Transitioning an engineering leadership position to a work-from-home model can be a challenge. For some engineers, working remotely is the norm. For others, such as those working for Shopify, being forced to work from home because of the Coronavirus is a whole new ballgame. In this episode of Simple Leadership, Farhan Thawar joins me to chat about his transition into working from home and how Shopify has made the process manageable. We talk about the benefits of coding in pairs, whether or not managers should still code, and what he looks for when hiring engineering leaders.
Farhan became the VP of Engineering at Shopify after the company acquired Helpful.com, where he was co-founder and CTO. He is an avid writer and speaker and was named one of Toronto's 25 most powerful people. Farhan has held senior technical positions at Achievers, Microsoft, Celestica, and Trilogy. Farhan completed his MBA in Financial Engineering at Rotman and Computer Science/EE at Waterloo. Listen to this episode for a glimpse into his expertise.
Shopify sent all of their employees home to work remotely at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. They also supplied each employee $1,000 to make the transition a smooth process—for necessary equipment such as webcams, ergonomic chairs or mats, and office supplies. They knew they wanted to be proactive in protecting their team and those around them.
Farhan much prefers in-person communication and interaction. Since working from home, he has made a concerted effort to focus on communication that includes Google Hangouts, Zoom calls, audio, and asynchronous video—all before defaulting to text. His goal is to connect and converse with fellow employees about their lives and remember to have non-work-related conversations like they would if they were in the office.
Something new managers often struggle with is whether or not they continue to code once they assume a leadership role. Should they work on company projects? Practice coding on the weekend? Farhan incorporates coding into his schedule every Thursday morning as a way to “go deeper” and stay on top of his skills.
Something that Shopify implements is what is called a “studio week” in which executive-level team members take a week to deep-dive into their craft to continue learning and perfect their skills. It takes their skillset to the next level, gives more context to how their team operates and helps them stay on top of the right questions to be asking their team.
Pairing with someone is a great way to learn a new environment and language. It’s also a great way to learn something new that you’re not as familiar with. You can lend your technical expertise and architectural ideas to the team. You work to help each other stay focused and intense—and add to the intellect and velocity of the team.
Shopify allows their teams to set up pair programming hours—they simply open space in their schedules for others to sign up. They even supply special rooms specifically for the practice. Farhan shares that it’s set up with two monitors, two keyboards, with a long desk so you can sit and pair for a long period. Others prefer to work on pair programming in the comfort of their own pods (work areas).
While Shopify employees are practicing social distancing and following COVID-19 “shelter at home” protocols, they use a nifty tool called Tuple, a remote pair programming app. Listen to the whole episode as Farhan explains the importance of this practice.
Farhan doesn’t believe your typical interview style is particularly effective in choosing the right engineering leader. They like to find a way to immerse the potential hire into a situation they’d likely be solving and observe how they’d behave. It’s far more effective than asking questions. However, they do implement an interview-style where they, as Farhan describes it, “Try to figure out—has the person led an interesting and diverse life with examples of relatable experiences that we think can translate well into Shopify?”.
They call this interview a “life story”. Farhan states, “The life story is really a way for us to explore someone's past in as much detail and backward-facing situational data as we can, which will potentially give us some insight into future performance”.
On the technical side, they do a deep-dive into a problem in the interviewee’s past to see where their passions lie. They look at their depth of knowledge regarding problems they were connected to and what strategies they use to solve them. Listen to this episode for the engineering challenges that Farhan has faced and details on what he’s learned.