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Open House: A Q&A Series with Trulia Leaders

A leadership and management Q&A with Trulia’s VP of Engineering of Consumer Services, Jeff McConathy

This mini-series gives you an inside peek at the leaders at Trulia, and sheds light on their management style. Up next in the series is Trulia’s Vice President of Engineering of Consumer Services, Jeff McConathy. Jeff has been in the tech industry for more than 20 years and has managed well over 400 people. Currently, he leads a team of 100 engineers. Read on to learn more about Jeff and how he operates.

What is one early leadership lesson you learned?
Delegation. This is something all managers need to learn, and one that takes a long time to master. Delegation is critical to developing your team, and to expand your abilities as a manager. My recommendation for new leaders is to reflect on your work constantly; ensure you involve your team and question anything you are working on individually to evaluate whether additional help is warranted.

I’ve been involved in many projects over the course of my time at Trulia, including writing a sizable portion of our code in the early days, which led to challenges as the team grew and projects needed to shift hands. I found myself constantly being the source of knowledge for code I had written, and made the classic managerial mistake of fixing issues myself instead of handing them to team members.

I recall a specific moment of clarity when one of my managers asked me during a one-on-one why I didn’t trust the team. Confused, I asked the person to clarify and quickly realized that by not delegating projects, the team had grown to feel a lack of trust on my part. Of course, nothing was further from the truth, and I immediately began training others to take on the work that I had been doing.

Do you have a specific hiring style?
It’s important to understand a candidate’s resume before he/she comes in for an interview, and I’ll generally write down a few initial questions that strike me while reviewing each resume. While I typically have questions in mind before starting an interview, I do like to keep interviews fluid, so I rarely look at a resume during the discussion and instead build out my line of questioning based on the conversation. I’ll generally rank someone’s proven ability to learn and to work well with others over them knowing every specific technical skill required for a role.

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given by one of your direct reports?
To make myself available. I’m often running between meetings and all the other duties of my job, and that can create a falsely high bar my team feels they need to cross before they want to “bother” me with anything. This is damaging, and something all managers need to look out for.

After receiving feedback that I need to appear more available, I moved my desk location specifically so I can be visible. I’m now right in the middle of my team and have found that far more spontaneous conversations are happening – it’s great! I also make it clear at every team meeting that I want people to come to me and interrupt me, no matter how busy I may appear.

What is your advice for working smarter and faster?
Avoid constantly checking email. Instead, set aside specific times each day to review your inbox. Email is so distracting and if you’re constantly monitoring it, you are context switching and inhibiting your effectiveness. When you review email, triage and only reply to the messages that need it promptly. Flag the rest and review them at the end of the day before you leave.

I also try to book blocks of time during the week just for me to catch up, so that I have time to reflect on any issues that have come up without having to reschedule other meetings.

More specifically, when you’re in the trenches and coding, I recommend developers don’t worry about writing the “perfect” piece of code as they start working on a project. Instead, be clear with your design patterns, understand the goal of your project, and dive into a prototype. You will refactor your code several times as requirements change, or you will find things don’t work out as planned. Use those refactoring sessions to clean up your code. At Trulia, we also recommend that developers try to chunk out code into simple services that can be released more frequently, rather than building into a large monolithic application that requires great effort to release.

Is there a book, speech or otherwise that you recommend your employees read/watch, to help them grow their careers?
I recently read the book “Switch.” It tackles something that can be hard, and something that is a big part of my job – affecting change in an organization. The authors do a great job of breaking down what it takes to make change impactful, and highlighting steps that can help ensure the whole organization is on board. The book taught me how to balance my rational side with my emotional side, and how to establish small, clear wins as an approach to hit an end goal. I also appreciated the book’s attention to people, and how critical it is to evaluate the situation and clarity of goals without assuming your team is actively resisting change.

What characteristics do you think make up a great leader or mentor?
A great leader is humble, yet decisive. They don’t make choices in a silo, rather, they are thoughtful and ask others for input. They focus on communication so their team doesn’t feel in the dark. They build trust by being available and spending time both with individuals and whole teams. Teams that have great leaders know their leader has “got their back” and feel empowered to do their jobs in the most effective manner.

What has been one of your biggest leadership challenges and how did you navigate through it?
Developing “soft skills” was something I had to fine-tune early on, specifically my communication skills. Moving from an engineering role to a management role created frustrations for me. Code doesn’t talk back, it doesn’t have feelings, and it just does what it’s told (garbage in, garbage out). Specifically, I learned I was not giving everyone equal time in planning meetings. If we were working on a new architecture for a project, I would sometimes fall into a trap of leading the conversation too heavily in one direction, leaving others with different viewpoints out in the cold. Luckily, I had great mentors early on who I felt safe asking for constructive feedback and they shared this feedback with me. At its core, being a leader is about influencing change, and mastery of this soft skill was critical to my success. I’ve since learned to sit back and let others lead conversations, focusing instead on inspiring everyone to participate and come up with the best decision as a team.

What’s your go-to piece of advice for new managers?
Make a strong connection with your peers and lean on them for advice. Don’t pretend you’re an expert at everything (I promise, you’re not) just because you are now a manager. Seek advice from your team and help them be the experts. Above all, spend time getting to know your team members, their ambitions and ways you can help them grow. Always enter a conversation with positive intent, know that the people you are working with are part of a team and all of them have the best of intentions.

Who has made the biggest impact on your career and how/why?
The previous CTO of Trulia, Daniele Farnedi. Daniele demonstrated selflessness time and time again, and really helped me further my career and my skills as a manager. I had the pleasure to be both a key decision maker in hiring Daniele, and to work with him for eight years. He taught me so much about soft skills and what true leadership is, which often means stepping back and letting others’ successes shine.