(Why it’s so important to look inside your org before you look outside)
I am delighted to announce that we have a new VP of engineering: our own Emily Nakashima, formerly director of engineering (formerly manager, formerly engineer).
Why write this post? As Emily herself would grouse, it grosses people out to see their leaders lavishing praise on each other in public.
I have two reasons for writing it. First, I’d write a post if we had hired a new VP of engineering, so I should write one about having grown one from within. Second, I think it is good to be transparent about why we promote people. Our reasons for advancing someone into senior leadership says a lot about what we value in people. Either we discuss those values openly, or we force people to guess and make up stories about what they are.
I also have a stealth third reason: I think all companies should do more growing and promoting from within, full stop. Instead of reflexively looking to hire someone who has already done the job before, why not see if any of your existing employees have the capability and desire to step up? I think it’s a better set of risks if you can roll the dice on the ability of someone you trust and admire to grow into a new role, than to roll the dice on an unknown quantity just because they say they’ve done the job before.
Emily has been with Honeycomb for nearly three years. This is where I get to tell the embarrassing story of how we under-leveled her and hired her in as an intermediate engineer. The optics of this were particularly awful given that we were a team of mostly backend folks hiring her as our first explicitly frontend engineer. It started with this particularly facepalmy conversation:.
Me: “So, hi, we would like to make you an offer! Just to warn you, we MIGHT be underleveling you. It’s just a new process and we weren’t able to get enough signal, BUT we do reviews quarterly and I PROMISE you that if you are underleveled, I will fix it quickly.”
Me: (weakly) “I’m sure you’ve heard that before! And I know that there’s definitely a Thing in this industry where frontend is perceived to be less challenging than backend. I PROMISE it is not that we don’t think your work is as hard or important as ours.”
To this day I have no idea why she joined after that weak tea, but she did — and we did fix it. We bumped her to senior engineer (E5) the very next interval. Not long after which she became a manager (M1), and then a director. Counting this, that makes three promotions and one lateral move in three years!
This is part of what I love about startups: lightning strikes. Magic happens. The right person in the right place at the right time can leapfrog entire subplots of the career progression story.
Still, four title changes is a lot for three years, and I didn’t want to seem like I was pushing it, pressing her into a new role without a solid consensus that it was earned. Our policy has always been that we give retroactive promotions; we aim to promote people as a trailing acknowledgement when they have already been performing at the new level for some time. So when I told Emily we were promoting her to VP she grouched at me: “So much for our policy of retroactive promotions.”
But when I had been quietly checking in with a few key folks beforehand, asking them “how would you feel about making Emily our engineering VP?” — the responses were swift and of a feather:
“I thought she already was!”
“What took you so long?”
So I’d like to share a few of the ways that Emily exemplifies the kind of leadership that we value at Honeycomb:
- Dependability. “She does what she says, and says what she does.” — Jeff Gray “Emily gets it done. She is not only reliable and unflappable but she openly communicates, keeping everyone in the loop so there’s never any surprises.” — Deirdre Mahon
- Leading by example. “Many leaders love the sound of their own voice. Emily is the opposite — she waits for everyone else to have their say, and only weighs in if something necessary has been left unsaid.” — Sarrah Vesselov . Something we pride ourselves on at Honeycomb is building a culture where everyone can be heard, not only the loudest voices in the room. Emily does not take up a lot of air, so people lean in when she does speak.
- Engineering excellence. “Emily encourages high standards for engineering excellence, in a way that makes each of us strive to reach them, while simultaneously having great empathy for the differences and needs of each individual. It makes for a fantastically productive and pleasant working environment.” — Doug Soo Most teams fail to perform at peak because they either don’t aim high enough, or they think excellence is achieved by transferring a high level of stress to individuals and exerting pressure on them to seem perfect.
- Feedback is a gift. “Emily has an extremely keen eye for interpersonal issues, and is proactive about bringing up feedback early rather than waiting for it to fester and become a Big Deal. It’s amazing to get tidbits of feedback from her every month that help me be a better principal engineer.“ — Liz Fong-Jones Giving feedback well is one of those insanely hard things to do, but constructive criticism is Emily’s love language.
- A strong moral compass, tempered with pragmatism. We have to grow to change the world. (But we can live our values within our own small corner.)
- Self-care. Emily is good at self-care. She takes real vacations, disconnects, goes home at a reasonable hour, and tries not to work night and day, because she knows that actions speak louder than words and she wants her team to feel supported in taking time off too. She is also excellent at leaving jobs. This might seem like an odd thing to cite as a positive in one of your employees, but it unequivocally is. Knowing that I can trust Emily to take care of herself means I know I can lean on her even more.
- Teammate. Christine and I are two very stubborn and strong-willed founders who are each other’s polar opposites in every conceivable way — yet both of us have always been able to depend on Emily as an ally, a sympathetic ear, and — when called for — an accountability buddy. She always sees the best in both of us, and reminds each of us of the best in each other.
People tend to write about the past as though it was a string of unbroken successes, tripping effortlessly from one glory to the next. I hate that — it’s never true. Emily and I have definitely struggled at times. In the early days, her reluctance to impose or be pushy sometimes tended to veer into passivity. She would wait too long for permission to act instead of simply doing it; she could sometimes hold out for a certainty that was never going to come. She would see things that needed to be done, but not think it her place to rock the boat.
Likewise, there have been a number of times where I have personally let her down, or put her in a tough spot by having conflict with members of her team or the broader community. But working our way through these small rifts — this is the fabric that trust and emotional intimacy is quilted from.
I did consider hiring a VP from the outside, as Emily urged me to. Neither Emily nor I has been a VP of eng before, and for a while I thought “gosh, think how much we could learn from someone who has done this before.” But then I thought about the incredibly high-performing org we have now, and all the little lessons and course corrections we’ve needed along the way. It’s been quite rocky at times — we’ve had layoffs and funding crises, a protracted and painful process of finding product-market fit, personality clashes, performance issues and PiPs and reorgs — but Emily has always risen to the challenge. We have never not figured it out together.
And more importantly, the relationships she has built with everyone mean she has a deep well of trust to draw on. If I were to hire some new person in to be her boss, what would actually happen? Everyone would keep on going to Emily for help when times are hard, which would be pretty disempowering for them … and is a clear sign that a new person is not actually needed.
I fully expect this post may come back to bite me in the ass. Talented executives are in scarce demand. Some of you will likely try to recruit Emily based on this post, and someday one will succeed. And I accept that risk — Emily deserves to be competed over. If we say we want what’s best for Honeycomb employees, that has to mean we earnestly want each person to work here only as long as it is the absolute best thing for them and their careers. It’s on us to make sure that stays true for as long as possible.