In this Perspectives in Engineering interview series, engineering leaders talk about how to build, coach, and scale world-class technology teams.
The outset of Julie Zhuo’s career tells a familiar story: an engineer joins an early-stage startup and within a few years is promoted to “manager”—without any real training or understanding around what a successful manager does.
What’s unique about Zhuo’s story, though, is that the startup she joined was the rocket ship that is Facebook—and eight years later she’s now the VP of Product Design.
“I was initially excited about the idea of becoming a manager because I felt woefully underprepared, because I hadn’t been training on this path this entire time. I had no idea what to do, or what success looked like for me in my job.”
She looked for management resources at the bookstore, finding tons of great reads about leadership—but practically none for someone starting from scratch like she was. She wanted Management 101: The Basics, not the studies built for executives or the flashiest new leadership models.
I felt like I could grow as a leader. But I had no idea what to do, or what success looked like for me in my job.”
So now that she’s gone through the process herself, she’s written the book on it too. The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You came out this spring. “This is the book that I wished that I had when I was twenty-five,” she says.
Zhuo’s book is a rich resource for both fledgling managers and senior leaders alike. In this interview, Zhuo expands on some of the topics covered in her book. She covers the manager’s domain and why there’s often a delta between expectations and reality about the role; how a leader can provide the most value by focusing on people, processes, and purpose; and how building authentic, trusting relationships is inherent to managing effectively and meaningfully.
One manager, many roles
One of the challenges of becoming a manager—particularly in a smaller startup where there may not have been well-defined managerial roles beforehand—is knowing what exactly the manager’s role is in the first place.
“All of us have this notion of what a manager is,” Zhuo says. “If we’ve ever had a job, even in high school or college, we likely had a supervisor or a manager. Oftentimes our parents had managers, or we see managers and bosses portrayed on TV and in the movies. We go into the role with these preconceived notions—the manager makes decisions, the manager hires and fires, the manager tells people what to do and what projects they get. That was a lot of my impression of a manager going in.”
And those are accurate impressions, by and large. They’re just not complete.
Managers rely on context
Zhuo says that managers don’t come by those powers for free. They’re not hiring, firing, assigning, and deciding in a vacuum. And they’re only doing those things at all because they develop a sound understanding of what the team is focusing on and how they’re doing.
“It’s very hard to make decisions if you don’t have the context about the work,” she says. “It’s very hard to hire people if you don’t have a clear understanding of what kind of people the team needs to be successful.”
Thus, the conception that managers just tell people what to do is misguided. They are going to get poor results without sharing an understanding of why the work is important, or what a team member’s strengths are.
“Through the process of learning to be a manager, I had to continue to peel back the layers of the onion, from what my conceptions were to what reality is,” Zhuo says. “Why does this job exist? And what does it mean for managers to be successful?”
The team’s success is the manager’s domain
There’s good reason that software development is more than a bunch of engineers working independently. “There are goals that we think a team of people can achieve better than an individual person alone,” Zhuo says. “A great manager gets that team to reach that goal or perform the thing that they were meant to do, faster and with higher quality, and in a more cohesive and better way.”
Note what Zhuo doesn’t say: she never mentions that it’s the manager’s job to solve the team’s technical problems or create the team’s product. That’s the engineer’s domain, and (always to some degree) not the manager’s.
“You can engage the rest of the talent of the team to work through those problems,” she says. “I always try to tell new managers that they don’t need to feel like they are the ones personally who have to solve every problem their teams are going through. Their job is just to make sure the team solves those problems, and to support them in doing so.”
When managers can open up the team’s problems for other people on the team to solve, then they’re going to get great outcomes, Zhuo notes, and get them probably sooner and better. “And you’re probably also going to save yourself a lot of stress, by not putting everything on your own shoulders,” she adds.
The Three Areas of Focus: People, Process, and Purpose
Effective managers are typically not involved in the details of the team’s technical work. Instead, they identify the levers they can pull to add the most value to their teams. Zhuo identifies three of these levers: people, process, and purpose.
Lever 1: People
It won’t come as a surprise that People are the most important focus area: it includes hiring new members onto the team, and creating opportunities for the existing team to grow are. Hiring people can be difficult, but understanding what the team needs from both a skills and work behavior perspective will transform the way the team works. But even still, hiring is only half the story—it takes more than that to nurture a sustainably effective team.
Being there to coach people, and ensuring that someone’s role is a good fit between what the team needs and what the person wants… This is the art of managing.”
“One huge part of that lever is being there to coach people, and ensuring that someone’s role is a good fit between what the team needs and what the person wants,” Zhuo says. “This is the art of managing. At the end of the day, you’re working with a group of people, and everyone is different. Everyone has different needs, different desires, maybe different styles or personalities. Yet this group of people has to work together well.”
How can managers ensure that each person’s strengths and superpowers can become team strengths? Zhuo takes two approaches: one, managers need to identify when someone’s “wrong” for the team, which is entirely situational, but may include employees who aren’t contributing well or creating a toxic environment. And two, it’s about matching people to the right problems so their skills are being leveraged in a meaningful way—which includes receiving constant feedback and coaching, and providing opportunities where team members can acquire new skills.
Lever 2: Process
Beyond hiring and nurturing the team, managers can focus on the Process to define structure that helps improve the scalability and predictability of the team’s workflows.
Zhuo compares a technology team to a symphony. “You might have the right number of flute players, the right number of cellos, and so forth, but if people don’t all know how to take cues from the conductor, then they’re not going to be able to play together harmoniously,” she says. “Or, if they’re not sitting in the right configuration, so the bass player is blocking the flute player from seeing the conductor. You’re not going to get great work even if the people are very talented.”
However Process is defined in a team—Zhuo calls it the rules around how we solve problems, how we work through conflict, and how we ensure that everyone has clear information flow—it’s a malleable construct. And it doesn’t exist for its own sake. Rather, it delineates how the team develops and communicates both as a whole and between individual people, and it can enable a team to up its effectiveness on both macro- and micro-levels.
Lever 3: Purpose
Purpose, according to Zhuo, is knowing what success looks like and mapping the team’s work to organizational objectives and outcomes. What is the purpose of a team? What is this team aiming for? The manager’s role in pulling that lever is to continuously map work to outcomes and communicate purpose, and ensure that everyone has the same understanding of what a job well done means within the team.
Part of managing a team is understanding that you have to give power away; you have to allow and enable your team to make decisions.”
A starting point for many teams is knowing the mission of the company, then moving to what the team’s goals or metrics of success are. “I think managers need to make those extremely concrete and specific,” Zhuo says, “because again, you could have very talented people, you can have them seated in the right place, you can have them all knowing how to read signs by the conductor, but if they’ve all got different sheet music, then you’re still not going to get a great symphony.”
When people know what the team values and they have the autonomy to make decisions based on those values, they can be great. Managers can’t be on the ground for every decision being made; they need to trust that they’ve given team members enough context to make the best choices possible.
“Part of managing a team is understanding that you have to give power away, and you have to allow and enable your team to make decisions,” Zhuo says. “To make the best decisions with the context that they have, teams need to understand what a great decision looks like, and why. Do that and you’ve provided something to anchor on, which can be a source of motivation.”
Authenticity is the key to building trust
None of the above levers matters, however, unless managers can succeed at building trust with their direct reports. “Everything depends on it,” Zhuo says.
She offers three ways for managers and leaders to assess whether they are developing authentic relationships with their teams—and to improve, if they discover they are less approachable than they want to be.
Invite vulnerability by presenting your own
At any point—most especially when a manager is new to a team—Zhuo confirms that it’s critical to invest in the interpersonal relationships between leaders and their teams. Building sound relationships means that managers are genuinely getting to know the other people on the team, and that other people grow comfortable sharing what they care about and what issues they’re running into.
“The way that you can do that is this: If you’re going to invite vulnerability from others, then you have to also come to the table and present your own vulnerability,” Zhuo says. “If you come off as super buttoned-up, very formal, then guess what, that other person’s going to be real formal with you too.”
Being vulnerable doesn’t mean sharing your deepest darkest secrets with team members. Rather, it means acknowledging that you’re new to this role—new to managing this team, or management period. It means being present with the team and letting them know that their success is your success. It means inviting feedback, and then being receptive to it. And it means acknowledging that you are fallible.
You don’t need to know all the answers
One of the biggest pitfalls Zhuo sees tripping up new managers is that they feel they can’t ask for help, that they have to appear authoritative and confident. She believes this sense is grounded in witnessing how other managers behave. But those managers, by and large, earned their authority and confidence through hard-won experience. Faking confidence or authority is inauthentic, and people can sense it.
“You don’t have to pretend like you know all the answers,” Zhuo says. “You can say things like, ‘I am new. I’ve got a lot to learn about how to be as effective as possible. I’d like your help in that. If you think there’s anything that I could be doing better, or if you have any feedback for me, please share that.’”
This particular form of vulnerability not only affords managers opportunities to improve—it also makes it easier for other team members to trust leaders, because they’re seeing them be open and curious about their inexperience. “They see that you’re asking for their help, so it makes them more comfortable asking for your help and accepting feedback from you,” Zhuo says.
Be willing to put your standing to the litmus test
It can be tough to know how all this authenticity is going. You think know how authentic you’re being, but you don’t know if they know. You know?
Zhuo knows. And that’s why she puts herself frequently to the litmus test for a trusting relationship.
“If a person had a really bad week, or their project is not going well, are they going to tell me because I can help them?” she asks. “If so, that means they really do trust me. But if I sense their answer might be, ‘Oh crap, I don’t want my manager to know. I’m afraid my manager will judge me. Let me try and spin the story so it sounds more positive,’ then I haven’t achieved a trusting relationship with that person.”
Because it can be difficult to know whether team members are bubbling up blockers as they face them, Zhuo asks herself a couple questions to assess the level of trust in between her and her team:
- Are there other instances of this person struggling, or in need of help, and talking to me about it?
- In 1:1s, does the person give in-depth and vulnerable assessments of what’s going on, or is the response always simple, like “Things are fine”?
- Do I think this person would want to work for me again, if they had the choice? “It’s sort of like this,” Zhuo says. “If you have to ask if person X is a friend of yours, they’re not. The people who are close to you make it pretty obvious.” Sometimes you might not be sure whether an engineer would work with you again—in which case, assume it’s a no.
The answers to these questions, Zhuo says, will guide you to an understanding of how much time and improvement that relationship needs to be truly trusting and authentic.
Facebook’s Julie Zhuo offers her universal insights into how to become a more effective manager—good for both brand-new managers and those looking to up their game.
- Being a manager is so much more than our conceptions of what managers do. We see leaders at the top of their game and think that’s all a manager does—but behind the curtain, effective managers must rely on context to make all their decisions, and they must be willing to hand off the technical powers to their teams in order to allow teams to succeed.
- The three most actionable levers for managers to pull are people, process, and purpose. Zhuo draws the comparison between an engineering team and a symphony: managers need to hire the best musicians they can find, across the full spectrum of instruments included in the symphony, and arrange them in such a way to maximize their talents and make sweet, sweet music the best they can.
- Authentic, trusting relationships make everything else tick. Managers who acknowledge their own imperfections, who ask their teams for support and feedback as they improve themselves as leaders, will invite a similar openness from their teams. No manager has all the answers—and pretending otherwise will raise barriers to trust. And, managers can evaluate their inter-team relationships at any time by asking themselves a few simple questions.
Zhuo’s book, The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You, is available now, and it builds on these and other concepts for anyone aiming to create strong foundations for leadership.