An Interview

Note: This interview was originally posted on my former company’s internal channels, and I am re-publishing it here with the consent of the company, removing all sensitive/private material.


Name: Gabriel Sambarino

Where do you live? 

Near Udine, Italy. It’s a beautiful small region near the borders of Italy with Slovenia and Austria.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor (or dessert of choice)? 

Vanilla!

If you weren’t working in engineering, what would you be doing? 

Tough one. Perhaps I would be a musician, or a woodworker, or an astronomer. Or I may be coaching people on remote leadership! *laughs*

What are three words that your friends or family would use to describe you? 

They used many (I surveyed ten friends and family members), but the most recurring ones were, in the following order:

  • Protective (the most cited one by far)
  • Pedantic (mentioned three times)
  • Determined, Funny, Caring, Communicator, Motivator – ex aequo

Got to admit, they know me well!

When you first became a lead, what did you think / tell yourself? 

It happened very soon in my career, just six months into my first experience. I was a successful developer and was asked to lead a team of four on a migration project for a critical client. I just thought “OK, let’s figure this out” and I just did what I felt was right.
I must admit it worked and we could migrate the whole system on a Saturday afternoon, with only a few things to polish on the next Monday.

What’s the best part about being a lead?

Making the workplace a better place for my team.

I know how frustrating it can be when there is no clear direction, priorities are constantly shifted, the focus is interrupted, with little to no recognition of our value as contributors, private life continuously disrupted by overworking, etc. In a few words, I know how miserable a workplace can be when there is no trust and commitment.

My mission is to prevent all of this – and more – from happening to my teams, while of course helping the company with its goals. A happy team is a more productive team and makes the world a better place.

What in your pre-engineering life unexpectedly prepared you for leadership the most?

Probably playing basketball on a semi-pro level.

Although I did not think of myself as a leader early in my career, sports taught me to be accountable, disciplined, to not let my team down. I have also learned the power of teamwork and how everyone on a team must have different roles, putting their egos aside and helping each other to make the team successful.

There are good and bad days, but if the team stays together and everyone knows what to do, the chances of getting a W are much higher.

Are you an introvert or extrovert? 

I have been defined as the most outgoing person on the team, and that is probably true. I also like the presence of myself, but I am definitely not afraid of hitting the stage.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

Not sure. Are there styles?

Jokes apart, trust is my keyword.

I always try to be as trusting and trustworthy as possible: when people first start to work with me, what they receive is “a base amount of trust”; I set very clear expectations on what they need to do in order to build upon that trust and bring it to a higher level.
At that time I also clarify what can be expected from me.
Later on, the trust-based relationship needs to be nurtured and tended to because it does not just self-generate it.

How would you approach working with another lead that has a very different style of leading their team(s)? 

I try learning from them if I think they are successful. And even if I think they aren’t successful leads, then I try to learn from them anyway by identifying whatever they could improve. Or the mistakes I don’t want to make myself…

If I need to cooperate with other leads to reach a common goal, it is just a matter of setting expectations, establishing clear patterns on communications, and clearly defining the desired outcome of our activities. It will then be each leader’s responsibility for their own team to deliver.

What are two of your superpowers / things you’re really good at? 

Empathy/Communication. One of the hardest things in our job is executing when life is not gentle with us. Understanding how my team members are doing, what challenges they are facing on both a personal and a professional level is vital if I want to keep them happy and engaged, making sure everyone understands the context they are working in and the purpose of what they are doing.

Eclecticism. I always define myself as a jack of all trades because I like to learn and do lots of different things. In all the things I did and learned throughout my life I have always delved deep enough to have a very good understanding of them, but in the vast majority of cases, I haven’t been digging deeper.

What are some things you ask for help with or delegate? 

I do not delegate much in some cases, because in my teams we usually set a quite clear distinction between Individual Contributors (ICs) and Lead responsibilities.

Many times, though, I like to call other team members into action: for example, other team members are rotating in leading our daily stand-ups or writing up our sprint retrospectives, but I usually try not to distract them: giving ICs full days of deep work without interruption is the best way to increase their productivity and reduce their frustration.

What’s a skill you’re currently working on developing? 

All of them.

There is one question always on my mind and it is “am I good enough?”. The answer is usually affirmative, but as Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. Keeping a good balance between self-confidence and humility is very important and, sometimes, challenging.

How do you keep improving your leadership skills?

Read. Analyze. Watch. Measure. Iterate. (RAWMI – I could patent this acronym)

A constant in my personal and professional growth is reading a lot of books and material, including blog posts, P2s, and interviews, and annotating whatever makes sense to me.

I have my notes-taking system, of course.

What does success in your role look like? 

We are happy and we deliver high-quality products on time.

The team works well together, communication is constantly flowing, there is maximum transparency, everyone feels safe.

All team members are engaged and proactive in seeking opportunities for improvement; they do not shy away from letting each other know what they think is best for the team and the division.

Everything is documented, a good amount of internal posts is produced.

What % of your time do you spend coding? 

Probably around 20% at most. I try to help as much as I can with code reviews, though.

If that % is >0, how do you make time for coding/creating?

I try to take on smaller, high-impact tasks. Dealing with bigger tasks is not easy when the days are studded with 1:1s, calls, reviews, chats, etc.

How do you cope with stress? 

Stress is not impacting me, usually, because early in my career I have learned how to prevent my job from affecting my well-being: I just change what is in my power to change and try to influence whatever I can.

I also think that in a distributed, across-the-globe environment it is very important not to get caught up in the loop of always being available. Working from home often means employees are tempted to take a peek at Slack or emails even during off-hours; I have been there, finding myself reading Slack and other channels when I woke up in the middle of the night: I was looking at the phone to keep up-to-date with the latest news, and this caused me high amounts of stress, unhealthy sleep patterns, and a loss of productivity. Do not do this.

How do you prioritize your time? 

All my tasks are written down somewhere, either Jira or my personal notes. I define due dates for all my tasks based on their impact and priority.

What’s your communication style? 

Transparent, honest, at times verbose.

How do you structure your day? 

After driving my kid to preschool I come back home and start with catching up with comms and emails before our daily stand-up comes at 9:30 AM my time. During the morning there are usually a few 1:1s and conversations with the team, mostly APAC-based.

During lunch break I go and pick up my kid bringing him home for the afternoon nap; sometimes I take some rest with him before resuming work in the afternoon, when America-based folks wake up and I may have some 1:1s or various calls and chats.

How do you prefer to make decisions? 

My preferred way is consensus, which is not hard as long as the team is not too big and everyone is aligned on priorities. Whenever there are different views I try to reconcile them by asking team members to back their opinions with facts and numbers, and when combined with sharing the biggest picture in order to let them understand how their plan would fit into our strategy, I can influence the decision-making process. The responsibility for the final decision is then on the lead.

At the end of the day our job – and life in general – is about finding the best compromise.

How do you keep on top of notifications? 

Async as much as I can: I read internal comms like emails a few times a day and do not get any notifications. Synchronous tools like Slack makes it trickier though because of interruptions, so it is important to turn off notifications when deep working.

What does a great day look like for you? 

The best day is when I feel really productive and see my team delivering high-quality work.

I see issues transitioning to Done, I talk with my team and together we acknowledge our results and discuss the next steps. I see all the team members feeling happy and engaged.

What’s the biggest learning you’ve had about yourself since becoming a lead?

That I can be a leader, a positive one that makes people’s lives better.

When I was younger I could not see myself as a leader because of where I was coming from, my education, etc. Later on, I kept being assigned to leading roles and I started figuring out that that was where I wanted to be, and where I could contribute the most.

If you could talk to your New-Team-Lead Self and give them some advice, what would it be? 

Believe in yourself, you are doing well. Do not let others define who you are and what you can be.

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