Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Masumi Nakamura, Vice President of Engineering at Mercari US. We wanted to discuss his experiences from engineering to vice presidency. This is part two of a retrospective look at his journey.
Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Masumi Nakamura, Vice President of Engineering at Mercari US. We wanted to discuss his experiences from engineering to vice presidency. Below is part two of a retrospective look at his journey. Part one available here.
Nick: In your opinion, how do you know it’s the right time in your career to pursue a more managerial or executive role?
Masumi: Number one, if you feel that as an individual that you wish to grow in a way that you haven’t been able to in your IC arena, that is something to consider. The second is whether or not you like people. Specifically as a manager, if you don’t like people, it’s incredibly difficult to be a good manager. Now that’s not to say that if you are an introvert or someone who regularly shies away from people that you can’t be a good manager. Being an introvert or extrovert may affect how you manage people, but should not affect if you manage people. You can be an introvert and absolutely be an excellent manager. The key element is that you have to like people because as a manager that is your main job. At the core of every company is people. And the reason why managers are so necessary is because at the root of the control and intent of the company is how you organize and direct those people.
Nick: What are some of the more important lessons during the transition to management?
Masumi: One of the most important things in successfully managing an engineering team is to give them the space to be creative and build personal trust through a relationship with them. It is your job to maintain the big picture of each individual’s contribution towards the end goal. This may include conversations to ensure their contribution fits in with the direction of the team (their goals, desires, capabilities, non-capabilities, etc) Much like trying to understand how the ingredients in a dish contribute to the meal, you also need to understand the ratios of each contribution.
One mistake that I have seen happen is a manager assumes that the overall vision and scope are understood and agreed with and instead of direction to a creative person they try providing an absolute directive without first thoroughly explaining the overarching goal. Getting a creative person to do work coercively is the wrong direction and practically a futile endeavor. You will never get the best work out of them. Don’t just assume that when you become a manager, what you say goes. Explain the big picture and the parameters, ask for their input, and apply where possible.
Another common mistake as a manager is thinking you need to take on what you can at the moment. A classic example is someone who was formerly an individual contributor who was very good at that portion, they now need to remain disciplined enough to delegate even though they may be able to just as easily do it themselves. Their job is now to enable. The manager’s job is to help the employee to be as good if not better at that task as the manager once was. A good manager needs to know when to lead and know when to step back.
Nick: Can you tell us how you're able to successfully manage others in a remote-first environment? What are the pros and cons?
Masumi: Remote first environments can be great because it enforces a situation where you have to schedule meetings. There are less informal off the cuff conversations that can often lead to miscommunication instead of curtailing it as originally intended. With remote management you have to be much more deliberate in your communication. This leads to more productive meetings than in a traditional office setting.
If your communication is less deliberate, remote work can exacerbate an already existing problem. Employees should feel connected to the team and by extension the company. It’s management’s job to facilitate that need without becoming overbearing or distracting. This goes back to developing the necessary relationships with your employees so you can better gauge how to build that bridge.
Nick: Earlier you mentioned knowing when to hand stuff off and allow your team to handle things you once did. Since you have made the move from engineer to EM and now Vice President, is there ever a time where you miss being able to be as hands on as in your engineering days or do you feel you’re still able to be as hands on as you ever were?
Masumi: “Hands on” is a term that can mean a few different things. As far as the work goes, I definitely miss many aspects of it. As I said earlier, engineering is a mindset and once an engineer always an engineer. However, that doesn’t stop me from pursuing technological knowledge. I’ve supplanted my need to be hands on with tech in my job, to fulfilling that need in my private life. I like to fidget. Whether it’s in the virtual Reality (VR) arena or with new languages, I try different skills and learn new things. That is what helps me supplement my need as an engineer to get into the weeds.
Nick: Any final words for those managers aspiring to reach the executive level?
Masumi: I would advise EMs who are just starting their management career to understand what your definitions are. Your job has now changed. The most common mistake is the assumption that you got promoted into just another position. Where before you had to focus on your individual contribution, now your focus has to be the big picture about the project or team. If you reach the executive level, your goal now is to focus on the big picture of a department or the whole company. You have to try to accelerate that change in thinking sooner than later to be successful. As mentioned before the toolsets - ex. attitude in communications, strategic thinking, understanding of negative space in an organization, defining and changing culture - are different and thus what you have learned or gained in the past do not necessarily contribute to the skillset you need to learn.