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Episode 4

Engineering Management, Culture, and the Future of Tech Leadership beyond the ZIRP era: Shreyas Balakrishna

Shreyas shares his insights on engineering management challenges and strategies for high-performance and culture in tech.


Shreyas Balakrishna
Engineering Manager- CultureAmp

Shreyas carries 10+ years of experience as an Engineering leader with key roles at Halter, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, and EROAD, focused on leadership, innovation, and team growth.

Hi, I'm Shreyas Balakrishna, an engineering leader based in Melbourne, passionate about culture, and driving innovation, currently working as an Engineering Manager at Culture Amp. Today I am sharing my insights on culture and th future of engineering management.

As the ZIRL era comes to a close, how do you see its impact on engineering organizations and leadership?

The end of the ZIRL era, characterized by zero interest rates and abundant funding, led to significant hiring and growth in tech. Now, as this era ends, the expectations from engineering teams and leaders have increased. At CultureRamp, where I'm currently a tech lead, and other companies I've worked with, I've noticed a shift. Roles like tech leads and delivery leads have been consolidated, increasing the managerial span and reducing hands-on technical time. This change demands more from engineering leaders, pushing them to manage larger teams and ensure their performance while dealing with higher expectations.

With these changes, have there been any shifts in the responsibilities of engineering managers (EMs)?
Yes, the role of engineering managers has expanded to include responsibilities traditionally held by tech leads or delivery leads. Now, EMs are also tasked with delivery, project management, and ensuring that dependencies across the organization are managed effectively. This consolidation of roles has made the job more challenging but also more integral to the success of projects and teams.

How do you balance performance, team health, and velocity, especially with larger teams?
Balancing these aspects becomes more challenging as team sizes increase. My main strategy involves focusing on metrics like cycle time and work in progress (WIP) to manage workload effectively. It's about ensuring the team isn't spreading itself too thin and maintaining accountability for timely delivery. This approach has helped me manage performance without compromising team health or velocity.

In the industry, there's a trend toward engineering managers being more hands-on with coding. How do you navigate these expectations?
Balancing the expectation to be hands-on with the need to manage larger teams is challenging. There's a push for EMs to maintain their coding skills, but this can conflict with managerial responsibilities. It's about finding the right balance and possibly, over time, a shift back to more specialized roles to better manage these expectations.

Transitioning from a technical role to a managerial position, what were the challenges and surprises?
Transitioning to an EM role involved learning to delegate and influence without directly doing the work. Moving from being in control of technical outcomes to empowering others was a significant shift. The ability to delegate effectively and influence team direction without micromanaging has been a critical learning curve in my career.

What resources or strategies have helped you grow as a leader?
Early in my career, I leaned heavily on insights from thought leaders like Kent Beck, Uncle Bob, and Martin Fowler. As I progressed, networking with other engineering managers and engaging in professional communities became invaluable. Reading books on leadership and culture also played a significant role in my development.

How do you approach building a positive engineering culture?
A strong engineering culture is built on feedback and psychological safety. Encouraging open, constructive feedback within the team fosters an environment where everyone can contribute and grow. Practices like live feedback dinners and addressing "pinches" before they become "crunches" are effective ways to cultivate a supportive and high-performing team culture.

How can engineering teams ensure they have a voice at the decision-making table?
Engineering teams can secure a seat at the table by being product-obsessed and having an outsized impact. This involves understanding customers deeply, being proactive in solving their problems, and caring deeply about the product at all levels. Dogfooding the product and involving the team in user feedback can foster empathy and drive improvements that resonate with users.

Any final thoughts on the evolving role of EMs?
The role of engineering management is continuously evolving, with a current trend towards more comprehensive responsibilities. Ensuring that engineering teams remain product-focused and user-obsessed is key to achieving significant impact and innovation. As the industry changes, adapting and learning new ways to lead and inspire teams will be crucial for future success.

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