Interview with Mallika Rao, Software Engineering Manager at Twitter

Vidal: [00:00:00] Good afternoon. Today I have, with me, Mallika Rao, Software Engineering Manager at Twitter. Welcome to ManagersClub Mallika!

Mallika: [00:00:08] Thank you so much. Vidal. Thank you for having me.

What’s your background and how did you get into management?

Vidal: [00:00:11] It’s great to have you here. Tell us a little about yourself and how did you get into management?

Mallika: [00:00:18] Yes. So to give you a little bit of my background it’s funny that my tryst with computers actually started really early in my primary school. My dad’s a scientist, my mom’s a pure science major, so we always had computers at home. I was using a lot of Microsoft Paint and Word.

I wrote all our travel logs on it so I was familiar with the DOS commands. So it started off like that where I knew where the applications were, I knew how to get to them, and my dad would come back from work and check my drawings.  I knew how to work with the applications. And then my mom was seeing that I was always asking for rewards to work on my computer every time when I got my good grades and things like that.

And she was like, maybe you should take a C programming summer course. So that happened when I was in the eighth grade. And it was out of my school syllabus. And for the first time, I’d remember that realization where I understood that someone actually was sitting in writing these programs for my Microsoft Paint to work for my Word to work.

And that realization was just fantastic.  I started liking programming and then I went on to take some extra computer architecture courses. My dad would bring extra RAM cards and I would put them on the motherboard. And it was always like a fun thing where, you know, working with this machine with this computer that was there at home was always like it somehow made me feel smarter about myself.

So forever, I knew that I wanted to do something in my life. My vocation would be something around this machine where I would be close to these kinds of problems. Just that back then, I didn’t know the form and structure of how my career would take shape. So anyway I think the seed was sown back then.

And then I went on to do my masters in computer science at NC State. I started working at Cisco at a very low-level programming side of things I was doing a lot of former programming wrote a lot of C programs. I was also writing some assembly code for an ASIC, which did not have a compiler.

And I love doing that. I loved being on the Linux user space, kernel side of things, programming in the drivers space. And then I went on to some of the higher-level stuff. I started programming in Python, was doing a lot of OOP, went on to scale distributed systems. It was a different kind of problem-solving – applying systems thinking to these kinds of problems.

And I just realized that’s what I really like — the problem-solving aspect of it and learning the various kinds of computer science problems that we can solve when we are on the tech side of things. And then that was like a natural segue for me into management.  I was tech leading this team. I was responsible for the pure engineering impact side of things for the deliverables part of it. And I was fairly good at it. I was fairly good at designing systems. I love architecting solutions working right from a customer req designing it, working with a group of people to make it happen in delivered with quality. But I always found myself thinking, I wasn’t using my capacity to the fullest.

I was like, if I was responsible for the people on my team. If I wrote that performance reviews, if I was responsible for more streamlined feedback and coaching and mentoring, I was doing that to some extent, but it was not really required of me as much as it was about ensuring the project success.

And I would be like, I could be so much more effective if I was responsible for the people as well. And unlike some of the other traditional stories that I come across, for me, I sought this out as much as it sought me. I knew exactly what I wanted. I knew exactly what I was missing.

In my day-to-day job, I was very happy with what I was, but I knew that I had so many more cycles. I could do so much more. I was ready for a more complex problem-solving situation. And that’s when I knew I wanted to move into management. So that’s how it happened. It happened very consciously out of a lot of deliberation.

So looking back, the takeaways from this journey for me and maybe,  This is what I want my audience to take away is that it’s really important that we sit and think about who we are and what it is that we want. Because sometimes there are so many stories around us and different people have different career journeys, but it’s always important for you to understand yourself, think two steps ahead, and then once your aspirations just go and build that knowledge aggressively and strike when the time is right.

I think managing your career requires a little bit of skill. And if you’re thinking about it proactively it’s so much better than just letting things happen to you. So, that’s been the truth for me and that’s my takeaway for you.

Vidal: [00:05:35] That’s awesome. I really like your story. Even starting as a child you’re describing, and it seems like you’re very deliberate in your choice to go into management, very deliberate in what you wanted to do. Like you really are someone who knows what they want to do. So that’s awesome. 

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Vidal: Okay, so you deliberately want to be a manager. Okay. So now you got to be one what are some of the biggest challenges you face or maybe, surprises you encountered, being a manager?

Mallika: [00:05:59] Yeah. being deliberate doesn’t mean that we know all the answers. Like it’s usually that I have that grand goal in mind, but it involves so much of figuring out, and the fact that you are not fully ready for it and you’re already ambitious about it makes it challenging.

I always find myself in a place where there are certain gaps to bridge. And still, I don’t want to tune down on my ambition.  So, on a high level, that’s where the challenge comes from. I think as a leader, I like to think of it in three dimensions, right? Like people wise, I feel one of the hardest things for me is to push people, to make them think big about things. When I talk to people they know exactly where they want to go or they have the capacity to think about it, but can they structure their thoughts? Can they think about their career or can they think a little bit ahead and make peace with the fact that things will change?

It’s fine to iterate on your tactics and be very mindful about the moves that you make in the short term. And I really like my team to be thinking about these kinds of things. So in the people aspect, I feel like pushing people to think big is one of the challenges. And then for me also in the people space, just getting the collective intelligence, because it’s always changing. Because as a leader, I find myself aligning individual aspirations with the collective intelligence in the team, and then aligning the team aspirations to the org aspirations or where the product wants to go. So in that direction, I feel like just getting back accountability or innovation at a collective intelligence level – It’s a challenge because it’s always changing. People are leaving the team. People are joining the team. People are changing inside the team. So fine tuning for that. 

In the product space, I am very passionate about strategy.  In that dimension, I feel like you’re doing so many things. Your roadmap is always busy. Your capacity is always full. You always want more headcount now as a leader. How can I focus on that one thing that my team adds value for? How can we innovate? Can we think about doubling down on the impact there that is challenging?  Especially if you’re managing a big team. I manage a big team. It’s 12 people big, and just getting all these things right and thinking about the vision that’s challenging. 

And I think the last thing, like I told you, three dimensions. So the third one is personal growth,  arguably I feel like the space of engineering management, right? It’s so easy for me to get stuck in that mediocrity there are a lot of good managers, but in my observation, there are very few great managers. How do they get to scale their teams and how do they think about mapping this product strategy to engineering strategy?

So for me that’s a challenge where I can think ahead about my career and just fine tune and focus on what can take me from being good to a great manager. And that, that I feel like it’s a harder journey. So I think at a very high level, these are some of the challenges that I find in the space of engineering leadership.

And it’s probably also because It means different things in different companies and inside the same company, sometimes it means different to different teams and different organizations. So just getting to know how I can play my strengths in each of these places. I think that can be a challenge.

Vidal: [00:09:48] That’s a great list of challenges that you shared.  Love the one about pushing people, so that’s a really good one. And, to your last one about, the good to great managers. Cause I know you said you moved into management because you thought, what, if I control the performance reviews and what if I organize things and you know what, I always tell people, this is one of the reasons I went into management is it’s a lot easier said than done.

Like when you’re, I actually have the job is not. To be a great manager is not so easy as people think. So it’s a lot of work.

Mallika: [00:10:19] That is so true. That is so true. I do 100% agree with you. I also feel that because engineering management is so much different from some of the other areas, right? If you think about finance or the automobile industry, what management and leadership means there to what it means in an engineering space, it’s so much different because here you are.

For the strategy and the vision and the goals. And then you’re also responsible for the people. So it’s, yeah, it’s so much more challenging.

Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?

Vidal: [00:10:55] Oh, yeah. There’s so much, there’s so much. Could you share with us perhaps a lesson you’ve learned over the years as an engineering leader?

Mallika: [00:11:08] Sure. I think the biggest one is making peace with the fact that it’s important to do things that play to my strengths. When I started off, I wanted to do a little bit of everything I wanted to look good doing everything. And it was unavoidable then as well because I was learning the rules of the game and there was so much breadth I wanted to cover.

I was also watching a lot of different kinds of mentors and coaches and good references I had. But looking back, I feel like a few things I would have done differently. One is, always optimizing for strengths, understanding what is it, why did I come to this role in the first place? What does my manager need from me? How can I utilize my skills to get those one or two most important things done? I think that is so important for an engineering leader. 

That leads to the second point, which is, it really adds value if you can plan your days and weeks around this important work. Rest assured, there will be a lot of things that you will be involved doing and it could be in different spaces, like a lot of stakeholder meetings, maybe you are helping the team with the team’s culture, you are having virtual happy hours, and off-sites and then, there’s a side of you, which is focusing on maybe road mapping, planning, scoping, there’s a side of you that’s doing a lot of process-oriented and these project management kind of things, maybe the team doesn’t have a good handle on measuring the work. So you’re involved in various things, but it’s really important to understand what are the most important problems for the team, where does it lack that support from the leader and how can I unblock that? And then prioritizing the battles that I want to pick up. So being very picky about the problems that I want to solve

I think my strength is really execution. At least where I am right now, I feel like I can buy-in on an idea, and if I feel like there is enough complexity and it’s challenging enough and I commit to it, execution is something that I enjoy. It’s something that is natural to me and I do that in my personal life as well.

I’m good at it. And that’s something that I enjoy, so execution for sure. And then also things like strategy, product strategy, writing an optimal engineering strategy, asking a lot of questions, and fleshing out the details. I think that is something that I enjoy. 

Vidal: [00:14:28] Those are great. Yeah. Skills to how’s your managers, execution and strategy vision.

What is your approach to hiring?

Vidal: Maybe we’ll segue into one other thing. That’s really important of the engineering manager job. And that’s like hiring, building your team recruiting.  What is your approach?

Mallika: [00:14:44] Yeah. I’ll start with the current strategy and I’ll also share a few of my thoughts around hiring in general in the Valley.  Really like the fact that as a hiring manager, especially in slightly bigger companies where there is the luxury to do so, we can have a set of rubrics for the interview. I like to take those even to the hiring managers’ screen calls because I truly believe that I need a good candidate as much as they need the job.

In fact most of the time it’s more important to me. It’s more valuable for me as a manager if I want to build a performing team to have a great candidate. So I made a clear set of rubrics that is very structured. And my brain works like that – aligned with systems thinking. So it helps me.

I think it makes the process so much more consistent. If you have the rubrics set, if you have the structure of the call, you know how you’re selling the vision or the goals or the inflection points in the product, then it goes a long way to get more out of that call.

I think candidates should clearly know what the team is about before the onsite and they can get a sense of that from the manager. I am in a place where I can get them excited about the team, the on-site about the technical phone screen. So approaching these screen calls with a rubric and then going over their background or asking specific questions is helpful.

Another thing is I think being very mindful of the levels, like the software engineering has various levels, right?  Different companies call it differently, but let’s say we have Software Engineer 1(SWE1), Senior SWE, Staff SWE, and senior staff principal. How do you have your questions tuned for each of these levels? Do you have a variety of questions for different roles? How do you level them? What are the rubrics you are interviewing the candidate for? How do you write your reviews? Just calibrating the panel that can select for each of these levels and setting the right expectations. That’s super important.

If the company is in a place where it can think about it, then doing something like a topgrading where you have a rubric of questions going over the past experiences is great. And then structuring those questions to get specific information about the behavioral aspects that have also served really well, especially for some of the staff roles and senior staff roles.

It goes a long way in having quick huddles to decide with the interview team if it’s a hire or a no-hire. It really helps the candidate and the team.

So make sure you have structured your process in such a way that you’re getting strong signals so that the team doesn’t come and tell you “Oh, I couldn’t get the signals for the candidate” So ensure that doesn’t happen. And then when you have the signals, use the rubric for making your decisions.

And the last thing I would say is it’s okay to make some overrides sometimes as a manager.  Let’s say democratically the team is voting a majority “no”, and sometimes the manager has good reasons to go ahead and close the hire because the manager knows something the team does not. But also be aware you only have those many matchsticks to burn. It affects the trust relationship with your team.

So make sure you’re aware of how you’re making these decisions in the huddles. And that’s where being structured about the decision making process really helps.  The only caveat to all that I said is that it’s not the same for startups.

If you’re in Series A, it’s different. If you’re hiring the first 10 and then the first 30 engineers, it’s so much more different – the strategy is different. And you will have to use different kinds of tactics to align your hiring practices with where the company is and where it wants to go in the next one year, two years because there is a strong emphasis on customer focus.

That’s why I think hiring is also not a general solution. A good leader will have different tactics based on the kind of company that they are hiring for. So just being mindful and flexible and not bringing biases from previous work. It’s good to bring the good practices, but also not being too biased from previous workplaces also has helped me when I moved to Twitter.

Vidal: [00:19:31] Wow. You’ve really thought about this a lot. I really liked your comment about, bringing the rubrics, having the rubrics, and having people know what to level at, and yeah. You alluded to Topgrading. Yeah. That’s a very good book, and it has a very good structured career history interview and to really get like signals.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Vidal: Yeah, no, this is great. What was, would be your advice for managers who are just starting out.

Mallika: [00:19:57] Yes. So I would say being focused on getting the basics right. I think I made a lot of mistakes when I was starting out where I had so many ideas about what being a manager is, and I’ll give you examples.  What I mean by the basics is learn how to run the meetings, get the process side of things right, time management, documentation. Think a little bit about — How you want to communicate with the team. How do you make the team feel included? How do you ensure that there are no silos, simple things like that? 

Once we become managers, we’re doing a lot of meetings. So the basics are being able to run meetings smoothly, do good time management, closely watch your calendar, organize your to-do lists.

Use your favorite app and have control over your to-do list. And be super protective of your time. Because it was funny when I say that because when I started off, I felt so proud that my calendar was filled with meetings and I was talking to the stakeholders. 

I felt like I was helping a lot of people, but then when I sat back and I took stock, I was like, I didn’t get a lot of work done. I don’t know where my time is going or where was my impact. And that made me critically think about certain things.  So I would say Revisit what your priorities are like, it’s good to have a one-year vision, then revisit them every three months or so. And then make sure that you’re doing things in the short term, which are aligned with your long-term goals and it doesn’t have to be perfect, but that will let you focus your efforts in the right direction.

Most of us were trained for data structures, algorithms, operating systems, core CS principles. We never did anything on the leadership side of things. After you get the basics right, then you can start thinking about high stakes communication, thought leadership. How are you being perceived by the rest of your community and things like that? And we cannot speak about those problems if we are not getting the basics.

So the advice would be, get the basics.

Vidal: [00:22:41] I love that getting the basics. Because so for example in this book I wrote on time management, I tell people, learn to love meetings of your manager. Cause you’re going to be in lots of meetings. So might as well learn to love them, run them really well. Have great efficient meetings, because you can use the time wisely or you can just totally waste everybody’s time in which case like you’re not doing a good job.

So just getting that down can be super, super important. And I’m always personally trying to do a better job at meetings. Yeah.

Mallika: [00:23:11] Yes. And you make me think. And that also segues into this idea that You will know better what you’re managing because management is such a loaded word, right? Like on a daily basis, what is it that we’re doing when negotiating, we’re talking to people we’re convincing people or we’re thinking about some of the longer-term things.

Think about these-What am I being measured for as a manager? What is it that I’m managing? and then put that into action every day. That will also just give you so much more leverage as a leader.

What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?

Vidal: [00:23:59] So you alluded to this in some of your previous answers about prioritizing time management. And if you want to say anything more, like how do you manage your time, your calendar emails, et cetera, because I think I agree with your time management is a very important, basic skill for an engineering manager.

Mallika: [00:24:17] Yes. I know. I want to read your book, Vidal. It’s on my list. What’s my strategy for time management? I think I can do so much better work, but what I do currently is this. I am the inbox-zero person. So it really hurts my brain to have these unread emails.

So just for the sake of personal sanity, I like to read my emails. So what I do is I have blocked 4:00 PM PST to 6:00 PM PST on my calendar every day for focused work and I put it on my calendar and I use Google calendar, Gmail and the G suite for most of my like tools and apps.

Put a note on there saying if you want my time between four and six, please ask or ping me on Slack. And I let you know.  Four to six is for focus work. I read my emails or all the meetings that have happened in the day. That’s where I synthesize my thoughts. And. Get my work done and as much as possible all of those things, which doesn’t.

And then before Monday, like Sunday, I just spent like one hour catching up on emails deleting or saying no to certain meetings. Just cleaning up the calendar, like saying yes to certain meetings in that week. So revisiting the calendar for the week, Sunday, one hour, And then I’m extremely shameless about saying no to meetings. That’s the only way I can protect my time.  I ask people for an agenda ahead of the meeting.

I’m very happy to be in a meeting, but as much as possible, I’m hesitant to put a meeting on my calendar than being okay with it. 

And then when I’m in the meeting,  I like to know what my role is, what do they need from me? Do they need action or do they need a decision? Do they need me to weigh in on something? I try to make sure what, why is it that they want me at the meeting? It just is a forcing function for people to think about who they want to invite, mark the right people as optional, and things like that. 

And another thing is I really liked this concept of “silent reads” where people can write documents and share them with me async and if they can let me a silent read and then provide comments and suggestions, that’s a great way. I’m good with doing that. I make sure that I structure my thoughts efficiently so that I can save their time as well.

So the strategy is always to avoid having meetings. And then when you have it just be very sure about your role. So over time, I think people understand what your personality is and they will try to honor that.

It helps me get more things done. It’s a very complex problem. And I just feel like there is so much scope to do better. So yeah it’s a learning journey.

Vidal: [00:27:41] I like that a lot, like understanding what your role is in the meeting. Like, why are you there? And, should I even be here? And so I think that’s really great since you have a lot to do and you don’t want to be at the meeting if you don’t have to. 

What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?

Vidal: Could you describe what is perhaps personal habits or something that you felt has contributed to your success?

Mallika: [00:28:02] Yes. I think for me, it’s being closely tuned with nature. I’m a big admirer of nature from a very high-level view, I am fairly outdoorsy as well.  I like climbing mountains. I like observing certain phenomena in nature, and I just feel like there is a lot of advantage when one pays attention to the subtle.

And I’ll give you an example, right?  Just mapping those elements from the gross to the subtle is what really makes me effective in so many things that I do on a daily basis. Like when you’re climbing a big mountain, how badly do you really want to get to the summit? Have you thought about your gear? Have you planned correctly? Or was it just an infatuation that you wanted to climb this mountain, right? Or did you scope your ideas correctly? Did you execute that plan correctly? And that’s what really gets one to the summit. Most of the time, it starts with passion, but then eventually what ensures success are all the things that I would have done before I even started out.

And nature looks beautiful in these Instagram photos, but it’s hard when you are in the wilderness or you’re climbing a fourteener or you’re exposing yourself to all these out-of-the-comfort-zone situations. I always learn a lesson or two from Nature. For example, being able to go from the specifics to a general idea. Being able to negotiate better or being more empathetic about certain situations about what is happening in the team. It just keeps me grounded.

Vidal: [00:30:09] Wow. That’s ah, that’s so great. So wait, so you climb mountains, you’re a mountain climber.

Mallika: [00:30:16] Yes. Yes. I’m learning how to mountain climb, but I’ve I’ve done some really good hikes, like last year I did Mount Whitney, and last year we also did the Grand Canyon R2R hike. Then the Half Dome, of course, multiple times a few fourteeners in Colorado. So I just feel so home with the mountains.

Yeah. That’s one of my passions.

Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.

Vidal: [00:30:38] That’s awesome. That’s so awesome. Maybe could you share with us maybe like an internet resource, a tool, and a favorite app or something you have that really helps you with your work?

Mallika: [00:30:51] You won’t get a lot here from me here. I think first of all, I’m not on any of these social media networks. But I think the two that I really like are the G Suite tools because I use that on a daily basis.

I use Google notes to manage all my notes and things like that. I have. Multiple accounts and just to keep my calendars going very inclusively that helps me and LinkedIn is great. I really liked LinkedIn. That’s how I approach people for mentorship and coaching, most of the mentors and.

All meaningful work connections are kept up through LinkedIn and I have had fantastic conversations. And just the fact that you can approach anyone, send them a message and have that conversation going.

That’s great. And that’s how people contact me now, whenever they want some kind of mentoring or help with something. LinkedIn is great, yeah, it would be hard for me to be effective without LinkedIn. So yeah, I know. It’s I don’t have some of the fancy apps to give here, but those are two of my things.

Vidal: [00:32:06] Yeah, LinkedIn is a great professional network. As I work at LinkedIn now

Mallika: [00:32:09] Yes. I know that.

If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

Vidal: [00:32:11] it’s great, it’s a great tool. If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

Mallika: [00:32:19] One book. Yes, that’s hard. You know to managers I would specifically recommend “An Elegant Puzzle, Systems of engineering Management” by Will Larson. That’s really helped me a lot. It just changed my perspective about some of the more fundamental things like hiring etc. So I just feel like Elegant Puzzle is a great book for you to read, make notes, understand those diagrams. And I’m a big fan of just systems thinking as well in general.

And that’s a great book. Have a couple more, but I know you asked me for one, so I can send you the list later.

Vidal: [00:33:17] Okay. Yeah, no, you can share the list later. There are so many now there’s a lot of more and more good books, engineering, leadership, in the past, weren’t that many, that’s a great book. Yes. And systems thinking is a very interesting topic. That’s a great recommendation.

Mallika: [00:33:31] Yes. And if someone’s planning to buy that book, I learned this the hard way I got a Kindle copy, but a hard copy would be great because there are some great diagrams in it and you will really enjoy referring to that and using your pencil and making notes and things like that. So a hard copy would be great as well.

What is your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?

Vidal: [00:33:51] What is your approach to mentoring or coaching, developing members of your team?

Mallika: [00:34:00] Yeah. So I feel like first of all, they’re super important. Every engineering leader at least I have seen always invests a lot in the growth of that team and they’ve invested heavily in growing them. So mentoring and coaching are obviously two direct actions that one can take.

So my approach towards that is, first of all, being very clear that mentoring and coaching are two different things.  And the way I see it, mentoring can be more of handholding and giving direct action items and sharing tips and tricks, and unblocking them like right now. Whereas coaching is more about changing perspectives about what could be happening.

If the role and responsibilities for mentors and coaches are clearly set, it can make it easy.

So the approach I have taken and it’s worked really well in the past as well is for example, when a new hire joins might be, I assign them a mentor and a coach- and then I’m there as well to guide them. But apart from that, I use this opportunity to grow my existing team members as well. So every new hire gets a mentor and they get a coach. And I have a document that lists the roles and responsibilities of a mentor, what is required of them. It gives my existing team members opportunities to grow their leadership skills as mentors and coaches and new hires find it fantastic because they have more people to interact with. They have more people to give them different kinds of contexts and it helps them build that rhythm really quickly. And I just feel like such people are so much more productive and they ramp up so quickly and especially the way they perform on call on support.

So being very clear about the differences between each of these roles. And using the resources in your team, even delegate a bit of this. I think that has worked really well for me. But heavy plus one for mentoring and coaching. As Andy Groves put it, they can be high-leverage things a leader can do.

Vidal: [00:36:35] I think that’s great that you assign a mentor and a coach and you also give them a written document that tells them what you expect them to do. So you’re very clear about it. Would you be willing to share this document with the readers of ManagersClub?

Mallika: [00:36:47] Absolutely.

Vidal: [00:36:48] Great. Yeah. If you could share a link later, I’ll include it in the interview.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Vidal: Mallika, you’ve been super generous with your time. I think you’ve shared a ton of really valuable and insightful advice and perspective for people. Where can people go to learn more about you if they want to connect with you later, or just learn more about you?

Mallika: [00:37:09] Yeah. So I’m very active on LinkedIn. Mostly reply very quickly within 24 hours. And even if I feel like it’s a really good question and I need time to think about it before I get back, I usually get back to people and say, “Hey, I acknowledge this. But I’ll get back to you with an answer within the next two days.”

And then also I write on Medium(mallikarao). I’m very passionate about writing and sharing what I know. So I write on Medium and I’d write about leadership engineering, and also about other things that I would spend time thinking about. So I can be reached on Medium and LinkedIn.

Vidal: [00:37:52] That sounds great. I will post links to that. And the interview. Again, thank you very much. You’ve been great. I really, appreciate your time today.

Mallika: [00:38:02] Thank you so much, Vidal. It was great talking to you. Thank you for having me.

Vidal: [00:38:07] Anytime. 

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