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(Re)Introducing myself + Elpha AMA + Something special...
In today’s newsletter, we’re doing something a little different.
Since there are many new faces around here, I figured it’s a good time to say hi 👋 and (re)introduce myself.
Today I’ll also be sharing some of my favorite interactions from the Ask Me Anything session I hosted on elpha.com where Elpha members asked me about my journey in Tech, career advice, leadership, engineering management, burnout, mentoring, coaching, and more.
Lastly, ✨ something special is coming ✨:
Stay tuned for next week’s newsletter because I will announce an opportunity that will give you a chance to be one of the 5 winners of a free 30-minute mentoring call with me (worth $199).
If you have any questions for me, feel free to reply to this email / post them below the article. Thank you and I’m so grateful you’re here!
👋 Hi, I’m Irina!
I was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania, but my career journey led me to Silicon Valley, more specifically San Francisco, California, where I currently reside.
I started coding 21 years ago 🤓 and graduated from the Polytechnic University of Bucharest with a Computer Engineering degree.
Throughout my career, my roles included climbing the ladder from software engineer all the way to staff software engineer, tech lead, and manager. I’ve worked for Big Tech companies such as Google and Uber, but I’ve also experienced early-stage startups.
My journey made me realize that I love helping people achieve their goals, which is why I started mentoring and coaching in parallel with my job.
I experienced and overcame burnout, which inspired me to create this newsletter! Besides writing, during my downtime, I enjoy staying active, reading, and snuggling with my cat Lizzy (find a photo of her below).
Very happy to meet you! 😊
🙌 Elpha Ask Me Anything
Elpha is a community of professional women that provides personal and professional support, knowledge sharing, and job opportunities. Office hours are held every week where some members openly talk about their career paths and answer questions about their experience.
It was an honor to be invited to host an AMA session during Elpha’s office hours and I had a great time answering all the questions. Here are some of my favorite ones:
Q: Would you be able to share more about how you grew as a software engineer to tech lead, then manager? What were some things you considered, or did that helped you along your journey? Often times, it feels like spending personal time to develop tech skills (at the cost of other activities) can very quickly backfire into burnout.
For me, a pivotal moment was when I was still an Eng 2 and my manager at the time nominated me for a leadership training called Edge organized within Google. That’s when I learned that leadership is not a role, it’s an attitude and series of behaviors.
That training made me realize that if I start acting like a leader, I am one. That’s how I became the de-facto leader in my little sphere of influence and I was offered the tech lead role. I talk more about my story here:
After being a TL for many years, I realized that what I love the most is developing teams and cultures. That’s something a TL definitely contributes to, but it’s not the main focus of their time. I spent a significant amount of time in the TL role precisely because I still wanted to develop my technical skills, and wasn’t ready to give that up just yet. Transitioning to management happened when I felt fully ready to focus on people development.
With respect to burnout, that can happen no matter what role you’re in. I share my story and lessons in this series:
The fear of burning out shouldn’t stop you from wanting to develop your skills. There are ways to do it while avoiding burnout.
Q: I was wondering if you had any tips for first time managers? And what has been your tips to build a successful career while staying healthy etc.?
I think even before becoming managers, in the contemplation phase, people need to get a super clear understanding of what they’re signing up for, what they’re trading off when giving up on being IC, and to understand their “why”. I actually wrote a 5-part series that deep-dives into how to think about this transition for eng managers.
Second, I believe new managers should first focus on building trust with their reports. This takes time and slow increments, but it’s foundational for collaboration and feedback. Don’t rush the process.
Third, you’re not expected to have all the answers. It’s okay to be vulnerable and admit that. Instead, focus on finding the answers collectively and engaging the expertise of your team.
Lastly, focus on building your coaching skills. The best managers I know are excellent coaches. They know how to listen, and they ask excellent questions.
My biggest secret for building a successful career while staying healthy is adopting non-negotiable healthy habits. I realized I’m much more efficient when I’m rested, so I’m always prioritizing quality sleep and staying active. Choose whatever type of movement you enjoy most because that will make it the most likely to sustain. I personally did a combination of weight training, boxing, yoga, and dance.
Q: Hi Irina! What are some common challenges you've seen engineers face when transitioning into management roles? And how do you suggest overcoming these?
Some of the common challenges I’ve seen engineers transitioning into management are:
lack of clarity: unclear expectations about the role and its challenges, unclear motivation for why they want to transition to management
lack of support: the feeling of being thrown into the ocean expecting to know how to swim
not understanding the mindset shifts that come with this transition: their job is not about them anymore, it’s about the team, managers need to put the team first
To help with the clarity bit, I recommend reading the “So you want to be a manager” series where we deep dive into how to find this clarity.
With respect to the support bit, you need a good relationship with your own manager. You need to be able to not be afraid to have real conversations with them about the challenges you’re facing and the support you need.
In addition, getting mentorship/coaching and finding a group of peers at similar levels can be very beneficial for both learning purposes, and also to feel like you’re not alone.
Q: Hi again, Irina! What is something you helped implement at a company that you're really proud of? (I know it may be touchy with Google and possible NDAs!) Also, can we see a picture of your cat?
At Uber, I was the tech lead for the Eater Delivery Experience team both FE and BE—handling what you see in the app after you place an order—and in 2019 we did a full redesign of the UI + rework of the backend. I’m really proud of how the team came together to execute in a very short amount of time. We also made some very thoughtful architectural calls that helped build many new features seamlessly.
Re: kitty. I will always say yes to sharing pics of Lizzy. World, meet Lizzy aka Queen Elizabeth III aka Lizzy Peasy aka Lizzy From The Box.
Q: Your career journey is so interesting! Was there a pivotal moment that made you realize you enjoyed coaching? Do you have any memorable success stories you've witnessed or been a part of in your coaching practice?
The a-ha moment that I enjoyed coaching came around 2019 while pondering about the following question:
“What are the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most and find most fulfilling?”.
I was a tech lead at the moment. I realized that the most magical moments for me were when people on my team would come to me with various problems, some that even I didn’t know how to solve, but I would help them find their own solutions.
It reminded me of the time I was a teaching assistant in college, which is a time in my life that I have very fond memories of. I applied the same mindset then, of helping people find solutions instead of telling them what to do. My students got the best grades in that year.
This is the essence of coaching.
So then I realized: wait a minute, I don’t depend on a job to create these magical moments. I can do it as a side project.
In terms of memorable success stories, I want to say people getting promoted or getting opportunities bigger than they thought they would get. But I think the coaching successes that I’m most proud of are the internal transformations, building true self-confidence, people thinking about themselves differently, and aiming for more.
Q: Given your experience working in both large tech companies like Google and startups, what are the main differences in leadership and management styles you've seen in these different environments?
A general rule of thumb is the bigger the company, the more mature the processes and culture are. Large tech companies usually have a more hierarchical structure, which impacts the leadership and management style.
In bigger companies, leadership tends to be more traditional and focused on operational efficiency and managing resources. Having more resources and bigger budgets for various functions allows for larger teams and well-defined processes. Communication tends to be more formalized and structured. Due to the hierarchical structure, there is more managing up / managing down that needs to happen in order to build good relationships.
In startups, leadership is more entrepreneurial and hands-on. Being adaptable and nimble is key. There is usually a lack of resources, so being deliberate and thoughtful about how to prioritize work and using these resources is very important. Communication is often informal and frequent, so building relationships happens more organically. Culture in smaller companies is more malleable, so managers are crucial for making sure the culture is healthy!
Q: Hi Irina! If you could go back in time and start your career over, but knowing everything that you know today, what would you do to grow faster + what would you avoid doing because it didn't serve you like you thought it would?
What a fantastic question! I’ve actually pondered about this a lot.
I would raise my standards, trust myself more, set better boundaries, have more courage, and take more risks. I would rely less on the approval and permission of others, and focus more on getting that validation from myself and my intuition.
I would embrace the fact that my time is valuable and that it doesn’t come back, and act accordingly. I think fear of the unknown and lack of self-confidence held me back at times because it made me stay in certain situations for longer than I should have.
I would prioritize building a good support system, finding “my tribe” and taking better care of my mental health. Always have a mentor, coach, or peer you can openly discuss your challenges is priceless!! You don’t have to go it alone.
That’s it for this week, my friends. I hope this was helpful and you enjoyed learning a bit about myself and my journey!
I’d love to find out more about yourself. Feel free to introduce yourself in the comments or simply reply to this email.
And don’t forget, next week we have a 🚀 special announcement 🚀.
Until next time,
Your Caring Techie
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Quick reminder that I will be speaking at the Plato Elevate conference on the topic “How to build an anti-burnout tech organization”.
If you would like to attend, Plato has kindly given me a 40% code for any Caring Techie reader to use: ELEVATE2023-IRINA or use this link 👇