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Scaling Your Leadership with Your Company: Case Study from Prezi

by Gábor Zöld
/ November 3, 2021
Leadership stories Prezi Jose Roca

Scaling Your Leadership with Your Company: Case Study from Prezi - Interview with Jose Roca (VP of Product and Engineering, Prezi)

When you’re faced with a choice as a leader, your decision has to be highly contextual. No two situations are ever the same.

This means we can’t just hand you the right answer.

So we’ll give you inspiration instead.

We bring you leadership stories rich in context from Jose Roca, VP of Product and Engineering at Prezi. He describes some of his own struggles to help you along your path. This blog post is based on episode 3 of the Level-up Engineering Stories hosted by Karolina Toth.

This post covers:

About Jose Roca

Jose Roca is currently VP of Product and Engineering at Prezi. He became interested in technology at a young age while playing around with a Mac SE. He fell in love with the internet, so he started his career as a system admin.

At Prezi, he joined the infrastructure team, which evolved into a platform engineering team over time. Currently, he runs the site reliability team, the developer experience team, the security compliance team, the data infrastructure team, and the growth platform team.

His mission is to serve both internal customers (Prezi’s developers) and external customers (the users). He has been utilizing a product mindset to achieve his goals. He introduced technical product management at Prezi, which landed him in a dual leadership role.

What was your story of getting into engineering leadership?

Finding the management path

When I joined Prezi, I wanted to be a DevOps engineer. By that time, I had experience as a trainer and a consultant. Since I had always felt out of my comfort zone in those roles, I wanted to shift my focus solely on software engineering.

I met amazing people at Prezi. We had highly engaging conversations about engineering, outcomes, and impact where I started proposing ideas. This opened doors to me, and my managers started encouraging me to switch from engineering to management.

At first, I took on technical leadership positions, but soon after, I tried my hand at managing a team and growing my team members. It was a natural progression from exploring what we could do better to trying to infuse this approach into more people. This is how I started growing into engineering leadership.

Improving people skills

I used to be shy when I was younger.

Traveling helped me the most in opening myself up. There were occasions when I felt uncomfortable and went back into my shell, but I managed to outgrow this over time.

I have a strong curiosity for the world, which made me push myself a bit more every time I went out there. Eventually, you learn that nothing bad happens, or even if it does, it’s usually not a big deal. It took me a long time to get to where I am today, and I had to challenge myself many times in many ways.

What was your biggest leadership challenge at Prezi?

Scaling as a leader

My biggest challenge has been scaling myself. It was especially difficult when I went from managing one team to managing multiple teams. I needed to delegate on a different level, and put it in my mindset that the issues I’m used to dealing with now belong to my reports.

There’s an old but great article covering this topic called “Who’s got the monkey?” It helps you learn that sometimes solving certain problems isn't your responsibility. You can build self-managed teams on this principle.

Give space to your teams

My biggest mistake was trying to be involved in too many things. It didn’t come out of a desire to micromanage, but out of a wish to contribute as much as I can. When I’m surrounded by good people, I want to stick with them and help out.

This is what stopped me from scaling myself. Focusing too much on any one team took my attention away from the others.

When I was working too closely with a team, the people in there didn’t grow as much as they could have because they didn’t have enough space. Leaders can solve issues themselves, but often it’s better to provide space for their teams, let them figure it out, and grow in the process.

My mentors helped me overcome this. It’s great to talk to a person who can point out the consequences of your actions and connect the dots in ways you may not consider.

I’ve improved at giving space for my teams. This gives them space to grow, and it also gives me space to focus on higher-level leadership work, so I can grow as well.

How do you find mentors and mentor others as a leader?

The role of mentors in leadership

I haven’t just learned about management by reading books and listening to podcasts. I’ve been building a network around myself and found my mentors along the way.

Mentorship is about getting feedback from a person you trust. It can speed up your growth and help you avoid some mistakes along the way. This has been essential to my growth.

My mentors helped me on my path when I wasn’t sure whether I was going in the right direction. Other times, they helped me realize that I was going in the wrong direction and helped me find a better course.

They have opened doors for me and trusted me to do my best. It’s important that leaders do this for others, because if you focus on the growth of the people around you, you can go further together. On the other hand, if you don't provide your reports space to grow, the best ones are going to leave.

Finding mentors

You can learn from your peers within your company, and you can also find mentors outside your company. Most of my mentorships are internal to Prezi, but I also reach out to other people. When somebody reaches out to me, I’m always happy to have a conversation about whether I can help them.

I often send cold emails or messages over LinkedIn. I usually open with something like this: “I’ve seen you do this, and I love it. Do you have time for a chat?” At times, these don’t go anywhere, but sometimes it leads to an engaging conversation, and I even found some of my mentors this way.

For example, I’ve had great conversations with people from Spotify’s leadership. We reached out, they were happy to talk, and it turned out we were facing similar challenges. They were ahead on some of them and Prezi was ahead on others, so we could compare notes.

Currently, I’m mentoring staff engineers within the company. I also regularly talk to leaders outside the company. I mostly function as a sounding board for them, and we mutually learn from each other.

I enjoy reciprocal mentorships, as I’m the type of person who feeds off others. If someone brings good energy, I push it back, and turn it into a cycle between us. I use support as encouragement to push myself further.

Leadership story about facing internal resistance

Resistance from Prezi’s leadership

Prezi has gone through different phases. When I joined, the company was centered around engineering, so it was easy to push through engineering initiatives.

As the company grew, we needed to scale up the platform teams. In time, it became comparable in size to the product teams, and the product oriented people were questioning whether it was worth the investment.

This taught me about communicating metrics and outcomes. When most of the company revolved around engineering, everyone in leadership knew the value of the platform team’s work. As focus shifted towards the product, I had to start communicating outcomes, metrics, impact on the company, and the value we provide because these weren’t obvious for everyone.

Resistance from Prezi’s engineering teams

My most controversial move was adding the first full-time product manager to an infrastructure team. The resistance mostly came from the engineers. They didn’t understand what the product manager was going to do, or they didn't think they needed that type of help.

I explained everything step by step. We went through everyone’s roles and responsibilities, but the infrastructure engineers have been working without product help for so long, I couldn’t convince them it was going to be helpful. On the other side, I worked closely with the first product manager to make sure he fit into the team, and in time, the engineers started seeing the value of his work.

Today, our platform teams always work with product managers and they like it, because they understand what tasks they take off the table, so the engineers can focus more on writing code. Some of the platform engineers enjoy doing interviews with product engineers, but most of them are relieved that the product managers take care of it.

This initiative was challenged by both leadership and the teams, but focusing on the outcomes, the metrics and the impact led us to where we are today.

State of Serverless 2020

What are the most important leadership qualities?

Transparent communication

Transparent and clear communication is essential to leadership.

I use a number of different channels: videos, writing, and conversations via different tools. This helps you build relationships, especially in hybrid teams or fully remote engineering teams.

Open empathy

Open empathy is a general behavior necessary for leadership. For me, this means being vulnerable, listening, and showing compassion. This has become even more important during COVID times, and it helps you build psychological safety.

Focus on outcomes

Like many leaders, I fell into the trap of building everything around the output. It’s natural, because it looks good for you and it provides a sense of achievement, but focusing on output may not lead to great outcomes.

Focusing on the outcomes has helped me become more successful over the last few years. I started overcommunicating the desired outcomes, the important metrics and the impact, which helped me improve engineering productivity and made me a better leader.

For example, when I was scaling the platform engineering teams, we focused on efficiency, but we tracked an engineering happiness score as well. I decided to invest into the team, and we managed to take deployment time down from 30 minutes to three minutes. It made them happier and more efficient, so it was a great outcome.

How do you balance your dual role as VP of Product and Engineering?

I took a deep dive into the design parts of the product, going all the way to the first-time user experience. I still prefer to work on the technical side, but I give product and engineering equal attention.

There was a time when I made product my main focus. At one point, I went from director of engineering to director of product for a while. That’s when I explored the product management side.

I participate in the leadership rituals of both product and engineering. It’s manageable because they’re all technical teams, so there’s a lot of overlap between product and engineering. Time management for managers is essential, I have to put a lot of effort into being present at every important meeting.

In the past, I made the mistake of not blocking time for specific tasks. This led to me leaning more towards one area while neglecting the other to a degree. I’ve managed to improve on this.

I advise leaders to block time for themselves. Measure the outcome of the work you’re doing in that time frame.

Story about using the Prezi offices

Adapting the office as you scale

When I joined the company, we were in a building with two floors. This gave us all the sense that everyone in the company was approachable.

Eventually, we moved to the bigger building with four floors. While we all fit on the first floor, it was just as great as the old building. As we scaled and started using the entire building, we distributed the teams too much, and we started losing this sense.

This happens to every company in hypergrowth. We realized this along the way, and we started proactively designing where we wanted to move teams in the office and how we wanted them to interact. This made the teams more cohesive and improved their productivity, but it took a while to get right.

How to Scale Your Engineering Team

Virtual-first culture

Prezi has switched to a virtual-first policy, but we still use the office as a hub. Since the pandemic, we haven’t opened every floor, only the first one.

The intent is to create one space where people may actually meet each other and interact, so we don’t want to spread everyone out. Some people were hired during the lockdown, so they haven’t met their colleagues yet, while others just haven’t come to the office for a while.

We intend to create hubs like this across different countries. Currently, we have a hub in Budapest, Hungary; a hub in Berlin, Germany; another one in Riga, Latvia; and one in San Francisco. Dropbox is using a similar system for hubs.

We’re not forcing anybody to work from the hub. We’re a virtual-first company, and our employees can work from anywhere. We use hubs to improve collaborative processes, and for any additional thing that comes up from time to time.

What You Should Do Now

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About the author:

Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.