The Fast Track to Engineering Leadership - In Conversation with Christian McCarrick
Christian McCarrick dons many hats, the most prominent of them being his current role at Auth0 as the VP of Engineering where he manages distributed teams spread across the globe. With a vision to improve the craft of engineering leadership, he hosts a popular podcast called SimpleLeadership which features his conversations with top technology leaders about how to grow as a leader and be successful. He is also actively involved in mentoring new engineering managers.
We were lucky enough to get a chance to chat with him about his journey so far in his career and his motivation towards mentoring new engineering managers.
Here’s a transcript of his interview:
I run all engineering and operations for Auth0. We are an identity and authorization provider for developers. We provide “identity” as a service that other companies include in their code to offer authentication for their end-users. We are equivalent to a Twilio or Stripe for Identity space. We are a team of 100+ engineers, and 70% of our engineering team is distributed across South America, North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific.
We target both startups and developer teams with medium and large traditional companies.
Your career started as an Engineer. What motivated you to take the path of an Engineering Manager/Leader?
As an Engineer, there is only so much you can do, and I found that I enjoyed having the biggest multiplier effect at places where I have worked. I sort of view Engineering Management as horizontally scaling where I can grow, coach and mentor other engineers so that the overall output of the system is greater. At the same time, I had a few managers who were excellent and some who were not so great. Good managers make a significant impact on their team’s velocity and quality of output.
Before I got into technology, I had thought about going to med school and being a university professor. I learn from some of the professors on how they were able to make a bigger impact by coaching and mentoring, which created a physiological safety and trust and the conversations that happened in those environments were so trustworthy, better, etc. Google has done a lot of research around physiological safety/trusted environments, but nobody really applied that physiology to software.
There has been good renaissance over the last couple of years with people really caring about Engineering Leaders and management as a domain to be improved upon in software engineering environments.
This discipline has been more important for fast-growing startups and also for personal job satisfaction and mental health of their technical leaders.
As an engineer, you can choose to move to a cross-functional role in product, marketing, sales, customer success, etc. Why did you choose to stick and scale in the engineering function?
There are a lot more choices now than when I was growing up my career, the dual-track of engineering is very important and not every company has that.
I am a technologist at heart, so I want to stay close to the environment of building and shipping stuff. At previous companies, I had the opportunity to take on some product roles that were under a similar umbrella of engineering.
I now see engineers opting for product roles and some of the best PMs I worked with had a great understanding of the technology, had empathy for end-users and had the knack of understanding what customers were asking vs what they really meant while continuing to work closely with their engineering counterparts to get things done.
For me personally, some of my interests led me to view people as systems, tackle very interesting technical challenges and try to coach and mentor people.
There is a ton of content for engineers and people who want to code, but there aren’t many great resources available around Engineering Management and Leadership; why do you think that is the case?
It’s hard to get engineers to document anything. Engineering Leadership wasn’t a focus area until the last four to five years when the revelation came.
Conferences like Lead Developers, ManagersPath and books like Crucial Conversations, help to get some perspective on Engineering Management. Harvard Business Review has a great set of articles around Engineering Leadership and General Management.
Some of the conferences and events now have specific themes around Engineering Management and Managing teams. While in principle, the concepts are the same, there are nuances of how they apply to fast-paced/growth companies. For example, you might go from being an IC to being a Director in under 12 months, whereas it would take five years or longer in traditional companies.
You need to be able to absorb/evolve overnight in fast-paced environments, which had caused some of the problems. I am a strong proponent that if you get a CS degree, there should be some level of non-technical coverage around management, project management, etc.
You have been an Engineering Leader at approximately seven to eight companies. What are some of the characteristics of high-performing Engineering teams?
This depends on the stage of growth of the company. Overall, some of the most important things that high performing teams go back to trust are physiological safety and not being interrupted. Nothing frustrates engineers more than when they are working toward a goal, and constantly interrupted by sales teams or changing priorities.
Teams that have a strong purpose and understand how their work matters and impacts the company perform better, these teams ship frequently, gather prototypal feedback, and aim to get to production quickly.
Do you think Engineering Managers in technology or developer-first companies like Google, Twilio, Auth0, etc. have seen faster career success than traditional companies like Financial services, Hardware, Logistics, Retail, etc?
I don’t know if I can point to a definite trend but it’s interesting to be a leader at Stripe, Twilio, Shopify etc. where the end customer is a developer himself. It’s very important for engineers to have strong empathy for end-user needs, and it's a lot harder to develop that when you work in logistics, medical devices, etc.
One good example is the engineers at Etsy, where they or their close ones operate online stores. It’s important that they connect and are passionate about the cause or that they see themselves as the end-users.
Not everyone can do that; small growing companies allow engineers and engineering leaders to be closer to their customers, which allow them to produce very high-quality products and make a higher impact on the business; thus, allowing them to accelerate their careers faster.
For an aspiring Engineering Leader; does ambition, skill, opportunity or the ability of an individual to take risks lead to fast-track career growth or is it a combination of the above?
Number one is Opportunity. Some people have a clear career path, but the majority of people who go into Engineering Management are almost filing a hole (someone has either left a company, a company is fast-growing, an acquisition occurs, etc.)
While opportunity is half of it, risk-taking and ambition are required. In fast-growing companies, there are always opportunities. Taking higher risks has its rewards, not necessarily financial, but an opportunity to take up a leadership role.
Leaders who want themselves, their organizations, and the people reporting to them to be successful take in much pressure. Delivering success under this high pace will allow them to scale rapidly and help grow their careers fast.
However, it all starts with an opportunity.
You have a pretty busy schedule at fast-growing Auth0. What motivated you to start SimpleLeadership Podcast in the first place?
I actually love to write and wanted to have a blog, but I never got myself to write.
I thought it’s much easier to record, so I started a podcast and it turned out to be a lot more work than I expected.
I started cold emailing/reaching out on Twitter and had to spend time preparing for these conversations. Finding guests, scheduling, and post-production are all a lot of work; thankfully, I got some sponsorship given the success of the SimpleLeadership Podcast.
These interviews are my weekly therapy sessions in which I exchange notes with peers and gain comfort from the idea that I wasn't the only one to tackle problems at my job.
From your experience interviewing engineering leaders, have you felt that this community needs more avenues for its members to learn from one another or that they want to be heard?
It’s less likely they want to be heard, but more that they would like to give back. Some of it is altruistic, meaning we would love to give back/karma. If we give enough to the community, groom the next set of leaders, it’s very likely that they will be ready for their roles, and it will help them accelerate their careers, attract the right talent and coach talent that will help them to grow themselves and their companies faster.
Christian, thanks so much for your time and for sharing some of the things you’ve learned and you honesty in sharing them with our audience. We really appreciate it.