The Engineering People Show, Episode 28: Christian McCarrick
“… make sure that you find whatever it is that rejuvenates you and gives you back that energy, that you make time for yourself and you focus on that — because if you’re failing emotionally as yourself and you don’t have any energy, you certainly can’t be in a position to successfully lead a team.”
Today on Engineering People:
Christian McCarrick is the VP of Engineering for Auth0 where he manages a globally distributed team. He is dedicated to improving the craft of software engineering leadership. He volunteers his time to mentor through the Everwise and Plato networks and teaches engineering workshops for new engineering managers. He also hosts a popular podcast called SimpleLeadership where he interviews top technology leaders in order to help other managers grow and be successful.
(Original episode released on September 21, 2018)
Christian on Twitter
Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler
Transcript, edited for clarity:
Ryan Carson: Welcome to Engineering People, the show where we interview the world’s leading engineering managers so we can learn from their experience and ideas. I’m Ryan Carson, the founder Treehouse, and I’m your host.
You’ve probably heard of Treehouse but just in case you haven’t, we help companies hire great developers and designers. We have experience creating over 850,000 new developers and designers. If you’re struggling to hit your hiring plan or creating a diverse team, that’s what we’re all about. Just head to teamtreehouse.com/go/talent.
Let’s get to the show. Today I’m joined by Christian McCarrick from Auth0. Thank you so much for hanging out.
Christian McCarrick: Yeah, absolutely. I’m happy to be here today, Ryan. Thank you.
Ryan Carson: As I said before we started recording, your microphone audio is great, thank you!
Christian McCarrick: Yeah, interesting, I’m on the guest side of the podcast but I think, as you’ve seen I run a podcast as well. It’s very interesting when I interview candidates, I sometimes — I’m jumping into it a little bit, but I really like the ability to potentially have my engineers be on the other side of the interview every once in a while to really get them that empathy of what it sounds like. This is a good thing for me so I get a little empathy about how my guests feel on my podcast. [laughter]
Ryan Carson: Why don’t you tell everybody about your podcast real quick, just give it a plug?
Christian McCarrick: Sure, my podcast is Simple Leadership. You can find it on iTunes or on simpleleadership.io. Again, it was my thing of trying to improve the overall craft of software engineering leadership in any way that we can — sponsor new engineering managers, help them and guide them along the way to become better engineering leaders.
Ryan Carson: Love it. That sounds great. Why don’t you tell us all about your job title and what Auth0 does?
Christian McCarrick: Sure, so I’m the VP of Engineering. Auth0 provides a universal authentication and authorization platform for web, mobile and legacy applications. We’re considered an identity as a service company that provides everyone from your local startup with one person, to enterprise customers with a universal identity platform for all their needs. If you’re a developer and you use SMS and you use Twilio or you get payments and you use Stripe, our customers are really software engineers and developers and companies that are developing their own applications. So we’re an analogous to those companies, where our customers are developers, except we’re providing that identity as a service, as a product.
Ryan Carson: I’d love to hear how you became an engineering manager.
Christian McCarrick: It’s interesting, there’s two main paths so when I talk to certain people it’s like, this has been their dream job — which that may be, we have to talk about their personality a little bit — or you fall into it. I was the latter. I fell into it. I had “management” jobs as I was growing up, even through high school and college. One of my side jobs in college was I managed a coffee shop. I came in and started being behind the counter. A similar thing with how it happened in my later jobs and my engineering and software career was, I naturally started organizing and looking and thinking about systems and structure and process and getting people to work together. So I had some “management” type experience. Then I started my own company in my senior year of college. It was a company called hosting.com, real early-in-the-day hosting company.
Ryan Carson: Wow, that’s one heck of a domain.
Christian McCarrick: Yeah, it’s pretty good. So that was pretty neat. You know how early it was when I was able to get that. What I really should’ve done is just done domain squatting. [laughter]
Ryan Carson: We all should have, so don’t feel bad.
Christian McCarrick: Right? So I had a little bit of experience with small teams, running things, then went to be an IC [individual contributor], and my manager just quit one day. There was a panic over the weekend, some phone calls, and suddenly I’m a manager on Monday. That was trial by fire. I’m lucky that I had some background with some of the concepts of management, but I would not consider myself by any means good at that point. This is gonna be my mea culpa and I’m sorry for all of the early employees of mine out there, I know I must’ve messed up a thousand times, so I’m sorry.
Ryan Carson: Well at least you’re honest, cause I unfortunately did the same thing. I ended up being a CEO but that’s not because I was a born manager. I’ve had to learn everything.
Let’s dig into that in a minute when I ask about some of the best, most important things you’ve learned. But before we get into that, how have you learned? What’s a favorite book or a course or a person that’s really influenced you as an engineering manager?
Christian McCarrick: Sure. I’m gonna answer this in two parts. Over my career, I’ve learned that reading fiction is really important to being a manager. I’ll tell you why I think that, because study after study shows that people who read fiction more really develop a better and stronger sense of empathy. One of the most important things, I feel as part of a manager’s job, is to have strong empathy for your teammates and for your peers. Irrespective of any single book, I would seriously recommend people to explore some fiction, because it does allow people to get into other people’s minds and experience them from another point of view, which is a critical piece of empathy.
Ryan Carson: How cool! Out of all our guests so far, no one has said that. That’s fascinating.
Christian McCarrick: That’s awesome, so fiction is one. If you like videos, there’s a conference out there called The Lead Developer. I think they have 100+ videos now from past speakers. They’re really awesome. It’s right in the sweet spot of managers and that cross between leads and ICs and managers, so I would highly recommend any of those videos. You can just go to YouTube, search for the lead developer. Also a plug — I was on it this year in London. So you can watch mine if you want, but every single one I think is really excellent.
Two other books really quick, because I wanna get them in there, are Thanks for the Feedback and Crucial Conversations, two other ones I highly recommend.
Ryan Carson: Crucial Conversations has come up almost 50% of the time in interviews, so that is a good recommendation. Tell us a little bit about Thanks for the Feedback, what’s the jist?
Christian McCarrick: I think the important thing that I really like about Thanks for the Feedback is, again, feedback is so important for a manager, so important for being on teams and just interacting with other people. The one thing I really like about Thanks for the Feedback: It doesn’t focus just on how to give feedback, it really also helps people to receive feedback. Receiving feedback is such an important part of being able to grow and learn as an individual — and especially as a manager, that that’s why I think it’s so important. One, it gives you guidance on giving feedback and appropriate things and the types of feedback for different people and situations. But receiving feedback, I think, is a skill that —myself included — whether it’s work relationships or interpersonal relationships, is something we can all improve on.
Ryan Carson: That’s so great. I wish you could go back in time and tell me all these things when I became a manager.
Christian McCarrick: Myself too, yeah. [laughter]
Ryan Carson: Can you please offer that service?
Christian McCarrick: Some of them weren’t out there. When I became a manager, there was nothing. Maybe you had some of those management books from Peter Drucker or something, that was about it.
Ryan Carson: Have you ever come across the Management Tools podcast?
Christian McCarrick: Yeah, I think those are actually really good. I think that I had a lot of guests on my podcasts that definitely recommend them. Where my podcast tends to be very specific toward engineering and even some concepts, I think they’re very good on tactical, “what exactly to do for this promotional or one-on-one or firing someone” or things like that.
Ryan Carson: We use it for our very basic manager training, not engineering management, but that’s where we learned all the basics around feedback and delegation and one on one.
Lessons from non-tech jobs that can help engineering managers
One of the things about having amazing guests like you on the show, VP of Engineering and SVP and CTOs and high-level engineering managers, is that our audience is primarily aspiring engineering managers or people that are moving up in their career. It sounds like you always had it figured out — I mean, you just admitted you didn’t, but I always like to ask: What is the funniest, worst or most interesting job you’ve had outside of tech, just to help us relate to you?
Christian McCarrick: I had a lot of interesting jobs before I got into technology. I could pick a few. You name it, I spent a summer shucking oysters, that was definitely motivation for never wanting to shuck oysters again, and really helped me double down on my education.
I think a couple of things that were related and that I think helped me a little bit in managing later, especially with some time management. I worked in a couple restaurants, both as a line cook and as a bartender. I think I learned a lot of interesting short-term time management skills from being a line cook, and I also learned a lot of people interaction, social cue context from the time I spent bartending. How did you become a good manager? I would probably say that dealing with people a lot, because I’m really an introvert inside but when you step behind this bar, when I was in college, you can’t be an introvert and make money being a bartender.
It’s hard to be a manager. It takes a lot of energy to be a good manager because you have to put yourself out there. You have to put on that strong face. Not that you can’t admit any kind of vulnerability, which is also important, but it takes energy. Being able to project that energy and hone it and really get some of those social cues was very helpful for me in a way. And it was pretty good money, helped me put myself through college.
Ryan Carson: So shucking oysters, terrible but good life lesson. Bartending, terrible, but even better life lessons.
Christian McCarrick: I can’t say it was terrible, it was long in New York when I grew up and did a lot of bartending, the bars closed at 4:00am. It was always interesting. I would come home and I would actually have breakfast with my mom back in the day, because she was getting up to go to work and I was coming home.
Ryan Carson: That’s crazy! I’m naturally introverted. Obviously, as introverts, we lose our energy as we’re around people more and more. Being around excited drunk people until 4:00am sounds like my worst nightmare.
Christian McCarrick: That’s right. One of the things I coach my engineering managers is, because of that, make sure that you find whatever it is that rejuvenates you and gives you back that energy, that you make time for yourself and you focus on that — because if you’re failing emotionally as yourself and you don’t have any energy, you certainly can’t be in a position to successfully lead a team.
The big lesson
Ryan Carson: I’d love to hear a story where you learned a big lesson as an engineering manager.
Christian McCarrick: There’s a lot. I think one of the big lessons that I’ve certainly learned is, over time — especially when I come into organizations I’m helping scale or turn around something — is a lot of people who come up through technology ranks, myself included, look to technology as the end-all, be-all. The answer must be in the tech. But as you get higher and higher in organizations and you deal with more and more people, I’ve come to a realization that it’s really about the people. When I come in, I look at the people and then the process and then, oddly enough, the technology is the last thing. Having the right people in the right roles, fostering an environment where they can thrive, they’re safe, they’re challenged, you’ve taken care of their base needs so they can be creative and productive — once that’s in place, I can do anything with my teams but if I don’t have that, no matter all the money I spend or the tech I have, it just will never be as smooth.
Ryan Carson: One of the more tactical things I wanna ask you about is diversity, equity, inclusion. I know we’re both very passionate about that. I know that Auth0, you’re doing a lot related to that. What are some specific tactics that are helping you all to hire more diverse teams and to create an inclusive environment?
Christian McCarrick: Sure, they certainly go hand-in-hand. I’ve had a lot of guests on my podcast that are from members of underrepresented groups. I think the one thing I try to do, especially through my podcast, is give members of underrepresented groups a voice as well. I really like to show that there are ways to engineering, and engineering leadership and management, that don’t come through the traditional path and it’s okay, that there isn’t a formula that everyone has to follow to become an IC and even to become leader of engineering organizations. Specifically at Auth0, there’s a few things, and we are by no means, I would say, where we want to be.
I think a lot of companies realize they grew quickly and the first hires and the core groups tend to mirror networks of the founders and the individuals. Then it really becomes important to look around and try to do everything you can to make sure that you have an inclusive environment. If you don’t have an inclusive environment, you could bring lots of diverse people into your company and they won’t stay. It’s really important to make that psychological, safe environment, that environment that is welcoming and open for everyone, every type of background. It’s not just the typical ones that you might see. Introverts, extroverts, people from all different geographies.
One thing that I think helps us at Auth0 is we’re a remote-first company. We embrace distributed teams, so we really open up the ability for us to hire in areas where you might have members of different socioeconomic strata — both in the US and beyond — where people might be really awesome but they can’t afford to live in the Bay Area or Boston or one of these big companies. So right off the bat, I think that that’s helpful for us.
This week we’re conducting some more training for everyone in our company about unconscious bias, doing a combination of very specific things about unconscious bias we have and we’re helping to improve upon, or making clear rubrics for evaluations. So it’s less subjective and more quantitative, and trying — I can’t say “interperson blind,” because the nature of interviews and how we are today, but really trying to make decisions that are more based on skill and what we’re hiring for and not “Do I wanna grab a beer with this person?” kind of things. That’s not good.
Ryan Carson: Absolutely. We’ve learned that lesson the hard way, too.
Christian McCarrick: Yeah. And then non-traditional sources like Hackbright, Women Who Code, /dev/color, we’re trying to work with and in some cases sponsoring those groups. One of my previous guests was a founder or co founder of a company called Interviewing.io. Looking at some companies like that, that will actually be sending you blind packets of people — you don’t know their name, but see how they did on these assessments then the tests and the coding stuff that you put on there, so you can review them a little bit pre-screen. Again, it takes away any bias you might have because you’re looking at pure potential skill in an area.
Ryan Carson: Yes, we have seen the same thing. We actually removed the names and pictures from our interviewees and found we hired more women. Which is hard to admit, but it goes to show we had bias we couldn’t get rid of.
Christian McCarrick: I’m in some early talks, and this is sort of what your company does — let’s talk about maybe helping my company out later after the show but also about, there are things we can do — but we have an office in Buenos Aires, and we’ve done help there with sponsoring some internal code trainings, some teachings to try to help some of the local people in Buenos Aires to level up or gain engineering skills they didn’t have, or career shifting. I’d like to do that more at Auth0 at our other office, up in Bellevue, to try to create a little code academy in the company, and take some of the people that are there and if we don’t, then it’s still hopefully providing a service back out to the community. These are the early stages — these are just things that I’m brainstorming and thinking, but if you don’t start thinking about them, you’ll never get there.
Ryan Carson: You never will. I applaud you for being on the cutting edge of that and putting action to words. That’s great to hear! Thanks for sharing what y’all are doing.
The last question I have is kind of tactical, and I know it’s a real pain point for every technology executive: How do you balance shipping product features that are vital and delivering results, but also giving your team time to innovate and be creative.
Christian McCarrick: That’s the one question I didn’t want you to ask. [laughter] Sorry, I don’t have a great answer for that.
Ryan Carson: But no one does. It’s hard.
Christian McCarrick: It’s really hard. To add another aspect to that, as companies scale and grow and your customer base grows — which is what you want — is how do you support the existing customers? You have to deal with live customers, and not only do you want to balance innovation, you wanna balance your road map and R&D, but you have this deluge of issues coming in on a day-to-day basis. Maybe it’s actual bugs, maybe it’s people using your software in really interesting ways that you’ve never thought of before. Now you have to deal with that because it’s a query that’s now chewing up 30% of your Amazon instance. The answer is, the challenge is the same: How do you take these different buckets and try to do that? I don’t have a great answer.
We’re actually working through some of those exercises right now at Auth0, but a couple of things that we’re certainly doing is really trying to do a good focus on prioritizations. What I find is at a lot of companies at a lot of times, there’s just so much work in progress that you don’t know everything that’s going on. The same ways that I might coach people on personal time management and personal productivity, if you take those concepts and scale them out to an engineering and product organization, you’ll start to see you’re not tracking where everyone is and having a clear understanding of what all the things are, and really getting that list of all the things to realize, wow, we’re spending a lot of time on different things. How do we get some of that time back?
Once you can get some of the time back, then you can slice up the time. “Well, no wonder we’re not getting anything done — people were getting DM’ed on Slack to fix bugs that no one knew about,” so unless you can get your house in order just on that aspect, it becomes very difficult to start focusing on strategy and long term innovation — which in Auth0 is really important to us, especially in our space. We want to make sure that we stay the thought leader as a company, and we wanna push the envelope as new and new means of identity and authentication and everything come online. Part of that is carve out. For all the things it’s “How do you provide a uninterrupted series of time for people to work on these items?”
That could be done any other way, so this is a generic “how to tackle it” without the tactics. But one, find out all the things you’re doing — because I’m sure you’re doing a lot more than you are aware of — and that will give you back some time. Then prioritize the things that you should be working on, and look at the strategy. Whether it’s a rotation of teams because there’s other issues, if you just carve out a special team that does innovation then everyone’s like “I didn’t get to work on the cool crap.” [laughter]
It’s hard to be creative when you have this constant interruption-driven cycle, Whether it’s a quarterly or monthly or whatever base that it is, I always try to limit the interruptions that the people that we want being in that flow and that creative mode to do, to give them that time to be able to think about that. Then the rest just becomes, “how do you execute then against some of these ideas?”
Ryan Carson: Yeah. I like what you’re pointing out about focus and reducing distraction. Those are two practical things that can be done. You may not be able to offer blissful perfection as far as innovation meets shipping, but I know that most humans just want clarity: “What is it that I’m doing and how does it fit to the big picture,” and “Please don’t interrupt me so I can get work done.” I think those are two great things, so I thought it was a good answer.
Christian McCarrick: Great, thank you. [laughter]
Ryan Carson: I’d love to hear where listeners can go to learn more about you and Auth0.
Christian McCarrick: For Auth0 just go to Auth0.com. We are actively hiring right now. I am actively looking for members and building up my engineering leadership team, so as well if you are a rising manager or director, I’m definitely looking for that. Definitely encouraging people from all backgrounds and groups to apply. Really want to focus on trying to build a good, diverse workforce, especially on my leadership team.
Ryan Carson: Christian, thanks so much for your time and for your honest vulnerability about your journey and some of the things you’ve learned, I really appreciate it.
Christian McCarrick: Absolutely, it’s a pleasure always talking to you, other leaders and people who are passionate about the space and helping other people out and giving back. So thank you for taking the time — I know you have a day job too, [laughter] running a company, so I appreciate everyone who’s involved in these efforts. Thank you.
Ryan Carson: No problem, take care.
Christian McCarrick: See you.