Investing in Strategic Leadership

How seeking out the business value in technology can be an engineering leader’s superpower.

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Leading With Impact

In this series, author and organizational coach Chris Clearfield talks with leaders who manage technology-driven teams at innovative organizations across the world. The series will examine universal big-picture challenges as well as specific lessons on sparking ideas and accelerating innovation.
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As the pace of digital change continues to accelerate, it can be easy for companies to get caught chasing the next bright, shiny object — especially when it comes to technology. But to be successful, modern companies need engineering leaders who can build technology that creates business value.

Take Camille Fournier, the head of platform engineering at Two Sigma, a financial services company based in New York. Throughout her career, which has spanned well-known institutions like Goldman Sachs and the customer-focused fashion startup Rent the Runway, Fournier has learned how to go beyond vision to execute strategy, set priorities, and empower teams of talented engineers.

I recently spoke with Fournier about her approach to leadership and what goes into cultivating a strong engineering culture. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

MIT Sloan Management Review: You have held engineering leadership positions at Rent the Runway and Goldman Sachs and now work at Two Sigma. I do not know about the substance of the technology problems at each organization, but from the outside, it seems like they have different cultures and ways of operating. Is that right?

Camille Fournier: Goldman Sachs is an interesting example of a company that strategically invested in technology better and faster than many of their competitors. They would not have weathered the 2008 financial crisis if they did not have technology that allowed them to see the market conditions that they were operating in.

But when I was there, technology was often viewed as a cost center, which is incompatible with building a strong engineering culture. Technology does not work that way — you have to be willing to keep investing, even when times are tough. You cannot lightly say, “We are going to cut 20% of engineering personnel,” or “We are not going to give engineers raises.” That does not work in an environment where every good engineer can go to a tech company and, in many cases, make as much if not more money. You have to continuously invest in engineering in order to make it great.

But at Goldman Sachs, I learned one of the best things I could learn as an engineering leader: how to identify commercial value. I learned to ask myself, “Will this drive usefulness in a meaningful way?” This skill helped me at Rent the Runway, a company with a consumer-focused culture. There, I knew to ask, “If you build this feature, what will the outcomes be for the customer?” The more you ask that question, the better you end up doing — but most engineers do not know that.

Rent the Runway was a smaller-scale startup during my time there. From a cultural perspective, caring about the customer was just so important. As an engineer, you had to care about who would use the software you wrote and think through the applications of what you were building. The technical challenge was to build software that could be changed reasonably quickly.

Two Sigma has always been an engineering-focused company. Engineering is core to what we do, and, as a result, has a lot of freedom to drive direction.

You are the head of platform engineering at Two Sigma. How do you think about prioritization in your role?

Fournier: I approach prioritization by asking, “Are we working on the most important things?” This is important for me, because I find people get hung up on the idea that importance is a single measure. But there are a lot of factors that go into it.

Sometimes the most important thing is to give my engineers the freedom to work on a project that they are really passionate about and that has some value. This might not work in your organization all of the time, but as a manager, it’s good to remember that you have humans on your team with desires of their own — and that there is a cost to not meeting those desires.

The job of an engineering leader is keeping the team able to move fast. It’s important for me to keep my team engaged, to prevent big problems from cropping up six to 12 to 24 months from now, and to be able to show the tangible results of our work so that I can explain the value of what my team is doing. It is a balance of trade-offs.

Do those trade-offs sit with you or your team?

Fournier: We have a top-down, bottom-up, top-down process for making trade-offs. If we need to accomplish a strategic objective, like transitioning a workload to the cloud, a team will go away and write an Amazon-style six-pager that describes the project, provides a rough estimate of its costs, and lists below-the-line tasks that they could accomplish with additional resources.

At that point, I come back and apply an editorial focus to their proposals. I might say, “I actually see that we have several teams approaching this problem from slightly different directions, and we do not have a coherent strategy for solving this problem yet.” Or I might say, “Instead of working on moving everything to the cloud, let’s prioritize moving research workloads.”

At the highest level, my job is identifying commonalities across teams and determining what will make the biggest commercial difference for the business.

You have said that strategy is not vision. How do you define strategy?

Fournier: Strategy is not just where you are going. It is also how you are going to get there. Often, people think that if they tell you where they are going, then they have a strategy — no, they have a statement, not a strategy.

Saying that you want to migrate to the cloud is not a strategy. There are so many different ways to get there: You could lift and shift to the cloud as fast as humanly possible in an all-out push. You could make your internal systems cloud native to support a slow and steady migration to cloud-hosted Kubernetes. You could decide that everything new will be built on the cloud. How you will arrive at the end goal is an essential component of the strategy.

When I share a strategy, I pay attention to how I talk about it [and] the narrative that I tell around it. I ask myself, “How does the way I describe my strategy make it easier for people to stay aligned with it?”

Where did you learn to think this way about strategy?

Fournier: Jenn Hyman, the CEO of Rent the Runway, is the most strategic person I have ever worked with, and she taught me to build a narrative around strategy.

When I became CTO of Rent the Runway, she asked me to present the tech strategy to the board. At the time, I was working with a CTO coach who was great and really smart. He told me that most boards simply want to know what the CTO is investing in, how she plans to grow the team, and how the team is structured.

I followed his lead, created a presentation, and gave it to Jenn, who said, “Absolutely not.” She told me that what I planned to present was not actually a strategy. It was not a strategy because I did not describe how our technology or our team would be flexible and agile enough to support all different kinds of business ideas, and I did not illustrate how having that level of flexibility and agility required certain kinds of investments.

Her feedback forced me to go back and ask myself, “Where is the business going? And what is my plan to support the evolution of the business?”

I believe that learning is one of the most important things that a leader can help facilitate. I also think that it is one of the most misunderstood things. What do you think?

Fournier: People often think of learning as a personal thing. You read a paper, you watch a talk; you do a thing by yourself and learn something. But I think that there is an underappreciated aspect of learning, which is how organizations learn and improve.

To learn, you have to spend time reflecting, but so many company cultures are completely resistant to that kind of exercise. They still learn — it is impossible not to. But they learn in a way that an animal that has been shocked learns. As in, “We used this system once, and we had a colossal, horrific failure, so we will never use that system again.” If reflective analysis does occur within those companies, it is usually focused on determining who is to blame.

I believe that part of learning is codifying and operationalizing the changes that you want to make. Operationalizing a change across a small team is almost trivial. But across a large team? Something as straightforward as changing how promotions are done becomes a massive undertaking.

In these cases, I appreciate working with a really good HR department. If you empower and listen to them — and if you treat them as more than an execution arm for menial work — they can help you execute a change across a large team.

Topics

Leading With Impact

In this series, author and organizational coach Chris Clearfield talks with leaders who manage technology-driven teams at innovative organizations across the world. The series will examine universal big-picture challenges as well as specific lessons on sparking ideas and accelerating innovation.
More in this series

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