Tips & Insights on Engineering Management from Elastic's Madhura Chopda
Madhura Chopda is a people person.
She always has been.
Give her a complicated cross-departmental problem to wrangle and she'll jump in with two feet, eager to find a way to bring people together. "I like being with people, working with them, resolving conflicts," she says. "Talking to people is what I like to do the most at work." In her current role as the Director of Engineering for search company Elastic, she does a lot of that on a daily basis.
Madhura took the role at Elastic after 12 years at software company ArcSight, during which she made the transition from being an individual contributor to managing others. She started out as the team lead on a tiny team of two, and as that team grew larger and larger, she raised her hand to lead it and eventually grew into being that company's Engineering Manager.
Throughout her career, she's coached hundreds of engineers on their professional development and career plans, including walking them through the age-old question of whether to lean into their technical background to become an individually-contributing subject matter expert and technology leader, or to grow into leadership and become a manager of others.
She always asks them one question: "What are the kinds of problems you like to solve?"
"Is it, 'Why is my ReactJS code not performing up to the mark?' or is it, 'Why is this cross-team item not getting done?'" she asks. "Over time, when you answer that question and have a consistent answer, you know whether you like to solve the soft-skill problems or the technical ones."
Not that it's ever so black and white, adds Madhura. As a technical manager, the majority of her energy might go into unsticking her engineers and making sure they have what they need to succeed, but her day-to-day isn't divorced from technical matters. We sat down with Madhura to better understand how she maintains her technical skills as a leader, what's been key to her success, and why Elastic was the right next step for her.
Finding people passionate about technology—and one another
Over the course of Madhura's career, she realized that there's a particular kind of engineer she really gets along well with: the one who is deeply passionate about their work. It was one of her criteria for joining a new role, and one that Elastic performed very well on.
"I wanted to see passion in the company I'd be joining. When I was interviewing at Elastic, people weren't afraid of talking about what does and doesn't work. Here, if we want to put a text box on the left or the right, there's a very passionate discussion that happens about it!" she says. "I think that ultimately results in a very good UX product."
Along with that passion, says Madhura, she's also found Elastic to be a place that encourages generosity and belonging. "I'm not afraid to say 'I don't know' here. People are very patient and empathetic," she says. "And I've been amazed at how much attention is paid to social issues."
Defining good management
Madhura sees her role as a manager of others to have three main components.
First, she seeks to unlock each individual and enable them to do what they do best. "I try not to barge into technical issues, actually. Engineers are more than capable of solving technical problems. Even rocket science has been solved," says Madhura, smiling. "I try to cater to the emotional part of things." That includes helping her employees define their professional goals and enabling them to succeed, as well as unblocking issues around communication and resourcing.
Second, she works to make sure her team understands how their work contributes to the company's overall mission. "It's only fair that I give them a connection with the company's strategy and why we are doing what we are doing," she says. "An engineer feels very comfortable if he, she, or they know that what they're doing is actually contributing to the success of the company."
Third, she makes sure that the company's mission and strategy continues to evolve and that its engineering team is doing the best it can to support that strategy. "I'm not just in planning or strategy meetings," she says. "I go to design meetings, UI meetings, UX meetings. It's my responsibility to look at the bigger picture."
Keeping up with tech
Though Madhura loves technology, she knows that her management responsibilities don't require her to be as well-versed in it as she was as a full-time engineer. To keep up to date on what matters, she splits technology into two buckets.
The first bucket is the technology that her team uses on a day-to-day basis. To stay current with that set of programming languages and concepts, she has conversations about what she reads with her technical leads. "It gives them an opportunity to think, 'Oh, here's something my manager doesn't know and is willing to learn from me,'" she says.
The second bucket contains everything else. To stay abreast of other new developments in the world of tech that don't immediately impact her team's work, she watches videos, has dinnertime conversations with her husband, who also works in tech, and shares her findings with her peers.
4 tips for managing an engineering team
Madhura's entire management approach, from setting and executing strategies, to centering the experiences of her engineers, to keeping her technical problem-solving skills sharp, is one worthy of emulation. She's distilled her best advice for managing engineers as follows:
1. Think in terms of expertise, not hierarchy. "I don't look at being a manager as a hierarchically higher role. You are just doing a different job than any other person. I am an expert in XYZ area, and the engineers are experts in PQR. So we both have our own expertise," she explains. "This helps me build a good relationship with them."
2. Own what you don't know. "You have to be unafraid of saying 'I don't know,'" says Madhura. "What's the worst that can happen? If you don't know something, you go and read about it, and it shows your team that it's okay to not know."
3. Be an empathetic listener. "In one-on-ones, you should be listening more than you're talking," she says. "And don't ask 'How are you?' That question isn't going to give you the right answer. It's just going to give you the answer you want to hear." Instead, she suggests that managers "respect the pauses," or learn to listen to the subtext behind what an employee is saying. "Try to read their body language and sense if they're really stressed. You don't [always] need to know the reason behind the stress."
4. Model the behavior you want to see. This point is related to all of the advice above, but it's especially important during the pandemic, says Madhura. She makes a point to block off time on her calendar to spend with her kids and encourages her team to take the time they need for their lives outside of work. "It's okay to say that [you're unavailable because you're with your family]," she says. "Everyone should have the flexibility to say that." She loves that Elastic has two company-wide "shut-it-down days" every month where everyone turns off their laptops. "I think empathetic actions speak more than words," says Madhura.
If you're interested in joining Elastic, check out their open roles here.
In the “Great Resignation,” an estimated 47 million employees (and counting) voluntarily quit their jobs. The job market still hasn’t recovered from the unprecedented “quit rate” of 3.3% at the Great Resignation’s peak. Now, about 50% of the workforce are “quiet quitters” according to a Gallup poll — meaning, half of workers are disengaged at work and do only the minimum required of their job.
Having engaged talent is a competitive advantage for companies in today’s work environment. Replacing an employee who’s handed in their two-weeks notice can, after all, cost your company 21% of the employee’s annual salary. Employee retention strategies — ones that go beyond a box of donuts in the breakroom — are key to keeping workers engaged in the workplace. But given that overly played-out retention tactics can be ineffective at best and make your company look insincere at worst, it’s important to prioritize the right strategies. To that end, let’s go over some new and improved employee retention strategies that you may not have tried yet.
In this article, you'll find:
- Why employee retention strategies fail
- The best employee retention strategies
- Your employee retention strategy is your DEI initiative
Why employee retention strategies fail
There are plenty of employee retention strategy examples out there, but efforts can fall short. For your employee retention strategies project to be successful, you need to avoid these four common pitfalls.
1. Not delivering on promises. If you say you’re going to do something, follow up on it. Consistency is key to building employee retention strategies. Don’t ask employees to be honest about how they're feeling at work and then ignore their input. Or worse, promise big reform and fall short with token changes.
2. No trust. Studies indicate that “quiet quitting” is largely due to the relationship between employee and boss. Managers need the time, skills, and training to build solid relationships with staff. There are resource forums for people leaders to share ideas. Using tried-and-true best practices is the best strategy to build trust.
3. Siloed initiatives. Employee retention strategies can’t just live in HR. The moment they become siloed within one department or position, they fail. Employee retention strategies need to be a priority in every department and at every level.
4. No resources. Employee retention strategies need resources. To put it plainly, unfunded initiatives don’t work. Employees should be compensated for extra work such as sitting on an employee retention committee or putting together a workplace social. Likewise, pay raises and compensation should be a central part of the conversation. Remember, one of the main issues for quiet quitters is doing extra work for no extra pay.
The best employee retention strategies for 2022
With the don’ts out of the way, let’s move on to the best employee retention strategies you can start implementing today.
Listen to your employees
Well-run companies spend time and effort collecting feedback and customer satisfaction information. But what about employees? Managers need to ask, “how’s my driving?” Having data is critical to understanding how your employees are affected and making the necessary changes in order for employee retention strategies to take off. Send out an anonymous workplace survey asking about stress levels, feelings of creativity, people’s sense of inclusion, and how connected they are with their managers. If you’re not sure what to measure, start with a couple in-depth interviews. See what people want to talk about. The responses in the interviews will give you the basis for your wider survey.
If you ask your employees to be honest in giving feedback, management needs to be honest and transparent too. Acknowledge publicly the challenges the company faces based on what your employees have told you. This is the first step in accountability. Be transparent about compensation, pay raises, and benefits. Did you realize it is perfectly legal for employees to openly discuss compensation? This traditional taboo is becoming a common water cooler conversation. Social media is informing workers how to advocate for themselves. Meet them where they are. Actions speak louder than words.
Recognize and reward people, not just numbers
Over 1 in 5 employees does not feel valued at work. Feeling valued means knowing that your work is worthwhile and desirable. Watching the same sales people get rewarded for hitting their numbers again and again can be demoralizing for those who go comparatively unrecognized. Know your team and what they’re working on. Openly celebrate different kinds of triumphs, big and small, and be specific when you do. Helping people feel seen takes more than a generic “good job.”
Be flexible about work
Rethink how, where, and how long we do work. Research shows that 52% of workers prefer a hybrid remote-office work model. Employees even prefer it over a 10% pay raise. Employers must respond to this need as part of honing effective employee retention strategies.
And, as far as flexibility goes, time ownership is a massive benefit to offer employees — including by enabling them to work fewer days. Iceland is a leader in experimenting with the 4-day work week. Icelandic companies found it reduced burnout while improving work-life balance. Consider flexible arrangements that have proven results like these. Imagine how teams can be ambassadors for the company when they enjoy a new normal.
Employees that can’t see a clear career path within their company will look elsewhere to grow. The longer an employee stagnates in a position, the more their likelihood of leaving increases. Managers need to regularly work with each employee to envision their growth. Movement can be within their same position or laterally, as well. Give employees a discretionary budget for ongoing education and skills enhancement. Encourage projects and rotations with different departments to learn new skills.
Dust off that DEIB initiative
The best employee retention strategies are ones that are formed through a DEIB lens. DEIB strategies can be innovative for employee retention, as they (should) focus on all the things that make everyone supported, safe, and valued in the workplace. DEIB is, after all, not about making special accommodations for marginalized people; it’s about making the workplace better for everyone.
Your best employee retention strategy is a strategic DEIB initiativeDEIB initiatives make apt springboards for a number of successful employee retention strategies by listening to talent, creating custom work environments, and making employees across identities feel valued. Focus your efforts on DEIB, and employee retention will be one of many positive outcomes. PowerToFly has expert DEIB consultants that can help you jump start your DEIB-informed employee retention plan.
💎 Want to thrive as a customer success manager? Watch the video to the end to get some advice on how to do it.
📼Every customer success team has to follow some steps to achieve efficiency. Play this video to get three top tips that every manager in the SaaS industry should keep in mind. You'll hear from Miki Lager, Director of Customer Success at Tackle, who shares her own experience and knowledge.
📼 Customer familiarity for success. Tip #1: Know your customer. Understand their business. There are three steps in knowing how to navigate that. First, don't make it so operational. Build a true relationship with the client. Understand who are their competitors, what are the challenges they're facing, what's their true mission at heart, and how are they hoping to achieve that. Next, truly understand who the core team is that you should be working with. And finally, make sure to understand their key strategic and revenue goals.
📼Achieve customer success by delegating. Tip #2: Co-manage your customer. Not one person owns the client relationship at your company. Lead with others. Make sure to bring other stakeholders in, so that you can make sure the customer is on their path to success and that they can scale with your business solution. Team up with sales. Build a really strong relationship with your support team. Partner with the product team. The customer needs to understand where your business is headed in the future quarters so that they can plan accordingly, but also for your product team to then understand where the customer's product roadmap is headed, so you can align on strategy and best practices for that customer.
Customer Roadmap To Success - Tip #3: Define A Customer Journey
Have a defined customer journey. If the customer doesn't know where they're heading, it's going to cause some problems. Give them a clear roadmap to success. You can always adjust milestones as needed, based on different goals and different initiatives that you're working on with them. Once you have the customer journey defined, you can figure out which milestones align with the growth strategy the customer has in mind.
📨 Are you interested in joining Tackle? They have open positions! To learn more, click here.
Get to Know Miki Lager
She’s passionate about building client success teams for rapidly growing SaaS organizations. She’s been a leader at small to medium-sized companies, supporting the life cycle of startups through acquisition, and integration. If you are interested in a career at Tackle, you can connect with Miki on LinkedIn. Don’t forget to mention this video!
More About Tackle
Tackle enables software companies to accelerate and operationalize the use of Cloud Marketplaces like AWS, Microsoft, Google Cloud, and Red Hat, without the need for significant engineering resources. Their platform and team come together to make it easier for customers to build, grow, and scale their Marketplace businesses. Tackle was born and built as a remote organization and welcomes others who believe remote companies are the way companies will be built into the future. They believe that everyone has an opportunity to learn and grow in their community.
Nestlé would like to invite you to their Supply Chain virtual recruiting info session on September 29th from 4-5PM EST. Sign up for this event with leaders from our Supply Chain team to get an insider’s view on what it’s like to work at one of Gartner’s top-ranked supply chains for 2022 and the world’s largest food and beverage organization!
To say that Nazanin (Nazy) Brown and her family lead active lives is a bit of an understatement.
“We've got four young children and all of them are in multiple sports throughout the school year, as well as the summer,” she explains. “My husband and I are both coaches, so a lot of our time goes from work to home, out to the field to coach or watch games, and then back home for showers, dinner, and bed.”
With an always-on-the-go home life, it was important to Nazy to have a career that is stimulating but also allows her to be present in the lives of her children.
We sat down with Nazy to learn how she has mastered work-life balance as a Contracting Officer within the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency while she keeps her busy household running smoothly.
From Crime TV Fan to Special Agent
At a young age, Nazy loved crime TV shows, which influenced her choice to study forensic psychology. She went on to earn a master’s degree in the subject, where she got some exposure to federal government agencies.
“During my master's degree, we had a lot of recruiters come to our program,” she recounts. “One of the recruiters from an intelligence agency told us that they often hired people from our program as special agents.”
Nazy is also fluent in Farsi, and in addition to her choice of master's program, this made her an ideal candidate for many agencies.
“I began interviewing for special agent roles based on my Farsi skills,” she reveals. “I got a few job offers, and I landed a job as an entry-level contract specialist in the private sector.”
Working for a government contractor, Nazy quickly advanced in her career and eventually became a Senior Contracting Negotiator for Lockheed Martin — and she was loving it.
“I just really liked it and thought it was a great field to be in,” she says.
And while her career advanced, so did her personal life. She became a young mother with increasing responsibilities at home, which led her to be more mindful of where she was dedicating her time.
“At that point, I was putting in so many hours — it's not a 40-hour work week,” she admits. “It wasn't uncommon for me to sometimes work weekends, especially during proposal season.”
As Nazy continued to pile on the overtime, she saw that she wasn’t able to be the mom she wanted to be.
“I wanted to be able to cut work off when I'm at home,” she recalls. “I didn't want to be that mom that comes home and is on her laptop. This was when I realized that having a job that is strictly limited to just 40 hours a week would be best for our family.”
A Parent-Compatible Workplace
Through friends, Nazy learned more about working in the public service and realized that not only would she not have to work overtime, but it would also allow her to work close to her children.
“Many agencies have onsite daycares,” she notes. “I knew that would help so much with commuting and my stress level, as well as the cost. That was my number one reason to jump into the federal government.”
So, Nazy applied for a role that looked interesting and soon found herself working as a Contract Specialist in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The onsite daycare took in her oldest, who was then a toddler, and promised a spot to her second child, who was on the way.
“Having my children onsite with me instead of having to drop them off in another part of the city before work every day pretty much changed my entire life,” she reflects.
With her childcare issues solved and a manageable number of working hours, Nazy was able to focus more on her career development and explore her options. It was her husband, who works in the Intelligence Community (IC), who convinced her to consider switching to intelligence.
“My husband told me that the IC is just a different animal, and he was right. The contracting is different. The mission is amazing. So I decided to look into the IC,” she says.
Applying for roles in the IC required her to rework her entire application package, but her preparation paid off when she landed a role as a Contracting Officer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
“Since I've come to the IC, I've been able to broaden my skills,'' remarks Nazy. “It's an entirely different contract writing system, and the IC’s mission and impact are far greater in size and scope, which has really expanded my knowledge. I've learned so much in the three years that I've been here,” she says.
The Secrets to Work-Life Balance for Working Parents
Over the past two and a half years, working from home became the norm for some parents. For Nazy, this was not an option because of the sensitive nature of the data she handles at NGA — and she actually prefers it this way.
“I like the fact that I can get my work done without interruptions from my kids. And when I go home, I take my lanyard off, hang it up, and I go right into mom mode,” she says.
For other parents looking to have this same work-life balance, Nazy offers the following tips:
- Look for jobs with short commutes. Commuting to work for an hour each way might not seem like a lot in the beginning, but over time it can take a toll”, Nazy warns. “Try to get everything set up in your local area as close as you can. In an online job search, set the parameters to five or ten miles from home, max.”
- Find an organization that offers practical support to working parents. “I don't think a lot of people realize that many government agencies offer onsite childcare,” she shares. “I've had four young children who all went through them and I have nothing but good things to say about them. So consider an employer that offers this, instead of the commercial child care centers, which are double the price.”
- Have food prep on point. Between work and her children’s sports activities, Nazy can’t cook something from scratch every night of the week. “I start the week on prepped meals. By Thursday, we're finishing everything that’s in the fridge, and then on Friday we order something or go out to eat,”
- Take advantage of employer wellness offerings. “You need to take care of yourself as a mom, '' she advises. “NGA gives us three hours a week for physical fitness training, pilates, or yoga classes, which are all provided at work. Taking advantage of that during the work day is so much easier than trying to work out at home.”