Name: Sushsma (Sue) Nallapeta
Current position: VP and Head of Engineering, Apartment List
Bio: I’m a technology leader and a growth stage executive with over 10 years’ experience and passionate about building highly performant and vastly scalable engineering systems. I am currently VP of engineering at Apartment List and am excited about building a culture where people are constantly learning and growing, implementing and scaling agile processes across remote teams and all levels of the organisation, driving diversity/inclusion initiatives and building products that solve people problems.
My motto is: ‘Make a lot of decisions since it enables you to think, learn and grow faster.’
In my spare time, I like playing tennis, reading and enjoying various board games with my five-year-old.
Hi Sue, thanks for chatting with CTO Craft today. Tell me about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
I began my career as a Software Engineer Intern at Novell and came to the United States to pursue my Master’s degree in Computer Science. I then went on to work as a Software Engineer at a company called Object Edge. The projects I was involved in ranged from building software for financial institutions like Charles Schwab to large eCommerce companies like National Pen and Netshoes.
The early days involved a lot of backend development but eventually, I moved into a full-stack role building out great user experiences for eCommerce companies.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
When I was working as a Software Engineer for Object Edge, my limited exposure to management experience occurred when I mentored a couple of junior engineers. That’s when I realised the impact I could have as a leader.
Back then, the company structure was flat and there wasn’t an option to continue in a leadership role, so I began exploring opportunities that would enable me to evolve as a leader. It was difficult due to lack of management experience and at the time, management was not a parallel career path, instead you had to gain a lot of experience as an individual contributor before you could become a manager. Ultimately, a window opened at Kodak Gallery, who valued my eCommerce background, web development and mentorship experience. There, I got an opportunity to manage a small team of six-to-seven engineers.
After Kodak Gallery, I held technology leadership roles at Blackhawk Network, Zoosk and now Apartment List.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?
Starting at a new company as a new manager meant I needed to adapt fast, learn people skills and the art of managing work and people’s motivation to accomplish goals and objectives. I was constantly observing my managers, peers and learning continuously. The technical mentorship, caring about people’s career growth and implementing the right processes came easily. On the flip side, I found it hard to give tough feedback, hold people accountable to the highest standards and motivate a team through adversity, as the company went through bankruptcy and acquisition.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
My first leadership role only lasted around a year as the company suffered difficulty and eventually sold its assets to a competitor and shut down.
Navigating and motivating the team through such uncertainty and job/business insecurity was tough – retaining people was a major challenge. Being a first-time manager, I did not know how to balance transparency along with keeping the team engaged. I learnt so many lessons during that first year that I’ve had to apply regularly throughout my latter career.
What made you keep doing it?
Going through such a major adversity early on in my leadership career taught me a lot and really showed me how to be an empathetic leader, lessons I learnt watching my managers. That inspired me to continue to challenge myself to be a strong leader.
Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you
I learnt how to swim by watching YouTube videos! At graduate school, I enrolled in a swimming course for a few days but could not pursue it due to the amount of course work I had. But, I really wanted to learn to swim so my friend (who also couldn’t swim) and I, decided to motivate each other and learn together. We would watch a YouTube video every day and practice what we saw for a few days until we mastered it. It was the most rewarding experience when I could do five laps without a break.
What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
I think the three biggest skills every leader needs are:
- Empathy – for your team, for your peers, for your customers – This is one of the key components of succeeding as a leader. You have to truly care for your people and grow their career paths. You also have to constantly care about peers and understand their perspective so you have a holistic picture to effectively solve problems. Lastly, you have to be empathetic towards your customers to build products that provide value.
- Be direct with feedback – Feedback is a gift, but most often people shy away from having difficult conversations when it matters and being direct about it. Having been in leadership for a long time now, my biggest learnings are from when I have received direct feedback.
- Be decisive – True leaders make decisions, quickly. I have seen a lot of people hold back from making decisions due to the fear of failure. Failure is a part of growth and decision-making. If you keep being decisive, over time you will learn to make more correct decisions than the wrong ones. Not trying causes the biggest failure. I have made wrong decisions but I have been able to get through the situation when I have owned up to it and focused on not making the same mistakes again.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
Finding great talent often requires hard work, especially in tech. Hiring managers are trying to balance technical skills, culture fit and motivation to learn new things. I have tried to go after perfection and failed. My biggest lesson in terms of hiring is to figure out what the person can bring to your company that others can learn from and similarly, how can we, as an employer, provide a platform for career growth and learning. Culture is often a combination of people and the stage of the company, as people change and the company grows, the culture has to evolve. Trying to retro-fit someone who thinks like you and calling it a culture-fit can be damaging to diversity of thought.
At Apartment List, we sought talent from across the United States and enabled them to work remotely well before Covid hit. That helped us hire people who brought different perspectives, thoughts and skills.
Similarly, one strategy we already implemented helped us retain talent – focusing wholeheartedly on their career growth. We spent time building a career rubric that echoed the company values. We made our salary bands transparent within engineering so we can be fair, consistent and open to limit anxiety around earnings. Ultimately it is about caring for people and supporting them through their career journey.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
Often, if you are empowering people to seek our problems to be solved, you don’t have to work separately on motivating them. In teams I have been part of, I’ve seen people fail when either they don’t feel they have full ownership of their work or don’t understand the impact their work is having on the company. Tying those two things together is key to having a happy team.
There is generally a high energy in startups, because the distance between the business/user problem and an employee, is very small. As the company grows however, and layers of management form, someone needs to keep connecting those dots, otherwise team motivation suffers. Usually, it is the mid-level managers who need to do this. However, they need active coaching to be effective and successful. This is where I spend most of my time to ensure I empower and trust my team and am available to identify their blind spots.
Regarding stress levels, I endeavour to connect with various people in my organisation and try to get ahead of problems as much as I can. Creating a forum for psychological safety is key in helping people manage their stress levels.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
When you are leading a function, there is always going to be some level of stress. I get pulled into so many tactical problems that I often find myself not having enough time to focus on strategy. This impacts my productivity and creates stress so I have to ruthlessly prioritise, which helps ease it. I began setting one strategic goal every week and hold myself accountable for achieving it. This forces me to block time in my calendar just to think. It also means I have to say no to a few things and prioritise my time in order to be more productive.
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
We have an executive meeting every week and the next level leadership meeting, every other week. This helps me stay connected with what is happening in other parts of the business. I also have various recurring 1:1s at different cadences with my cross-functional partners where we have lengthier discussions to encourage alignment during those sessions.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I want to continue building great products, be a strong technology leader. and help nurture more women leaders in technology. I also want to build a strong foundation and platform for DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) so it becomes second nature. An ideal next step would be a board advisor for start-ups and other tech companies.
And finally, which product do you wish you’d invented?
The iPhone and App store! Bringing information to your fingertips and creating a marketplace for creativity to flourish is very cutting-edge and completley changed the world we see today. I have huge respect for such a groundbreaking innovation.
Thank you so much, Sue!
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