Lead and influence: Lessons from an ex-Uber Staff Engineer
👋 Intro to Irina
I interviewed, an ex-Uber Staff Engineer and writer of .
What makes Irina special?
Across Google and Uber, Irina progressed from a new-grad engineer to Staff Engineer, tech lead, and manager within 8 years.
She writes incredible advice on, and this past week I interviewed her live to discuss how to be a leader no matter your authority.
If you’d like to jump straight to the TL;DR and takeaways at any point, see the bottom.
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⭐️ Main takeaways
Why you should care about being a leader
How you can be a leader on your team by stepping out of your box
How to problem solve, approach disagreements, and give feedback like a leader
❓ Why this matters
Jordan: Why is it important for people to understand this topic better?
Irina: One of the biggest ways is it impacts your career growth. If you’re seen as a leader, you get promoted. If you’re seen as a leader, you also get access to opportunities because of the trust you have. These opportunities also lead to faster promotion.
Outside of that, there are benefits to the whole team like having a higher impact, improved collaboration, and innovating more as a team.
Jordan: Why do we need leader-like actions from everyone irrespective of their level?
Irina: The best teams are those where multiple people show strong leadership skills.
If you're on a team and you believe that someone else is the leader, then you're going to be more hesitant to initiate a new idea or challenge the strategy because you're you might be afraid that you would be overstepping your role.
Traditionally, when we think of leaders, our mind often goes to directors, VPs, SVPs, C-suites, etc. — aka the people in the traditional leadership roles. These people are also only humans and they don't always have the answers and they're not always right.
No matter your title whether it's Director+ or manager, you can be seen as a leader. And you should work toward that.
We need leader-like behaviors from more than 1 person in a team because the team's success depends on everyone.
Jordan: What’s the mindset that people should adopt to lead at all levels?
Irina: When you’re in a tough situation, ask, “What would a leader do.” A leader is someone who knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way. Now you just need to follow those 3 steps.
Knowing the way means seeing a problem, wanting to solve it, and having a vision of how it could be solved.
Showing the way means coming up with a solution, getting buy-in, and collaborating with others to solve it.
Going the way means being involved in ensuring success and following through until the end.
✨ How you can show you’re a leader
📦 Step out of your box
Jordan: So if I’m an engineer on a team, my general assumption is that the tech lead is the person supposed to propose new ideas, and tell us how things should be done. My role is in this contained box, and in this box, I do what the tech lead tells me to do. So you’re saying thinking like a leader is allowing yourself to expand your box?
Irina: Exactly! I’ve seen many junior people blindly doing things just because their tech lead told them so, even though they didn’t understand why or had reasonable evidence it wasn’t a good idea. We need to let go of that mindset.
Expanding our box means adopting more leader-like behaviors.
Jordan: So what are some leader-like behaviors? Can you tell us more about that?
Irina: Yes, let’s take them one by one:
Communication: You are proactive, communicate clearly, give feedback, and are able to handle disagreements.
Influence: You impact the direction; and paint a picture for others to see the same vision you have.
Taking initiative: You see a problem, evaluate how big it is, assess the impact, and come up with solutions.
Ownership: You have a stake in the game, it's just it's as much your problem as the person who created it, you do whatever it takes for the problem to be handled.
Accountability: You take responsibility and put your reputation on the line.
Strategic thinking: You are practical about what’s worth the investment and what’s not.
Jordan: Tell us more about embracing the “what would a leader do” mindset. Do you have any frameworks for that?
Irina: When it comes to problem-solving, thinking as a leader means breaking the problem down into smaller problems and asking a series of rigorous questions.has a great article on this teaching how to think rigorously.
Here’s the framework I use:
Assess risk and impact
Why is this problem important?
What is the business impact and is it worthwhile?
Is this impacting other people?
Finding a solution
What can be done?
Who else might have useful information?
Engage and inspire others, collaborate
Implementing the solution
What needs to happen for the problem to be solved?
Who needs to buy in?
What resources are needed?
What can be done for similar problems to be prevented in the future?
When I think of “What would a leader do”, in the context of this framework, it also means not skipping any steps.
For example: I applied this framework when I proposed a new alert runbook template for our on-call rotation. Being on-call was making me feel extremely overwhelmed and anxious and I realized it was because I didn’t always know what to do. I noticed my teammates were experiencing the same thing. It was a problem worthwhile to fix. I was able to get buy-in from my managers to implement the solution which allowed me to update the process to reduce stress for everyone.
Jordan: Yes, so problem-solving is not making the problem go away by covering it up or ignoring it and letting the next person deal with it. It’s solving the root cause and helping move everyone forward.
🤨 What to do when you can’t solve every problem
Jordan: What if, for example, you see the problem but you’re too swamped with existing stuff and don’t have additional bandwidth to take on anything else? Or what if the problem is in another team’s scope and you depend on them to prioritize solving the issue? Besides making it clear how much of a problem it is, how do you deal with these types of roadblocks to solving problems?
Irina: You know the saying “you found it, you fix it”? 😄 I don’t believe that's necessarily true because we can't fix all the problems.
Leaders push for important things to be solved. That might look like persuading, checking in, following up, asking questions, and nagging 😊. It might also look like giving feedback.
Jordan: It’s quite common for people to think of feedback only around things like career growth and performance reviews. How do we give feedback outside of those contexts?
Irina: Feedback is just a reflection of a state, process, or situation that happened. It’s a tool that everybody should be using more than they think. We don’t even need to call it feedback though. It’s often much better to think about them as conversations reflecting the current state and its impact.
When giving feedback, there are always ways to be direct and honest, but still be kind. Simply criticizing and pointing out issues is not a leadership behavior unless it comes together with an alternative or direction. For more advice on how to do this effectively, check the full article on how to frame any message effectively here.
😬 How to approach disagreements as a leader
Jordan: A leader-like behavior is to speak up when you disagree about something. How do you handle that? Especially with people in higher positions?
Irina: The thing about leadership and embracing leadership skills is you're going to annoy people. You can’t make everybody happy and you're gonna step on some people's toes. You will trigger people’s insecurities, that’s a given. But that’s also out of your control.
The way I approach disagreements is with my “why” at the forefront. I aim to operate from a place of integrity so when it seems like a critical thing, I feel a sense of duty to speak up. See something, say something.
For example: I once spoke up about not having a stable roadmap. The uncertainty was putting a lot of stress on the team (and myself) and people were thinking of quitting because of that. I brought it up in a planning meeting and it wasn’t received well by the PM, but my team appreciated it. The way I framed it was by asking more questions about how far ahead roadmaps usually are and how we’re falling short. The PMs ended up improving the roadmap as a result of me holding them accountable.
Disagreeing doesn't mean you're going to have it your way. The goal is for you to find a solution you can mutually agree on and benefit from.
I wrote an entire article about disagreements, how to approach them with curiosity, not use dismissive words, and keep the conversation open.
Jordan: I agree. Approaching a disagreement is more like an open conversation in that you can frame it in a way where both of you will be happy moving to that solution rather than forcing it.
Irina: It depends a lot on what you're disagreeing about and how fundamental it is. If it’s not something very critical, at some point I switch to just letting them make their own mistakes, because it’s a valuable teaching moment. But if we’re disagreeing on something unethical, for example, it’s not something I can just shut my mouth about.
🔎 How to ask the hard questions the right way
Jordan: So asking questions is also a leader-like behavior? How can we avoid triggering others or stepping on toes?
Irina: Leaders ask the hard questions. There are ways to ask questions to minimize and minimize triggering others by asking hard questions.
I always tell people to not ask “why”, and instead rewording it to use “what” or “how”. “Why” puts people on the defense.
“Why did you do this?” → “What made you do this?”, “What did you have in mind?”
“Why are we doing this” → “Have we thought about…”
Ultimately, you cannot avoid people getting triggered and being threatened. But at the end of the day, as a leader, you have to embrace the fact that this is a possibility.
Lastly, conflicts come and go. Even if you happen to upset someone, you can make amends afterward and set the record straight. It’s not a permanent state.
Jordan: What are some personal experiences you had where you could’ve acted more like a leader?
Irina: When I was more junior, my pattern was being afraid to push back due to a lack of confidence, assuming that everybody knew better than me. I also had a massive struggle with imposter syndrome, especially coming to Google as a new grad straight from Romania.
So I have a lot of stories of not pushing back on things when I should have.
For example: I was just starting to work with a team, and was assigned some intro tasks. The design doc seemed incomplete, but the team was already working on the project for a while, so I just followed along. That migration ended up taking 3x the amount of time precisely because the design doc was incomplete. I learned I should have spoken up about my concerns early rather than just following along.
My career completely changed once I stopped second-guessing myself and started embracing the “what would the leader do?” mindset.
Why you should put your energy into being a leader
It exposes you to more opportunities and helps you get promoted faster
It levels up your team, allowing you to achieve more with less stress.
How you can show you’re a leader
Step out of your box. Do what a leader would do. Not just what your role says you should do.
When you can’t solve every problem, show the way and push for it. You don’t need to do everything. You can facilitate the improvements over time though.
Disagreements don’t mean always getting your way. It means working toward a solution together that solves a mutual problem for both of you.
Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. But also ask respectfully. One good way is to convert your “Why” questions to “What” questions.
📣 Shout-outs of the week
- on .
- and on
Also a big shout-out tofor the collaboration on this post and the amazing interview we did.
Thank you, Irina. It was a pleasure to learn from you.
As always, thank you for reading and the growth to 31k+ subscribers.
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