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Building empathy into high-performing teams with engineering executive Amol Kher

Much of the emphasis in developing high-performing software engineering teams naturally steers toward the technical side of the craft. But Amol Kher emphasizes a different approach: improve team performance by encouraging empathy, both for customers and for the engineers themselves.

“I think it's really important to build that culture of empathy,” he says.

Kher cut his teeth at startups in the .com era and led development engineering teams at Microsoft, Google, and Netflix. He then joined the ranks of higher-level tech leadership as CTO of Wello and VP of Engineering for Weight Watchers. Recently, Kher served as theVP of Engineering at Life360, whose location-based app connects family members and friends with location-sharing and smart notification services.

During his time there, he grew the team from his own reporting group to nearly 100 engineers, and grew the customer base from 5 million to 25 million active users.

“When I joined the mobile team, there were no managers,,” Kher relates. “We had good young talent, but they hadn't seen what it's like to create a well-oiled or well-functioning engineering team. I had to find the right balance of process and structure to start introducing these things within Life360.”

We had the chance to chat with Kher to better understand his insights into building a world-class engineering team by focusing on the human element. He delivered insight on teaching engineers to think through the filter of the customer experience, approaches to enabling developers to become top-tier creators, and how tech leaders can improve their own humanistic approaches toward their team members. Boiled down to its essence, Kher utilizes this three-step strategy for developing empathy on engineering teams.

Step 1: Connect developers to the customers’ experience—even when they have little in common

One of the greatest challenges Kher faced at Life360 is that most of the engineers on his team did not have children. What developers’ families look like isn’t usually an issue at work—but parents are the app’s primary demographic, and while the developers were great at engineering, they often didn’t fully unemderstand their end users.

“Often, engineers didn’t empathize and didn’t feel like something could be a real problem,” Kher says. “How could this emotionally affect the parent who’s trying to get in touch with a kid? It was easy to dismiss those problems.”

So he set out to build a culture of empathy for the app’s end users among the organization’s engineers to overcome the demographic differences between them.

Ghost hunts aren’t wild goose chases

At times, customers would report errors that turn out to have little to do with the app itself. We all might be inclined at times to call something a bug when a customer fails to figure out the product—but Kher points out that tech teams can still learn how to improve the customer experience from these pure user errors.

“Sometimes it’s like ghost hunting. Sometimes there’s no problem at all. But why did we have to spend so much time explaining to them what went wrong?” he wonders. “Eventually, if you have empathetic engineers in the room, they’ll say, ‘You know what? I can build this tool that will eliminate these steps.’”

In other words, teams who learn to appreciate the user experience are less likely to blame customers for their own woes, and more likely to find solutions to improve their use of the product.

Frame tech issues in end-user experience

Kher describes how, when he first joined Life360, the app wasn’t particularly stable. All apps crash sometimes—game programming is complex and therefore they tend to crash more often, while applications with higher stakes, either life-and-death ones or ones with greater financial impact, strive for lower crash rates.

“Just telling engineers that the app can’t crash is not very motivating,” Kher says. “I had to identify problems and put them in perspective for the team to understand that quality is important.”

He framed it to his team by saying, “Look, we can run the app like a game. But on the other end, families depend on us, so we have to set a goal of much higher reliability.” Explaining to them why reliability was so critical—not as a technical end, but as a practical and emotional requirement for their customers—made a significant difference: in six months, the team took the app from about a 3% crash rate to 0.5%.

The customer base has seen 5x growth in Kher’s time, yet the crash rate is down to about 0.2%. “Now it's just part of the culture. When there's a crash, people just go and fix it because it’s part of their daily habit,” Kher says. “People naturally want to maintain a high bar. They take it as a matter of pride and don't want to fall back down to the previous baseline. That shaped the team and the culture.”

Look for emerging trends rather than individual cases

Kher acknowledges it’s impossible for a team with a growing customer base to take action on every piece of user feedback. Having worked with more than 25 million Life360 users, he knows full well that no one can listen to all of them.

“You can create or put in systems pretty quickly to know if there are any emerging trends going on,” he says. “Systems that can help you get data about your users, customer service metrics, any sort of internal testing. You’re not addressing feedback individually, but you’re seeing what the trend lines are. When fifteen people are taking the time to tell you that there must be something going on, don’t dismiss it.”

Kher adds that teams should listen to all their channels for customer feedback. Talking to customers doesn’t mean focusing on any one single avenue. Twitter might be as insightful as the app’s help feature, and other departments—like customer service—can relay the input they receive.

“Form alliances with everyone else in the company, so everyone’s focused on solving those problems,” he says.

Step 2: Offer engineers the freedom to become world-class engineers

One universal lesson Kher learned in his time at Google, Microsoft, and Netflix is that, as he stressed before, good engineers take pride in their work. Part of building a high-performing team is connecting to and inspiring that pride in an engineer.

“If you want to work in world-class companies, these are the table stakes,” he says to them. “This is how good engineers work.”

As an engineering leader, Kher has set those standards for world-class developers by adapting parts of other organizations’ strategies to suit his teams, and then allowed engineers the autonomy to apply those strategies to their goals.

Adapt the success of other orgs to suit the team and the product

Some traits of world-class engineers (and world-class engineering teams) apply to practically any environment. “What I saw at Google was this mindset of constant feedback, and people improve based on that,” Kher says. “I think that core still applies to any startup, as well.”

While Kher is careful to avoid imposing all of Google's strategies on the engineers he leads, many tenets still apply. Specifically, getting feedback from users and iterating as fast as possible, which in turn improves the quality of the code. But he never tells his engineers to do something because that’s how the big-name companies do it.

“When you say that, you lose credibility in some ways,” Kher says. “It’s easy for an engineer to say, ‘Well, it worked at Google, but it won’t work here.’ So I try and focus on the intrinsic things that any world-class engineer would do.”

Instead of trying to duplicate successes from other organizations, Kher recommends staying in tune with the organization and the team: apply the practices that work, not because they work somewhere else—but because they are adapted to work well with this team and this organization.

“If you focus on the core cultural philosophy of the company, you’ll find commonality with what your team and your company want to do, as well,” he says.

Support engineers with autonomy and clear targets

Let’s say—and why not—that a team is learning to connect and empathize with its customers, track trends to improve the product, and adapt strategies to suit its operations. This is where Kher steps back from the controls and lets his team do what they do best.

“If autonomy is pushed down to the individual engineers as much as possible, I think that’s always great,” he says.

The flip side of that autonomy is that high-performing teams also need structure to support that autonomy. Kher understands his role as a goal-setter for the team. He establishes guardrails to keep the engineers on the right road; how they navigate that road is largely up to them.

“When how people go about their work is less prescriptive, they come up with different ideas,” he says. “I should be able to say where we need to go and what the numbers need to be. It’s up to me to define what those are and reflect it back on the team. Then I tend to give the engineers a high degree of autonomy in trying to figure it out.”

Kher finds that releases are a prime opportunity to check in with a team about their progress—not only how the numbers and the timelines look in the moment, but how they track against bigger-picture goals. By checking in frequently, nothing should come as a surprise, and the team can correct course and investigate problems as issues arise.

Hire and retain engineers by connecting to them as humans—rather than as code producers

When managers and leaders offer their teams the toolkit and freedom to become world-class engineers, those engineers feel treated more like human beings and less like coding machines.

So Kher strives to maintain that human element as he helps his team members develop both as engineers with careers and as people with lives. As strategies for doing so, he offers these guideposts:

  • Offer context. Kher recognizes he has been blessed with great managers. “What they did differently, compared to the other managers that I’ve had, is that they took the time to understand why something is a good thing for me, and explain that back to me.”
  • Hire for strengths, not to avoid weaknesses. Rather than taking an aversive approach to hiring engineers, Kher chooses instead to look for certain strengths that show these engineers can thrive on his team. “I look at what they’ve done in the past,” he says. “It’s not always a predictor of what they will do in the future. But it gives you a sense of whether they have tried to do something new or unique.”
  • Emphasize learning. In the same vein, Kher aims to emphasize what engineers—new hires and veterans alike—can lear. “It’s no secret. People who want to learn often have a growth mindset, and they’re constantly looking to learn something different,” he says. “What are they trying to do next, after this? Are they trying to become a manager? Do they want to go to a different field? And then I ask, how can we help you get there?”
  • Help developers advance their careers. In the tech field especially, it’s all but inevitable that great engineers will eventually seek out new challenges. By treating engineers with respect and offering them opportunities for growth, leaders can aim to keep them on board. But sometimes, the best direction for a developer is somewhere else. Rather than view their loss as a failure, Kher uses the opportunity to assess how he’s done as a leader. “When they leave, they often are much more confident and self-assured in their skills,” he says. “They can go and apply them anywhere.”

The key to each of these approaches is, of course, empathy. “You can’t just be like, ‘Come work for me and make a lot of money,’” Kher says. “To get people to that level, you have to connect with them at a human level.”

Conclusion

In his experience at Life360, Microsoft, Google, Netflix, and elsewhere, Kher finds that instilling empathy in engineering teams—from engineers toward customers, and from leaders toward engineers—builds higher performing teams.

His strategies for developing empathy on engineering teams include:

  • Help engineers connect to the customer experience. By framing technical issues in terms of end-user experiences, engineers can spot trends to help improve the product—even when the problems are user errors.
  • Give engineers the creative space to become world-class developers. Engineers thrive when managers offer them both autonomy and direction. And leaders can deliver both when they adapt strategies to suit the team’s needs, rather than copy/pasting  templates from other organizations.
  • Connect with engineers as humans. Engineers are expected to empathize with their end users, and tech leaders can empathize with them in return by providing personal context, encouraging their potential and their desire to learn, and by setting them up for career growth—in the same organization or a new one.

You can read more from Amol Kher on Medium and Twitter.