Adam Bermingham is an Engineering Manager responsible for the AI Product Understanding Platform at the online clothing and goods retailer, Zalando. He began his career as a software developer but moved into research early on. After receiving a Ph.D. in search and natural language processing, Adam worked as a data scientist for a large media company. When Zalando opened a tech center in Dublin, he jumped on the opportunity to help scale a company.
Short on time? Here are five key takeaways from Adam on how to scale a team and improve your leadership skills:
- Learn about the various management methods and processes. Inefficiencies will arise sooner or later if you get stuck managing projects a certain way. Leaders need to educate themselves on the options that are out there — and apply them.
- When scaling a company, prioritize tasks and communicate clearly. There is no way to stay on top of everything. Zalando uses written documentation to align on the range of moving parts within a project or team.
- Product managers should focus on strategy and decision-making. Some product managers can get involved in solving problems even though it really is an engineer's job. Product leadership should focus on the strategy to achieving business outcomes.
- Maintaining company culture requires effort. Creating the right culture through periods of growth is well worth the investment. Zalando stresses open and transparent communication, especially as it relates to evaluating company culture.
- To grow as a leader, invest in a mentor. Support is just as crucial for a manager as it is for an individual contributor. Take advantage of the experience and knowledge of your peers by proactively asking them for support.
What follows is a long-form write up of the key topics we discussed in our interview.
Zalando is an enterprise European online retailer that brought in over five billion euros in revenue in 2018, operates in 17 countries, and employs over 15k people. Adam Bermingham is research lead for the Digital Experience team based in Dublin. He shifted from data science to a leadership role when it became "abundantly apparent that general management and leadership would be a good fit for my personality and experience.”
Move towards medium-sized engineering teams
Several years ago, Zalando expanded their engineering workforce significantly and converted a collection of independent and monolithic software solutions into more scalable platform services. The company formed medium-sized teams of six to nine engineers to run platform services, a key contributor to the bottom line. With this team size, “you can really establish a long-standing, competent team that trusts each other, that know each other, that know their technologies really well, and that know their product direction really well.” Although they are constantly modifying their structure, this approach has worked for the team.
“The real value of product management is having people within your company that live and breathe the business strategy and customer empathy, and [who can communicate] how we are going to meet those customer needs.”
Shortly after the company decided to grow a technical team in Dublin, Adam played a major role in establishing and building a department of around 100 people. He discussed a few challenges to be weary of:
- It is easy to have a team that loses direction.
- It can be hard to provide guidance at the right time.
- You can have resources in the wrong place.
The company dealt with these challenges by establishing clear goals and expectations. Adam learned that “one of the challenges with teams and team setup is having decision-making and accountability at the right level. It is very hard for an engineering team to have all the context it needs to make very strong business decisions.” That is why they created product managers that were separate from the engineering teams.
Study the available management methods
Adam has found that “you never have a perfect setup and you never have a perfect process.” Because of this, he recommends that leaders understand where processes are making a positive difference and where they are not. He learned that when engineering managers lose sight of strengths and weaknesses, they make poor decisions.
“I think as an engineering manager, it is really important to be aware of the family of methodologies and organizational setups that are out there in the industry. And ones from the past as well.”
Adam also learned as his teams grew the importance of clearly defining where the different types of decisions should be made. He explained that “it is very hard for an engineering team to have all the context it needs to make very strong business decisions.” It is also “really hard high up at senior management to have the low-level context.” Clear levels of input and direction are needed and “everyone needs to feel that they have their role to play in driving the solution.”
Prioritization and documentation help with growth
When the organization started to grow, Adam was able to see how critical it was to set priorities. “What you have to do in that situation is be really cognizant and aware of what is going on. Because you can't fix everything all the time as you are growing, there has to be a level of prioritization.”
Another way that Zalando keeps everyone working in the same direction, even as the number of employees grows, is through documentation. Written plans are especially important in keeping teams spread across Europe aligned on goals.
“The act of reviewing and talking about what is in the document is actually what builds up the risk profile, the shared context, and the requirements. It all falls out of that naturally.”
Zalando prefers to communicate through written documents that use clear and deliberate language, and that are created using well-established processes. He soon discovered that while creating these written specifications, “everyone needs to agree and align on what is in that document, formerly through reviews.”
Communication impacts company culture
Adam stated that a positive culture is one of the main reasons why people work for Zalando. He describes the culture as honest, open, and transparent — and with an active social component that attracts friendly and diverse employees. To keep the business environment healthy, leadership is no stranger to making improvements.
“Everything you do should reflect the kind of culture that you agree that you want.”
Adam shared that Zalando's culture is reinforced and expanded because they are continually communicating to one another about it. “It is not enough to have a one-off team bonding event. You have to be doing it all the time. As an engineering manager, you are responsible for the culture of your team.”
Prioritize building relationships
As a new manager, Adam quickly realized that he needed support from other leaders to help him deal with day-to-day problems. When talking about challenges, “you don't want to get into a situation where you are just moaning. What really matters is an assessment of a situation, an expression of what we know about that situation, and also what we don't know about the situation.” He likes to make sure that he is starting a conversation with management that will lead to decisions or clear guidance.
“You have to invest in a way that you know that your time is really well spent, that [the team is] benefiting from it.”
One of the most important things a manager can do is communicate clearly, effectively, and with empathy. At a large organization, there is no way a manager can know and do everything. “I have to make sure that there are setups and structures in place with my leads under me and in the teams as well, that there is a kind of distribution of leadership and support.” With this in place, managers can focus on strategic goals and overall direction.
One piece of advice
Before ending our conversation, Adam reflected on the importance of empathy, pointing out that “it is very difficult to lead other people unless you have a sense of who you are.” He feels that leaders should take time to talk to their reports and ask them directly how they are doing. Even if it is negative and uncomfortable for both sides, at least there is transparency.
A manager should “get to know [themself] really well.” Are they comfortable writing down career goals for the year? Do they discuss their top motivating factors? If a manager can’t answer these questions, they will struggle with growing their career.