1 on 1 with Engineering Leaders: Netflix Manager, UI Engineering Tara Ellis on transitioning to management

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1 on 1 with Engineering Leaders: Netflix Manager, UI Engineering Tara Ellis on transitioning to management

Codecademy for Business and our friends Code Climate are meeting with engineering leaders to talk about their career journeys, leadership tactics, and their advice for the next generation of engineers in our new series, 1 on 1 with Engineering Leaders.  

Below is an excerpt from a 1 on 1 chat with Tara Ellis, Manager, UI Engineering at Netflix and Hillary Nussbaum from the Code Climate team. On our blog, Tara shares the story of when she was starting out with coding and shares advice for those that are thinking about becoming engineers or engineering managers.

You can find even more from the interview with Tara on the Code Climate blog, including advice on what managers can do to foster a culture of safety on their team.

Q: What interested you about engineering when you were just starting out?

I do not have a traditional engineering background. When I went to school, I wanted to be a lawyer. I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was in fifth grade, and I only applied to colleges that had law schools.

That was the path, and then at 22, when I graduated, I decided to take a year off. That year, I ended up going to Japan to visit my dad. I was supposed to be there for two weeks, but I ended up staying for a year. I met this 17 year old hacker kid who worked at an arcade across from where I was working. I was working for AT&T. We had a cyber café and he would come in and rent internet time and he started showing me all of these crazy at the time technologies. “You know what HTML is? This is how you FTP. This is CGI…” It was one of these things where I thought, “Hey, I love learning.” That’s my jam.

The thing that attracted me to law was that you never really stop learning, right? There’s always new case law. There’s always new things. You master a craft and then you have to take in inputs, not at the speed that you have to as a front end engineer, but still.

I was like, “Oh I think programming is cool. I like building stuff. I can actually build stuff with this thing, and then there’s always new technology.” That’s what initially attracted me to it was that.

Q: What advice do you have for people who might be considering a career in engineering?

I think the thing is you’ve got to be a learner. You have to like to learn. I think the thing that really fails a lot of senior engineers especially is that they stop learning, right? I mean they just get to a place and say, “I don’t want to do anything else” and then their skills stagnate, and then it becomes really hard to stay in the industry.

Understand how you learn, because you’re going to need to do it a lot — and really like learning. I think as long as you do that, there’s nothing that you can’t do.

Q: What advice do you have for engineers who are considering management one day?

I think the single biggest advice I would give people is you have time — do not rush this process. I have talked to so many engineers that are three years in their career, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I’m a failure. I’m not a manager yet.”

You don’t have to do this in five minutes. Actually, you’ll probably be a worse manager if you do it your first couple years. I always try and tell people, “Please slow down. You have time. Learn your craft. Learn it inside and out.” Whatever the thing it is you’re interested in, I do think you should try to become a technical expert, or as close to that as you possibly can get. Then while you’re doing that, try different things. See what you’re interested in. Eventually, if you decide that people are what you want to go after, it’ll become really apparent.

I think what happens a lot in addition to people just feeling like they have to do it quickly is also that they don’t really understand what the role. It becomes, “Hey, I’m taking this is a step up. I’m climbing a ladder.” I’m like, “It’s a different ladder. It’s not the same ladder that you were on. If you want to move to a different ladder, great, but you should know, you should intentionally understand that that’s what you’re doing.”

I talked with an engineer in my org, he’s really great, really senior and had been thinking about moving into some manager role. I remember when I asked him why, he gave me a ton of reasons that were really great, but none of them were people. I was like, “You got to stop. What you’re describing is a principal engineer. This is not a people manager. Let’s talk about that.”

Q: Once someone is sure they want to become a manager, are there any specific skills they can build to prepare while they’re in an IC role?

For a practical skill, you’ve got to learn to communicate — in writing and verbally. If you can practice and get very good at taking complex ideas and making them simple for people who don’t deal in that complexity, you will go very far. I also think it’s really a part of a leader to be able to do that. There are a lot of people who can code. There are not a lot of people who can communicate effectively. The further you get away from the code, the more important your ability to explain and be a thought leader matters.

For more about Tara’s career journey and leadership strategies, head over to the Code Climate blog.