Hi Sam, could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Can you give us an overview of what you do for Monzo?
Monzo is a smartphone only banking app; we do not have physical branches. We’ve been established for 4 years and have over 3 million customers. When I joined the company, there were 220 employees and now there are over 1,300 people in the company, so we’ve grown very, very fast!
We are currently organised into “Collectives” – groups of squads working on an area of the business. When I first joined Monzo, I was managing Back End Engineers across the Platform & Payment teams. We’ve always had a matrix management model when it comes to Engineering Management, where Engineering Managers sit outside of teams, and support Engineers across multiple teams. As Monzo has grew, I narrowed my focus by managing Back End Engineers across Payment & Finance squads within the Money Collective.
I’ve very recently moved to the COps Collective. We call our Customer Service folks “COps”, and in the COps Collective I’m supporting Web, Back End and Full-Stack Engineers who build the interweb tooling that our COps use. The majority of Web Engineers at Monzo are in this Collective, so it makes sense for me to be aligned with this Collective given my background as a Web Engineer. I am excited about this new challenge, getting to know everyone & seeing where I can have the best impact. There’s a lot to learn!
Talk me through your journey so far.
I first started experimenting with web-based technologies as part of my Multimedia degree, back in the mid 90s. I wanted to use the webspace which we were given as part of my university account set-up, so I created something which was then called a “Dynamic HTML” website. It animated when you loaded up the homepage. This was around the time of Netscape Navigator Gold. I found Web Engineering more enjoyable than working with compiled languages – you could make a change, reload the browser and see it right away!
After creating my fancy DHTML website, I got lots of emails about asking how I created it, so I shared how I’d done it with people that asked. My University didn’t offer an official Sandwich version of my course, where you spend a year in industry as part of the course, so I created my own. I paused my course, took the third year to work at two separate web agencies to gain commercial experience, then re-joined what was the year below me for the final year. My first job after my graduation was with the first online newspaper, the Electronic Telegraph. Moving to London and working in Canary Wharf Tower was incredibly exciting! Following on from the Telegraph, I worked for multiple agencies making animated marketing campaigns.
I moved into Fintech around five years into my career. I joined IG Index and worked on their online trading platforms for about four and a half years and during my time there, I progressed into a Team Leadership role. I then moved on to Barclays Capital, working on their research portal which used streaming grids from their BARX FI trading platform, so there were some fascinating technical challenges to be solved.
After Barclays I wanted to experience something new so I joined an online gaming company called Gamesys. I joined as a Senior Developer and progressed through various Team Lead roles to Development Manager. I got very involved in learning and promoting agile ways of working and the agile mindset. I went to conferences and workshops, bringing back learnings to the teams I was working with.
I’ve always been keen on creating a learning culture, and it was around this time that I set up a book club and a series of talks where developers would share what they’d learned from attending conferences. I enjoyed the creativity and experimentation in this position – thankfully the teams were tolerant and got involved with my ideas! At Monzo, it’s fascinating to work at such a progressive company. We default to transparency and move incredibly fast – change happens very swiftly.
How have you found the transition from engineer to manager with previous employers?
As a manager and as an engineer you always have problems to solve. However, as an engineer, problems are usually logic-based, for example, “How am I going to solve this bug?” or “How am I going to architect the solution?”. As a manager, your challenges are more likely to involve people, for example, “How can I help the teamwork more effectively together?” or “This person is disengaged, how can I support them to get excited about their work?’. As a manager, one of the key learnings is that because every individual is so different, no two problems to solve will be the same.
When I first moved into a Team Lead role, I was learning on the job but there were times that I wasn’t quite sure what I needed help with. It was very much the case of, “You don’t know what you don’t know” at the start, and there was no formal training. If you don’t have the right support, it can take a lot of stumbling whilst trying to find the right route to success. It’s much more expedient to get great advice from someone who is doing a great job and who can point you in the right direction of great resources on best practices. It helps save a lot of time, and more importantly, you make fewer mistakes as you’re gaining experience.
At Gamesys they had both manager training and leadership training courses run internally and they were great! This really helped both new and seasoned managers feel invested in, and I learned a lot from them. I enjoy attending training courses even if I know the content as it’s always a fantastic refresher and often inspires me to reboot some of my approaches. I surround myself with great people to learn from, and another valuable lesson I’ve learned is that a single mentor won’t know all of the answers, which is absolutely fine and to be expected! This is why it’s incredibly valuable to find yourself a good support network of multiple people, who can help you access a wide range of best thinking practises. It’s something I wish I had done sooner!
As an engineer, you generally work as part of a team or squad, so if you’re interested in becoming a manager, look for opportunities to help others out and opportunities for the team to work more effectively together. Doing this will help you build the skills you need to be a great manager. At Monzo, Tech Lead and Squad Lead are ‘hats’ that people wear for a period of time. It’s a fantastic way for someone to try taking on more responsibility and see if that’s something they want to do long-term.
Have you taken part in leadership programmes or management training?
Most places have standard training along the lines of time-management, being assertive, presentation skills or how to influence people. When I’ve been to these they’re great. They help you gain really useful tools for being an effective team member, but they are one part of the bigger picture of being an effective manager. I’ve found that most places don’t have organised succession planning – it tends to be quite organic. During the past two or three years of my time at Gamesys they rolled out a comprehensive management and leadership program, but that’s the first time I’ve attended anything like that.
Why did you choose Fintech?
I am a massive maths enthusiast even though I didn’t do it as a degree – which I regret, but do plan to do it when I retire! I love numbers and logic, but I’m also quite a visual person; I used to do sculpture and I still paint from time to time.
The web is a great way to combine the two which is why I love it. I like understanding how money markets work. I have always thought that if I can get to a position where I am financially secure, I’ll be able to relax more and feel safe. I tend to do quite a bit of research around financial instruments and how the market works. I invest as a hobby, so working in Fintech makes sense to me as a career choice. Monzo is on a mission to make money work for everyone. The app gives people control over their finances and makes money management accessible to everyone.
What advice would you give to aspiring managers?
If you work in an organisation that offers similar opportunities, to be a Tech Lead or a Squad Lead for a specified amount of time, go for it! If that’s not something your organisation offers, look for leadership opportunities that can be created through your own initiative. For example, run a retrospective or planning session, or lead a chunkier project than you’re used to. Look for opportunities to mentor someone, either at your current workplace or externally. Find out who are the thought leaders in our industry. Lara Hogan and our CTO, Meri Williams, are both incredibly influential when it comes to engineering management best practices, so have a read of their Twitter and their blogs – and find which blogs and books they recommend! The books I’d recommend are Resilient Management by Lara Hogan, Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, The Coach’s Casebook by Geoff Watts and Kim Morgan, Management 3.0 by Jurgen Appelo and The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier.
What are the most important qualities you look for in an engineer?
With engineers, I look for a positive attitude, someone who is happy to invest in others around them and wants to help. Someone who is collaborative and wants to solve problems. It’s important to give others credit where it’s due and allow others to have room.
I also look for someone who is investing in themselves by self-directed learning. Someone who communicates well makes a great addition to the team. All of these qualities contribute to someone being a strong engineer, and these qualities help create a strong, cohesive team.
With managers, there’s been a shift in recent times towards companies looking for folks with empathy. I think this is a great move in the right direction; in order to be a good manager you need to care about the people you’re supporting and understand what challenges they’re facing. If you can really relate to how they feel, they will be able to tell and this will help them feel understood. When you’re speaking to someone who is a great manager and they’re telling you about how they’ve successfully supported someone through challenging times, or telling you how they’ve supported someone to grow, you’ll see their eyes light up. You can see it in their face and you can tell if they get their job satisfaction from watching other people succeed.
Is there anything coming up in the industry that you’re excited about?
Monzo is an incredibly exciting place to be at the moment as we have just reached 3 million customers, and we’ve very recently launched in the US. There’s a lot of love for Monzo – people I meet really enjoy telling me how much they love the company! It’s a privilege to work at a company that has generated so much goodwill from the customers and has such a strong reputation for engineering.
There are plenty of people who would like to be in my position so I don’t take it for granted. I’m very keen to share my experience and knowledge in the wider engineering and leadership community where I have already taken some tentative steps! Last year I did a meet-up talk at Agile roundabout and a panel discussion at GoCardless. I’ll be honest – I was terrified as I’m really not keen on public speaking, but following both events I got some great feedback! I’m looking forward to doing more of this in the industry and sharing what great engineering management looks like.