Turing Distinguished Leader Series: Michael Immell, Director of Engineering at Rachio

Hello, everyone! In this session of the Turing Distinguished Leader Series, we conversed with Michael Immell, Director of Engineering at Rachio. Michael has extensive experience in engineering leadership and management. Michael is a people-oriented leader focused on delivering excellence.

In the discussion below, Michael shares insights into managing remote teams. 

Deepak Tiwari

Hello everyone, and welcome to the Turing Distinguished Leader Series. Today, we are talking to Michael Immell, an engineering leader who has worked in several well-known companies like Rachio, Recurly, and Alteryx. 

Michael, it’s great to have you here. First, could you tell us a little bit about your story and how you have reached this point in your career? And then, what are you focusing on right now?

Michael Immell 

Great! And thank you for the opportunity! So, I started in software back in March of 99. I worked for an API-based company that did geo-coding. I started as a programming QA engineer and fell in love with it. Also did some professional services for a while, integrating our APIs with a lot of different companies. Then, I went back into QA and then moved into leadership. I’ve done software leadership since 2005-2006. It’s been an incredible journey.

At this point in my career, I’m working to help build that next generation of leaders. I’m passionate about the field that I’m in. It’s been good to me.

Deepak Tiwari

That sounds fantastic! What are your insights on building a team, whether on-premise or remote? 

Michael Immell

Yeah, it’s a little bit challenging. When I started, somebody spent hours just talking through a particular problem that I was facing. With the advent of YouTube and many other fantastic tools, you can point people in that direction [of the solution]. They can consume it on their own time, and you can still get your message across in this evolving virtual world. And so, for me, the principles of leadership are the same no matter if you’re in-person or remote. I call [this process] the concentric circles. [It’s about] starting with a small challenge, whether it’s a technical or leadership challenge, and then working through that with a strong feedback loop system, and then just ever-expanding concentric circles of responsibility.

Deepak Tiwari

That sounds fantastic! Do you have any other top advice for a leader who’s about to manage a distributed team?

Michael Immell

It can be a little daunting. You need to know that you’re going to make mistakes. You need to be humble. Know that it’s not going to go perfectly. There will be rough days and days that you feel like quitting or that you’re a failure but stick with it. When you have your good days—those offset the bad ones. Find a mentor or someone you believe is a good leader. 

I’m very direct with the leaders I’ve worked with. You must reach out to them and say: ‘I enjoy the way you lead your organization. Could you spare some time to just work with me on some things that I want to get better at?’ I think learning through experience is the most valuable way to do it. But, finding a good mentor is a good approach as well.

Deepak Tiwari

Absolutely! Could you tell us about any pitfalls that leaders building their first distributed team should take into account?

Michael Immell

Yeah. I think just be honest with your people. It’s a big jump in mentality going from an individual contributor into a leadership role. Tell your team that you’re going to make some mistakes, but you will own those mistakes. You’re going to work with them, and that you’re going to need their help.

You need to ingratiate yourself with the team and get them on your side. Then, you need to build a culture of support, which is the foundational layer.

Deepak Tiwari 

That was great. We’d love to hear more about your team and how you onboard people in this remote distributed environment.

Michael Immell

Sure. So I’m currently with Rachio and sincerely enjoying that experience. They’re smaller than most of the companies that I’ve worked for. I think their mission resonated with me. I’ve been on-premise with everybody else and also with distributed teams.

While remote, it’s essential to be clear on what you’re trying to do and be very purposeful. You need to put yourself in the shoes of that person that’s coming on board in this new remote world. Write things down as much as possible to be clear about building the onboarding strategy. Ensure there’s at least a face-to-face that’s occurred [with the new joiner] even if it’s virtual. 

Deepak Tiwari

That’s excellent advice. You know, once you onboard people and have built the team, whether in your current experience or previous experiences, how do you build a culture in a remote team? 

Michael Immell 

Sure. People say that teams take on the personality of their leader. I feel a lot of responsibility to be the role model for that culture. It’s critical to be very purposeful with the kind of culture that you’re trying to build. As I mentioned earlier, write down [values] and ensure that’s part of that onboarding process. 

You don’t want to be patronizing but just be repetitive about what you’re trying to do. I’m big on positive reinforcement, and so when somebody does something that you believe advances a culture you’re trying to build, take a moment and highlight that. 

At Alteryx, I carried around these little plastic gold stars, and if I was in a meeting and somebody did something impressive, I’d stop the meeting and hand out a gold star. I think they cost like 50 cents, but that little moment helped positively reinforce that culture. 

Rachio also had these knockoff Oscars. They’re plastic with a gold star. And it’s funny to see that you hand those out, and then all of a sudden, they’re showing up behind people in their video feed. They care enough about [those Oscars] that they had enough of an impact on them.

So have a little fun with it and be clear about what culture you’re trying to build, and positively reinforce it as much as you can. You’ve got to live that culture, day in and day out.

Deepak Tiwari

Sounds great! Could you tell us about the opportunities that you’ve found with remote teams through the years? 

Michael Immell

So remote work is giving people back a lot of their time. I think that’s the most significant opportunity [that data] shows. People have higher job satisfaction, and they’re putting in a little bit more time because they have that time their offices set up at home. And they just feel better about their company and their job and what they’re doing and how easy it is for them to get their work done. Most importantly, they feel supported. So I think that’s the highest value opportunity.

Deepak Tiwari

Great. Would you also have any advice for people starting to manage distributed teams or remote teams? Where can they learn more about it, and where did you learn more about it?

Michael Immell 

I think teams should try and find courses out there and talk to somebody that’s done it before. There are some excellent options online on leadership training that are fantastic. I try and take a leadership course a  year. The cost goes above and beyond what the company covers but [this is] something that I’m very passionate about and something that I’m very committed to as a leader. 

There have been many courses that have been valuable for me. CCL, the Center for Creative Leadership, was probably one of the most impactful. I took a course with them, and it was a great week of training. 

Deepak Tiwari 

Excellent. Sounds great. We’d also love to hear your thoughts on how you think engineering leadership or engineering management is similar to or different from being a general manager or manager in other organizations?

Michael Immell

I think engineers are very smart. But, on the other hand, there’s something about engineering leadership that can be incredibly challenging.

As a leader, you must explain why you’re doing something. I’ve found with engineers that going in-depth on how [something] impacts what we’re trying to achieve as a company is critical. 

It’s all about satiating that curiosity and the desire to learn and understand why they’re doing something. It’s challenging, but that challenge makes us better every day. But yeah, I think that’s where engineers are somewhat unique.

Deepak Tiwari

Sounds great. With a remote team, are there any tools that you use to manage your people professionally? Any tools that stand out to you or your favorite ones. And are there any tools that you’ve used for team bonding?

Michael Immell

Yeah, I think as far as pure tooling is concerned, any sort of online cloud-based suite of documents and spreadsheets works. I think a wiki, where you can store your SLPs, and build out excellent documentation for your new people and your established people, where you don’t lose track of things, is critical. 

And then I just can’t imagine doing this without Slack and some sort of video conferencing. 

I’m constantly reminded in leadership that it’s essential to involve the team. Our people and culture leader recently rolled out a plan to get a quarterly budget to do these events. 

One of the employees came up with the idea of giving a homebrew beer kit to every engineer. We’re going to brew our beer, send the beer back, and then she’s going to categorize them, and number one through however many is on the team, and then send them back out to everybody, Then’ we’re going to do a virtual tasting together. These shared experiences together are critical. So yeah, involve your team, find a passion that they enjoy, and be creative.

Deepak Tiwari 

That’s great. Could you tell us what kind of flexibility and choices remote working might have offered to you and the people who work on your team?

Michael Immell 

So I was based in Denver for 20-21 years. And recently, my father’s health started failing a little bit. Unfortunately, we lost him this year. I inherited a farm with my brother and now I’m living in northwest Oklahoma and helping carry on a legacy that my family built.

And being a leader, I think this remote environment couldn’t come at a better time. As far as my team is concerned, I think they love the time that they have with their family. I think people are a little bit healthier. They’re exercising more during the day, which wasn’t encouraged in a traditional office environment. And, of course, the reduced commute is impacting the environment. So yes, I think it’s been almost 100 percent universally positive from my team for those reasons and a few others.

Deepak Tiwari

So sorry to hear about your father but I’m glad that you’re close to your family. As remote hiring can sometimes be challenging, what strategy or approach should managers who are hiring remote engineers keep?

Michael Immell 

I think [remote work] has forced us to be more organized around the hiring process. For example, we have a role-based interview guide and we have a list of candidates. If we have an individual interview or a paired interview, we write the questions down beforehand and put them in the interview guide, making the process a bit more objective. 

And maybe personal presence isn’t as vital a part of the impression that people make during the interview process. And so, I feel like it’s been good to have access to that wider pool of candidates.

I think we’re at the very beginning of a pretty big transformation of what will happen in the US. So yeah, cast that wide net and keep an open mind about where a talented person may be located at the time.

Deepak Tiwari 

Yeah, that’s an excellent point. On the lighter side, one question is, how do you celebrate wins in a remote environment?

Michael Immell

Yeah, we do recognition or weekly all hands as a company. We come together every Friday. In our weekly team meetings, we ensure that we communicate our targets and how we’re progressing towards those. 

So when we hit one, we recognize it in the team meeting as well. Since we don’t have an office, we try and do quarterly get-togethers. We find something fun that the team nominates to do. I still think it’s important to try and get people together on a semi-regular basis, so we’ve selected quarterly meets. 

The last thing I’ll add is I have a kudos section at the end of our team meetings. We take five minutes and recognize people that have outperformed. It’s pretty cool to see people chime in and express that appreciation and gratitude. It just really helps build that stronger team connection.

Deepak Tiwari 

Do you also do virtual happy hours or something like that?

Michael Immell

It’s interesting; we’ve had mixed success with that. Again, I think folks in leadership or the organizational side of things are a bit screened out, so we’ve had limited success with that. 

We do a team gaming session for like an hour every two to four weeks. We also do trivia. But the additional screen time doesn’t quite get the return. I think people feel a little bit burned out on screens.

Deepak Tiwari

Right. Could you tell us how you manage conflict in remote settings?

Michael Immell

What I’m seeing with my current team is we’re having less conflict. In the office environment, there’s just a lot of communication and water-cooler talk that’s happening. We do not see that here. I think people focus entirely on their work. 

Yeah, I haven’t seen too much negative communication. I feel people are enjoying this new environment that allows them to be with their families.

Deepak Tiwari 

Sounds great. Any thoughts on how one can manage developers in different time zones?

Michael Immell 

Yeah, whenever we had members from different time zones, we carved out two-hour blocks to meet people across geographies. So you need to protect those kinds of core hours in overlapping time zones. So that was probably the thing that worked the best for us in that situation.

Deepak Tiwari 

That sounds excellent. Any thoughts or suggestions for supporting functions within a company? Like HR? Mainly because they’ll be involved in pretty much managing but also hiring. So how can People Ops and  Human Resources evolve in this remote-first setting?

Michael Immell 

Yeah, I’m glad you asked that question. I think if you talk to people and leaders, for the most part, you’re seeing improved productivity, improved employee engagement, and greater overall job satisfaction with the opportunity to work wherever you have an internet connection and electricity. You can be a part of a team and get things done. 

But yes, it [remote setting] takes a little more concerted effort. I think you need to make organization-related things available and searchable online. You need to spend a little more time on team building and culture building. You need to embrace this new world that we’re in and give your employees the freedom to spend more time with their families to lead a self-managed and self-directed life. I think everybody will be pleased with the results that we see [with remote work.]

Dipak Tiwari

Sounds great! Any thoughts on how an organization can create cross-links for people through different activities in a remote setting?

Michael Immell 

I think the traditional in-office mentorship model is not as sustainable as it once was. But I think you also have a lot of opportunities to go and interact with a lot of different leaders from different domains. I think a lot of leaders have a similar mindset. I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of people that took the time to help me out. There are all kinds of leadership groups and podcasts that help in learning from somebody that’s very accomplished.

This changing mentorship model is where I think employees and managers have to be more creative about building those relationships.  The dynamics and tools are changing, but I also think it’s better than it’s ever been as well. There are many virtual options to ask tough questions anonymously, get leadership insights, and form relationships. 

Deepak Tiwari 

Awesome! Do you have any thoughts on how you build that acceptance for remote and hybrid work among top leadership and perhaps the people at the decision-making levels like yourself and your peers?

Michael Immell 

I think you can have those conversations productively. Just be clear about your intention and what you’re trying to accomplish. And you should be willing to negotiate a little bit. I think I grew up where coming in the office was expected, no matter what, and then finally, when people were spending three to five hours driving home after a snowstorm in the afternoon, people started to see it wasn’t worth their time. 

It destroys productivity, and in the long-term, it doesn’t help people. Instead, you can talk with your leader or boss and ask: “Can I work from home one day a week? Let’s do it for this review period, and let’s see if my productivity falls off.”

You need to offer solutions that support remote work. We didn’t move from “show up in the office no matter what mentality” to where we are today overnight. It’s going to take steps. So talk with your leadership, and tell them what you’re trying to accomplish. And then, when you get that opportunity to make the most of it, show the senior leaders that it will be a net positive.

Deepak Tiwari

Excellent. Perhaps, one last question that I have is whether you’ve had any pleasant surprises as you embarked on this journey to work remotely? I would love to hear that.

Michael Immell 

Sure! Rachio has been very supportive of my personal journey, but you know, with everybody else, the survey data that we got back from our employees has been very clear about how [remote work] has impacted employee engagement. 

I think businesses are waking up to realize that there’s a new way to do things. I think many companies are finding out that remote work has created a lot of positives. 

So I think it’s not so much about my personal experience or what I witnessed in my team. I think it’s about the future of workforces, what it means to people’s lives and what they can do, and how this empowers them to live a more self-directed life in a location that can support their family.

Deepak Tiwari

Thank you so much for this. Those were some wonderful insights.

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Watch the full interview here.

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