Spotlight Q&A with Karat’s Shannon Hogue

Shannon Hogue is so easy to talk to, this interview could have been twice as long. The cycling enthusiast – who taught herself to code at school-age – is passionate about diversity in tech, and it shows. Here she shares her wisdom on why companies need to hire people from different backgrounds, how to truly look after a remote team and why delivery must involve monitoring absolutely everything.

Hi Shannon! First things first, what is keeping you busy at the moment?

I’m in a really great place these days – I’m the Global Head of Solutions Engineering at Karat and was recently moved into the leadership team so I now have a lot more responsibility. As a leader I feel very much like I work for my teams – that’s how I’ve always conducted business. Now that I have a lot of teams and a lot of people looking for help and representation, I feel this kind of honour and responsibility of learning more about different parts of the business, particularly underrepresented communities and women in technology, because these are the people that are starting to lean on me to have a voice. The thing keeping me busiest is making sure I’m doing enough to ensure that I’m helping build and foster a fair and equitable environment for them.

With all that ‘newness’ and people relying on you, how do you think your leadership is going to change over the next year, as the tech industry recovers? 

I’ve been in tech for almost 25 years and worked in a lot of high tech companies because I felt that’s where I wanted to be; helping developers doing a lot of monitoring etc. But Karat is a place where the leadership team are human beings. They saw a need for technical interview assistance, but the core mission is about unlocking opportunities for people like me, who have a non-traditional background – I started writing software immediately after high school. There are people that are trying to change lives through code academies and conversations are finally being had about underrepresented communities, especially in technology and our leadership team is dedicated to that. 

So, I think what will change in the next year is simply amplifying the voice and space that we’ve built.  We conduct tech interviews for some of the world’s top tech companies and every single one of them is interested in improving diversity within their organisations. We are dedicated to it and it’s something that we take seriously, so much so that we recently launched a couple of diversity programmes. One is an interview practice programme for Black engineers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the students decided to name it Brilliant Black Minds. We now have a full staff and team dedicated to unlocking opportunities for those students in the programme. I really am incredibly honoured and thrilled to be a part of it, and we’re going to see a whole lot more of those initiatives coming through that will hopefully have a direct impact on both how and who companies hire. 

I also hope we’ll start to see that infusion of culture; we make so many of our friends at work, so the more diverse people that we have in our work environment, the more diverse our lives become. I think that’s what we need today because there is a lot of polarisation going on – especially in the United States – and so hopefully we can get started on changing that culturally. 

At Karat we definitely want to make interviews fair, predictive, enjoyable and ultimately, more human. In this remote world where people are struggling, it’s even more important. When we go back to our workplaces, I hope that level of care continues.

Absolutely and what we’ve seen as a result of COVID, the pandemic and lockdowns, people are having to bring their ‘whole selves to work’. As a result, not only are their motivation and engagement levels changing, people’s motivators are not the same as they once were. In a similar way with moving towards diversity and inclusion is recognising that what will work for one person might not work for another because of their upbringing and experiences, or their route into tech was different. What’s your view on that?

I don’t think it’s far away from what we would usually use on the management side to make people feel comfortable and that’s structure, process, measurements and being even more clear around day-to-day expectations. From a management perspective, my goal is to understand more about people’s work needs so I notice when there’s a change. For example, managers should think about how they’re delivering feedback to employees who lean further towards introversion – ask them how they would respond best, whether it’s talking live, or writing the feedback up and sending it to them to allow space for reflection before a follow-up or something else. It’s about boundary settings in your teams; they’re important when you’re in-person but they’re even more important when you’re remote.

As far as motivation goes, when people feel they’re in a psychologically safe space, they tend to become more motivated by the work. But I have seen people saying now that they have more to think about. It’s not just about going into work and hanging out with friends/colleagues, coding and getting the product out of the door. Instead, when they’re at home and don’t have that ‘work’ environment, they’re taking a deeper dive and a more forensic look at what motivates them for this specific company. 

I think a lot of companies are seeing some attrition from that because it’s not about the office community anymore, it’s really about the mission and the why – and Charity Majors talks a lot about that – but it’s just so important when you’re hiring. So, one thing we’ve augmented to help companies hire (we’ve done over 80,000 tech interviews now and saved them collectively over one million hours of engineering time) is ensuring the interviewee is bought into the why. It’s no longer just about the biggest paycheck, especially if you’re at home and it’s arduous, and you’re no longer a part of this wider culture. 

Having done so many interviews, what do you look for when you’re hiring delivery managers for fast-paced environments and people that will need to scale a team? What are those key things that you need that, if you get it wrong, are going to be fatal for the product or business?

Structure structure structure! Any Delivery Manager in a hyper-growth environment needs to be organised, operationally functional and structured because every single time you write code and it goes out the door, you can’t trust that if you don’t have a great Delivery Manager.

One of the things that we always talk about when hiring for any position is to talk to your team members, especially if they’ve worked with great Delivery Managers. Have someone on your team build out a list of competencies you’re looking for, including the questions that you should be asking; build a rubric, even if it’s a checkbox. Understanding what you’re looking for in a Delivery Manager is that not only must they be organised but that they understand the concepts of CI/CD and so on and so forth. Building out the rubric and the levelling beforehand and then applying that in the interview process will save you a lot of time.

The other thing I want to flag is that a lot of people hire on recommendation, but what we, unfortunately, see often, is these referrals may not pass the hiring bar for that position and they’ll get hired anyway. That’s a surefire way to get the wrong Delivery Manager. But it’s been normalised, and in order to get more diversity in thought – and a Delivery Manager that brings something to the table that you don’t necessarily have or haven’t seen previously – you really need to get the core rubric defined. Ask how they would approach a certain problem and ensure that every engineer you’re interviewing knows exactly what they’re looking for, have them fill out even a checkbox or two, and you’ll end up with the talent that you’re looking for. 

You’re helping push for more diversity within tech, how do you think delivery is impacted in a positive way, by engineers having diverse backgrounds?

My perspective on this is going to be the same for Delivery Managers as it would be for everybody else; it really is just the increased diversity of thought process. 

If I’m interviewing a number of people that came from MIT – an amazing school – they’ll just be like a lot of other people that are working in tech today. But if you throw the net wider and look at those coming through coding academies and such it will change the outcomes. 

There are some consistent themes around how people are learning about technology and a lot of the root of technology – whether you’re a developer or not – is really understanding the concepts beneath the tools. What’s really fascinating is with a diversity of thought and diverse candidates, especially coming from, places like the code academies, is that they’re not hindered in thought (and I’m not saying everyone is). They don’t have this predisposition or specific understanding of how you should learn technology. And because they don’t have that, more often than not, they are going outside of the box to answer questions and solve problems. 

Think about the Delivery Managers at Netflix when they started. They’ve completely changed the way movie and tv consumption works by building an entirely new system that other people are replicating all over the world. This is because of diversity in thought; because they went outside of the box of what was traditionally being done. 

So, for me, you have to have diversity of thought in order to address the issues that you don’t even know are coming yet. Yes, it’s important to have the fundamentals, but it’s really important to have different viewpoints, not just the same people, answering the same questions, the same way, all the time. That kind of homogenous environment isn’t going to get you through 2021 or 2022! I mean we talked about 2021 being a recovery year, right? Everyone is trying to hire delivery managers and if you’re overlooking underestimated and diverse talents, then you’re at a competitive disadvantage. There’s just not enough talent out there to not be inclusive and so you’re missing out in general if you’re not seeking diversity, quite frankly.

Agreed! And with problem-solving in particular, if you don’t have diversity of thought then you don’t know what you don’t know, so your engineers might not have experienced certain problems and therefore wouldn’t even think about the fact they are out there and need solving? 

Yes, exactly! What’s really interesting is I did a talk with a group of Black women in technology and one of the things they said was once we have diversity of thought, you need to take the time to create an environment where you can ensure those people are thriving. Part of that is understanding that women in tech, particularly Black women in tech, is an ‘anti-pattern’, people are not used to seeing it and so they face being talked over or questioned or challenged, even when they have been in the tech space for 30 years. And it’s not good enough.

So that’s a big thing to talk about and confront – it’s not enough to say you want to make diverse hires. Diversity and inclusion within a company goes beyond just the hiring process; you have to continue building a culture that’s inclusive. That can be tough when we’re all working remotely, but you have to keep course correcting and continue to advocate for underrepresented people in this new environment.

That is such great advice! Moving on to talk about measuring, what are some of the best strategies that you’ve encountered to achieve better predictability in engineering?

It’s all about measurements and having monitoring in place: monitoring of your processes, monitoring of your product etc. I actually have a personal story about why monitoring has such an impact on my life (that I will also share in my talk!). Once upon a time, I thought I was Superwoman and worked with a trained mechanical engineer. We were building and had taken outages down from eight hours to under 15 minutes, but the CTO wanted to make sure I was doing the right things and he said: ‘Well this is easy; show me the measurements, show me your metrics, tell me why and prove to me that, you know that what you have been building and spending money on for the last year is effective and efficient.’ That was the Aha! moment, where I realised I wasn’t as far as I thought I was. As a result, I’m so dedicated to getting metrics around:

  • The hiring process; 
  • The deployment process 
  • Software
  • The levelling process
  • The review process

Monitor, monitor, monitor! And spend the money and the time early on, so that you know the impact of your changes. Ensure that you’re asking structured questions and understand the metrics that are necessary in order to evolve and improve any processes.

Karat is expanding at the moment and taking on lots of new people. How do you scale delivery and planning as a team grows or becomes multiple teams?

It’s a balancing act. If you think about where we are as a business that’s growing exponentially, it’s imperative that we do things correctly and so we have a dedicated section of our engineering team that ensures we are measuring, monitoring and deploying in a consistent manner; it couldn’t be a more important position. Expansion is about making sure that you can deliver in almost real-time. It’s critical for us not just to have that monitoring in place, but to be able to continuously deploy. 

We are in a situation where we’ve grown the services portion of our business a little further than the technology side and so they have to catch up with each other. That happens all the time. there’s always a push/pull situation; sometimes tech is ahead, sometimes deliveries of services or manual services are ahead and so on. We just happen to be in that place right now where the manual services are a little bit ahead. And so for them to keep up, it’s imperative that they have the delivery system in place to iterate quickly and catch up. If not, then there’s going to be a time when you’re playing with software that hasn’t been tested and everybody’s trying to do 50 different things. 

The other thing to note when expanding really quickly, is that sometimes you have to bring on consulting teams if you don’t have the right person in your delivery team building a system that can handle the growth. But that can also encounter trouble, especially with more monolithic environments. For example with Ruby on Rails – where your business layer is directly connected to your data models – it can sometimes be difficult to have third parties involved if they’re not a part of your daily process. Having somebody who’s a skilled delivery person in that role is therefore imperative for growth.

Last, but by no means least, what books or podcasts would you recommend to delivery managers?

It’s not just for delivery managers, but leaders as a whole. I love Kelsey Hightower and others that are diverse in thought, but I very much subscribe to the idea that we’re humans first, and in order for people to be motivated and successful at work we need to be more human.  To do that we need to understand and be empathetic to other people’s perspectives and know how to be great partners and advocates in work, so I would recommend the following books:

And the podcast I would suggest listening to is an episode of the Harvard Business Review’s called Sisterhood is Scarce – which looks at how race, gender, and class play into the different experiences and relationships White women and Women of Colour have at work.

Thank you, Shannon!


Catch Shannon and some incredible other speakers at our forthcoming CTO Craft Con 2021: The Delivery One on 23 – 25 March.

Find out more and get your tickets here!

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