Michelle Salvado started coding in third grade. She would take time during recess to show her teachers how to use a Commodore 64, helping them create small programs to teach or test concepts such as math problems. By eighth grade, she was teaching her school’s first computer lessons in the janitor’s closet, with students rotating in and out during math class.
As a developer, Michelle always took an active role in technical discussions, focusing on customer problems. She even went back to school to study business in technology. When asked by a director if she wanted to become a manager, she took the opportunity. She was interested in learning more about leadership and helping teams thrive (instead of just showing up each day).
That desire led her to positions as an individual contributor and organizational owner over the years, stepping in and out of direct management. But Michelle has always maintained a leadership position to influence and impact positive change at organizations such as Trellix, FireEye, and McAfee.
What has been one of your greatest successes or something you’re most proud of as an engineering leader?
Seeing the individuals and teams I’ve worked with over the years thrive, grow, and take a leadership stance in their own careers — with and without direct people responsibility. While I’ve had many technical accomplishments over the years, and delivered great solutions to customers problems, my greatest successes have been in the people I’ve helped grow.
It’s the ripple effect. If I can have a positive impact on 10 people and they have a positive impact on 10 more each, we now have 100 people that are better leaders, better individuals, and they too will help others as mentors, role models, and in some cases, direct managers.
What has been one of your greatest challenges as a leader?
Getting caught up in the day to day. As a leader, you need to keep your head above the trees so you don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. You have to build it into your operating model so you don’t get lost in the sea of emails, zoom calls, and emergency requests for your time. Sometimes you need to pause and forcibly break the cycle. Ask yourself, am I spending my own time on the right things that will guide this organization into the future? What can you delegate to provide leadership opportunities to others? If you’re caught in the hamster wheel, how do you think your team is doing? They are a reflection of you.
How do you define engineering effectiveness? How do you measure it for your teams?
I look at the following three factors to determine effectiveness:
- Quality – How is the customer product experience?
- Financials – What does our market and spend data tell us?
- Organizational health – How is our attrition, engagement, and ability to attract talent?
How do you balance product delivery and team health?
It’s like asking how do you balance life and work? It’s not work-life balance, it’s just a part of life. Team health is a part of product delivery. With horrible team health, you have horrible product delivery. It has to be built into everything you do:
- Have you built in slack for those moments in time where you do need a surge?
- Are your engineers taking vacation?
- Do your engineers have time for self development and experimentation?
- What do you reward and recognize?
- What is a sustainable pace for your team?
- Are you working with Product Management, Support, and Sales to ruthlessly prioritize your team’s time?
As a leader, how do you communicate risk or status upwards and to your teams?
Transparency — avoid the natural tendency to soften the message both ways. Engineers and leaders need the honest truth. Engineers can help solve the tough problems if they are aware and they feel a responsibility for their solutions.
Reflecting on your past experiences, what data have you found most valuable to help you manage an engineering organization? Are there any hard metrics you’ve found useful?
I use metrics that help drive specific behaviors. For example, if I see teams that need to collaborate but aren’t doing so, I’ll work with them to set metrics around their joint goals that we can measure together. I also use spot surveys to assess certain parts of the culture in the org if something seems off:
- Product data:
- Red/blue line – Customer reported issues that are defects in product or customer education
- Sales, renewals, financials
- Engineering data
- Delivery – Frequency and where we spend our time in terms of customer requests, defects, technical debt, and innovation
- Staff health data
- Engagement & happiness
- Vacation usage
- Leadership Health Data
- 360 Feedback + health data for teams
- 1:1 frequency with staff
There are a few things I think are really important in addition to these metrics. First, having high emotional intelligence to understand the dynamics of individuals and groups in the organization is key and often overlooked in engineering — an understanding of yourself as a leader and an understanding of the engineers in your organization. Next is a focus on culture. Culture has to be a part of your overall strategy, not just an afterthought. Be intentional, as culture is a living thing, constantly adapting to the environment based on shared beliefs and values. It’s not what you say but what you and others in the group do.
Why is culture important for engineering teams? How do you build a good culture?
Since 2018, I’ve had a focus on learning about culture, exploring what it is and really understanding its impact. Culture isn’t the taglines or branding you use in an organization. I’ve studied the works of Edgar Schein and others in this area because culture can be confusing and misunderstood. Yet it’s one of the most important aspects of any organization, or any group for that matter.
Schein’s classic definition of Culture is the following: “Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
Why is it so important? As Schein points out, culture is the result of the behaviors of individuals in that group. If you aren’t intentional with your behaviors and the behaviors you support in the organization, the culture will grow unintentionally into something that is probably less than ideal but “works” for the organization as it perceives it’s doing things correctly based on how people are behaving and reacting.
Many scholars talk to the importance of culture as a part of your strategy for a business. Culture has a multiplier effect on your execution. It will either help accelerate your results or it will decelerate them. Culture can never really be duplicated, as it’s based on the people in the organization at that moment in time. So we can learn from other companies, but we can never fully duplicate it as it’s a living thing.
To build a good, strong culture:
- Tie it to your strategy. It needs to be tied to the business realities of your company.
- Ensure leadership of all levels are aligned and understand the desired values and behaviors as they relate to the business strategy.
- Encourage and facilitate regular dialogue around your business strategy and current culture to help with co-creation and ownership of the shifts that need to occur within the organization.
- Leverage the core principles of organizational design to help align strategy, people, structure, processes, and rewards (Galbraith’s STAR model) and how culture shows up in each dimension.
What’s your best advice for other engineering leaders?
Don’t just focus on the technical aspects of engineering — that’s why you have great engineers in your org. Think of your engineers as partners, and you are the managing partner. Your role is to help set the stage for them to perform at their best, to create an environment where they thrive as individuals and as a collective team supporting a common purpose in your organization.
What impact does bad decision making have on engineering teams?
Bad decision-making can thrash engineering teams unnecessarily. If a bad decision has to be reversed, it could mean rework, it could mean loss of time, loss of confidence, and loss of engagement by the engineers. Bad decisions could also put an engineering team in jeopardy of not being able to deliver what is needed for their customers and business.
Leaders make many bad decisions because of a lack of data. Some of those decisions have a high impact and are irreversible.
For example, redirecting a team without understanding how close they may be to completing in-progress work will make it harder for them when they need to finish it.
Making performance management decisions based on intuition, with no data to back it up, is a recipe for disaster.
How can engineering leaders make better decisions?
Leaders can make smarter decisions by leveraging a quick and easy framework to understand what level of decision they’re making:
- How impactful could the decision become?
- Is the decision reversible?
- Who will it impact, and how will it impact them?
- Is there any additional data to help make a prompt decision?
The key is that a leader needs to move quickly and only delay decisions as necessary. They should consider the risk of the decision to determine how much data is enough to provide visibility and move forward.
However, data does not mean a leader can look at a dashboard and come to a conclusion. They should ensure they have the right dialogues in the organization to get a holistic view of what’s happening. In a sense, data also includes this dialogue — the conversations with employees, stakeholders, and customers.
How can engineering leaders empower their teams to make better decisions?
Engineering leaders can empower their teams to make better decisions by putting in place a few key practices:
- Framework – Provide teams a small framework around who owns what type of decisions, who should be consulted, and who should be informed about the decision. A standard RACI/DACI type model will help a team understand what decisions or areas they own all decisions within.
- Data availability/infrastructure – Much engineering data is under the control of the engineering teams. However, an engineering leader needs to make sure they’re providing the time and resources their teams need to create, maintain, and improve visibility so they can continue to improve their understanding of what’s happening in their environment.
- Culture – There are a few areas that leaders can focus on within their organizations to help with team decision-making:
- Trust – A team with a strong base of trust will allow team members to make decisions without fear of being blamed if things go wrong. A team with trust will treat this as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and support each other.
- Transparency – Leaders need to create and support environments of transparency. Beyond helping with the organization’s overall culture, it also gives team members better context when making decisions and understanding the potential impacts of those decisions. Engineers need to understand the business goals, changes in the market, and how their daily decisions on architecture, design, and implementation may impact attaining those goals.
- Accountability/self-responsibility – Empowered engineers have a strong sense of ownership and pride in the outcomes of their work and their teams’ work. They have accountability to themselves and their teammates to work together on delivering a solution. They don’t ignore problems, blame others, or make excuses. They work together to address them. An engineering leader should consider their employees as partners. Partners have ownership of what the collective is responsible for delivering, which comes with the authority to make certain decisions.
Michelle is currently taking a career break to further build on her professional development as a leader. She continues to work in an advisory capacity while exploring organization development and leadership in Fielding Graduate University’s accelerated program.
Michelle Salvado, technology exec and advisor
Uplevel is an engineering intelligence platform to help tech leaders meet commitments, deliver value, and maximize team health.