Name: Francis Lacoste
Former positions: Senior Director of Engineering at Salesforce and Heroku, Director of Engineering at Canonical.
Short bio: Francis spent over twenty-five years in the open-source and cloud developer tools industry. First, as a software engineer, and then as an engineering manager and director at Canonical and Heroku, where he built successful high-performance remote engineering teams.
In recent years, he realised that the part he enjoyed the most in his role was the coaching and mentoring of leaders. He then decided to reorient himself toward the coaching and training side. He did this internally at Salesforce before launching as an independent coach.
Tell us about your life before coaching – what roles and projects did you work on?
For over a decade, I built amazing teams working on developer products. At Heroku, my teams were responsible for the whole front-end experience (UI, CLI, and API) of the platform. At Canonical, we were building Launchpad, the all-in-one developer platform used to build the Ubuntu distribution. It was also used by many open-source projects – before GitHub came around and ate our lunch 🤣.
I started my career in the industry as a software engineer working on open-source projects (that was what led me to Canonical). One of the geek creds I’m most proud of was implementing the 1.1 servlet specifications for Apache. That was before J2EE, Tomcat, and all that jazz were a thing.
Why did you choose to go into coaching?
At some point at Heroku, I realised the thing I loved most about my role was growing leaders. I started to offer mentoring around the organisation, which led to my interest in coaching. At the end of my tenure at Heroku, I knew that my next step after Salesforce would be working as an independent coach. I spent three years working on engineering culture for the whole Salesforce Platform before taking the plunge.
Do you have a coaching specialism or interest?
My mission is to help product and engineering organisations develop the culture that enables great innovation and engineers to thrive. That’s only possible if the leaders are committed to such a vision and invested in their growth as leaders. This is why I focus on CTOs and VPs of Engineering at the transition point between startup and scaleup.
That’s the stage where the team will grow fast, and if the culture definition is weak, it quickly becomes diluted by the influx of new people – and you end up with a cultural mess. That transition also comes with many growing challenges for the leader – a ripe opportunity for coaching.
How do you build trust between you and the person you’re coaching?
I mean, I don’t think there are a ton of ways to do that beyond listening deeply with presence. That also implies relating to the other person primarily as a human being worthy of the deepest respect.
Have you been coached before, and if so, what did you learn from it?
When I became a manager, I was lucky to have great mentors who put me on the right path. Later, I discovered coaching mainly through leadership growth programs and also meditation coaching. What I most appreciated from these experiences was the spaciousness of the container and the support in finding my own path. And it also highlighted how my initial mentors had good coaching instincts!
How does your background in tech help you to coach individuals?
I don’t think it helps universally, but for the people I coach, having a tech background definitely helps. First, it helps with credibility and empathy aspects. In many cases, I know what they are going through, having faced many of the same challenges. Plus, there is language fluency – I know and get a lot of the concepts that are part of their world. And the domain expertise definitely helps when it comes time to generate options for action.
Now, I am not a consultant; I am a coach – but I’m not a “the client has all the answers within” type of coach. In the coaching model I use (Presence-based Coaching), there are multiple voices available to the coach – and the Teacher and Guide are valid voices to use when necessary. I know a lot of models that can be useful to my clients that they might not know about. And they usually don’t have the patience to bootstrap them from scratch through dialectical inquiry 🤣.
Can you tell us something interesting about you that not many people know?
I have been working from home since 2001 (ask me how COVID, in many ways, made remote work worse). I’m also a meditation teacher with Buddhist Geeks, which informs a lot of the presence and grounding aspects of my practice.
I have also lived with Crohn’s disease since my early adulthood. That chronic disease has been a ruthless teacher.
What are the key skills you think every coach needs?
Listening, empathy (essential for listening), the ability to be grounded in presence, and a lot of curiosity.
Can you tell us about when you really made a difference to someone as their coach and why?
One of the most common things I’ve helped people with is coaching them through difficult relationships with a peer, boss, or report. That’s so common and challenging, and having support and growing in their ability to handle these situations have been highly impactful for them personally – as well as for the other party. These skills also translate easily into their personal life, which is always a big win.
One thing that brought me a lot of joy was assisting one VP of Engineering in discovering their “Vow”. How do they want to show up as a leader – and even beyond that? What is it that permeates everything they do? They discovered it over a period of time, trying things out, inquiring and refining. When they finally found what it was that resonated across their actions and decisions, it really brought clarity, focus, and, paradoxically, freedom to them. Living by this Vow still helps them to navigate their existence.
At what stage in a tech leader’s career do you think they should have a coach?
A coach can be beneficial through any transition, so when entering, changing roles, increasing scope, etc. A coach can also be helpful when you feel that you are stagnating and looking for your next step. I guess my answer is “probably any”?
If someone isn’t sure whether they would benefit from a coach, what would be your advice?
Coaching is essentially a personal relationship. So, before entering a relationship, you want to test things out. That’s why most coaches usually offer something like a “free intro call”. Use that. And if it’s not a big “Yes” during or after the call, try another one. I guess that after three failed attempts, you might conclude that it wouldn’t be beneficial for you… at least for now 🤣.
In your opinion, could even the most experienced tech leaders benefit from a coach, and why?
Yes. Usually, the most experienced tech leaders will operate in even more complex environments. Complexity, by definition, brings emergent challenges. A coach will provide a space to help them navigate that complexity and gain a perspective on themselves. Coaches aren’t the only way to gain that perspective or access such a space – but a coach is definitely an option if they don’t have it elsewhere.
What’s your favourite coaching exercise, podcast or recommended reading?
In terms of a “coaching exercise”, I guess it would be exploring different perspectives on the situation.
For tech leaders, here are three books I’d recommend:
- The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. It’s a concise guide to good principles for building an organisational culture.
- Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone – because if you can’t thrive from any kind of feedback, you are flying blind. It also helps with how to give feedback.
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows. Because while most leaders are able to see technical systems – they too often fail to see organisational issues from a holistic perspective.
Along these lines, I’d recommend Esther Derby’s podcast Change by Attraction, where she distils many of these principles in bite-sized episodes. A great complement to her book of the same name, subtitled 7 Rules for Positive Productive Change: Micro Shifts, Macro Results. (Disclaimer: I had the great privilege of having Esther as a coach and mentor, so I’m definitely biased here 🤣).
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