Ally and Manager with Cris Concepcion

What does it mean to be an ally? what does it have to do with managing up? and how do you recover when you make a mistake as an ally? Episode 21 is the first of Season 4, and Cris Concepcion (crisconcepcion on LinkedIn) shares how managers can be better managers by being allies to their team.

Side note: earlier this week, I discovered a secret bag of peanut butter pretzels in my pantry! it was the perfectly placed snack of the moment, a surprise gift from past-me to quarantine-me. Episode 21 had a similar journey: it was recorded in Summer 2019, and released in Spring 2020. I’m very grateful to Cris for being so understanding and gracious about the gap between recording and release!


JENNIFER: Welcome to Storytime with Managers, a podcast by Cohere.

I’m Jennifer Tu and I’m here with Cris Concepcion to talk about what you do to be an ally when you also have to be a manager. Cris, can you say a little about yourself and introduce yourself?

CRIS: Sure, Jennifer. My name is Cris Concepcion. I am currently an Engineering Director at the Democratic National Committee. I literally just started that job today.


CRIS: Yes. [Chuckles]

JENNIFER: Thanks for being here and talking with me.

CRIS: [Laughs] No problem. In many ways, this is very much in that intersection of the topic we’re trying to discuss today. Prior to taking on this role at the DNC, I was a Senior Engineering Manager at Wayfair, leading their app core team, which is basically Android and iOS developers in charge of the way for a start for an app. And prior to that, I was also an Engineering Manager at O’Reilly Media leading both mobile and full stack teams working on Safari library platform.

JENNIFER: Very cool. I want to dive right in and start with, what does it mean to you to be an ally? What does that mean? What does it look like? What are ways that people might think about being an ally in the workplace?

CRIS: For me personally, I’ve always been interested and involved in causes of social justice. I’m an immigrant minority, have always kind of been comfortable within some of the margins of society, but learning to succeed within that. And as I have moved up my career, I understood like, there’s just ways that one can act and give back to their communities, as well as lift up other people who sometimes have struggles with being able to be heard or be seen within the greater community. And also, I’ve seen that for myself, that when I do that, then those folks as well give back by also supporting me and my own struggles by trying to volunteer to help out with causes around immigration or around Asian-American disability. And so, I’ve always appreciated that, but also understood as my career has advanced, as I have moved up to be a manager, that one of the things I find especially when developers move from being an individual contributor to a manager, is that the things that you’re in charge of are less about code or technology and more about people and teams and processes. And within that, we’d like to believe that so much of what we can do in the workplace is focused on the workplace. Now we can sometimes leave some of our personal lives behind. I think in many ways, if you’ve come to understand that the people who do their best to work are people who feel like they can be themselves at work. You don’t have to put in all of the mental load and energy to manage who you are, that you could bring authenticity to work that also combines your passion, your drive, and your energy and not have to fake it or manufacture it just for the sake of the office. So to one degree, it’s in my own interest as a manager as far as helping build a team that can be highly productive and fun to work in with your colleagues to make a work setting where everybody does feel comfortable, everybody feels that they can trust each other.

I would also call back to Google doing these bits of research into effective teams and calling psychological safety as an important cornerstone of a high functioning team. And that part of it is just like, it is my interest to make all of my team feel comfortable working for me and with me. But also as a human being, I’m just happy to see people being happy at work, being able to bring their whole selves into that. Because we spend much of our daily lives at work, it doesn’t feel fair. And in some ways, it feels almost inhuman to ask us to turn off something that doesn’t “belong” in the workplace just because it’s not part of our professional lives when we’re really spending like eight hours or more of our waking lives in an office context.

JENNIFER: Yeah, okay. So being a manager and being an ally in the workplace is about making sure that the people around you are able to bring their best selves in, so that way, they can do their best possible work.

CRIS: Yeah.

JENNIFER: One thing that I’m wondering is, this sounds really good, and it makes me wonder what makes it hard to be able to do all of this, to be a manager and to do the ally work at the same time? Because the way you describe it, it sounds like it should all be manager work.

CRIS: That’s a great question, Jennifer. I think one way of looking at this is also, especially in tech, we have such a large impact on society in general. And there is, I think in many ways, a sort of pressure or draw or opportunity to really make a difference and not just – I mean, one way of looking at this as well is it is easy to make a case for this sort of win-win scenario where something is good for management is also good for being an ally, advancing various forms of justice, various forms of equality within our society. But there’s certainly, I think, a boundary that exists around there, especially where the social outcomes for some form of advocacy are obvious, but the business outcomes are a little less so. One example I would take for this is the idea of diverse hiring. I think we, in general, agree that we want to have a diverse hiring pipeline because we want to be able to make sure that we are getting the best talent that’s out there, bringing the best minds, the best teams, the best people who can fit into this process. And it’s worth our while to question bias, question imperfections that we have within our system especially if it’s going to mean that we miss out on talent.

But in some cases that process around increasing diversity, trying to change the hiring process comes at a shift around other priorities you may have. Specifically one example I use is the case around when I was at O’Reilly earlier my engineering career, we were trying to attract a more diverse candidate pool and my eyes opened when I talking to various women and other minority colleagues that I knew about the idea of Impostor Syndrome. And that somebody who looks at the job description ad and they see there’s 10 requirements in there and they only meet nine out of those 10, they’re going to rule themselves out because they don’t believe that they’re going to be able to be successful at this job application. And it made me realize that a lot of these requirements aren’t really requirements. A lot of them are nice to haves.

In some case, we’ve also kind of trained ourselves to put in a bunch of things to include in the requirements as a way of making a job look really challenging and really almost intimidating, but that we know some people rise to that intimidation factor. And if you’re gonna choose then, if you work that Impostor Syndrome to ramp that down, you’re also in some ways choosing to forego those sort of code monkey cowboy ninjas who really want to look for job applications that make them feel like they’re taking on this insurmountable challenge and succeed at it. Shifting that priority now to people for whom, like they don’t want this mountain of job requirements. They want to sort of see like if they themselves can fit in the hole that you’re looking forward to fill your team. And in there you want to make sure you’re not going to write an extremely intimidating job proposal so that they can start to imagine themselves there more easily.

But you know, when I started going down this path, I was getting some pushback from different folks about like, “Do we think this is going to turn off some people who think that this job is like too low level or too boring for themselves?” Actually, there are other ways that we could do that without having to do the job requirements. But it is a slight change in the plan.

The other thing about this, too, is that if you’re going to try to make sure you have a diversity in your pipeline, you will sometimes also ask yourselves, “Do we need to hire certain people right away? Can we raise our bars around the sort of candidates we want to look for?” And that you’re already running into another tension around like, “Can’t we just hire the person who meets a minimum set of requirements?” And say, “No. Actually, I want to hire somebody who meets a higher level of requirements based around some of their lived experience or some of their other perspectives they maybe bringing in.” And in that, you’re already kind of going against another goal that the team may have of like being able to go quickly and swiftly.

JENNIFER: Yeah. One thing I’m kind of curious about that you jumped right past was you mentioned talking with people in your workplace about what was needed to improve the diversity of your candidate pipeline. And I am really curious how you knew to ask and what kind of things helped you think to ask and what helped you be able to absorb and interpret all of the information you were getting?

CRIS: Yeah, that’s a great question. To be honest, for that, at least with the O’Reilly example. And for credit, this was action that was raised by my boss then, Liza, who just sort of pointed out how pretty much like three months into me having this job and we’re doing a new surge of hiring. And we were looking at our pool of applicants. Overall, at least the names looked very male. It’s always hard, in some cases, [inaudible] demographic identifies some patterns when you’re just looking at names on a resumes. But we were looking at that. We were looking at also the past people we interviewed. And we’ve seen that our pipeline was very monolithic. And she was just sort of raising this question of like, what could we be doing to help improve this? And something I was personally taking on as opportunity to see, like, could I help change certain ways that we were doing our recruiting to attract more people? And really starting in this phase of like, we are not seeing a lot of women applying and nor are we seeing anybody who’s obviously a minority just by looking at the resume.

So, what are some ways that we are maybe missing out on inviting people to apply. And starting in that sort of early stage of like, let’s at least see if we can improve the diversity of the pool itself. And then from there, looking to other areas in which people may not be making it through or we may have other gates that need to be investigated as well. In expanding that pool, that was where I started that conversation around talking to other friends and colleagues of mine, getting to understand Impostor Syndrome, getting to understand how job descriptions, even as they’re written, can be exclusionary.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Okay. So that was basically doing user research for the problem that you had in hand.

CRIS: Yeah, it’s a great way of putting it.

JENNIFER: I want to go run off to the opposite end of where we are right now. It sounds like one of the challenges of being a manager and being an ally at the same time is not in finding the right thing to do or doing the right thing, but in managing up expectations around that. Does that sound about right? Is that where the biggest challenge is? Or do you find that it can be any place?

CRIS: I really think the biggest challenge is that idea of managing expectations upwards. There’s certainly a number of conversations I have with peer managers when we are making a change to our standards or our bar where you have to address some of their own expectations and their own approaches towards how that bar should be set. But certainly, I think at the end of day, the folks who I and my other peers report to and the goals that they’re trying to set for their team as far as either growth or performance or other areas where to some degree, they want to see certain results, they want to see certain kinds of success. And if you can make a case for like some of advocacy playing into that, that’s fine. But it’s almost like I think there’s some guys who worries that it kind of cloud a cost to it? And especially those situations, that’s where a lot of work has to go into, all of the advocacy, all of the trust building that you need to get your self support to pursue a particular program.

JENNIFER: So that’s something that before you embark on the program, you want to first do some proactive work or do you get started on notice the reaction and then go back and lay out that work?

CRIS: Yeah, I’m definitely much more of a ‘ask for forgiveness’ rather than permission kind of person, especially – the ways I’m thinking about are also forms of allyship. I think of say examples or case in the past where I’ve had individuals on my team with certain disabilities or we’ve had to do some level of accommodation for them. Or I also think of individuals who are going through some form of like personal challenge or crisis in kind of a permanent or temporary area and they bring it on to me. And I’ve also in many ways looked at the job of being a manager as being like this stress buffer where you’re getting stressful on people who are on your team. They’re getting stress from your leadership and your job is always to like help diffuse or reduce that stress in some way by finding solutions or ways of channeling that. And if you’re going to pass the stress in either direction, like you have this stress from your team that you bring to management or vise versa, you’re kind of not doing your job well. Because your job is to take this anxiety and figure out a solution for it. In the past where I’ve had members of my team who need some sort of accommodation or need some kind of advocacy, I will usually try to work closely with them to say like, “Look, this is what I want to try to help you achieve. This is a goal that we have around tickets that we’re trying to complete, things that we’re trying not to carry over. I realize that things are hard for you right now and I want to help you by giving you some of these accommodations. But our jobs will be easier as well if you feel like we can maintain a good standard that overall doesn’t look like it’s going to be exceptional to other people’s side of the team.” And in some cases, the people I’ve worked with on my teams in the past just liked having that spelled out for them. Having sort of sense like, if you have to leave early, if you have to leave another time, just let us know earlier so we can move things around. And as far as overall things go, there isn’t gonna be a lot of flux within the team. And that way also when I’m working with management above me, it’s not a problem anymore for them. Where it becomes kind of a problem or becomes an area where they feel like there is going to be some kind of cost as when tensions can rise up and then we have to have this bigger conversation around how to balance the advocacy against a potential cause or drawback on the teams.

JENNIFER: It sounds like when you’re looking at how to help someone who might need an accommodation or need a little bit of extra help, one of the most important things you’re doing is thinking about how the management level above you might be perceiving that person and then giving that perspective. So that way, that person is able to take the right actions, so that way, what they’re doing looks right.

CRIS: Yep.

JENNIFER: That’s really neat. Have you ever found that’s been difficult or challenging or fails in some kind of a way?

CRIS: One example for this was I had somebody on my team who was going through a fairly significant family crisis. And it’s gotten to a point where they were upset at work, often absent, largely because I found later on at the ODD, they have these phone calls with their partner, with members of their family to manage this crisis. Because if they wanna try to keep it private, they weren’t really bring it up within their team. It was just hard to become more of a pattern that people were seeing. And I brought up my one on one with them like, “Hey, I know something is going on. Can we talk about this and understand what’s happening.” I’m struggling right now to make it sound like this sort of [inaudible] boss of like, “Are you going to continue to be a problem or not?” It’s more like, “What’s happening in your life right now? Is there ways I can help? And is there ways that I can give you additional support or information that will help you get through this?” And as they were talking through it, I sort of made this – one of the first things we set right at the beginning is sort of like me setting out for them overall standards that we normally use within teams. It’s sort of reminding them about what we kind of feel is a good job. And the need to be at work during core hours. Let your team know earlier rather than later on, the need to take time off, be able to manage around that, being able to like meet the commitments that you’re making. And in general, if need be, using me to fill in for them when time was needed. But as we were talking through that and giving me more details of what was going on at home, I tried giving them personal advice about how to deal with it. And it was a part of me that realized right away that I was already a misstep.

JENNIFER: Oh, why was it a misstep?

CRIS: I think because in some ways, I was not part of their family or I did not know what was going on at home. And I think that in that moment, part of my focus was on resolving this issue so that my teammate could kind of get back to normal for their work. And I was advocating a step that was much more about a tough love approach, I guess. It was like trying to confront a situation more directly and trying to like be more candid, too. There was this very instant reaction from my teammate about like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re in these conversations.” And it was a mistake for me to kind of be very forward with offering personal advice on their home life when I have never actually met any of the people in their family. So it was sort of like a sense of, “I am your boss. And my job here is to help ensure that you can be successful at work.” And the focus has to be about that level of success. And if I were maybe somebody who I think had spent more time with them personally and got to know their family a little bit more, and there was this level of trust and friendliness there, that may have been more appropriate. But that didn’t exist back then. We were still relatively early in our relationship.

So the thing that was important for me in learning that was that there is a lot of intimacy that can occur with colleagues that makes it almost feel like friends. There is still this boundary in our work life where we don’t necessarily know what our teammates are doing once they’re off the clock. What they’re sharing with us is still a small perspective.

JENNIFER: Yeah, you’ve got this work interface, this workplace interface that you interact with, and you try and reach past that. That’s an abstraction violation right there.

CRIS: Right.

JENNIFER: What did you do to rigging and rebuild trust when it happened, when you reached too far in and hit that obstruction violation?

CRIS: I think for me, one part of it was about recognizing that, apologizing for it and re-centering the conversation around like, “Let’s just be sure that if we’re able to work together in this way, like if you’re gonna be upset, you need to have a private place to have a conversation. Just let me know. I can give you my office.” I can sort of offer them this sort of private space where I could just leave my office and then they could sort of use it, and just sort of focusing it around like, “Here’s the projects that are currently on your plate. You could focus on getting those things done. I could also work with the rest of our project managers to slightly reduce your load, so you have a little more flexibility.” And sort of working with them around, set these earlier expectations around how they’re going to be able to juggle their work load along with the personal load they have until a point when they feel more comfortable. I was really just around like asking him, “Just tell me when you’re ready for more. I’ll be happy to give you more.” And not sort of being about making these deeper check ins on how any of hose things were going. And very much like owning the fact that I overstepped, that I was going to try to correct that and that we were just sort of making this focus on our professional relationship with each other and what we owed each other for that.

JENNIFER: Yeah, this might be a really, really detailed question. You mentioned kind of giving a heads up to the other people around your report about to lay off on the pressure a little bit. And I’m wondering, was that something you had to check in with your report on or did you just proactively go ahead and talk with them about it?

CRIS: I always try whenever I am in a one on one with a member of my team where they’ve conveyed some level of personal information to me, like getting permission for them to share a little more broadly with others and getting their own buy in on like the level of detail they would like for me to go into when I talk by with others. And in this case, it was sort of like, “Hey, I just wanna let you know that this person is going through a temporary family emergency. They’re going to need a little bit of time off and they may need some additional time later on. They’re going to let the team know when they need it. And right now, the current projects they’re working on, they’re sort of unable to complete that. Let’s talk about when the next set of projects are going to be coming up for them to work through, like what we feel is going to be a reasonable amount of time that they need. And then, anything further from this is concerning to you, please let me know.” Basically this sort of setup of explaining the situation, trying to lay out the standards that we had sort of set up for what they were going to maintain while they were running through a situation given that was temporary. And then having a check in later on to sort of see if this is gonna continue. But then also giving their other colleagues this option for coming to me with any specific concerns around it. Fortunately, from there, it didn’t last much too long where any of those concerns came up. But overall, I think people sort of appreciated in some cases, especially in these areas where something obsessive is going out, knowing that somebody is paying attention to it is going to continue to maintain it. It doesn’t have to be like sort of personal confrontation.

JENNIFER: Yeah. This has been a really great conversation. I wish we could keep going. I’ve been learning a lot from you. If our listeners want to talk with you more about this, what’s a good way for them to reach out?

CRIS: That’s a great question. I unfortunately am not very prolific on social media, on Twitter or on Facebook, but certainly on LinkedIn. You can find me, Cris Concepcion. I’d be happy to gain a connection from anybody who had heard this podcast and wants to talk more about it. Also, I am on both the eng-manager Slack that is run by Kate Huston, as well as Ryan’s leadership Slack. So, happy to talk to any other engineering managers there as well.

JENNIFER: All right. Thanks so much for talking with me today.

CRIS: No problem, Jennifer. Good talking to you, too.

JENNIFER: Thanks for listening to Storytime with Managers by Cohere. I’m Jennifer Tu. Our theme music is by Kevin MacLeod and we are edited by Mandy Moore and the Dev Rep’s crew. If you like this episode, please think about leaving us a review on your favorite podcast listening platform. This can make a really big difference in helping other people find and start listening to Storytime with Managers. Thanks so much.

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