Fireside chat with Nas Jamal
Written by Benedict Harrison
Earlier this month, we held the latest event in our Fireside Chat series, as we invited Nas Jamal to our offices. Nas is an experienced software engineer, who has worked in a number of startups including HouseTrip and Deliveroo.
It was at Deliveroo where he made the transition from engineer to engineering manager, helping to scale their team more than 10x over the course of 2 years. He has since moved on to TransferWise, where he works as an Engineering Lead for the Regional Tribe with multiple Squads/Teams spread across different countries.
In this post, we’ll cover some of Nas’s responses to questions on a variety of subjects, ranging from the advice he would give to a first-time manager to how meditation can help with focus.
What drew you to the ‘leadership’ path and how did you make the transition from being a strong individual contributor to management?
It was accidental and not something that I planned intentionally. In fact, 8 years ago I would have told you that I would always be an IC. When I was a team lead at HouseTrip, I was unintentionally doing part of a management job as well. This was not something that anybody had asked me to do, but something that I started doing naturally.
I was carrying out 1:1s with people, trying to resolve conflicts, making sure people were motivated, doing impactful and challenging work, so I became a kind of pseudo-manager. Then at Deliveroo, when I became tech lead, I started doing the same things. Naturally, I was interested in the people side and making sure that the team are learning, they are happy and they are developing themselves.
As the team was growing very fast, our VP said to me that I was already doing all these management-type tasks. He offered me the choice of having the formal title or hiring somebody else for the role. I thought if I was already doing these things without realising, how about I continue doing it rather than going outside and getting somebody new into the team.
It wasn’t an easy path after that. I did get guidance, but my team grew from 8 to 20 people in the space of a year and then to 35 direct reports. I learned quite a lot on the whim and I still look back and know where I failed in some cases.
What mistakes have you made along the way?
I see a lot of first-time managers make this mistake still. When you see somebody in your team is upset, or when there is a conflict, you don’t take it that seriously and you think it will get resolved. When you spot something, even if it is only small, you have to act straight away. You don’t have to wait for somebody to come to you with an issue. I failed 2 or 3 times on this, but I learnt from these mistakes.
Another thing that I have noticed is that when you are giving feedback, it has to be taken up a level at every stage. When you give feedback to somebody, they may not process everything. They may go on to make the same mistake again. By saying the same thing to them again and again, it won’t work.
Instead, next time, try something different - perhaps writing it in a document. If people still don’t get it, then send an email. Providing feedback using a different mode of communication helps to get attention to the topic. Repetition is fine, but at every stage, you need to do repetition in a different way. This is something that managers often don’t realise at the beginning. It’s better to have hard conversations early on and in different forms than still having issues 6 months on.
What advice would you give to somebody who is just starting out in their career?
Initially, when you’re starting out you have time. Nobody is putting any pressure on you and you don’t have to try and prove yourself. You have time to begin in a specific area and become very strong in that.
But whilst you’re working on a specific area, it doesn’t mean that you’re not working on other things too. Always find out the one thing that interests you and become an expert in that. This helps in increasing the depth and breadth of knowledge over time.
How do you go about promoting cross-team processes and collaboration to make sure that everyone shares knowledge?
There is no perfect solution for this and it has always been a challenge for me. The way I handle this is by taking steps. The first step is that the leadership of any team communicates well. As long as the leadership is in sync and talking, that’s a very good start. Also, you need appropriate process documentation and architecture design documents to avoid confusion and to know why certain decisions were made. There should also be very clear ownership of different parts of the system to reduce noise and make communication efficient.
Do you have any small tips on keeping yourself focused and productive while at work?
I am a big fan of focus. I personally try to do things in steps and limit my WIP to maintain focus. Of course, this requires prioritisation without simply moving from one task to another. For instance, if I am looking at a Scrum/Kanban board and I see that someone has two or three tasks in progress without a good reason, then it’s time to talk about it. Ideally, pick up a task, finish it, ship it, monitor it, make sure it is doing what it is supposed to do in production and then move on to the next thing.
Other small things I do: check emails only twice a day, the same goes for Slack unless someone sends me a direct message or there is some important conversation going on that I need to contribute to. If I'm working in a cross-functional team (e.g. closely with operations teams), it helps to have some lightweight processes in place, like creating bug tickets with actionable data instead of slacking an engineer on every issue they find or not interrupting others if they have headphones on, etc. I also meditate on most days. I think it helps me a lot when it comes to focus.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to an engineering manager, what would it be?
Be curious, listen, be empathetic, genuinely care and develop people in the team.
How senior should you be able to become in a company without ever managing anybody?
Most companies have an IC (Individual Track) and a Management Track. Some engineers move to management track after some time and others stay on the IC track all of their career without managing anyone ever. It is not necessary to move to management track to grow, you can have a great impact as well as influence in the company while staying on the IC track. In fact, every company needs strong and experienced engineers who can mentor or coach other engineers as well as setting in solid technical strategy for the company.
What’s your opinion on working late or working overtime?
It is a tough question, especially in the context of startups where survival is very important and you need to do everything to grow fast. But then the expectations have to be set very clearly. Nobody should feel forced to work above their capability or what they can do. Everyone should get enough time to rest and do the other things that they enjoy doing, spending time with their family or going out with their friends for example. This is how most people bring energy and creativity back to work.
But I would be careful to stop anyone who is excited to put extra time working on something interesting, it's their choice. When I was an IC, I would sometimes work on things over the weekend, just because I liked the challenge or enjoyed working on that problem. It’s very much a question of choice. Having said that, we definitely need to be conscious of the fact that someone is not getting adversely affected by working late and give them time off. Work should be fun, challenging and a positive experience.
It was great to hear Nas’s insight into life as an engineering lead and we’d like to thank him for coming in to share his knowledge and experiences with us.