Updating Results

Xero New Zealand

  • 1,000 - 50,000 employees

How did you get here? - Hannah Gray, Principal Engineer, Engineering Practice at Xero

Hannah Gray

Principal Engineer, Engineering Practice at Xero
"I’ve never had a career goal or known what I want to be when I grew up - I just found things that were interesting and followed my nose."

Tell us about your career path

Once upon a time… no, wait. 

I worked as a developer (from graduate through to a bumbling-intermediate) for many years, occasionally going sideways into semi-related areas like project management, account management etc. 

I actually wasn’t sure I was gonna stay in technology - my first few jobs out of University left a sour taste in my mouth and an impression that IT was exactly like the stereotype: many long hours behind a computer, often unpaid, and generally unsupportive. I actually quit, but of course once I needed money again I defaulted to getting a job in what I knew. Fortunately that also meant I changed to a different type of company, which it turned out was the actual problem - you don’t know what you don’t know right?

The “breakthrough” was when I found my path into people and engineering management - I fell in love: I really enjoyed enabling teams and creating a great culture. I took great pride not just in protecting my teams but then seeing them become leaders in various aspects.

Over the years, I got to the point that I felt there was an elephant in the room for my teams that no one was dealing with - and that the biggest thing I could do to enable my teams was to remove that elephant. It was to do with our legacy code (which I’d previously worked on when I joined the company), so I’ve gone back on the tools to solve that.

I’ve never had a career goal or known what I want to be when I grew up - I just found things that were interesting and followed my nose. Along the way people would encourage (or simply tell in one case) me to apply for new roles and I’d fall into new and interesting problems.

I would do all my jobs again - from the support management, to the time(s) I took down production, to learning about fire trucks. My favourites aren’t necessarily the times that I was having a good time, but rather times that happen to be some of my personal low points. They stand out because I survived and now get the opportunity to point back at it as a “hey, I did that”. The two that stand out for me are the role I played in Xero’s migration to AWS, and being one of the two first ever Development Managers in the Wellington office (we had no idea what the heck we were doing back then!).

My key “regret” was it took a very long time for me to realise that there was a place for me in this industry: I thought I had to know all the technologies, be interested in how the .NET framework runs its garbage collection and be master of all I survey. However, that didn’t actually appeal to me so my imposter syndrome was strong. Now I know good teams are composed of people with different strengths even within the technical discipline, including being good communicators etc. Finding my path into engineering management and leadership has meant I’m doing the parts of technology that play to my strengths - so don’t ask me to tell you how JIT works, explain OAuth or even the fundamental premises of JavaScript. Learning to be okay with that was the hardest part.

Who helped along the way?

Like most people in any job, I’ve had the usual parade of mediocre and unimpressive managers. But some stand out. 

When I had the first manager who I’d consider ‘a great manager’, she opened my eyes to what makes good engineering managers - including my own management style, what I need from my peers and what I need to personally thrive. She made a huge difference to me that I won't forget any time soon.

Equally influential over time were the bad managers I’ve ever had. It’s easy to say that bad experiences make you realise what you would never do, but more importantly it made me learn about myself. In particularly bad cases, I reexamined ad nauseum every action, reaction, and situation in hindsight with a microscope: how would I do that differently, what could I change, why was I so invested? I had to acknowledge my strengths and became stronger through surviving the experience. I now stand up for myself, what I can do and what I believe a lot more - it got rid of a lot of my imposter syndrome!

Along the way I’ve had mentors but not as a conscious effort. I simply found people who put up with my enthusiasm and occasional ranting, and who I wanted to spend more time with. Book a few coffee catch ups here and there, and I find myself with people who often challenge me on my assumptions.

The biggest boost throughout my career has been my team at various points - and ‘team’ is a deliberately vague word. I’ve had a pod-team which was fun and supportive, I’ve had a peer-team that made me smile every day, and I’ve had a we-all-seem-to-be-in-this-situation-together-team that helped me laugh when I wanted to cry. I’ve learned that this is what I need most - a strong support group of peers that make me feel I’m not alone. I would not be where I am today without them.

Finally, any advice for people thinking about their careers?

Too much, so I'll choose a few:

  • People management isn’t what you think it is. It is most definitely not the “next step” in one's career. It’s a conscious, lateral sideways career move - and if you go into it looking for anything else, you will find it hard and not very satisfying (or love it but be oblivious to the fact you’re a terrible manager).
  • No, a developer doesn’t have to choose between people management and architecture in order to progress (spoiler alert, they’re more similar roles than you think).
  • If you are in a position to do so, stop thinking about the “right” thing to do. Focus on what’s right for you. Cos once you find it and you’re enjoying your work, it’ll show - and the rest comes pretty easy from there.