Name Dropping is a Q&A series that aims to elevate the stories of women and nonbinary people leading in the tech space. The idea came from Angela DeFranco, a VP of Product at HubSpot, who said one way to be better allies is to name drop more women and nonbinary people in discussions of achievement, inspiration, and disruptors in tech, instead of referencing, time and again, the same set of (often male) leaders.
This edition of Name Dropping features Michelle McDaid, Director of Engineering at Workhuman.
Workhuman offers companies a way to "unite teams and create a culture of thanks with social recognition." What does social recognition mean to you, and how has your definition of it changed or expanded over the past year?
Social recognition makes people feel seen, heard, and appreciated for who they are and the work they do. Social recognition is the foundation for creating a culture of positivity and excellence, empowering people to do the best work of their lives. Companies investing in social recognition experience increased employee engagement, higher productivity, and better retention, all while uncovering actionable workplace insights around performance, diversity, equity, and organizational culture.
Over the past year and more, as we worked remotely, it has been more challenging for people to be ‘seen’ and appreciated. At times like these, acknowledging the great work our colleagues are doing is even more important. Social recognition has been extremely impactful, leading to increased connection opportunities and engagement.
What's one of the most exciting challenges your team is currently working on at Workhuman?
I lead the Conversations (which enables continuous performance development) and Mobile Engineering teams within Workhuman, both of which are working on exciting product development. I am also currently helping to hire for the Human Engagement team which uses a data-informed approach to improve end user engagement with our products, so that our users and customers can realize the outcomes our products can drive.
With Workhuman’s growth trajectory, one challenge we are currently working through is how we grow and scale our organization while staying nimble and enabling the characteristics of world class teams. Workhuman is 22 years old, but we still operate in some ways like a start-up. It is a fast-paced environment where innovation is valued. Within Engineering we are currently looking at optimal team structures to support scaling. We are also implementing career frameworks to support and enable personal growth for our people.
Who do you think has helped you become a great leader, either as an inspiration or a mentor? (This could be someone you've worked with directly, or not!)
So many people played a part here, those whom I did not want to be like and those whom I was inspired by.
Both my sisters have been influential. My sister Ailbhe Whyte is CEO of Computershare Ireland. Over the years I have seen her straightforward and courageous approach bringing so many benefits to the people and organizations she has worked with. She bravely does the right thing and supports and believes in her people. She has always believed in me and reminded me of my strengths at times when I doubted myself. I think it is extremely important to work with a people leader who believes in you and sees and recognizes what you bring. This is non-negotiable for me. My other sister Kathryn Whyte is Head of People and Culture in the Office of Government Procurement. She is a great source of advice and wisdom!
Andrea Johnson and I worked with Dublin Tech Talks organizers Gavin Fox and David Burke to organize an in person International Women’s Day event pre- pandemic in 2020. One topic many spoke about was the value of cultivating your ‘personal board’ of people who are allies, mentors, and sponsors. I personally love this idea!
What advice do you have for engineering leaders about what it takes to scale a high-performing team?
As companies grow and scale, it is important to be strategic. If you grow organically without looking at the bigger picture and putting structures in place to support your teams, you will have problems.
Building an environment of trust and psychological safety is fundamental to building high-performing teams. Being clear on our vision and being clear on expectations is also important. Thinking in outcomes and using data to measure the value we are delivering is also something I strongly believe in.
A key thing to remember is, this is an ongoing journey. When things are going smoothly, it is great, but we learn through pain!
With many companies going remote or hybrid, what's one prediction you have about how engineering teams will collaborate, ideate, and foster team culture in the future?
COVID-19 was a huge driver of culture change, but research shows there are dramatic differences between good and bad remote work cultures. It was effectively a huge experiment brought about by necessity, which fast-forwarded remote working practices and showed what was possible.
Leadership practices are evolving to adapt to the new ways of working and the needs and expectations of the workforce. Creating an environment of trust and focusing on employee experience is not easy, but pays off in terms of engagement, motivation, and outcomes. I have always advocated for flexibility in work practices and have been lucky myself to have flexibility when my daughters were younger.
We are wired to connect. Some will choose to be in the office more than others. We need to remember if one person is remote, everyone is remote, so if one person is dialing into a meeting remotely, then the rest of the team should dial in from their desks rather than a conference room, as this is more inclusive. We have shown that we can do this in the most difficult circumstances. In the future we will have more options to bring people together — in the office, virtually, but also in other locations and we can be innovative about how we collaborate. We also have some great technology to enable collaboration. Even though it can be tiring to be on video, Zoom has transformed how we connect. I am also loving Miro!
What’s your favorite part of managing technical teams? What about the hardest part?
I love change, so leading technical teams is a good place to be, as change is a constant! I love joining sprint reviews and hearing about the value the teams I work with have delivered. It is great to see the level of automation and innovation. I have a love of learning and in the world of technology we have many opportunities for continuous learning! It is joyful for me to see teams collaborating and sharing what is working well for them with others. At Workhuman, there are many opportunities for our people to innovate, share, and implement exciting ideas. We have a Human UX Hackathon coming up soon which I look forward to getting involved in!
Sometimes the challenge of gaining trust from stakeholders around teams’ ability to deliver can be frustrating. When stakeholders want to know ‘when will it be delivered’, it can be hard to get everyone on board in seeing that agreeing on a date with fixed scope is an illusion of control. Building trust is key.
Another challenge is we need more women in tech. I am often the only woman in the room and there is sometimes no woman in the room. We need to consider whether we are intentionally seeking viewpoints from a diverse audience. We are creating products for a world that is 50% women. Our workforce needs to better represent our customer base. And yes, this is hard, but there is always more we can do if we are intentional. In March 2021, to celebrate Women’s History month, we shared stories and sketches of women who had been influential to help inspire women and girls — here’s an article I wrote on the topic.
Who’s one woman or nonbinary person whose name you’d like to drop and why?
Vanja Lackovic is Delivery Lead on the Mobile team at Workhuman. She has a strategic mindset and bravely asks the hard questions. I have recently had the opportunity to collaborate with her on designing and running workshops for our engineering teams focused on building psychological safety and trust. Vanja makes me a better leader!
What's your favorite show you're currently streaming/ podcast you're listening to/ and/or book you're reading? Feel free to answer any or all of these :)
I read and loved Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map a few years ago and recently we read it in a bookclub at Workhuman. It highlights, in addition to individual personality preferences, the cultural norms that can exist in how we communicate, share feedback and negotiate. I am currently reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I am also dipping in and out of We Need New Stories: The Myths that Subvert Freedom by Nesrine Malik and have been really interested by what I have read so far on the meritocracy myth. Clearly, I need to read “Essentialism” as I have many books on the go at any time!
I love Dr Rangan Chaterjee’s podcast Feel Better, Live More. I feel like he is choosing his guests to suit my needs!! I am also a huge Brené Brown fan and love her books and podcasts. She did an excellent interview with Workhuman CEO Eric Mosley in November 2020.
Two of my favorite Netflix shows were ‘Fleabag’, created by the wonderful Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Money Heist (I feel like I am fluent in Spanish after watching it!!). I look forward to the next season!
Know another woman or nonbinary person whose name we should drop? Tweet us at @HubSpotDev with ideas.
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