Katie Wilde is the Vice president of Engineering at Buffer and a management expert. In this episode of the Supermanagers podcast, Katie teaches us about the importance of incorporating praise into your management style. We also learn about how Buffer onboards remotely and interviews asynchronously.
Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn more about how Katie makes decisions and interacts with her colleagues in different time zones at Buffer.
1 How did you teach yourself to code?
The problem with education is that people don’t tell you about the kind of job that it prepares you for. I did a Philosophy and Economics undergrad then I did a Master’s in Economics at the London School of Economics. At that point I didn’t know what to do with my life because I wasn’t a very corporate person, so I decided to teach myself to code and started a small web design and development firm. It was a very stressful time in my life because I was telling people I knew how to build websites, but I was really figuring it out along the way. Most people don’t know that most developers don’t actually have traditional backgrounds.
2 When was the first time you became a manager, and have you ever had a traditional boss?
I’ve had people that I’ve had to report to, but I’ve never had a traditional manager or someone that is going to give me feedback on my work. I never expected to have anyone really help me solve my problems, I would just go solve them. So, when I joined a startup that was a team-based structure, I realized that we had some problems. So, for me it was almost an instinct to take on a management role and when I joined Buffer I just continued with solving problems as they would come up while making sure the team had what they needed.
3 Did Buffer practice holacracy?
When I joined, we had been doing something called a teal organization which is very similar to holacracy. The problem that we had was that we actually lost a lot of our top performers and a couple of really talented people resigned because they found it chaotic and uncoordinated. We noticed that we had a situation where people weren’t able to determine if they were doing a good job and they were struggling to determine if they were adding value. There’s no external presence that is going to tell you if you’re doing a good job so if you’re an arrogant person you will feel great but if you have imposter syndrome you will probably feel terrible.
4 People tend to crave feedback from their leaders. Do you agree?
Yes, I definitely think so especially with top performing, talented teammates. These individuals are going to require more from the organization. This role doesn’t necessarily have to be fulfilled by a manager, but it typically is. It’s helpful to unpack the assumption that only leaders are managers and only managers can lead because anyone can be a leader. Leadership is about influence and decision making, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the boss of someone. Management is like a specific operational role.
5 What were some lessons you learned early on in your career?
One of the earliest lessons that I learned was one that I had early on in my career as a manager. I had been in a formal management position and I was worried that if I praised talented or more senior Engineers that they would undermine my credibility if they found the task easy. As a result, I didn’t have a great relationship with my direct reports.
I was later in a leadership slack group and I told everyone in the channel that I wasn’t praising my engineers, and someone named Roy Rapoport, a director at Netflix basically told me that it was crazy and that I should be praising them all the time and as much as possible. He explained to me that it was a misconception and that you should actually have five to seven positive interactions for every critical action.
6 Did you immediately start incorporating praise into your management style or was it something you had to work on?
It’s a habit that you have to try to build and keep working on. We have a slack integration called Hey Taco where you can give a little taco emoji to somebody if they do something praiseworthy and you’re allowed to give five a day and I never managed to get through five a day for five consecutive days, but it was quite helpful for me because it served as a reminder that I had to give out all of my tacos.
7 How does hiring and onboarding work at Buffer?
We have a hiring system where we do our first interview completely asynchronously. We open up a slack channel with the candidate, add them to the channel, and then they have a conversation with someone from our people team that they can do on their own time and it’s all text based. We do this so we can assess their written communication skills, tone, and text. We also do it so the candidates can get a feel for an asynchronous experience because some people really don’t like it.
8 What happens during this asynchronous process?
We normally start by dropping a couple of questions in the channel. The hiring manager will be present in the channel and the hiring team will usually introduce themselves and let the candidates know that they can reach out if they have any questions. We normally set guidelines for response times and then we will usually ask a few more questions based on the previous answers that we received. We usually do this for the first interview and run a lot of these in parallel over the course of a week or two.
These interviews are followed by our synchronous interviews, which shows the candidates our typical video calls at buffer. We have a mix between synchronous and asynchronous working, so we want to have both represented in our hiring process.
The other slightly different thing that we do at buffer is that we always have more than one interviewer. We find it really cool because it helps to create a more conversational dynamic during the interview.
9 How does decision making work when you’re working in different time zones?
It’s very important when you’re making decisions that you have clearly defined decision-making roles so people know who is responsible for making the final decision. We use a framework called RACI, R stands for “responsible” to make a decision, A stands for “accountable”, C stands for “consulted” on the decision, and I stands for “informed”.
For larger decisions, we normally try to define the structure and that helps us fast-track the process because someone with decision making authority is able to make the decision as opposed to it being an open forum where everyone keeps adding their opinions.
10 What kind of things do you use the RACI format for and when is it overkill?
If I make a decision, I consider that a major organization failure but if it’s the last resort, I will make the decision. My job is not to decide things. My job is to ensure things are being decided appropriately at a good velocity. I build systems, I don’t build the things inside the systems that decide what happens, so I find it very alarming when somebody tells me I have to decide. There are very few decisions that I would say a VP has to make, even at a small company like Buffer. You want people that are close to the problem to be the ones that are making the decision because they are directly affected and understand what’s going on. I am almost never close to the problem just by virtue of my position.
11 How do you make sure that everyone is informed while working remotely?
We have a good habit of documenting our decisions so the team is clear on what’s happening. We use a tool called Thread to document our decisions so everyone can go to the mobile team’s space and see what’s going on. A lot of people use GitHub for the same thing by actually using GitHub to make decisions and then requesting changes to the decision and approving the decision.
We also have a weekly summary of Thread that outlines all of the major updates. One of the trade-offs of remote work is that you need to work a little harder to keep everyone on the same page.
12 Do you have a favourite meeting that you look forward to?
My favorite meeting has got to be our staff meeting. I have a weekly meeting with all of my engineering managers, and I love it because it’s a very high trust space where we collectively problem solve and support each other.
13 Do you have any advice for leaders that are looking to get better at their craft?
I really enjoy Lara Hogan’s newsletter. Her most recent one is tough love for managers, it’s very firm and great so that’s a great resource.
The most important piece of advice I would give is to build yourself a solid peer support network of people outside your company. Set up calls and talk to peers of yours that are not at the same company and build yourself a support system that way.
- Job van der Voort: Remote work, Inclusivity, and Facilitating Global Talent
- Hiten Shah: Setting Expectations and Cultivating Environments that Lead to Success
- Michele Romanow: Scaling Successful Ventures and Building a Transparent Culture
- David Cancel: The Art of Servant Leadership and Skip Level Meetings
- Sara Varni: Building High Functioning Teams and Leading with Compassion