What is it like to manage technical people at Red Hat? How can you become a manager? What do you need in order to be a good one? Ksenija Pelc, a people manager at Red Hat, answered these questions and provided a valuable insight into what managers do. Her team consists of 30 people and they provide technical support for Red Hat Openshift.

From team lead to manager

Before Red Hat, Ksenija worked at IBM as a change coordinator, approving changes that were happening in the system. She then transitioned to a team lead. Among the other things, these positions improved her communication and leadership skills, which were crucial for her upcoming roles. While at IBM, Ksenija knew she wanted to work with people in a more engaging and dynamic way and to bear more responsibility, so she applied for a team lead position at RH.

Her expectations for the new position were a little different, she expected it to be more of a dispatcher. Thanks to her previous experiences working with people, transitioning to a Red Hat team lead was seamless. She liked the new role, she already knew her way around payrolls, ticketing and other office tools. Her predecessor in that position was also very helpful, Ksenija was able to ask her questions which made the shift even easier.

There are, however, some differences between these two similar positions in IBM and RH. Ksenija feels that her role in IBM was far more administrative, she has had an overview of what people in the team were doing but she wasn’t involved in their work very much, she did not feel fully utilized either. Bulk of her daily work consisted of handling payrolls, checking attendance tools and helping managers with some minor tasks. On the contrary, in Red Hat, she was expected to have a broader overview of what is going on in the team and was much more involved with the day-to-day activities of the team members. Some of those differences, however, might be credited to the difference in team sizes.

While working as a team lead, Ksenija had aspirations to advance into a manager position. She was closely cooperating with her, at the time, manager and also had a couple of friends that were managers. This gave her a good awareness of what is required in that position and how to handle it. After about a year and a half, a manager position got open. Ksenija applied for it and got it.

What is it like to be a manager?

Despite being pretty well prepared from working as a team lead for some time and also having experiences with some of the manager tasks, for example case reviews and coverages for holidays, transition was still a pretty big leap. This was something that colleagues warned her about before, but no one could have prepared her for it. As a team lead, she communicated with co-workers a lot and was a go-to person for various issues, but as a manager, people automatically expected her to know everything. She certainly needed to have the ownership and the responsibility for her team. Instantly, she got smothered under meeting invitations, emails and other responsibilities.

Ksenija took this workload as a challenge. She always wanted something dynamic, so she went all in. She learned how to handle difficult aspects of the position mostly intuitively. As her team is quite heavily overloaded, prioritization and planning is of great importance. In terms of priority, the customer and the team comes first.

Answering customer tickets can also be a tricky task. Not all customers are willing to fully cooperate and accept the reality of the situation. This is somewhat understandable, as when they encounter an issue, it may disrupt their workflow. They sometimes don’t provide all the required information, misclassify the problem, or have unrealistic expectations about the help they are going to receive. As a satisfied customer is of utmost importance for Red Hat, the support teams will help with all the issues, however, some lower priority issues might be resolved only after higher priority problems have been dealt with. The way Ksenija handles problematic customers is to reason with them, be upfront and manage expectations. Even though their problem does not qualify as a top priority for Red Hat, they always help them.

Time management, another major hurdle, can be feasible if tackled skillfully. The biggest stress falls on engineers who actually resolve tickets. The team is always trying to find ways to ease the burden by automating as many things as possible, looking for ways to collaborate with other teams more efficiently, or minimizing the time to get an input from someone else. In the team, there are three managers and one team lead. The main role of the team lead is to make sure that the tickets are assigned correctly. Managers then pitch in wherever possible. Ksenija likes to be online a little earlier than the rest of the team and go through the ticket queue and calendar in peace, to prepare for the day. During the day, it is essential for her to be constantly on the lookout and anticipate potential problems.

Red Hat is spread across the world, but according to Ksenija, there aren’t any major differences between styles of management. Manager training program called M-series focuses on precisely that, it teaches Red Hatters from around the globe to have practically the same baseline. There still are some cultural differences, but they are not very eminent. One thing that Ksenija would appreciate more from the Brno branch is if it would promote itself more within Red Hat. It is a center of senior engineering and has great accomplishments, yet it is overshadowed by some other regions that are more open about their achievements. She thinks it would certainly help if Brno offices advertised more what they are doing to the rest of the company.

What makes a good manager?

There are a couple of qualities that Ksenija values in a manager. She says that transparency is vital for the smooth running of an entire team. Transparency means telling the team what is going on and not withholding information. Eagerness to learn new things is no less important. The job is far easier for the manager herself and the whole team alike if the manager is willing to get to grips with all the ins and outs of the team workflow. Ksenija doesn’t have a rich technical background, so she is working with a zeal to cross that gap to be able to relate to work of engineers as closely as possible. Although it is not tied to productivity in an obvious way, empathy is a significant trait of a good manager. The team, and also the whole company, functions much better when leaders put an emphasis on the well being of their corresponding team members. This means actively listening to their feedback and acting correspondingly.

Being at a leadership position means that sometimes, one needs to deliver a criticism. Manager training is designed to prepare for such situations. This is not a simple task nonetheless, and must be carried out with care and precision. If the issue is something not too significant, related to some minor process breach, Ksenija likes to simply communicate it through message channels. If the problem is of a more serious nature, she handles it in a one-on-one meeting with the person in question. Her process to handle those cases is to first gather as much information as possible, to make sure that the matter is an actual, confirmed issue that needs to be solved. While talking to the person, she sticks to the facts, she describes them as precisely as she can. It is important to answer and explain key questions such as: what is the problem? When it happened and in what situation? Why is it a problem? It is crucial to be completely constructive and ask for the feedback during the whole process. Every conversation is different, and it is hard to make too general steps on how to proceed. Ksenija says that the mindset shouldn’t be that the other person did what they did with a malicious intent. Both participants should aim to find out why it happened, and how to prevent it in the future, to find a way forward.

Despite being younger than most of her team, Ksenija feels that her team trusts and respects her. This is supported by positive feedback from the team and her manager. She attributes this to her positive and non pretentious attitude. Even though she is manager of her team, and their direct supervisor, she wants her role to feel more like a facilitator. She acts authoritatively, but only when a situation demands it, all the other times she is trying to be as helpful as possible. If a team member asks for something or raises some question, she tries to handle it as soon as possible, so the engineers can focus more on their tasks and less on the other aspects. Positive attitude is something that she is trying to pass down on her team as well. Yes, there are problems and there always will be difficulties, but they are gonna figure out a way out of them and deal with them.

Closing remarks

I hope I provided an interesting insight into a dynamic working environment of managers and their daily responsibilities. It was very interesting talking to Ksenija, she brought me closer to the world I had no experience with before.

I am Samuel Macko, intern at Openshift Serverless team at Red Hat. This article is meant to be a part of the Red Hat project to raise an awareness of Red Hat, and to teach participants how to conduct an interview and produce an article from it. Working on the project was a very beneficial experience, besides practicing my speaking and writing skills, I also learned a little about what it is like to be a manager.