As an engineering leader and manager, the more you can get pushed out of your comfort zone, the better you are at dealing with different people and situations. And there's nothing that does that better than having children.
I have a theory that if you take the top management and parenting books and boil them down to the five main lessons, there’s basically identical overlap. I feel like you can just lay them on top of each other, and it’s the same message.
As an engineering manager, I learned that effective communication is key to making sure that my message is understood by the entire organization. This requires using various methods, like written, verbal, audio, video, and all-hands meetings, and experimenting with different approaches, such as varying the level of emotion or using more facts or stories. This is one of the things that you learn when you're raising humans, small humans, and you're working with humans. Effective communication exchange is critical.
One of the things that I got bad at and then had to get good at was the amount of emotional bandwidth I had in a day, especially in more challenging situations like promotion season and reorgs, where you are talking to a lot of people. You're putting a lot of emotional energy into your workday. And there was a point where I just had nothing left in the tank at the end of the day for my family, which was really hard.
Verbosity is just a fancy way of saying "using too many words."
It can make your language sound complicated and make it harder for people to understand what you're saying. On the other hand, plain language is simple and easy to understand. Some people think verbosity is a bad thing because it can make your language less efficient and harder to follow. Others might use it on purpose for certain styles or effects.
1-2-3 Magic is a parenting program and book that teaches a set of strategies for disciplining children.
The program is based on the idea that children thrive when they have clear boundaries and expectations, and that parents can effectively manage their children's behavior by setting limits and consistently enforcing consequences.
Jason mentions this as one of the biggest pillars in his kid’s upbringing, and something which, if done appropriately, can be implemented in management.
Consequence-based structures are systems where certain actions lead to specific consequences, whether they're good or bad. For example, in a classroom, a consequence-based structure might involve praising kids for good behavior and giving them a consequence (like a warning or detention) for misbehaving.
Reward-based structures are systems where certain actions lead to rewards or incentives. In a workplace, for example, a reward-based structure might involve giving employees bonuses or other perks for meeting certain goals or targets.
Both consequence-based and reward-based structures can be useful for shaping behavior, depending on the situation and what the person needs. It's often helpful to use a mix of both approaches, because it can provide a balance of positive and negative reinforcement that can be effective in encouraging desired behaviors.
VO: If you are in this situation, especially as a new parent or thinking about parenting and you look at your workday or your work week or month and you can't step away, I would say that's a really good indication of like figure out systems or structures or changes that need to be put in place so that you can.
Welcome to Developing Leadership, the podcast for engineering leaders where Eiso Kant and Jason Warner share their lessons on the ins and outs of managing software teams. Today we have Alison McMillan on the podcast. Alison is the VP of engineering at Quarter Path. And joins us to talk about the transformation engineering leaders go through when they become parents.
Jason and Allison, take us through the ups and downs of parenthood and how getting pushed out of your comfort zone makes you a better leader. They also shared communication tips and parallels between parenting and managing. For example, did you know understanding babies is like debugging in real time?
Me neither. As always, this episode comes with accompanying. With a deep dive into the main topics, mental models, and key moments from the episode, find firstname.lastname@example.org and LinkedIn. The episode description, developing leadership.
Eiso: Hey everyone. Welcome back to yet another episode of Developing Leadership.
Jason and I have with us a special guest, Alison McMillan, the VP of Engineering at Quota Path. Alison, you and I had a really great chat the other day where you brought up a topic that I have to admit, I. Never thought of before, but since I've probably referenced in maybe a dozen or so meetings, which is, how you change as a leader.
And in this case, of course, in our context of our podcast, as an engineering leader, once you become a parent and I know Jason, you have some interesting things to say on this today as well, for those of you listening, I am not a parent, although I definitely feel about our golden retriever like one, but I don't think that counts.
And the lessons that's taught me, I think are very different . But I, yeah, I'd love for you to maybe take us off here, Alison, and talk a bit. Yeah. How that experience impacted you and changed you in your professional life.
Allison: Yeah. Happy to. So parenting is like the best and worst job in the whole entire world, right?
It's like you have, crafted this human, they're like a you think of them as like this blank slate that are helping, you're giving them knowledge, you're helping them figure out like how to communicate in the world, how to be a human by themselves with other people, and so that's like amazing, right? And it's so interesting to see parts of yourself in this other human being that is also just out there existing in the world. And it's also the worst, right? For a while I had a podcast about being a parent in tech and the number of times that the phrase, "I love my children but," or "I love my child but" multiple times, every single episode.
And the reason is that they also they just put you in these ridiculous situations in predicaments and scenarios that you're like, how do I handle this? What do I do here? What's the right approach? What is going to be helpful is not going like the extent to, is this a little deal?
Is this a big deal? Do you have a conversation? Is it a disciplinary thing? There's just all these different things you have to think about often, immediately, like right in the situation, sometimes you have a little bit of space, but I joke that my son likes to ask me these like really big important questions about the world, like when we're driving in the car. One time he asked me why people need to pay for things that they need in life. And I was like, oh, this is huge. This is a bit okay. And we're driving and I'm driving and I'm thinking, and I'm right.
And but the point is that they push you out of your comfort zone all the time. And I think that as an engineering leader, and as a manager, the more that you can get pushed out of your comfort zone, the better that you are at dealing with different people, different situations, different types of people, and there's nothing that does that better than having children.
Eiso: I love this before, I'm gonna deep dive on, probably five different parts of that, Allison. And it is, I must say driving in the car is both the worst and the best place to have deep conversations. Jason, I'd love to get your perspective here as well because I know it's for you also been a very impactful.
Jason: Yeah, so it's obviously kids are, they change a lot of things about your life. One of the things I actually believe is that the more people that you interact with, the more information, ideas you get to exchange and things of that nature. However, we as humans are very susceptible to the concept of the more time you spend with an individual, the more that they take from you. And as that concept of, the five closest people to you, shape a lot of your personality and stuff like that.
At the end of the day, what management is, what parenting is, all those sorts of things are you're trying to get the best outcomes and whatever the situation is, and you're trying to do it for or with other people. And it's of strange because parenting is a very specific version of this, you've created this human, you're trying to set them up for life in a way, but you also have to be a parent and a collaborator and a teacher and a friend and a confidant, and as the, as they age, all of those things, the percentage you're supposed to be doing, which change and they change dramatically pretty quickly in certain scenarios.
And at some point you, you have to stop being a parent and you have to say here, I'm enabling you to make some mistakes. And I'm just trying to set up guardrails. It's a very weird, overall thing, if you actually sit back and think about what it is. And if you care nothing about the relationship, and I think this is where it actually gets really important.
If you care nothing about the relationship that you have with your kids, parenting's actually straightforward. It's super dictatorial, super totalitarian. You can just say whatever you want to get done. But if you care about the relationship in the long term relationship with your children, it's a very different thing.
So I relate this to engineering management and management in general, which is, ultimately as a business, you're trying to achieve an outcome with other people. And if you don't care at all about the person or all the people inside your organization, it's actually pretty straightforward. You do the Elon Musk stuff, it's super straightforward. You just like totally burn out other people and grind them to, to all you know, depth that you want to and know. Don't worry about what happens to anybody as long as your outcome is achieved. That's not what most people want to do. That's not actually. A lot of people believe it should be.
And I'll say one other thing too is I think that I became a much better manager much better when I had kids. And the reason why is because I read lots of books about becoming a parent. And what those books centered on was a lot about how you give and take collaboration, communication, the information exchange, all that.
And I think that I re achieved another level up. , when I became a parent of an autistic child, when I found out that my son was autistic, I read all of the autism books and all the autism books basically are about communication. That my, my sons or all autistic kids on the spectrum have very different ways of communicating, and you have to learn and see and exchange that.
And so now is the, I have three kids and all three of my kids have special needs, and there's special needs in different ways. I feel like I know almost every trick in the book, or at least every trick in the book that works for my kids and things of that nature. I think those two things leveled me up throughout my career in various ways that are very hard to articulate, but at the same time, I fully understand them myself.
Allison: I was gonna say, I have a theory that if you take like the top or most common management books and the top or most common parenting books and you boil down okay, what are the five main lessons that each of these books are teaching? There is basically identical overlap, just the examples and the situations that are provided to make it like real life applicable. That's where the difference is. But when you boil it down, I feel like for most of them you can just lay them on top of each other and it's, it is the same message.
Eiso: So I want to get into the special tricks because, I don't think I've ever shared this, but my mother was a therapist and so I grew up in a way that every situation we could, And I was bullied a lot as a kid.
I, I had a very I, I got to the point where I was like scared of speaking to other humans leveled of bullied when I was younger. And my mother would analyze every situation that would occur and from exactly like, why is this happening? And communication and things like that.
So there I realized still to this day that, pretty much how I am as a leader, as a manager I credit 95% to her. And it's definitely a lot of those tricks and how you think through things and how you communicate. So let's start with you maybe here, Allison. What are some of those tricks and very tactical things that you learned about communicating that someone listening to this today can use tomorrow in a meeting?
Allison: One that comes to mind immediately is validating concerns and feelings and recognizing the level of importance something has to an individual, even if it is different than what you assume or what you think that like level of importance should be.
And so this is really clear with kids, right? Especially, I have a four-year-old and a seven-year-old, especially as they're in that younger group. But even with my older one and still like there, there are things that are really important to them, like a box that they collected or how we get out of the house in the morning, or I, there's a whole like the things that little kids, there's a running joke that's, my toddler is crying because, and there's a whole huge variety of reasons, right?
Cut the grilled cheese wrong or whatever it is. But you, I used to be really frustrated. I'd be like, who cares how the grilled cheese is cut? This is not a big deal, but in the grand scheme of their life as somebody who's three years old it actually is a big deal. Like it is one of the biggest things that maybe has happened to them to date.
And it's, so it's maybe helping to create like context or providing more information or be like, okay, this time we did it this way. Next time we can do it differently. I can ask you next time how you like grilled cheese to be cut. We're both learning here, right? So but validating. Validating their concern and not being like, I don't understand why you're crying about grilled cheese. This is like a really small deal. But asking and being like, okay, why does this feel like a big deal? What can we do next time? How can we move past this current situation?
And those are the same things, right? Like reorgs or, there's a whole host of changes in, engineers working on a piece of code for a really long time. And then business direction, company direction changes and that product is no longer going to be pursued, right? Those are like really frustrating experiences. As somebody in leadership, you probably have a little bit more context as to what's going on, and so having the conversation with the manager, with the individual, asking more questions, validating those feelings and figuring out like, what can we do differently next time? What? What could this look like next time? That would be helpful for you.
Eiso: I love this allison, I want to throw something to you because I had a meeting maybe two hours ago, not even, and I ended up tearing up in this meeting and it's quite rare for me to tear up in meetings. Nothing against crying at all, but it was because my current head of product started me as an intern almost six years ago. Directly out of a mathematics degree and ended up becoming a machine learning intern and is now product engineering leader, six years later.
And he met his partner at that time at our previous company, and he's about to have a baby, like we're a month away. And so to me it's of course like it's I, it's here cuz it's a very full circle moment of mentoring someone and going from intern to them, seeing them become a father.
What is it? I didn't expect we'd go chronological here. But what is it from the very early parts of like you're having your first child, you're having a baby right before you, where communication is not even communication yet. What is it from that, somebody that, that really impacted you and where are there lessons to be learned there that you apply with your colleagues at work?
Allison: Oh man. From the baby stage, I think. Okay. So both of my children were challenging babies. When I mention to my children oh, so and so had a baby. And we talk about when they were babies. My daughter goes, "oh, was I the one that didn't sleep? Or the one that didn't eat?" and in that, in those first months you're in a little bit of survival mode, and so I think that the thing that you learn a little bit, or that I like, felt like I constantly told myself was like, we're doing okay.
Especially when I had my first, I was like, you're a new I would literally tell Devin as a baby when he was crying, I would be like, "we're gonna be fine. You are new to this. I'm new to this. We're both learning things together. We're both gonna learn so much in the next few months, and we're both okay." I think that's like one of the most important messages, especially in those early stages before there's talking, before there's communication before you figure out like what each cry means. And actually with my son, I never figured it out with my daughter, I could figure it out a little bit better.
But I would have people that would be like, "oh, you don't know the difference between their I'm tired cry and I'm hungry cry?" And I was like, "I don't know the difference between those two cries. The baby's just screaming" like I so it was really just telling myself, and, sometimes in like management roles and leadership roles as well, right?
Like in new situations you just have to tell like yourself and your team like, "Hey, we're like, we're learning this together. We're doing this together. Let's figure it out together. This is a new situation for all of us and let's like make it through the best we can and then learn."
I learned a lot from my first, in terms, like I was better at identifying those cries for my second, I was better at being more confident at figuring out just like a whole variety of different approaches, when she was crying. And I think that's like the piece that, that I took away from those like very early stages.
Eiso: I appreciate that and it's funny because a lot of the things that I've heard you and Jason already say in this first 10 minutes, now, you replaced the word baby with member of my team, and the conversation still makes perfectly sense.
Jason let me open the floor for you here.
Jason: It's interesting what Alison was just saying, because I used to talk about this with the baby stage, which is you're basically doing real time debugging. Usually you're sitting there and you're like, you know what? I don't know what's happening. Let's figure this out, right? Are you hungry? Are you tired? Do your diapers need to be changed? All that sort of stuff, and you can start eliminating things.
one of the things I talk about with my son, so I have two kids on the spectrum. My oldest, my youngest, my oldest, he's quite on the spectrum, and we talk. A lot of things. He's high functioning, but there's a lot of challenges for him in life. One of them is communication, and so one of the things we've been talking about from an early age with him is that communication, talking in particular, is not about him to be heard. It's for the receiver so that he can be understood.
So my son can be understood. He needs to talk to me in a way that I can understand what he's trying to convey, and I don't believe that's like how most people think about it. But if you actually think about what you're doing with communication. It's this weird lossy system between two animals that I, please understand what I'm about to tell you for various reasons and all that sort of stuff. With him, he only says exactly how he would understand something and it's impenetrable by normal people and like pretty neurotypical folks and doesn't give context. He gives no, non-sequitur left and right, all that, all the classic types of things.
So we've worked on this for years and he's getting better at it and all that sort of stuff. This is one of the bigger things that I learned when I was becoming a better engineering manager was I want to say something and I want the organization to understand what I'm about to say. I need to communicate with the organization in multiple different ways so that multiple different communication acceptance pathways will understand this. Written, verbal audio, video, all hands, all the different things. And also, I gotta try different ways. I gotta emote more, emote less, factually, more story more, you get the idea. This is one of the things that you think that when you're raising humans, small humans, and you're working with humans, you have to understand, again, like this information exchange is actually one of the more critical parts of it.
And it's not, "Hey, Eiso, Hey Allison, I'm about to say something and I, I want you to understand me. So I'm gonna say it my way." It's, "Hey, Eiso. Hey Allison. This is important. I want you to understand me. So I'm gonna try to put this so that you all can pick it up and reframe it."
Because imagine what that's actually happening in the moment is I'm saying something, I got a picture in my head. You're picking up these weird signals and trying to recreate this whole thing in your head. It's weird. It's super weird and it's, and if you think about it with kids, it changes over the spectrum too. A five-year-old is different than a 15 year old is different than a 25 year old with their ability to do both the accepting of the information and the projecting of the information.
Eiso: Yeah, and I think here the five-year-old versus a 25 year old can be perfectly mapped to the inexperienced engineer or inexperienced engineering leader to the experienced one. There is, it's the, there's so many gaps in how we communicate that need to be filled so much more for someone who's an audience that's less experienced, then for one that is.
Jason: This is an interesting point that I get called out on a couple of times by some of the folks who reported to me at GitHub was, is, it's interesting when I put it in this context too, because right now my youngest is nine, and if you put me back literally right now, in the moment, in a situation where I had two under twos, it would actually be a struggle for me because it's a consecutive pathway, as you grow in it with them, you're in the moment, you're in the context, you have all this stuff. It's, it would be a struggle for me. I'd adapt to it. Again, I have the experience to do that. But when I was at GitHub, I remember Sam Lambert is the one who actually, he's, he now runs Planet Scale.
He's the one who called me out on this, said, "Hey, you can't talk to junior engineers anymore. It's a weird thing for you to be able to communicate with junior engineers. All these basic concepts or these basic premises or things that, that you've already constructed, you've adapted to this level, you actually, it's very difficult for you to do that unless you'd wanna put in the effort. I suggest you not do that anymore. I suggest you talk to the mids or the seniors and then have them do that way."
And I thought it was interesting cause I was like, I never really thought about it that way, but Yeah, I was being ineffective communicating with them because I forgot what it was like to be a junior engineer at that stage and all the different things that were going on. And this also went with first time managers. It was a little bit more struggle for me to speak cause I had an expectation about what they knew that was mismatched from what they knew. And, it was too far for me to do that. My daily basis was not talking to first time managers.
Allison: Yeah. Well, and it's interesting because what they say with younger kids to, to talk less, right? Like use, figure out how to use fewer words. I find that when I'm having conversations sometimes my, especially my younger one, even my older one, that you just have trouble. Parsing what I'm saying, unless I'm really focused in, in how I'm communicating it. For them it is, it's like it's where their brains are at. It's that it takes them longer processing time.
But as an engineering leader, there is, there's a piece of that as well, right? How can I take my. Verbose communication and make it more succinct. What is the information that everybody must have? What's the nice to have information and what's the like people that want all the details and wanna know exactly how the sausage is made, like what's all the extra bits that I can throw in for them?
And I find that happens in conversations with my kids too, right? Like, how can I make the message really clear and concise for what they, yeah. Need to know or what we need to talk about. And then if they wanna continue the conversation or it goes further then adding more context. And sometimes our conversations go in wild places cuz they're children. So and then I give them all the, how the sausage is made and all the details and all the different directions.
Jason: Adapting this again to the two different worlds. There's something that my wife and I have done, I don't know, maybe the last couple of years with our oldest, and then we're adapting it to the younger ones too, which is one we do speak we do speak less. We don't try to overexplain, like that's a bad situation in general, but what we've adapted to is something that I started to do at work a lot more, maybe 10 years ago, and it was natural to bring it over here.
Instead of answering all of the questions, I would say, here's a question I would try to answer. If I was in your situation, here's what I might be asking. So why don't you go look at this or go research that. And that actually works really well in most situations with folks who care about their jobs. And they'll figure out and they can go do that. It leads 'em down to exploratory paths that even you might not have done and they can come back with more information.
And it works. It works well with older kids too, and particularly ones that, have access to some information systems, if you allow them on the internet and stuff, but you say, oh, that's interesting buddy. I really like the way you're thinking about that. I might go ask these two questions or try to like, explore this topic and then let that also roll around with you for a little bit and then come back with you.
Obviously it doesn't work with younger kids as much, but premise is similar.
Allison: Yeah. I think that brings up a good point too, of fostering independence, right. And so this is also with kids and with, first time managers or first, less experienced engineers that are of growing. What are those milestones and steps where you can push them towards, instead of doing the thing for them or myself being responsible for the thing, switching it with support so that they're now responsible for it?
For example, at the beginning of this year, my son is in second grade and so we wanted him to have more responsibility over getting out of the house in the morning and he can read now, and so we have a list next to the door with the things that he needs in order to get out of the house.
We could probably do the same thing with my younger one if we used pictures and we just haven't done that yet, but Right. It's like we took a step back and we're like, okay, I am still, my husband and I, as we're getting outta the house, we are still the person responsible for asking the questions, for saying, do you have your backpack? Do you have your lunch? Do you have your jacket? How can we foster that independence so that we're like, do you have everything that you need for the day? Great. Let's go.
And so I think. The, again, the same with many you are giving them more and more responsibility with support, with encouragement, and with systems that really help them succeed in doing that.
Jason: We found that when raising our kids, and I find this to be absolutely true inside companies, particularly when you talk about culture, is the style and the manner in which you try to get something done matters. A lot. And ultimately this becomes, you might wanna say like family cohesion, but it becomes culture.
So I'm just gonna break 'em up into two very, there's a lot of 'em, but I'm just gonna break 'em into two. One is like a consequence based structure and a reward based structure.
And I was basically raising a consequence based structure. You don't do this, you go in timeout, you don't do this, you lose this thing. And we, my wife and I both were raised that way, but we also think that we were parenting that way for quite some time. What we realized was, particularly with our kids, maybe unique to our kids, but I don't think it is true cause I see it in the companies too. You go to a reward basis or some sort of accomplishment basis and all of a sudden things change.
Hey here's what we do. For family movie night, the snacks are a privilege. Here's how you earn your snacks for family movie night, you do your chores. Or, oh we're gonna get to go to do this assuming that all of these things are done. That's the reward for doing this and it changes the behavior. It changes their own ownership over this.
And I think the same thing's true inside corporations. You could say "you don't do this, you're fired" but you say "Hey, this is what it means to be, a high achiever here, this way, or that sort of thing." and each person might be motivated differently, but the point being that like how you structure that and communicate that will also dictate outcome.
Eiso: It's interesting because the consequence based to reward based, I come across very often that first time managers or just people more junior naturally believe that being a leader means consequence based instead of actually reward-based, which, which feels to me almost counterintuitive because when the moment you spend five minutes with someone and say, "Hey, are you going to be motivated in the environment where we're all excited and we work as a team and we are, going to achieve this big thing and have this reward at the end, versus do you want be in a place where it's if you don't do this, then you know X happens." I'm curious to, to get your thoughts on this. Allison and Jason, if you see that there is some link there.
Allison: That's a good question. And I don't know. And it's interesting cuz with my kids we do both like rewards and consequences. It's a little bit on a spectrum and it also depends on our child. Like our son is like very not rewards driven and very consequence driven. And our daughter, does not care about consequences. Like she has made up her mind, whatever she's going to do she has made up her mind and she's willing to accept whatever the result is from that decision. But she is very like, very rewards motivated.
And so I think it's interesting because it's maybe like a mix of both. We talk a lot about choices and results of those choices, which, is sometimes like a different way of saying consequences but not always, right? I think it takes the language out of rewards, consequences, and we're "okay, what are, like, what's the choice we-" just on two days ago, had a big conversation with our son about trust and lying, and there was a situation that came up that we were addressing and we were talking to him about based on actions, what the short-term results and what the long-term results of that might be.
And it's just, like we broke it down. Cause it's a little like high level for a seven year old. But it is really we talk a lot about "okay, what are the actions that you're taking and what are, what do you think the results of those actions are going to be?" I don't know if that's a new manager. I think that experienced manager, knows how to do that more skillfully, right? It's similar to the coaching versus mentoring piece. Like usually newer managers, they can mentor really well, but it takes them a while to figure out how to coach. So I think that it's not ability or what they fall to, but just like the ease that it comes to them.
Jason: I think that there's an almost like a recognition that you use. Each one of those things is a tool. And speaking specifically for management at this point too each one of those things is tool used appropriately in time. If you, if everything's in, if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So you only go one way.
But as an example, like coaching athletes, we've talked about, a lot of sports metaphors in the past. Some athletes only respond to a certain type of coaching. Some of it can't. You can't, maybe they're not confident enough, they're young enough or whatever. You need to motivate them more.
Some only respond to the negative the yelling, coaching, and I, know, I think those people, particularly when they're younger or few, maybe when they're older because of habits they formed when they were younger might be more. But the point being that you can use both.
So a good example would be like, you're sitting in a room with all your senior folks, you're running out a runway in a company, which is, unfortunately 2022 and going into 2023 is common thing. It's very difficult to find a reward based thing. It's like you have to stay, you have to sit there in the moment and say, "we don't hit this milestone. We're done as a business like, flat out done." Now that's not a negative. You You should talk about that. You should have that conversation and it's appropriate in that moment to have that conversation.
Whereas you flip it and you say to an individual, "you don't hit this milestone and you are fired." that type of thing. That's, that might work for some, and it may completely fall apart for others. You have to know that individual in that moment too.
We, We always like to talk about Jobs and Musks of the world and others who basically from the outside be perceived to only have one method of doing this and they're highly successful at it. And I would say that one, none of us have the luxury of being the richest person on earth who literally has no consequences in life whatsoever and no accountability. And Steve Jobs, who was famously fired from his own company because of how bad he was at the job and had to relearn all these things and come back and be a different version of him. Ultimately that was successful. And we lose sight of those two things, in those two situations. And management is a lot more about what we're talking about here on this podcast for 99.99, nine 9% of all people who are gonna do the job.
Allison: Yeah. And there, I mean there are I think, triggers as well, right? Like performance improvement plans. It's very likely that by the time somebody gets to a performance improvement plan, you've had, you've talked about the rewards, you've gone like you've done that route, right? Like we, in our house, it is anything that is safety related. Is like automatic like consequence system. Like we are not talking about rewards for not running into the street. Like it is a consequence if you like dart out into a parking lot without a grownup next to you thing.
And so I think there's also there are triggers, right? And it's this is ideally the way that I handle these things, but sometimes we have to go like we have to do the thing that we don't love doing, but is a necessity of where we're at at the moment.
Jason: Yep. We, I think that's the perfect frame of it too, which is, here's a very concrete example when on the children's side, my son has his habit and he just can't seem him to break it, which is if we ask him to do something, safety, we actually have the exact same structure, which is "go do this" he goes, but my son, he asked "why" say, "Hey buddy, go clean your room." "why?"
Nope, we have set up for this past two years. If you ask why without doing it, first you have to do it, then you're allowed to ask why and because of the context with him if he asks why without doing a thing, it's automatic, some automatic consequence. And the reason why is because we've had this conversation thousands of times and we've talked about this, and so it's his lack of adaptation and his lack of accepting it. And so it's an automatic rule.
The girls, they'll have the same thing because they've, they just, that's not their thing that they're struggling with.
Allison: Yeah. Which I think comes to one of the other things that I think overlaps a lot is just like setting and communicating clear expectations. Right. And because our children like know, and it's funny, my, my husband and I, we keep each other in check because sometimes we'll jump to something without we always give a warning or be like, okay, here is your choice.
And sometimes if we're in a mode where we're maybe a little short tempered or things that are a little more difficult. We're we'll jump immediately past that step. And the other one will be like, ah, you didn't give the warning. You gotta give the warning first. And so it's, that's, the same. And I've found that just in a variety of situations, right? If you can communicate like what is the thing that we're trying to do together? What is my expectation? My son has recently started doing drop off play dates where he will go to someone's house and we always recap what is the expectation of your behavior when you are in someone else's home?
But it's like making sure the expectations are clear. Reinforcing them, repeating them. Not just me saying them, but me asking do you remember what the expectations are? Tell me what they are. And I think also with leadership, there is a lot of is there confusion because I haven't made the expectation clear? Like how have, I, like what Jason was saying earlier also about having to communicate it in a variety of ways. Like how has it been communicated? Have I heard it back from folks to like really know that they understand and have thought about it?
There's all those sort of different checkpoints also of making expectations clear.
Jason: Two things I wanna say cuz I think this is a great topic. One is the hearing back is critical I think to, to a lot of these situations. So in our son's case, cuz he's on the spectrum, executive functions is something that he struggles with in general. So now we've, my wife and I become these pseudo experts in executive function. But if you actually see this play out in corporations to see it too, "Hey buddy, we're leaving at three o'clock." That's not quite enough for us to trust him that he's gonna do it. He has to play it back to us, all the steps that lead up to three o'clock.
You can use this trick a lot with work, and I don't think it should be considered a trick. It should be expectation like, "all right, we need to achieve this on six months from now. Break it down for me. what's it gonna look like?" and this is also commonly why every project is green until it's red. Two weeks before it's supposed to be due, is because we as an organization, lack the executive function to go break that all down.
But one thing I'll say too, as a parent, there's this one book or one concept that we use with the kids when they were super young, which worked really well, worked really well for us as parents in particular, because sometimes we would get short I think believe the book was called 1, 2, 3 Magic or something along those lines, which was very, it's a very simple concept, which is "Hey, you're in the moment. It's just one. And you don't say anything else. It's just like someone's go, something's going wrong. You basically train the kids to understand "one". And then they keep flailing or saying something, "two," keep going, "three." that's the timeout right there. That's the hold 'em away. And it doesn't take long. Kids running around the yard screaming, hitting somebody else one. Oh yeah. I'm gonna keep doing it two. All right. That's serious. That serious. Here. We're gonna shut it down,
Eiso: I like it. I wanna flip the questions a little bit too. How do you believe being inside corporations and being inside businesses has changed you in your parenting? What have you taken the other way around?
Allison: That's interesting. One of the things that I got really bad at and then I had to get good at was just the amount of emotional bandwidth that I had in a day, and like making sure that e especially in more difficult situations like. Promotion season, reorgs, things like that where you are talking to a lot of people and you're putting a lot of emotional energy into your workday. And there is a point where I just had like nothing left in the tank at the end of the day for my family, which is really hard cuz we go into pick up dinner bedtime, which like on the best days is like a little chaotic, right? And so just realizing what that emotional bandwidth looks like and how I need to like, organize my work days and what my boundaries were, to make sure that I had enough left at the end of the day to have a great conversation at dinner with my kids or deal with the random meltdown because they were like just a little too tired to make it from dinner to bedtime on that super thin line that you need to make that transition.
And recognizing the ways in which work can drain you in similar ways to being a parent can drain you and understanding that it's all pulling from the same bucket.
Jason: Literally was gonna say, you say the exact same thing, which was the, my wife said something. This was, we've talked about some of the, my personal darker days of pre-acquisition at GitHub when the CEO wasn't around. There's a lot of things falling apart and just trying to hold it all together and like the hours I was spending and also on the road and stuff like that. And my wife said something, which is, because also when you're home, she can hear through the door and she said, "we don't get that version of you at home on a regular basis."
And it was because I had nothing else, you know, at that point. And it was, that was like devastating to hear, you're like, oh, you're right. That's something I gotta work on. So I gotta find a way to do that. And that might mean less of a thing in the moment too. But that was something that I really took, which was, I can, I have to be that person at home all the time. And I was pre and post. It's just in a moment. That was a, something you never want to hear, frankly. You have to work at that.
I would say something else I did take away personally though too, is that I think that I expected, this is gonna sound very strange. Very strange. I think I expected more outta my kids than I did some people that I worked with at one point. Because your kids, you hope are almost mini versions of you and your wife and what you know, where you are and what that might look like. You don't know, so you don't expect, but you learn from the other people and then you raise those expectations as you learn more, all that sort of stuff.
But the kids, what I found was I was expecting them to be where I was at 35 or 40, or to understand what I might be doing at 10, even though they're in individual kids and they don't have, they're not me. And that was different. So I had to flip it around and say who are you and what is important to you? And learn about them on a regular basis too." And that was something I really pushed myself on for a couple of years.
Allison: Yeah, I, I agree with that also in the what makes someone tick, right? There was some of that from parenting, but a lot of it was just working with different people, different personality types. I am a very goals based, goals driven person, right? I'm like, okay, I'm here. These are the things I wanna learn by the end of this year that I wanna get exposure to by the end of the year. This is how I'm gonna get there. This is what my milestones are gonna be. I'm gonna communicate that with my manager and my peers.
That is just, I work and run in that, in, in that system. And there are a lot of folks that, reported to me or that I worked with that didn't. I think that it helped me understand the ways in which my children, especially my son, is a lot like me, and so in the ways that he isn't like me, I'm oh, what?
And so working with lots of different people with lots of different strengths and growth areas and what motivated them and just having to practice that a lot, I think helped me with. My kids figure out like different way to ask questions, different ways to, approach the outcomes that we were going for.
So it's like the kids help the people, but also I got a lot of practice at work with a lot more people than just my two children. And so I could bring that variety back.
Eiso: Is there a, did you ever find yourself on a day where you just had that meeting and you realized you're having the same thing but with your kids? Know what I mean? Like you've just gone and dug in with that report and you're actually realizing you're having essentially the same version of the, or different version, the same conversation with your 10 year old or seven year old.
Jason: I don't think I've had one of those conversations where it feels that stark, I think it was more like my own, the mannerisms by which I would achieve outcomes. We'll go back to that, which is "Hey, how I engage, how I-" so it's the content of the conversations never felt that way, but it was, "okay, so I need to listen. This is a conversation where I need to 100% listen. Okay, so no, I need to, this is an expectations conversation or this is consequence correction conversation," like that sort of stuff.
And and we have a big bucket for managing and a big bucket for parenting, but in, in effect, I think what Allison was saying before, if we boiled on the parenting books, boiled on the management books, they're actually same concepts, which are, at the end of the day, that's what the realization was. And again, like when it came to the two kids on the spectrum, particularly my son, it was, oh, this is with my son. It almost felt like I was talking to an opaque org as opposed to my daughters.
It was like I had an individual, my son had to engage almost like it was, he, I had to figure like I was impenetrable. I had to use 15 different communication pathways and expect no information to come back. Because he doesn't communicate. So that's like what it means to be an executive. Half the time is like you put it all this information and zero comes back. So you've gotta figure out other methods to get this information from him.
Eiso: I'm gonna hijack the last couple of minutes of this episode to give some advice to what is for sure not just the engineering leader that I mentioned earlier that I'm working with, but as others who are about to become a first-time parent.
You've shared a lot of things, a lot of techniques, but if you could go back to the moment in your career, right before you became a parent. What do you wish you had done? And is it, I wish I would've taken more time off. I wish I would've not been that exhausted at the end of the day. I didn't have things left in my tank. And actually in this case, it's not just for him because I have both of them, the mother and the father working with me here.
So Alison and Jason, maybe you can give the, a parent perspective of me, so mother and father's perspective of how you wish, maybe what you did or how you maybe wish you would've done something different in that moment in time. Cause it is one of the most important moments for anyone's life when they get, if this is something that they want to experience.
Allison: Yeah, I think it's try to figure out what you need and ask for it. There's a lot that leaders can do to support parents, especially new parents. For me, there was very stark difference when I had my first. I was at a company that had four weeks of parental leave, which as a, as the birthing partner is extraordinarily difficult. I was able to convince them to let me go like six weeks and then part-time for a few weeks, but it was in no way enough time. And I would say that when my son was five months, we had some early childcare that fell through, so I was working and taking care of him during the day, which was just, again, it's fine sometimes if you have a baby that like naps a lot and is pretty chill. And that was not, those were not my children.
So, But my second, I was at GitHub, which has a tremendous parental leave policy and so I was able to take a number of months right off the bat and then actually save, you can. just when I was there, you could use it anytime in the first year. So I used a chunk right off the bat and then a little bit in the middle when I felt like things would probably be chaotic and my house would be falling apart a little bit. And then a little bit at the end when, just before that year mark where there's, it's a little bit more enjoyable and it's okay, we're gonna just have some fun like time together. And I, when my son. About five months, like those were some really dark days of parenting and working in tech for me.
I was the first woman on my team. I was the only mom that had ever been on the team. It was just, I like actively sought out. There wasn't as much of a conversation as well about being a parent in tech. People weren't talking about it, especially moms. And I like went out on a hunt, on a search for moms in tech because I just like desperately needed the support and desperately needed to know that like I could stay in the industry and I could do it.
And so I think taking the time, figuring out what you need, finding those. Those networks and asking for it is important. And I will say, especially for birthing mothers who also may be nursing, you add a whole new paradigm also with nursing and pumping, and that in itself is like a whole bucket of really difficult logistics. So finding those networks and those support structures and asking for what you need.
Jason: I'll echo exactly what Alison said, but then I'm on the dad's side, so all three of my kids were born in places where there was no parental leave for the dad. So I had zero time I could take off in those situations, and it was weird to have to go to work the next day when my wife was home, so I did take off a couple of weeks in each situation, unpaid in several, but what I didn't recognize until later was that GitHub's policy, which was you could take some time off and you could chunk it up into the first year, is actually what we should all theoretically be doing because of the way that things will change over the first year.
And we didn't recognize this. My wife didn't even, obviously as a birthing partner be until, she was pumping on her drive to the hospital for her residency because she couldn't take any more time off. And she would just have to stop whatever she was doing in the middle of the day to keep, continue to pump it and bring it home at night. And we're like doing all this stuff and she's like this weird you look at it, 15 years later what was that all about? That was weird, and I would say this, I give this advice to all people that come to me post, obviously this.
You have the experience, but just in general, which is, I've had this thought I call, I always talk about like my 75 year old moments, which won't matter to me when I'm 75. And so I had somebody come to me once and said, "Hey, my wife's going through something," they reported me and then they said, "I don't know if I want to take time off." And I was like, "we're not even having this conversation. You are going to go take time off. Like obviously we'll cover for you and what I don't even want to hear from you for at least three weeks. And then we can have another conversation about this." And I said, "what will matter in five years is not whatever project you're on in the moment right now, it'll be fine." That will matter to you, your, how you react in the moment. And you have to take that into consideration. And it's incredibly important that people think that way because in the moment everything feels so urgent and vastly important.
But if you went back and thought about all those important projects you were working on, you could always have stepped away for a week or two and almost every situation it would've been fine. It's so rare to find a situation where even the head person can't step away for some small amount of time to go do something.
The last thing I'll say too is as a parent, I was one of those, my very first, I was literally the person who would go check on whether or not he was breathing every night for like several times a night, and my wife was just go to bed, he's fine." I'm like I heard something. I wanna go check." and you're like, that sort of thing. And my wife just said, we've been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years and it's gonna be fine. It's gonna be fine." that sort of thing.
And it's important to hear because at some point you, you sit there and there's no doctor or nurse. You take the baby home and you're like, "oh wait, I'm an adult now. That's a thing. Like I'm responsible for another human being" and that's a weird thing to in the moment and it can be a little unnerving. In my case, it wasn't so much unnerving in the fact that like I was responsible for somebody. It was like, "I don't know what this means. I've never been responsible to this degree for someone else." And so you're over-indexing, but ultimately it's fine. You will be fine. They will be fine. Allison said earlier "Hey, I'm new to this. You're new to this. We'll figure it out together type of deal."
Allison: Yeah, and I'll just add that if you are in this situation, especially as a new parent or thinking about parenting and you look at your workday or your work week or month and you can't step away, I would say that's a really good indication of figure out systems or structures or changes that need to be put in place so that you can. You, children, right? Like you just never know what's gonna happen and when you're gonna need to step away or when you know school's gonna be closed a random day or someone's gonna be sick, or something's gonna happen. And so it also, I think, forces you to put in place better structures where like you aren't the bottleneck and you're also enabling people to do more so that you can step away and you can feel like you can step away when.
Eiso: I appreciate this so much, both of you and Allison. Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a fantastic episode to record and I recently got some feedback. I was on a call, by chance, some of our listeners I didn't know, and they said, look, the episodes that you guys do that are the ones that touch closest to our emotions, to our lives, to the things that are not as obvious are the ones that like, have helped me the most. And I absolutely notice it's gonna be one of those. So it's been a pleasure having you with us today, Allison. Thank you.
Allison: Yeah, thanks for having me.
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