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Engineer to Engineer: How to Make the Jump into Business Leadership

This post is written by David Chang, SVP of Products and cofounder of Actifio.

In a recent InfoWorld interview, The Road to Success: Tech Leaders Tell All, I was asked about some of the many lessons learned throughout my career that helped me to transition my engineering and technology skills into business leadership. For those up and coming tech entrepreneurs who are facing many of the same growing pains, I wanted to share my full responses from the interview to help my fellow engineers avoid the same pitfalls I encountered and make the successful jump into business management.

What defines tech leadership in 2016?

From an engineering leadership perspective, the idea from the good old days that engineering is an independent function that may have an adversarial relationship with other groups, is like a dinosaur now. In those days, a manager’s’ only concern was making sure that group was running smoothly.  People looked at engineering as a purely internal-facing organization that did not have to worry about customer, sales, and market pressure. We believe this type of “engineering against the world” adversarial relationship is facing extinction.

I think what really defines tech leadership in 2016 is a much closer alignment with customers, the sales organization, and the overall business in general. The mentality shift is really about making sure that you’re at the table as a partner to the marketing, sales, customer success organization, and ultimately the business.

In many ways tech leaders need the ability to understand what the customer is looking for, while also establishing a symbiotic relationship with the sales organization, so they know you are a partner in terms of this journey. I think it is important to be able to communicate that to your engineering team so they understand these are the organizational challenges or the goals that really enable everybody to work together to reach their business goals. 

david_changWhat steps would you recommend to getting the ball rolling?

If you’re just starting in the tech sector, and you want to gain more responsibility and hopefully eventually run the show, you first of all have to understand the technology, understand what the user wants to do with the technology, and be able to marshal a fairly large team to actually be able to execute.

For you to get to a certain effectiveness in terms of leadership, you have to really branch out into other parts of the organization, outside of tech or engineering, allowing you to establish a rapport with the customer, and build a relationship with the sales and marketing team. This allows you to better visualize and understand the overall mission and goals of the company. Having that deep connection at the customer level and the sales level will enable you to understand all of that.

How might a tech-focused person assess their ability to manage people at the highest levels?

A term we like to use at Actifio is the “player-coach”, or the idea that to be effective within a tech organization you must lead by example. This means that you understand the architecture, can identify problems, can code, etc. but also you have that connection to the users. So this concept of player-coach is an important concept in terms of assessing their ability to manage other people within the organization.

This concept of a middle level manager is disappearing fast. What you need is the ability to properly execute. That means, knowing all of the inner details of the product, bringing it to market, making sure it is scalable, and good quality. From there, it is important to be able to lead a team to take that example and develop an even broader portfolio of products. If you have done this successfully, you have a bright future in terms of being the next generation of engineering and technology leaders in the industry.

What’s the best way to develop skills that will let you effectively manage office politics?

Politics will happen in any organization and any relationship. There is no such thing as 100 percent fair on every little thing that happens in your life, your career or every day in the office. Instead of trying to control the external world (which is impossible), the better approach is to take control of your own behavior to the external world. Gaining the skills and experiences of maintaining an even keel even in the face of a storm serves as the best strategy for developing the skills to contend with the inevitability of workplace politics.

How did you learn to align tech and business strategies?

I think if you have to look at a particular issue or a particular product, you have to ask, are you purely looking at it from a tech perspective or from a viewpoint of a customer and what they are getting out of the product? The ability to have the multi-perspective view on a given issue is key to ensure that all of the elements are aligned. The ability to see all these sides is very crucial.

Actifio has been around for more than six years, and the requirements from the technology group have varied throughout the years.  In the initial stages, if the technology team focused too much on the details and quality, most likely it would miss the market window. As the company gains customers and proves business value along with the technology being proven, the product quality needs to catch up quickly to enable revenue to scale.

How can you establish yourself as a conference speaker? Are there other ways to get your name out there?

I think it’s important to grab as many presentation opportunities as you can, starting with making customer presentations as often as possible. Don’t shy away from doing sales presentations along with your sales force. If you are able to convince a skeptical customer to trust you and invest in you and your product, then you will have no problem giving a presentation to a conference audience.

On a more tactical front, once you have developed a rapport with your customers and they are successful, the best way to start conference speaking is to have them join you as part of your talk.  We find the most successful talks have both an interesting technology element and customer validation story. There is nothing like a real, tangible success story to help drive your point home and bring value to the conference

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