An Interview with Cate Huston
Written by Enrique López-Mañas
Cate is an Engineering Director at DuckDuckGo and an Advisor at Automattic, where she led the mobile, Jetpack, and Developer Experience teams. Cate admins the New-(ish) Manager Slack and writes regularly for Quartz.You can find her on Twitter at @catehstn and at cate.blog.
Cate has lived and worked in the UK, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia and the United States, as Director of Mobile Engineering at Ride, an engineer at Google, an Extreme Blue intern at IBM, and a ski instructor. Cate built Show & Hide (available on iTunes), and speaks internationally on mobile development and tech culture. Her writing has been published on sites as varied as Be Leaderly, Lifehacker, The Daily Beast, The Eloquent Woman and Model View Culture. She is an advisor at Glowforge.
Connect with Cate
Websites: cate.blog and WhereTheHellIsCate.com
You recently wrote a post on your blog Accidentally in Code, “Answer These 10 Questions to Understand if You Are a Good Manager.” What makes a person a good manager? Can a good leader be made or must it come naturally?
I definitely think good leaders are made. What we think of as “natural” leadership is often really charisma, which again, can be learned—the book The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism by Olivia Fox Cabane is a good start. The biggest things I look for in a leader are self-awareness and humility. These two characteristics open people up to admitting and learning from their own mistakes, which makes them very coachable—the effort you expend on coachable people is always multiplied. Humility means you have these conversations with the person, not their ego. It’s much more effective and much less exhausting.
How do you keep a team productive, happy and consistently delivering?
These things go together. Developers like to ship, and not shipping will create a level of angst that no amount of perks or team-building exercises will compensate for.
In general, I like to orient and align teams around delivering continual user value. This is about, first, understanding our users and how we best serve them. And, second, being focused on sustainable delivery so that we deliver the most value to our users over the medium term.
In this model, we align the success of individuals with the success of the team; when a successful person is contributing to the team—we talk about “making the whole team better,” although the details of this vary per person—and a successful team is delivering user value, continuously, paying close attention to metrics of user success and using that to inform the priorities and tactics.
“I think a successful career is one where you feel you’re operating from a place of strength in an environment where you feel valued.”
How do you define “a successful career”? Are there any strategic shortcuts or optimizations people can make to get there faster?
I think a successful career is one where you feel you’re operating from a place of strength in an environment where you feel valued. I think the best optimization is to be a decent human being and show up for other people. This doesn’t always pay off in the short term, but it does in the long term in the form of trust, people looking out for you, wanting to work with you, and forgiving you for your mistakes—we all make them!
What do you wish someone had told you when you first started software development that you had to learn the hard way?
The industry really is that sexist. To be fair, people probably did tell me this. I guess some things we do have to learn the hard way.
Seriously, or less darkly, probably the thing that would have been most helpful to understand is how to talk about work in a way that makes the impact clear. I spent a lot of time just working hard and hoping people would notice, or doing things that I felt were so clearly important they didn’t need to be justified or explained. Something I work a lot on now is making impact clear at every level—for both individuals and teams—especially the things that it’s easy to ignore. If someone does a great job at onboarding, that’s impactful. If we’re able to roll out a huge change with minimal drama, that’s impactful.
Although it’s not an easy problem to solve, how can people start making a difference in tackling the gender bias you reference that seems to be an ever-present issue in this industry?
Sometimes I joke that men don’t have a word for “sponsorship” because they just call it “going to work.” The reality is that nothing will change until the balance of power changes. We need to be looking for people who are unlike us, and seeing how we can help them move up, have more impact, and—bluntly—have more power. Power to influence hiring processes, promotion processes, compensation.
I’m not here for an industry wherein white women can fail up at the same rate as white men and where we adopt the same toxic behaviors. I’m here for building environments in which a broader spectrum of people can be successful. This is a lot of work—there are many axes of diversity, and none of us can be an expert on all of them—but it starts by being clear about what that work is, and what is holding us back from it. The biggest thing that stops us making progress is that people expect the work of inclusion to be comfortable. It’s not. Confronting our biases and the structural inequity that has worked for and against us is brutal—and often upsetting. Sitting with the emotions of discomfort and defensiveness, doing the learning, and then showing up and doing the work is the thing. Inclusion is not a noun—it’s a verb.
Are there any other current industry trends you think are just plain wrong?
Success porn. The “think pieces” and talks of “We did this and we are so awesome.” On a structural level, it conflates correlation and causation—what was brilliance, what was luck? It also re-enforces problematic dynamics around who is allowed to take risks and why. On a personal level, I don’t trust what I might learn from someone who won’t admit their mistakes.
What would you suggest is a better alternative to this trend?
One of the questions I’ve started asking with new teams is, “What’s your failure mode?”—and admitting mine in return. We all have them, and talking openly about what it looks like when we start to struggle, and why, puts that conversation on the table so we can at least support each other, and even better, get ahead of it.
I also like retrospectives. Within our teams, we should be able to have a level of honesty. Perhaps we can’t have quite that level when we talk about what we do in public, but I think we can always admit some places we’ve fallen short and the ways we have tried to be better.
You read quite a lot about the industry and share your reviews publicly. Which three books have had the greatest impact on your life, and would you recommend them to anyone in particular?
First, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute. I read this book for the first time nearly ten years ago, and it’s really been formative for my leadership style, and how I approach conflict.
The next two go hand-in-hand. First, Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation—and Positive Strategies for Change by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. And Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele. I read widely on topics relating to diversity and inclusion. These two were very key for me in my approach to inclusion and how I have personally navigated the tech industry. Whistling Vivaldi is the best book on stereotype threat—the way we respond to being stereotyped, which is a byproduct of marginalization. Women Don’t Ask is very helpful about how this plays out specifically in terms of negotiation, for example, women tend to be expected to advocate for others, but penalized for asking for ourselves.
Finally, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt. This is a recent addition as I moved into managing larger pieces and having more influence, strategy—defining it, communicating it—has been more and more part of my job. Personally, I have a hard time with a lot of floaty concepts like “vision,” and this book presented strategy in a way that was much more relatable as an engineer. It helped me understand the depth required for good strategy, the kind of work that I was already doing that is strategy work, and how to better communicate it to bring others along with me.
In setting yourself up for your own work, how do you start your day off with a bang? Do you have any secret morning routines that set you up for success?
I aim to avoid bangs at the start of my day—or really most times of day! A good night’s sleep, a pot of tea, breakfast and some time to myself before I log into work are my morning needs. So much of my job is based on what other people expect or need from me, that starting my day with something for me makes a big difference—whether it’s going for a walk and breakfast, hitting the gym, reading a chapter of a book or writing a blog post.
How do you stay highly productive in your own work for long stretches of time?
Generally, the better I feel physically and emotionally the better the work I do. I stay active—I sit on an exercise ball, try taking a walk at lunchtime, also good for experiencing daylight in the winter, and work out regularly. I’ve worked with the same coach for nearly three years now, and also have a professional network—mainly on Slack as I am one of the moderators for an engineering management Slack, and Twitter. I also think there’s really nothing better for productivity than regular breaks; it’s not uncommon for me to work or travel on a weekend, but I take them off and fully disconnect as much as I can. I aim to take a week each quarter off and completely disconnect. I also only have work Slack on my phone when I’m traveling!
On a day-to-day level, I try and balance my work between things that give me an immediate sense of accomplishment and longer-term work. Each week, I put up some weekly notes for my team, sharing what I’ve been doing. It helps me take a step back and see not just the details of what I did, but where I was able to have more impact. I also do regular reviews over longer periods—monthly, quarterly, and annually—which is where you really see change and progress over time.
The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change | Camille Fournier
Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters | Richard Rumelt
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle | Emily Nagoski Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, DMA