Name: Katie Womersley
Current position: VP of Engineering at Buffer
Katie is the VP of Engineering at Buffer,which is a globally distributed team with no offices.She’s co-authored “97 Things Every Engineering Manager Should Know” and “Atomic Migration Strategy for Web Teams”, both with O’Reilly. Katie is currently lead author on the definitive guide to remote work, coming soon through holloway.com. She is a champion of remote work and believes distributed teams are the future of technology.
Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
Literally, anything. I was that developer who liked to learn, and learned by signing up for things I couldn’t do yet. That started when I taught myself to code by offering to build small, static sites, and teaching myself how to do that when I saw that people had a demand for me to fill that gap. The projects and roles I gravitated towards where the ones that needed me, and where I’d learn most. I was happiest as a generalist developer and most enjoyed chaotic teams who needed help and fire fighting support!
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
Refusing to delegate because I was so worried about whether my reports thought that I was “valuable” or “useful”. So I tried to do everything myself in a misguided attempt to prove my worth. I had a horror of being this manager in the picture – I wanted to help dig the hole! So I was a meddler who burned myself doing useless or even actively blocking tasksrather than let my team get on with their jobs and find other valuable things to do — i.e. ‘Give away my lego”.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
One thing I wished I had done more was networking within the organisation – there must have been so many interesting people across technology, strategy, analytics, consulting – but it’s easier said than done with over 300000 people globally, which are surprisingly disconnected. Having been to endless networking events and conferences now, I know that I could have been more pro-active and determined in those corporate days when it comes to connection-building.
What made you keep doing it?
It felt very natural and brought me a ton of satisfaction to see people around me flourish.
Tell us a fun fact that (nearly) nobody knows about you
I’m pretty decent at playing the theremin! (that peculiar instrument that makes alien noises)
What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
Be an ethical leader and create physical and psychological safety. Research shows that this single skill is most associated with successful leaders, and I fully agree.
Self-awareness is the next most important skill, because it’s needed to make progress as a leader on any other skill. If you’re not self-aware, you can’t fix your blindspots. Delegate effectively. My essay ‘Do Less, Lead More’ in 97 Things Every Engineering Manager Should Know goes into this skill.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
That the best developers want to grow. If you don’t actively coach and stretch them into their next role, they’ll find a manager who will (probably at another company!). Invest heavily in your most productive teammates — don’t ignore them in favour of only coaching those who’re having challenges. Hiring is hard, but retaining talent is harder, and more important, than acquiring it in the first place.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
People are motivated by having a real impact on something that matters to them. As a leader, it’s my job to share why work matters and what bigger goal or purpose is being advanced. It’s also my job to unblock areas that are finding it hard to have an impact and deliver. Having no impact is very demotivating. Having a huge impact on something trivial is also demotivating! People need to feel like there’s a point in their work. Steven Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose is an alternative way of looking at what’s essentially intrinsic motivation. Most people want to work. We get a fundamental sense of satisfaction, dignity and fulfillment from it. Leaders need to tap into that intrinsic motivation we all have, rather than try “create” motivation out of nothing.
I believe in talking about stress, burnout and mental health openly. I make sure my team knows how I manage stress, and try to actively model a good example of health to them. I have exercise and therapist appointments publicly in my work calendar, and I take about 22 days of vacation a year.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
Mindfulness, gratitude and exercise. It’s a three-part formula that I’ve got locked down now and it makes a massive difference. There’s a lot of research that mindfulness helps you be both more effective and less stressed out. Gratitude, which I practice daily, also is scientifically proven to make you happier, less stressed out, and combats burnout. I exercise over my lunch break on most weekdays. I see a huge and immediate difference to my productivity and my stress when I don’t exercise. When I’m consistently doing my 20 minutes of headspace, daily gratitude practice, and a solid workout at lunch, I find I’m not stressed and my life tends to unfold with ease. Skip these three things and within days it’s all a mess!
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
I talk to my stakeholders in other departments and I ask them what their biggest challenges are, how I can help, and what they think engineering’s biggest problem is. It’s impossible to track every little thing going on in another part of the business, but I need to make sure I’m aware of the big projects, bets, stressors and challenges of my peer leaders. I also do consume a lot of written info. I’m a fast reader and I tend to remember what I read, so I think that helps me a lot to keep a pulse on what’s happening around the company.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
I’m an opportunist. I actually don’t make plans. I look for where the learning is and that way I tend to end up in interesting and cool places that I couldn’t have predicted 5 years ago!
What product do you wish you’d invented?
The wheel. Mainly, I try not to re-invent it 😉
Thanks very much, Katie!