjure up, you know, summon things from the ether and produce value for the business. And I find that the companies that make it so it's not like that, where it's not putting the developers on a pedestal, it's more of like having developers just have a seat at the table and having your engineering team actually be parts of the conversation, that's what's gonna make you like, way more likely, and again, it's not something you can put on your website necessarily. It all comes from the things you said, of like having ambassadors on your team that say, Hey, our company treats us fairly and listens to us. You have to make this a long game, right? Like it can't just be, What quick fix can we due to get talent in the door now? It's like, you have to have done some stuff before to set up your organization to be a good place people ought to work. Because you can, you know, throw somebody a ton of money, but then pretty quickly, they'll work for you for a couple of years, and then they'll be out the door with a nice plush bank account, hopefully. If you want to have like a good long term team that's going to help continue to drive value forward in the future, just treating people with respect and giving them opportunities to let their voices be heard at a higher level is one of the tricks I've learned. It's not even really a trick, I guess, it's just more of like a decent human thing to do, I guess.

Kate Wardin 15:32
Yeah, I totally agree. And I think I heard, I wish I remember the source of it, but there was something about how like, kind of to your point about let's focus on the people side of software development and let's focus on advertising, Hey, we also develop these great leaders who care about you as a human. And it was like, this is like the one missed recruitment strategy is talking about how cool leadership programs are and how companies are invested in making sure that they're building great leaders, because those are the people who are gonna be supporting these humans who are building software. So yeah, I completely agree.

Tim Bornholdt 15:32
Yeah. And going back to something you said before too about just being intentional with where you're looking. There are so many organizations popping up now, like Black Tech Talent and the Grace Hopper, like you said, some of those institutions where it's like, developers don't have to look like, you know, me. I'll be honest, like, they all look like me, just a white dude, with a big beard, starting to bald. You know? We don't all have to look like that. Right? Like our opinion and our voice has been heard and relevant in technology since its inception. And there's a lot of other voices out there that can lend very interesting and unique perspectives to a problem. And, frankly, it's like, just good business to be bringing in all those voices so that you're making sure you have the widest net possible with whatever you're trying to do as a business.

Kate Wardin 17:03
Right. Yeah. I mean, we could talk for hours about how valuable diversity and inclusion is, you know, on any team. So, yeah, I completely agree for many reasons.

Tim Bornholdt 17:14
It's one of those things where it's just, Do we have to keep talking about it? But we do, like, we have to keep talking about it. Because clearly a vast majority of people haven't gotten the message yet. There's obviously being a good person is one thing, and you should want to do that. But if you're going to be a selfish capitalist, you know, kind of person, like, why wouldn't you look at it from that perspective? You know?

Kate Wardin 17:36
Right, exactly. I mean, there's numbers to show how much more successful diverse teams are right, if like financial things are your thing. But, yeah, it's true. There's a lot of talk, which I think is good progress, but now it's about like, okay, let's see some results of that. Let's see some action. Let's see, you know, in two years, I want to see a more equitable, you know, opportunity for folks to join tech and make sure that they do have those opportunities and that we're giving them and we're amplifying and we're, you know, advocating for people actively because we do have to make up for lost time.

Tim Bornholdt 18:08
Agree. So we've been touching on recruiting and getting people in the door, kind of slightly changing topics here. So I've heard you say that developers leave managers, not companies. What advice do you have for those that are currently in a management role with regards to retaining talent? And how are you at Developer First helping companies and individual leaders with this?

Kate Wardin 18:31
Yeah, yeah. So I'll describe how I even thought of the name Developer Firs., I was like, beating my head against the wall, because I wanted something to really resonate with my own leadership style, and what I've found, you know, works and that feels, you know, more natural to me than the old command and control style. But so, a phrase that I love to share is that, you know, as managers, we work for our teams, and not the other way around. And so if I think about, you know, developer first, like I should always, in all of my actions, I should be thinking about how am I serving my team on a day to day basis. And I think those values, just that in itself, will go a long way, because you're going to be intentionally picking up tasks and doing things that are going to help your team members grow and be successful. And so that's just kind of a highest level of description of Developer First,.I can get a little bit more specific. I actually have a talk where I cover like, seven, you know, high level tips, so I could walk through some of those as at a very high level, if that would help too.

Tim Bornholdt 19:35
Yeah, let's do it.

Kate Wardin 19:36
Okay, sure. Okay, so the first one is for managers to make sure that they're, again, like I said, working to figure out what can I do to help my team. So this, to me, means like, we're removing blockers that prevent people from making progress towards what they're doing on day to day basis, towards those professional and, of course, those personal goals that developers have. So, on a day to day basis, I'm asking questions like, you know, Okay, what processes are broken? What's harder than it should be right now on this team? What do people in the team complain about? So that's the first one, is really just like, how can I make this team have less friction, like work better together folks enjoy doing it along the way.

The second one's empowerment, asking questions that help people reach a new perspective on the problem that they're trying to solve and making sure that we're not just giving them the answers. Because, you know, as a lot of folks who came, you know, into the engineering management role as previous engineers, it can be so, so hard to not say, Oh, my gosh, I know exactly how to do this. I'm just going to tell them how to do it. And, you know, instead ask the right questions to help them get there.

Tim Bornholdt 20:50
Oh, that is such a hard one.

Kate Wardin 20:52
Yeah, it is, because you're like, Oh, I know the solution. But I can't. I need to let you get there. And I think in any, honestly, like, regardless of industry, probably any management position can relate to that.

Tim Bornholdt 21:03
Totally, and any parent too because I've got a four-year-old and a two-year-old, and I'm just like, you know, Just put the fork in your mouth and eat the food. But that's not motivating. You've got to find the right way to empower them to do it. You know, so yeah, I totally get it.

Kate Wardin 21:20
Exactly, yeah. Oh, it's true. It's with parenting too. That's a very good point. And then the third. The third is, so in leadership, to make sure that you're sharing credit and taking blame. So we're associating names with accomplishments, we're taking responsibility, and really being loyal as a leader when the team is recovering from an ugly failure. So, being in tech, things are gonna go wrong, we're gonna have outages, we're gonna have to, you know, speak to people who are angry about those outages. And here, it's really about like, you're representing the team, you're responsible, you're accountable. You're not throwing people under the bus. Of course, you're giving people an opportunity, like, if that's interesting to them, and they want to talk about it. Like, of course, you're, you know, paving the way and helping them have those conversations. But as a leader, you're never blaming others, especially those on your team.

Tim Bornholdt 22:16
I love it. Yeah, I couldn't agree more.

Kate Wardin 22:18
Yeah, then the next one is, and I love this one the most, and I think you will, too, is to never devalue people in the process of delivering a solution. Of course, like we said before, we have to recognize that everyone is human first, and then software engineer. And part of that, especially in the management role, is a lot of emotional labor that a lot of people didn't really realize that they might be signing up for. And so there's a really good book, have you read it, Radical Candor. Okay, I love that book. And I remember the first chapter, I've read it like six times, because it just resonates so much. But Kim Scott's trying to walk to her office. So she got out of her car. And like, as she's, you know, walking past all the desks of the engineers on her team or her, you know, team members, they're all running up to her and saying, Oh, my son had the surgery last night. I'm really, you know, worried about it. Or, Oh, my daughter, you know, got a really good score on the SAT. And so she's consuming all of these emotions from all of the folks that she is supporting and leading. By the time she gets to her desk, you know, it's been an hour and a half, and she's just, like, totally drained. And I think that's just something that with the role you have to take on, and good leaders are ones who show that they they care about you as a human first. And that's why I think it's cool when when companies do say, We invest in our leaders, because we know that they are, you know, the forefront of your experience as a person at this company.

Tim Bornholdt 23:43
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I'm just gonna let you keep rolling because my neck's staring to hurt with how much I'm nodding along with you.

Kate Wardin 23:52
Okay, I'll keep going, just making sure I'm not sounding like a robot. Okay, the next one, be vulnerable and authentic. You know, vulnerability to me is the ability to own your mistakes, areas, when you don't know something, which I'm doing all the time in my role. I don't know anything about Android development. I should bring you in. And, you know, I'm not trying to cover up for that, though. I'm not trying to like say, like, Oh, I know best or like, I'm not trying to, you know, hide conversations that I'm asking, you know, what I think are stupid questions. I'm showing my team that it's okay to ask questions publicly, because I know that other people are going to learn from that.

And then one of the less exciting ones, but I think is like super important is that we have that ability to effectively prioritize and focus. I truly, truly believe that the number one skill as a new leader, especially a new leader, is the ability to know what really matters at any given moment. And we have to prioritize those things. So if it's like, I have to spend my energy working with this business partner, which I remember your talk was so amazing. And I remember seeing the title of your talk and like, Oh my gosh, I need to listen to this. So you're talk at the conference was so good, because it's something that like, you just have to know, like, Okay, I got to spend some energy on this today, or I have to spend some energy and time, you know, working with this engineer who's struggling. So it's all about what should I be spending my time and energy on, and that will just help you carry through.

And then the last one is just pretty simple. It's just to focus on those interpersonal skills that you might not have needed to flex as much before. To your point of, like, when you think of a software developer, they're working 18 hour days, just alone, and maybe not communicating as much, which we all know, isn't necessarily reality, but that's like the stereotype, right? And so, you know, in one on ones, we're working to uncover issues with team members, we're taking a pulse on that person and the team, and we're working to foster trust and give effective feedback. And so I think, as a manager, investing in those interpersonal skills is really important. And so those are kind of, at a high level, the different pillars that I see of, I want people on my team to want to stay on my team and to want to continue working with me and at my organization, of course. And so when I think about retention, those are kind of the core things and pillars that I think about.

Tim Bornholdt 26:13
And like I said, all seven of those, I was just nodding along because they all make perfect sense to me. And I've lived all of them as someone that just kind of accidentally found themselves running a company and being in charge of developers. And the one that you said was the most boring, actually, it's the one that I struggle with the most is effectively prioritizing and focusing. Because it seems that you know, we're conditioned as we grow up, like you go to school, like high school, they tell you exactly what to do. And then you go to college, and it's kind of like, Well, you get to pick your schedule, and you kind of got to go through here. And then if you just work for somebody else, you always have somebody just directing and telling you what to do. But when you're the one that's having to give out that work and and distribute it, it's a whole different skill set that none of us really prepare for as we go through high school and college. And even like, in your job as a developer, it's not like if you're a junior developer, you're not sitting there architecting how the platform works, someone's telling you like, Hey, build this. And then you go and build it. So yeah, that's, I would say of all the seven. Is there any one of those of the seven that you are particularly like, Yeah, I'm really glad I put that one on this list?

Kate Wardin 27:22
Actually, honestly, like, for those reasons, it's just a skill set that you hear, time management. Oh, that's easy, you know, you just book your calendar, or you can prioritize, or whatever that is, but there's always like 16 number one priorities that you should really be focusing on, and the ability to figure out, Okay, what is most important? And, yeah, how do I organize my time and just knowing that how you organize your time is very reflective of what's important to you. So you want to just be cognizant of that too. But, you know, that one really sticks out to me as one that I struggle with, one that I see a lot of people struggle with, and one that people just brush off as, Oh, no, I learned that in school, which we really didn't, to your point.

Tim Bornholdt 28:06
If you're considering moving into this field, just realize you haven't learned it, you need to go learn it.

Kate Wardin 28:11
Yeah, exactly. There's always too much to do and not enough time.

Tim Bornholdt 28:16
Well, speaking of which, I know you have another meeting you have to jump off for. So Kate, I really appreciate you taking time today to chat with me about all of this stuff. How can people get in touch with you if they want to learn more about finding developers and helping to train and encourage people to becoming engineering managers.

Kate Wardin 28:31
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much. And I really enjoyed chatting with you, too, Tim. So my website is Developer-First.com. And so that actually is the best place. We have everything linked off of there.

Tim Bornholdt 28:42
I love it. Go check it out and hit up Kate if you have any questions on that front, and, Kate, once again, thank you for joining me today. I had an absolute blast.

Kate Wardin 28:49
Yeah, thank you so much, Tim.

Tim Bornholdt 28:52
Thanks to Kate Wardin for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about Kate and the Developer First Leadership Program at Developer-First.com.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast.

Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the radiant Jordan Daoust.

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