Lessons From a First Time Software Engineering Manager at Qualtrics

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Photo Courtesy of Qualtrics

Photo Courtesy of Qualtrics

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May 18, 2024 at 5:35PM UTC

Alexia Newgord believes that one of the most important parts of being a manager is trusting your team and leveraging one another for solving hard problems. This means, allowing her team to drive and help by acting as a sounding board, devil’s advocate, or (rarely) course corrector while supporting them in meeting their own goals. 

“I hope that I can support them in meeting their own goals, whatever those may be. Sometimes, we spend time exploring what their options are and the latest surprise in their path” she says. “I’ve had a windy path myself, so sometimes I can relate to them using personal experiences, and if not, I can connect them with someone who can.”

Alexia who is now an associate manager, Software Engineering at Qualtrics, recently shared with Fairygodboss her career path to manager and how Qualtrics has supported her throughout the transition. She also shares some tips for first-time managers. Read on below for more insights.

How long have you been in this role, and what were you doing previously? 

I came to Qualtrics as a college graduate 6 years ago, back when the Seattle office was still being established. I started as a software engineer in engineering services and transitioned into product engineering. I eventually became a team lead for a couple of years before formally transitioning to people management at the start of 2020. 

Oftentimes, we grow up with the idea that management is how you advance your career, it’s how you get more pay or impact. What were your initial thoughts when you learned you were becoming a manager? Is this something you wanted? 

It took a while to decide if people management was something I really wanted to do. At Qualtrics (like many other tech companies), people managers aren’t seen as superior to individual contributors. It’s just a different track, so the challenge is finding which path is a better fit for your interests and skill set.  

Fortunately, I was able to dip my toes into this space as a team lead for some time and worked closely with my manager for a few years to watch how he operated in this space. Because my manager had such a large team, there were a lot of opportunities to try on the manager hat, be it through one-on-ones, team planning, or driving cross-team initiatives.

I decided I wanted to move to this role once I felt confident enough that it was best suited for my interests and I had built up enough experience to be effective. The process was so gradual and organic, that very little of the day-to-day actually changed when my title was officially changed to associate manager.

There were a lot of ups and downs in terms of my interest in this role prior to transitioning, and I give a lot of credit to my manager for being supportive of this exploratory period and being intentional about growing leaders on his team (both as individual contributors and people managers).

Surely, transitioning from an individual contributor to a manager position has been quite a change. Have you received any professional leadership training, or has it been more learning on the job? How has Qualtrics or your own manager helped set you up for success? 

New Qualtrics managers primarily learn on the job. There is supplemental manager training that I plan to take soon. Qualtrics also offers a leadership program for leaders in all business functions called “L@Q” (Leadership at Qualtrics). This is a 3-day program that really emphasizes the relationship aspect of leadership and what it means to lead authentically or “from the heart.”  During this time, we can hear about others’ experiences and leadership research, as well as interface/brainstorm with other leaders at the company that we might not have met before. The program also provides tangible exercises that I can try with my team when exploring an individual’s career action plan.

I’ve learned the most through trial and error, connecting with other managers/leaders, and building off of my experience as a team lead. Individuals on my team often provide direct feedback and we also have a confidential bi-annual Qualtrics Engagement study that allows me to see how engaged and enabled my team is overall over time and what areas to focus on in the future.

How is this kind of support reflective of the overall culture at Qualtrics? Are you part of any mentorship programs?

Qualtrics has several mentorship programs with different flavors and focuses. I’m currently informally mentoring a couple of colleagues.  

In the past, I participated in book clubs through “Women in Leadership Development” (WLD) and technical clubs within my organization — this allowed me to connect and share experiences with peers that I have a lot of respect for.

I was also personally able to connect with one-time mentorships via “QBench”, which is a program where senior engineers or people leaders spend about an hour interfacing with engineering directors or leaders.

Recently, I worked with two other Qualtricians to kick off a pilot of the “QExplore” program, which can be a resource similar to QBench except that it is targeted for mid-level engineers who have been with Qualtrics for more than a year or so.

I also really enjoy being a technical mentor for college or high school students at Hackathons where Qualtrics is a sponsor.

How has your day-to-day work changed since you became a manager? 

I don’t code anymore! I might fix a rare bug here or there (and still review technical designs/MRs), but I now get to enjoy a new set of problems. The problems largely focus on people, managing requirements, technical debt, and shipping features, which are very impactful.

I spend a LOT of time in meetings, which are all interesting since the folks I’m connecting with vary. Different types of meetings include international engineering sync, cross-functional product planning, 1:1s with direct reports, sprint planning/retro/standups, and weekly touch-bases with other tech leads.

My interviewing might focus more on the “personal qualities” of a candidate (although we still code). I also have to be better informed on what the company vision is and how that relates to benefits and our product direction.

I’m no longer on-call for my team, although I am currently shadowing to join a call leader rotation for the broader organization.

The most challenging part of my job, and also the most important, is providing feedback and helping grow/promote engineers on my team. Performance reviews are a formal process that Qualtrics does twice a year, but informally, the feedback loop never ends. People are constantly growing and building so it’s important that I am consistently thoughtful on how people are doing in the moment and leave an open door for conversations both ways.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m very passionate about the technology we work on, the impact of our product, individual growth, and the values of the company in general. 

Like most people, I don’t particularly like confrontation, so if my team and I have these values in common, it creates a framework for communicating with each other that is generally constructive, even if not always easy.

I try to listen more than I talk to make sure that we’re on the same page. However, sometimes I get pretty passionate about a topic, so this is something I’m still working on!

The company you work for can help by having strong leadership principles. It’s not uncommon to spotlight someone for demonstrating some excellent “customer obsession” or use a “scrappy” emoji in Slack when someone figures out a crafty approach to a problem.

What’s the no. 1 thing you hope your direct reports are getting out of working with you?

I hope that I can support them in meeting their own goals, whatever those may be. Sometimes, we spend time exploring what their options are and the latest surprise in their path. I’ve had a windy path myself, so sometimes I can relate to them using personal experiences, and if not, I can connect them with someone who can.

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual (or team) that you think has been particularly effective? 

The most effective strategy for co-pilots to work together is to have the junior person actively fly the plane with the more senior person’s guidance. Similarly, a helpful strategy that I have found when working with less experienced individuals (be it in a particular stack or in the industry in general), is allowing them to drive and I can help by acting as a sounding board, devil’s advocate, or (rarely) course corrector. This can sometimes go both ways, where I project my assumptions about a project or feature and an engineer who has done more research on this area can correct my understanding so that I can better communicate it to other stakeholders in the organization. 

Trusting each other and leveraging one another for solving hard problems is the only way that we can scale as a team and allow for individuals to grow, even though the manager or the person with more experience is giving up direct control of a situation (this can be hard when we’re trained to tell computers exactly what to do!).

How do you think about making sure your direct report(s) feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office?

Our lives have a lot of ups and downs, just like our careers. One of the leadership mottos of the day (and also encouraged by leaders within Qualtrics) is “work-life integration”, as opposed to “work-life balance”, and “bringing your whole self to work”. This means being able to be authentic at your job, leading with humility, and not having to stunt your emotional and creative well-being by living a double-life at work and outside of work.

In addition to having supportive company policies, culture, collectives around time off, healthcare, well-being, diversity/inclusion, and internal mobility, having a manager with whom you can have an honest conversation and leads by example in these principles is key.  

The world is constantly changing and an organization that doesn’t change with it will become irrelevant and alienate its workforce.

What’s something you think most people (perhaps even current employees) don’t know about Qualtrics that you think they should? 

There’s a lot of subcultures around all sorts of passions! Dogs, cats, finances, sports, social justice, video games, you name it.  We mostly connect over Slack with these like-minded folks, but also form sports teams and even have our very own @dogsofqualtrics Instagram page! 


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