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Technically Human

The Toughest Lessons in Engineering Management

David Kyle Choe
May 31, 2021

Technically Human Ep 4 - Hardest Engineering Management Lessons Ft. Eric Gong, Founder of Eric Gong & Co

David Choe: awesome. Well, welcome back everybody. To another episode of Technically Human. I'm not sure if you guys caught the last episode, but we have officially branded this ongoing content series and we're going to be calling it technically human. I have Eric gong. Who's been an ongoing recurring guest on the show and we're so happy and excited to have him today.

Hey, Eric, you want to do a quick intro for yourself?

Eric Gong: Yeah. First thanks, David. For having me on this show I am a former VP of engineering turned recruiter. I help startups scale by helping them hire a talent.

David Choe: I love it. Yeah. So we, I mean, like Eric said just now he was a Engineering leader in his, in his former life.

And this week we want to talk about something. I think a lot of folks will find useful and helpful and really like. Not a lot of people talk about. And what we want to talk about today is maybe the hardest or the toughest moments in your time. As a, as an engineering manager, we want to talk, we really want to talk about the least talked about subjects as far as it has to do with engineering management.

And just want to hear your stories on, you know, how, you know, what the situations were that were really hard for you, how you overcame them, if you did, or, you know, if you experienced some kind of failure, It was and how it felt. I think, you know, like the impetus for this conversation is we've been hearing a lot that there's just not a lot of space for folks to feel safe, to at least share or hear that other people don't have it all figured out either.

And so for, with technically human, you know, we talk about the most human aspects of managing technical humans and that's. Hence the name. And so we want to talk about, you know, the hard stuff, the stuff that isn't talked a lot about, maybe something that might feel embarrassing to bring up or, you know, like hard to admit.

So those are the things we want to talk about today. So Eric, I'll let you go.

Eric Gong: Yeah. So I hate to break it to the listeners, but the road of leadership. Is a road of endless failure. I fucked up more times than I can count. And I think some additional context that would be helpful for our new listeners is I worked at four startups.

Worked my way up from IC to manager. My previous company, I was started as director with several engineers on the team became VPE with about 50 engineers on the team. So we went from really flat to more hierarchical can never pronounce that word. And I've made literally every mistake.

That one could think of. Right. So, so that's really the context. So I guess where I could start is with what I just said, right. Management, you know, for me, computers are easy and people are hard. I could write a computer program and it'll output, whatever. I think it should output and it'll do it consistently.

I'd say for a humans. You know, humans are hard because depending on the day of the week, depending on when you ask an input can have a very different output.. So I'd say. For me personally. And the reason why I got into management honestly, was originally, I thought that was where all the money was.

But as I grew in my career, I grew to love it because entering management is really understanding humans and the human condition. It's helping people find their best selves. Right. And the road of endless failure is because in management, you're going to encounter new situations all the time that make you feel like you got your ass kicked.

And for all our listeners out there for other people that reach out to you and said, Hey, you know, let let's talk about, what's not talked about I've got a lot of those stories, so I'm just gonna riff. On stories you could tell me what's interesting or not. I think last time we talked about the first female engineering, the team, and for those people, I'm not going to repeat the story, but you should listen to that.

Check out the previous episode, I'd say there are at least Like three things that kind of come to mind immediately. I think there are more, and then we could dig into whatever you think is right. Okay. So or most interesting. So one is like, as a leader, I feel like you're always wrong or you always fuck up no matter how hard you try and there's stories down that route.

There was a story where. I feel like I caused someone to leave the company  Oh, wow. And yeah, I still don't know what the right answer is. And I don't know if I did the right thing or I fucked up that's a good one. And then the third one that struggled with a lot is being a privileged male in tech trying to lead women and never knowing if I'm doing the right.

Or effective thing. So those are like three things, I think like any of them could be like pretty juicy. So yeah. Pick your choice store. Number one,

David Choe: let's go with no, let's go with door number two.

I think a lot. I think a lot of people would be interested.

. I think, you know, the most interesting thing things, and the hardest things are when there is no black and white answer. Right. So, yeah.

Eric Gong: Yeah. So I hope I don't mess up this story for, to protect the identities of these individuals. I will redo their names.

Perfect. I think they will know who they are. I think the context is I feel like I am an empathetic leader. I feel like I'm the people's champion when it comes to leadership. I feel like I seek to understand first. Right. So I'm just setting all the context of how I am as a leader. I'm not one of these like asshole bosses or something like that.

At least I don't think so. Yeah. Ask people that reported to me, they might say different. I don't know, but that's from my perspective. Right. So we work at a startup and it could be pretty casual. Right. And we play music sometimes at the startup.  So we have one engineer on the room.

I think there was like 30 or 40 engineers in, let's call it the engineering pit, but as the engineering has product et cetera. And at one end of the room, there's an engineer who likes to express let's say himself. All right. Let's call him Bob. So Bob was singing really loudly and possibly like annoying.

Right. Okay. And all right, so you got a little bit of music going in the ground. It's not like too loud, but it's you, there is music in the background on the other end of the room is a very sensitive engineer. Okay. Let's call him Jim. So like Bob and Jim. So Bob is singing and Jim is very sensitive to noise.

Right. And in this scenario Jim DMS me, slacks me and says like, Hey man, like Bob is singing it. Like, I don't want to sound like an ass, but like Bob is singing a really annoying way. And I said, okay, Hey, I can understand what would you like me to do in this situation? So Jim was like, you know, tell him to stop singing.

And, and I just said, like, I could certainly do that as like a boss, but I just want you to like, be mindful of that. I'm going to go and tell another person the thing that they're doing. Is like a really disruptive they're like, yeah, it's like, it's really disruptive. And I was like, okay, fine. Like I'll, I'll, I'll get in there.

So I messaged Bob, I was like, Hey man, like, I'm really sorry to share this. And I hope you don't take offense, but you know, someone said the singing is a little bit loud. Could you please cut back? Right. And in my mind, like I try to handle it as gently as I can and sure. I was like, and then Bob was like, yeah, like, no problem.

And then, Oh, alright, like it's done. I was like, Oh cool. Like another day in the management life, someone complained. Yeah. Like that's my life. Right? That's the manager's life. And then like three hours later, I got asked by Bob to do Like a one-on-one and I was like, okay. Yeah, sure. And then Bob, like we get in the meeting and then the Bob was like, Hey man, like I feel like you didn't like defend me there.

And then like, he is like, Oh, like, I don't think you were right. I was like, Hey man. Like that, that wasn't my goal. But you know, in a scenario like this, I just need, I, I, as a manager, I'm just trying to help people have more awareness of their behavior of how they're affecting How they are affecting others.

So like we got out of the one-on-one. I was like, okay, like, I think I did a good job there. I was like empathetic. And I listened first before speaking. And like, Bob just left the office and I saw Bob walk out. I was like, what? Like, and it was like, like mid, like mid-afternoon right. And I was like, okay, like, all right, this person just needs to like.

Cool off and like no message to the team and like, no message to me like, Hey, you know, and then, then the next, the next day like Bob's just like like I'm not coming into it. Like not the great greatest Slack message. So I was like, so I messaged Bob. I was like, Hey, you know, like let's talk later. And so got on a call a video call and like heard was going on and.

And I was like, Hey, you know, like, I feel like you didn't defend me. I was like, I'm just not happy. And like, I had to leave. And then I went into, I'm usually like more empathetic mode, but when people act like that, I turn, like I turned the dial up when I feel like something is wrong, because I felt like Bob was just like, Oh, like, fuck this shit.

I'm out. Like, I'll need to tell anybody. I don't need to be like, whatever. I don't need to hand off my work. Like I'm pissed and I'm out.. So I turned up the dial. I was like, Hey, I can understand you were really pissed, but it's a team that we have here and I'm running a team. And unfortunately, if one of us are not feeling it or something happens, I still need communication.

Sure. And I turned it up and I was like, not like, I wasn't like this Eric that maybe, you know, but I was like the more aggressive one. And I was saying like, that's not acceptable if you do it again, this isn't the right place for you. And like, you know, like after that meeting a day later, you know, we had another meeting and it seemed all cool.

I was like, all right, cool. Like, I think I did the right thing. And you know, like you know a month later he resigned like Bob resigned. So I don't know. To this day. I don't know how bad I fucked it up. Right. I don't know. Well, if I was like, if I did the right thing, I don't know if I fucked it up.

I feel like in a moment I did the right thing because it's a team thing. And if people aren't like for the team they're out and yeah. Yeah. I always question myself. It's like, there are times where you gotta put your foot down. I can't always be the people's champion when, you know, like some shit happens like that.

But I question, I still think about that scenario all the time, and I think about my level of empathy. I think about how I turned it up. So I definitely did turn up. I intentionally turned it up. because I didn't feel like Bob was getting it. Yeah. And yeah. Now, now I'll shut up. I don't know if that's a good story.

David Choe: I'm no, that's no, that's a perfect example because it's like, you know, I, I, for me, I have a lot of questions. Like, was there some underlying issues even preceding that event? You know, with Bob. And was he like, just generally unhappy was, or is he like the type of person that kind of wanted to push the boundaries?

Because too, for me, it's from outside standpoint, like singing loudly in the office, like maybe it's funny for like 30 seconds one time, but I think to do that ongoing maybe suggest like, I dunno. I'm not sure actually what that, what, why a person would do something like that. And not only that, why a person would get so upset for not being able to do something that kind of seems like something shouldn't do in the first place.

You know what I'm saying?

Eric Gong: . I would say that Bob is really easy going really nice guy. Not, not an asshole, not, not like one of these engineers you don't want to work with. I think the thing that would, I don't know, because as a leader, my strength is like the people's champion, everyone knows I'm the people's champion.

I think that. When you get known for being one way and you'd like sway from that, it throws people off . Cause it's kind of like your, your friend who always have your back and then one day they're like, no, you, you fucked up, man. You know, what you talking about, I didn't fuck up. You're fucking up.

Yeah. Don't talk to me. Right. Kind of deal. And I always questioned, like, I wonder that I do that in that instance, because it's almost like I'm so. About for that person that they feel like I didn't back them up or like I'm on someone else's side. It's almost like I'm telling you to shut up. When it's like, we got music and it's like always pretty chill.

Like, why don't I tell the other person to, to lighten up? I don't know. So I don't think Bob was like bad and Jim's not bad. I don't think I was. I think that's one of those fucked up management situations where shit just happens. And I always, always, like when I talk to managers, I coach them up. I always say like, when they say, Hey, Eric, give me one piece of advice as a manager.

I always say, when you think you've maxed out your empathy, there's a lot more room for empathy, because I know if you come from the mindset, like every problem can be solved and there's solution to every problem. I know that there's a solution how I could solve that better. Sure. I still don't know after two years, but I know that there is.

David Choe: Yeah, it's interesting. Like I think the, kind of the fundamental thing that you bring up from a principle perspective is how do I lean into a particular management style and it not be one taken advantage of which kind of seems like it was in this scenario and then two, it not be you know, a cause for issue.

Once you kind of, you know, Turn up some other lever that you have to turn up as a manager. Right. So it's like, I think that, I think that's a really interesting point. It's, it's kind of like management whiplash. Like, you know, if you'd, like, you're saying, if you're used to somebody being really, for example, if you're used to somebody giving really critical feedback all the time and that's all that they're known for just being really critical and all of a sudden one day they're really nice.

It kind of makes you feel strange, right? It's like that whiplash feeling

Eric Gong: Yeah, that's interesting. Yeah. And also, like, I wonder if you're a manager listening to this, please leave like some kind of message or like DM David or DM me, because I hope, I hope other managers, like, I'm pretty sure other managers deal with this.

Right. And it's like all day, every day I get stuff like this. In weird ways. Right.

David Choe: And this has nothing to do with building the product.

Eric Gong: Nothing. And I would never foresee any of this. Yeah. Right. Like I've got so many other stories. When, when I, whenever I think I've got to figure out as a manager, I know some shit's got to go down because someone somewhere has got to come up with new situation that has got to be really hard to handle.

David Choe: Yeah. A thing it's like, it goes back to this like, idea. Like everyone wants to be taken care of. Right. And then once the, in you could have taken care of them well, for months, for years, and it's that one incident may, maybe they felt slighted, that kind of turns it all around. It's like, I think that's something I think managers need to be talking about more.

It's like you work so hard to build this kind of like ladder of trust, but once the smallest thing can just kind of make it all tumble down, right.

Eric Gong: Yeah. And I mean, I, I, maybe I could have phrased it better. Don't know. It's like the finest line that I had to cross. I don't know to this day, man.

David Choe: Wow. Well, I mean, like Eric said, listeners, if you have any similar stories or advice or, you know, how you handle situations like this, that.

Are your job as a manager, but have nothing to do with building technical products or coding at all. Like this is, I think this is a stuff that causes managers to feel stressed. This is what causes burnout, right? Like just having to deal with these things and not really having solid answers or a space to share.

So I would love to hear from all of y'all.

Eric Gong: Yeah. So I apologize for making a 20 minute story on this second. Happy to take it wherever you like with our remaining time. No, I think, I think that's a good place to end actually. I think we should save the other two stories for some next episodes, but yeah, I think this is a great little segment.

David Choe: Maybe we should continue on. It's just kind of management, management, horror stories or yeah. Yeah.

Eric Gong: So, so listen, there are send us some of your, your interesting ones, let us know what you think and I'll keep sharing.

David Choe: I love it. Cool. Thank you so much, Eric. Thank you so much, listeners. We hope you found this helpful and enjoyable. Stay tuned for next week's episode of technically human. All right, thanks so much today. Thank you, listeners. Bye.

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