Above the Glass: Being Adaptable While Having a Plan
Written by Bindu Mohan
From left to right: Annie Zhou and Bindu Mohan
In this edition of Above the Glass, Bindu Mohan, Director of WWCode Silicon Valley and President of Engineering at Stealth Startup, sits down with Annie Zhou, Engineering & Product Leader at Square, to discuss utilizing multiple fields’ experience, people management versus technical leadership, and supporting individual, team, and community success.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I’m one of the Directors of Engineering and Product at Square. Prior to Square, I worked at a number of different startups, primarily software engineering, but a little bit in sales as well. I’ve been at Square for five and a half years now, so it’s been quite a journey here, the longest company in my work history. Things are great, loving the tech industry, and loving working at Square. I studied computer science and business economics, a combination of business and software engineering, double majoring. I dabbled in sales for a year.
It’s interesting that you chose both. Do you want to talk more about that?
When I graduated, the tech industry was not where it is today. Technology and engineering were seen more like the code monkeys of the business. From the very start, when I did internships, I realized I wanted to be in a more collaborative setting. I didn’t want to just sit in front of a computer and code all day. I was definitely looking for something that had a combination that requires a strong technical background but was more people-focused. Coming out of college, I didn’t know what sales was. It was recommended to me, so I tried it for a year. It was a really great experience. I saw technology from the other side and understood what customers needed, what it meant to be customer-driven and customer-focused. Ultimately, the job itself didn’t require enough of that technical expertise that I really love, so I went back into engineering after about a year and a half.
Has that made you more empathetic to the engineering side and also the sales side?
Absolutely. In engineering and product, sales is really important. How do you build your product, understand what your customers need, understand how to communicate with your customers, and, in our own career growth, how do you sell your work? How do you advocate for yourself? That’s also very related to sales.
With engineering, there is a lot of people focus. I imagine you were able to use those strengths both as an engineer and in sales.
Yes. I would say the industry has shifted a lot. Now, working in software engineering is very collaborative. Engineers have a stronger voice, opinion, and product direction. At Square, a lot of the things are very engineering-driven. Times have definitely changed. It’s also one of my personal management philosophies to make sure that the engineering teams are very involved in the end-to-end product development process and that they are collaborating with each other and cross-functionally. That’s something that I think really helped, instead of seeing engineering as just the coding function.
What would you say are some valuable learnings from your career journey that you’d like to share?
If I had to sum it up, I would say a strong principle that I’ve learned for career growth is the ability to be adaptable. I am a plan-driven person. It is important to have those goals because you need to know where you’re going. It is equally, if not more important, to be adaptable. So many things are outside your control. Things will come up that you would never have known about. Being able to adapt your plan to those changes has been critical for myself, as an individual contributor, and as a manager.
Talk about some challenges you may have faced and what you learned as a result.
I personally love challenges. I think whenever people face hardships, in life and career, it’s an opportunity for growth. I will focus on the initial challenges of moving into people management. One of the biggest challenges I remember is actually one of an emotional pull. One of the motivations that drove me to move into people management is that I love working with people. I care a lot about people. I care about my team. I want everyone to reach their potential. Caring about people when you have a team of people is exhausting. While it’s very rewarding, the emotional energy spent in really getting to know people was more than I expected. It does get easier. It’s really important to care about your team and put your team first. It is one of my management philosophies, people first. At the same time in order to succeed as a manager, it’s not about being nice. You’re not friends with your whole team. It’s about being their coach, being their advocate.
I loved what you said about not being nice. That’s a key point. Would you elaborate on that?
I support a few people managers in both engineering and product. I help people transition from individual contributors to management. One common point of struggle is how do I connect with my team. A lot of these people’s motivation is similar to mine. They really love working with people. They care about people. They want to make people happy. That’s a good place to start but, as managers, our job is not necessary to make people happy. Our job is to make people effective, good at their jobs, and help them grow in their careers. Balance is being kind, understanding, and empathetic but also really pushing people to reach a potential. If they are underperforming and need help, you give them the help, having those hard conversations. Finding that line is critical to anyone that wants to succeed in the management ladder.
I would love to hear your thoughts about people management versus technical leadership.
At Square, we have very clear distinct ladders between the individual contributor role and the management role. They are very different jobs. There might be some similarities at the core, where there are shared leadership skills and influence. The raw skills acquired are very different. It depends on you as an individual and where your strengths and passions are. I think before, the only way up was to go into management. That is no longer the case. On the technical path, as you grow into a more senior role, you are not coding every day. You are working through others. You grow as a technical leader on the team. The difference between that role and the management role is you’re still mentoring, you’re still coaching people and helping them grow in their careers, but, you’re not working with HR problems that might come up. If you take the management path, for myself, I don’t make technical decisions. I delegate that to my team. I think they are much better decision-makers and much more informed than I am.
One of the joys, for me, is watching people find their passions. They come to me and ask about management. They think that’s the only path. We discuss what they are passionate about. They realize they have a really great career ahead of them on the technical ladder that actually matches what they love. Part of the job of a manager is making sure they have that growth.
Empathy in the workplace and bringing your whole self to work. What do you say about that?
It means different things to different people. I would probably tie this to having our people-first culture. We care a lot about people. We care about our product. Our philosophy is we can’t build great products if our people are not motivated, happy, or tied into the mission. Making sure our people are taken care of means that we will build high-quality products that meet the needs of all of our customers and sellers. Bringing your whole self to work, to me, means being principle-driven and living by your principles.
How do you offer support to women, non-binary, or other URMs on their journey?
Square is a great place that has done well in this area. The first step is awareness and acknowledgment that we need to provide additional support for underrepresented people in the workplace. One of our philosophies, that I really align with, is that the products that we’re building are for people of all kinds and people from all backgrounds. How can you build that if your team is only coming from one perspective? At Square, we are very aware of these needs as a company. We want a diverse team. We have a lot of community groups and we make sure that there’s time given to individuals who are very passionate about leading these communities. These communities help bring people of similar perspectives together and help provide resources for them so that outside their direct team they have someone to talk to. For example, in our women engineers group, we pair new female engineers with someone more senior. We have lunch events. We help people and make sure that they don’t feel alone on their teams. Diversity is really important. Long-term, sustainable team growth and development really need those diverse environments. You need different perspectives and having these communities and support groups help everyone feel comfortable and work in the best environment that they can.
Is there a woman you would like to give a shout-out to in your career?
I have a quick shout-out to Julia Grace. She is a phenomenal speaker. I reached out to her after one of her talks. It resonated a lot with me. She’s fantastic at giving me advice. I really appreciate her. I think having a mentor with that much experience is helpful to advance your growth and learning faster because you’re not reinventing the wheel.