Finding Balance: Tech Skills & People Skills

Should a chief technology officer be able to code? Sure (although I do find myself in architectural reviews more than code reviews these days) and of course it’s essential that tech team leaders have strong tech skills. On the flip side, should an engineering team lead be able to successfully manage people? Absolutely. So how does an organization encourage its leaders to strike the balance?

In the past, companies often interviewed for and employed people based on a single, specific skill. This approach worked when the probability of a technology emerging and re-orienting the nature of a company was fairly low. But transformation is now a constant in the marketplace and a broader set of skills is required. A people manager without tech skills can’t provide strategic direction to architects and engineers — and, often can’t hire well. An engineer without people management skills struggles to facilitate collaboration, manage career growth, or help employees prioritize projects. In this set-up, a company can’t pivot to the next success. There’s no way we’re letting that happen at Walmart Labs.

Yes, it’s a classic management problem: engineers aren’t traditionally great people managers and vice versa. It’s rare to have both. But we’re looking for rare. In my years of experience, I’ve developed a few points to encourage and attract multifaceted tech managers.

A key step is valuing, selecting, promoting, and encouraging candidates with the right tech / people mix. Selecting is usually easy — while we hire a lot of technical experts we also look for many rounded candidates. We continue to build a company-wide culture that respects both sets of skills. For us, that means rewarding experts, leaders, and teams that excel at creative problem-solving, and those that communicate effectively within and across teams.

Take Tim Kimmet, our vice president of Cloud Computing Platform, for example — Tim would love to sit side-by-side and attempt to outcode his engineers (who’s up for the challenge?!). But the fact that he’s also a good people leader to his ~300 associates — supporting career development, communicating strategy, and knowing the value of a steady drumbeat of performance discussions — is what really sets him apart.

Training also works. At Walmart Labs, constant improvement is part of who we are. We love leaders and associates who ask questions and want to learn. We’re overflowing with opportunities to amplify existing skill sets and gain new ones. Part of the advantage of working for a company like ours is drinking in the large amount of training that’s available. They include formal and self-driven tech-training programs on the latest tech skills and extend to deep dives for first time and experienced managers needing to learn how balance tech / leadership and of course to give better feedback and driving engagement. I’ve audited many of these courses myself and they are awesome and continue to get great feedback and get even better.

I have often heard managers say ‘if I just owned this it would be / go better’ — but, that’s impossible — even at my level in the org, I don’t and can’t own it all. Take our CIO, Clay Johnson, who joined Walmart last year. As my counterpart in IT, there are plenty of times that the retail systems need to integrate in with finance or HR systems for example — and, we need to collaborate. We’ve built a relationship based on transparency and tools that allow us all to see what each of our priorities are. It starts with Clay and me building a strong relationship, and has to funnel down to the entire org. A single person or team can never own it all — you have to work together.

Walmart is well into its digital transformation — we like to call it people lead, tech empowered — and, even our CEO is emphasizing the importance of digital acumen at all levels of leadership. We expect leaders across the company to understand product management lifecycle, devops, cloud, ML platforms, etc. It is no longer something that the engineers / Labs team uses and owns — we are all in this together.

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win— “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders”. As we move forward we need more and more accomplished people who can be both tech and people leaders. People who can both interview an engineer and be an internal diplomat. Balancing the two is the future of retail and tech, and Walmart Labs is at the heart of it.

Do you have what it takes? Come join us!

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