Engineering leadership — how Productboard’s new podcast is spreading the word
Earlier this year, Productboard launched a new podcast series dedicated to furthering the conversation around engineering leadership. I caught up with Joshua Samberg, Engineering Manager at Productboard and the podcast’s host, to discuss the importance of good leaders, the unique challenges that engineering leaders face, and his own experiences of becoming a leader.
How did the Engineering Leadership podcast come about?
Initially, it started as a broader initiative to open up the conversation around engineering leadership. We arranged an event in Prague with a couple of presentations and a panel discussion featuring our CTO, Daniel, and our Director of Engineering, Vojtech, plus two engineering leaders from the UK.
The response was very positive. Plenty of people showed up, which showed us that the community is receptive to this subject. Based on this success, we decided to start a companion podcast to bring the conversation to a wider audience.
It fell to our European Talent Lead, Tereza, to get the podcast off the ground. And knowing that I was a college radio DJ back in my Stanford days, she asked me if I’d like to host it.
Would you say conversations around leadership are lacking in the engineering community?
In any city with a decent tech presence, you can find plenty of meet-ups, talks, and hackathons — events dedicated to the art and science of engineering. But the leadership conversation certainly isn’t as common or vibrant.
That said, the people who want to have these conversations are here. There are plenty of talented leaders in Prague and the Czech Republic who are doing amazing things. The aim of the podcast is to give these people a platform to share ideas about leadership, inspire others, and learn from each other.
Why are conversations around leadership important?
The way I see it, leadership is one of the antidotes to the things that make us unhappy in our careers. By empowering great leaders to share their ideas with the community, others will become inspired and informed. As a result, employees will have a more satisfying and inspiring experience of work.
“Leadership is one of the antidotes to the things that make us unhappy in our careers.”
In the tech world, those of us who can code doesn’t necessarily have to worry about being able to find a job. But we often worry about being able to find a job where we’ll feel happy, supported, valued, and inspired. To be all of those things at work, we need great leaders.
Great people will grow professionally no matter what, but without great leaders, this process is slower, and it requires a lot of extra energy for people to realize their potential. With great leaders, the process of growth is much faster and more energizing.
We think it’s important to always be growing new leaders. We need more of them in the world in general, and particularly at Productboard as we grow. So this podcast is also for new and aspiring leaders or anyone who has the talent and temperament but never realized they wanted to be a leader.
It can show them that there is a community and a conversation for them too, that leaders don’t start out perfect, and that they are people who discuss, learn, and grow their skills just like coders do. Hopefully, this will reduce some of the fear, uncertainty, or intimidation that could otherwise discourage them from giving leadership a try.
“Leaders don’t start out perfect. They are people who discuss, learn, and grow their skills just like coders do.”
As a leading startup in the Czech Republic, do you think we have a responsibility to engage the community on subjects like leadership?
I do, yes. Not just because of our success as a startup, but also because we have such great leaders here. A lot of times, the things you like about your job have nothing to do with your manager or the CEO. But at Productboard, there’s a direct link between our leaders and what we like about the place.
I came on board when there were about 30 people, and our two co-founders, Hubert and Daniel, were extremely accessible then. Considering our size, they’re very accessible now. Their values are the company’s values. They don’t have to perform these values, because they’ve lived them for a long time.
Whether it’s the way we invest in new people, rather than having a sink-or-swim mentality, the way we try so hard to delight our customers or the way our managers are true mentors who are there to help you become the best version of yourself — whatever it is that makes Productboard a great place to work can be traced back to the values of our founders.
On top of that, Hubert and Daniel are definitely dedicated to giving back to the country they come from and helping to raise the bar for product, tech, and entrepreneurship here so that more and more people in the Czech Republic will have the chance to experience and create the kind of fulfilling opportunities that our founders have reached in their careers.
Does engineering bring unique leadership challenges or is leadership the same regardless of your field?
Of course, people are people no matter what field you work in. Everyone brings their temperament, humanity, and emotion to work with them, and leaders have to work with them as people, not just as resources. But engineering definitely brings its own challenges when it comes to leadership.
Perhaps because engineering is so complex and technical, it can be harder to see your way to the people management part of leadership. In many companies, someone becomes a leader simply because they are the best engineer in the team. So there’s a tendency to carry those core technical skills with you and continue to rely on them.
But people management, particularly in the way we would like to practice it, has a lot to do with helping individuals and teams become not only better at what they do but also more satisfied. It’s about empowering people as well as supporting them.
If you continue to focus solely on the technical stuff, and approach leadership like ‘I know how to code, you know how to code, but now I’m the leader let me tell you what to do,’ you won’t give yourself any space for the more human, emotional side of things.
Do you think some people end up becoming leaders because they see it as the only logical step up?
I think this definitely happens, yes. But the way Vojtech put it in one of his talks, becoming a leader shouldn’t be seen as a promotion but as a career change. In fact, this was the subject of the first episode of our podcast.
In a lot of engineering environments, the shift into management is misconceived as the only possible way to progress your career. We think that’s a problem for two reasons. First, not everyone can become a manager. There are fundamentally fewer managers than individual contributors. We don’t want an environment where people feel like there’s nowhere else to grow.
Second, you can’t solely rely on the technical skills you bring with you as an engineer when you become a manager. There’s a whole new set of tools that you’ll need to deal with the human side of leadership. If you lean too heavily on the competencies you developed as an engineer, you’ll never develop or even discover the manager’s toolkit.
“You can’t solely rely on technical skills when you become a manager. There’s a whole new set of tools that you’ll need to deal with the human side of leadership.”
Having gained a good deal of experience as an individual contributor, you are now an engineering leader yourself. How have you found the transition?
I tried to approach the change with a significant amount of humility. I didn’t always think to myself, oh I can’t wait to become a manager so I can do things better than my manager — although I often wished that I had a better one.
I think the way I view work has helped me in the transition to leadership. My ideal work environment is a place where people are always learning from and teaching each other. And they do that because that’s what makes work meaningful, not because it’s part of their job description or tied to salary or promotions.
That’s what I always wanted from all of my colleagues — from the person sitting next to me and the person sitting above me. This doesn’t change when you become a leader. Perhaps you have a greater degree of accountability, but essentially you are still there as a teacher and a learner.
Look at employee performance reviews, for example. What are they if not an opportunity to teach and learn? Because this has been my approach throughout my career, with any colleague in any role, I think the transition to leadership was less daunting than it could have been.
How have you adapted to the human, emotional side of people management?
Leadership isn’t easy. You have to have difficult conversations with people about performance. You may even have to let them go. Sometimes, you’ll have conversations with people who are very resistant to help, or people who simply aren’t used to discussing what they want from work and how it could be better.
That said, if you’ve ever read any self-help books or looked into therapy of any kind — whether it be meditation or traditional psychology — you’ve made a conscious effort to understand yourself better and then use that knowledge to achieve the desired outcome.
There’s a lot of overlap between those frameworks and what you would use to understand another person and what they are going through. The fact that I have looked at a number of those frameworks for different reasons myself has really helped me transition to people management. Ultimately, a lot of it boils down to empathy.
You can listen to the first three episodes of our Engineering Leadership podcast here, with new episodes coming soon!
If you are a talented engineer who would like to join a company that understands the value of great leaders, we’re hiring! Check out our engineering careers page here.