The Power of Goal Setting for Engineering Managers

David Kyle Choe
April 21, 2021

The Power of Goal Setting and Paving Your Own Career Path

Najla Elmachtoub, Senior Engineering Manager at Etsy, talks about the power of goal setting, self-reflection, and strategic thinking and how it can unlock career and team potential. Here are our top insights from this episode:

  1. Good Goals Come from Self-Reflection: Najla talks about how her long journey with self-reflection ultimately enabled her to come to terms with where she was at and to create goals. This meant that her goals were not made based on ego or where she thought others thought she needed to be, and resulted in an aligned vision for her future and self.
  2. Own your career: Often times, people believe that their path will be set for them, and for good reason. Most people go to college, get a job, and believe they'll just rise the ranks. Although it may be true for some, for many people they are the ones that will dictate where they go and the impact they have. They have to take full responsibility of their careers.
  3. Personal goal setting will affect professional growth: A rising tide lifts all boats. This is true especially for our personal and professional growth. The more we work on ourselves, the greater the impact to our work and our teams. Healthy leadership requires a healthy, whole human.

Full Transcript Below: 

David Choe: One. All right, everybody. We are here and we're so excited for this week's episode of technically human. We have an incredible guest on today's show. She's actually one of our customer advisory board members, a friend of Staat, and I think really an awesome human and also such a great influence in the engineering managing world.

So I think you guys are going to get a lot out of her. Her name is Najla Elmachtoub. Take it right. You did

Najla Elmachtoub: it. You did great.

David Choe: And yeah, let, I'll let you introduce yourself Najla and we'll get going on this episode.

Najla Elmachtoub: Thanks. Yes. So my name is Najla yes. People have trouble saying my last name.

That's okay. I just go by Najla and I'm an engineering manager at Etsy. I currently work on. And advertising products. So I'm currently managing a couple of teams related to the onsite ads platform at Etsy. We do a lot of full-stack work and we're also starting to get into some machine learning works.

So that's new for me and also exciting. Yeah. And. I have been working there a few years, but prior to that, I was a product manager, turned engineering manager at a FinTech startup. And yeah, and actually the way I got into tech was back in high school. I think I was. 13. And I discovered programming through some like extra classes available in the school and I just never, I just never stopped.

I was so into it. It was exciting. And here I am.

David Choe: Wow. Wow. You never looked back. That's incredible. Yeah, I think, I think it's, it's really interesting and I would obviously love to get into your story, but I think our topic is just as juicy. I would love to hear a little bit about today really around personal.

And professional goal setting and really how goal setting makes you a better leader. And you know, I guess there's a lot of intersections here. We can talk about goal setting personally and professionally, and how that intersects with your leadership, but also why is it, how does it make you a better and more whole human in general?

So just, yeah, I would love to kind of just jump in and hear your thoughts around, around goal setting.

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah. I love this topic, especially because it's something I've invested a lot of time in, in the last. Couple of years. And prior to that, I had, I had literally never thought about personal goal setting or I had barely thought about professional goal setting.

So, so now that I've been in it for a while, I really like advocate for that for people. Yeah. So I guess my, my journey with personal goal setting comes from, you know, being at a time in my life where I realized that there was nothing. Natural. That would just happen in my career or in my personal life without me making it happen.

So, yeah. Maybe, maybe if you think about like when you're in high school, like you graduated high school, you're like, okay, I'm doing that. I'm going to apply to college. You get into college, you're in college, you have those like four years or whatever. Yeah. You have these like goalposts and yeah. Then you graduate college and you're like, okay, maybe I'll do a master's, which is what I did.

I did. I did that. And then you. Apply for your first job and you get it. And then you get your first promotion and your second promotion. And then something happens where it's like, okay, that's it like you can't just like, keep like cruising through, like the promotions are fewer and farther in between.

And. Maybe it's like, okay, well I'll go find another job. And maybe you start hopping around jobs. But I guess what I realized was that I felt kind of lost after like going after like being an overachiever, a lot of us are overachievers and having these natural, like goalposts just there for you. Right.

And then you can say, okay, I will Excel at that thing that it's already being put in front of me. And I had to have like a shift in my mentality where I was like, well, How do I start putting the things in front of me? Cause nobody else's. So that's kind of like, yeah.

David Choe: Did this happen pretty naturally? Like you just came to it or did somebody direct, did you read something or did you just come to it by your own on your own?

Najla Elmachtoub: Oh gosh, no, I don't. I, I think there was a lot of aimlessness like, I would say there's a lot of like, you know, I'm, I'm only 30 now, but, and so I think I you know, was starting my. First job in my early twenties. And then like, sometime like in my mid to late twenties, I started to just, I realized that I was coasting.

So I think something that resonated with, with me was I actually just started following a couple of authors. One of them is I love him. His name is James clear. And he talks about like, he has a book actually called atomic habits. So he talked about these like micro habits and yeah, these like small buildable ways to like, Better yourself.

And I started thinking about that a lot and then that, so that was one thing. And the other thing is I realized that I had like a general dissatisfaction because I was like, Oh, I didn't, I didn't achieve anything. And so one of the ways I do goal setting now for myself is a lot of it is actually reflection and acknowledgement of the things that I do accomplish and like, yeah.

And when you write down these things, even if they're really small, you realize that you're doing a lot of stuff. And the other thing is like, as we get older or more advanced in our, in our careers, the goals take longer to achieve. So that feeling of like, I'm not doing anything, I think can like really hit you a bit more.

So. So, yeah, all of that kind of led me to start thinking about a more systematic way to do my goal setting and like, and like acknowledge myself and reevaluate what I want to be doing.

David Choe: No, that's great. I would love to hear, like, what was V1 of goal setting? What did that look like?

Najla Elmachtoub: Okay, well, good question.

I think, I think, yeah, my first iteration was like, I think the classic, like. It's January 1st, I'm going to get a gym membership type and then it, and then February 1st, you know, whizzes by, and you just have a a gym pass that hasn't been touched in a few weeks,

David Choe: that dusty gym pass.

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah, exactly. Or I would set goals that were too lofty or, or not ambitious enough and.

So then I started like doing, reading the literature and trying to understand like human behavior a bit more and like how we can actually get things done. And realizing that like the, the exact goal that you set is important. Like it's important to like, know, like really know where you are and know yourself and then yeah.

That's something reasonable, you know? And then, and then like, you usually make a plan. Like you don't just like put a goal, you need to like, have been steps and then like, maybe like, Actual tasks that you do, or like some like recurring reminders for yourself. Yeah. You know what I mean?

David Choe: Yeah. Yeah. I would love to first talk about what was, what were some, you mentioned atomic habits.

Was there any other literature that really helped you in this process?

Najla Elmachtoub: Hm. I don't have any other top of my head right now. I can like, yeah, I can, I can.

David Choe: When she follows up, I'll put it in the, in the class. But yeah, the second question was yeah, this is a really important piece. Is know, you mentioned knowing yourself, like I think a lot of people set goals professionally personally, based on their knowledge of other, other people's success of accomplishment versus themselves.

Can you talk a little bit more about how so truly understanding where you are, who you are affects goal setting.

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah, totally. I I can give an example also, like, so one thing, a goal that I set maybe two years ago that it's still in progress is focusing on my health, mental health, physical health. I ha I've had a lot of chronic issues that have, that are not bad all on their own, but I realized it can be like a debilitating Originally, my goal was like, Oh, I want to, I want to like I want to hit these like personal records for weightlifting.

Cause I like used to love weightlifting. And then I was seeing all these people around me, especially the gyms I would go to. And they were like hitting their records and they were like in such good shape. And I, I love that. Like I craved it, but then I had to like meet myself where I was, which was, I can't do this yet.

Like, there's something else that I have to do. To get there. And for me that's been like stepping back and actually investing a lot of time and energy into my health. And it's been two years of me working on that. And like, again, the progress for those things is so slow so that if I wasn't doing like.

Reflecting on it, writing it down, the things that I'm doing, like giving myself a Pat on the back, along the way, I would forget that I'm actually like, I'm making extreme progress, you know? And so now I can like confidently say like I'm so much healthier than I was two years ago. And like, it's, it's so exciting, you know?

And I think as what you just said there about. You looking around at all these super fit and strong people and saying, I can't do that yet. That I think just being able to say, I can't do that yet. And then making a plan for it anyways is a huge hurdle, right? Like it's a mental blocker. It's, it's hard.

It's an ego thing. How do you, how did you get there?

Yeah, that is such a good point. Like, I mean, another way of saying it is like you're setting yourself up to fail. So like, you know, and like, I. We see eight and I'm a manager, so I manage people all the time. And, and I see, so you kind of get put in this position where you watch other people set goals also.

And then sometimes I think you need to let people set themselves up to fail. And I've certainly been through it myself. Like you asked me what is V zero look like? And zero was me setting myself up to fail. But if you don't go through that, if you don't let other people go through that, Right. You, you know, you, you can't say like, okay, like, well, last time you did this and it didn't work.

So maybe like this time we'll set something where reasonable up based on like where you're at.

David Choe: No, I love that. But yeah, like we'd love to get into more about how does this professional, I mean, sort of personal goal setting, how has it translated into the world that Etsy it at your job?

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah. There's a, there's a saying, I like that's high tides float all boats.

So you know, your personal life and your professional life are not these two different independent things. So the fact that I've been able to grow myself in my personal life has, you know, that it's been nice. Cause it's like a more manageable thing. I was like, okay, here. I'm growing the number of goals I have and teaching them.

And now I can actually take that framework and start applying it to my job. So, so not only am I just like a happier person and like more productive. And, but also now I can take that framework and say like, okay, how do I actually want to grow at work? Because a lot of us are on cruise control at our jobs.

A lot of us are just R D we're just doing our jobs, which is great. And if that's where you want to be good, stay there. But at some point, like, If you want your job to grow and evolve, like if you want to take on different types of opportunities, you need to like acknowledge that, like there's some gap between where you are and where that is.

And you need to like, figure out how to, you know, what path you're going to take to fill that gap. And you have to even like, decide which ones you want to take. Cause it gets more ambiguous also as it grow like. So you have to like really sit down and think like, what are the things I want to do? It's not just like obvious that I'm going to go, okay, I'm doing product a, I'm going to do project B next.

There might be like 30 projects, which one is the one, you know?

David Choe: Yeah. And I think I would love to hear about how you break it down because I think you're right. Like there's a few things that happen once you get, especially to like a management level, like you're saying nobody. Like maybe there are corporate or, you know, company guidelines to your next title or whatever the next level, but it doesn't necessarily translate to the things you need to do.

How do you break it down for yourself?

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah. So an example is that I wanted to become more strategic in my role. So like I was a manager managing managing two teams and. They had very different like scopes. So it was like a lot of my energy for the day-to-day for both teams, but I want it to become more strategic for both.

Then I wanted to be thinking like six to 12 months out instead of worrying about all that. So there were a couple of things that flow from that first is like, okay, well, what does it mean to be strategic? Yes. And like, what are the skills I need to, you know, grow? So that was something I had to like really think about.

And then something I could. Because I thought about it. It was so much easier to ask for help from my manager and my peers about that. The second is like, how do I make time for that? And then like, again, like in, in doing that, I realized that I should hire another manager to manage one of those teams.

So that's what I did. I did it. And now I manage my first manager, but it, it really like reduced that mental space for me to, in order to like, become more strategic. Wow. And then. Yeah. And then I thought like, okay, like if I were strategic, what would my job look like? And it would look like I'm proposing bigger projects.

I'm proposing like staffing. And so then after I did that, I just told myself, like, what is one big project I could propose? And then like, it kind of flipped from that. And then I, I just started doing like all those little things and now it's moving altogether and I see the progress and I see myself learning and I see myself making mistakes.

But because I know that I'm working on something, it feels like all of that's. Okay. And it's easier to like own up to for other people. Right.

David Choe: How did you land on becoming more strategic as like your big goalpost?

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah, that's a good question. I guess, I guess that came from me even realizing what I want to do in my career.

So I wanted to become a senior manager, like when I was like, what's the next step? And I realized. I really want to become just like a engineering leader with a lot more teams, a lot more scope. And that means that probably means like me making that happen on it. And it's not just going to come to me on its own.

So strategy was probably was the gap that I noticed in between like, Having that job in look where I am now.

David Choe: Right. And going full circle. Now, how does you want it to be more strategic in order to become a senior manager? How does that tie back to some of those personal goal-setting that you're doing?

Like, does it all, is there a clear line? Okay.

Najla Elmachtoub: I think nothing's ever, nothing's ever super clear and tidy life as we know, but, but I think that. Because I was I having working on myself and I'm happy with myself. It's kind of a similar thing to me hiring like another manager under me. Like I've taken care of a lot of like the me problems or like I had them under control.

And now when I'm at work, like, I feel like I'm really at work as opposed to like, kind of having all parts of my life, like bleed into my brain all the time. So I feel a little bit more focused. I feel like. Yeah. Like, no matter what comes up, I, I know how to deal with it for now. And I hope, like, I think that's felt by like the people that I work with and yeah.

And I hope to bring that to my job.

David Choe: No. That's great. I was, I was curious about, I think you mean, you touched on a little bit before about how sometimes you let your people fail in their own goal setting. How, how do you like man, every time OKR season runs around, it's like wildness, right? People are just like, I don't know what I've never written a goal in my life.

It feels like how do you coach younger engineers or even, you know, new engineering managers? Cause I'm sure you're the manager you manage. Also has, is his or her own own goals. So how do you, how do you instill that into folks?

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah. This one is really tough for me still, honestly. And I think, I guess like the previous question on other perk of me having gone through this myself is that like, I can give better advice to other people now, although I'm not completely there yet, but yeah.

The first, the kind of the first thing that I, when people talk to me like, Oh, what goals should I set? Or like, you know, how can you set some goals for me? I actually always say like, actually you have to drive your own career. You have to drive your own goals. Like I will be there. I'll support. You I'll give feedback.

But I w what I found is like being too forceful with other people, if it's not really coming from them, they, they. They're not going to be motivated. Yeah. And it's also like, not your, it's not your job. So it's like, it's your job to be a coach to people, but not to manage their life. Yes. So I think if I notice something, it starts with me maybe saying that like I'm noticing something and MRA notice that there I'm noticing that you're interested in, this is something you want to grow in.

And then. What I really want is for them to come back to me and say, okay, I'm ready to hit the ground running and do this. And then we can like work on the tactical part. Right. And if they are genuinely interested in my feedback, I will give it about the goal, especially if it's overly ambitious.

David Choe: No, that's great.

I think, you know, one thing you said earlier was in order to set, not, I don't want to qualify, but in order to set goals that are. True and helpful. You have to know yourself. And it's related to the fact that you said a lot of people in their career are kind of coasting or uncertain about what's to come.

Do you have any rounding questions that you ask your, the people you manage that help them better understand what it is that they want out of their careers? Other than just asking that

Najla Elmachtoub: if, if anybody has suggestions for this, I would love to know I'm actually currently, this is something I struggle with and I'm, I'm growing and I'm trying to grow in right now.

I am actually getting coaching from a professional coach on how to coach other people better. And something he said to me is like, number one, like you can't coach anybody. He doesn't want it. So, so something he recommended that I do is ask, Hey, can I coach you right now? Can I like get into your brain?

And like, Kind of like making that explicit mental shift in your relationship with that person can be kind of opening for them in and of itself. Yeah. Yeah. And one another, a few, a few tricks that I've learned so far, acknowledging the person's strengths and sometimes just like presenting that information back to them can help them out.

You're nodding

David Choe: I'm nodding because it's so good and helpful and so rare.

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It's, it's hard to be coached. Well, it's hard to put other people. Well, I think it's like one of the reasons why, like, you can't really automate management yet. Maybe we'll get there.

David Choe: I hope not.

Najla Elmachtoub: Yeah, you might, might take away from the name of this series,

David Choe: but yeah, no, I think that's, I think that's incredible.

I mean, it's, it's funny that it always comes down to these simple questions and kind of reframing whether or not, or it's reframing how you show you care. And it's not as a parent, as you would think. Yeah, no, I love that. I mean, I think this has been awesome. I would love to end by asking you, you know, is there any, anything else that you'd want to share to maybe engineering managers who are their first, first engineer management job, you know, anything that really stood out to you as helpful or critical in your growth?

Najla Elmachtoub: Ooh, I think I've been a manager for like five years now and I. I probably have like three, really three years of really bad, of being a bad manager. So the thing I take away from all that is like

focus on the people that you're working with and like really, really care. Like don't pretend to care, but. Get to know them enough that until you start to actually care about each other, and then the rest will kind of start to follow all of the hard parts, we'll end up feeling like a breeze because you know, it's worth it, you know?

Yeah.

David Choe: That's great. Well thank you so much for coming on technically human this week. I think there's a lot, a lot of golden nuggets in here. And I think the folks are going to be really excited to hear this episode. So thank you listeners. Please send us any feedback on this episode and Oh, one thing I would love.

If you have anything you want to plug please feel free. And where can people find you? Do you want to send them to any organizations or anything like that?

Najla Elmachtoub: I I'm pretty active on LinkedIn. I have a public office hours there on my profile if anybody wants to sign up and I am always hiring. So if you're in a software engineer.

David Choe: Awesome. Okay. Thank you so much. This has been amazing. All of that, right? All right. Bye everyone.

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