Identifying Different Types of Bottlenecks as a Leader with Eric Valasek

In this episode of the B2B Leadership podcast, best-selling author and leadership coach Nils Vinje speaks with Eric Valasek, Senior Director of Engineering at Nauto.
In this episode...

0:19 - Eric's background - Eric explains his role at Nauto.
3:05 - First leadership position - How did Eric transition from an individual contributor to a leader?
8:25 - Freedom to fail - How is that environment fostered within a team?
12:37 - Bottlenecks - How do they apply to Eric on the engineering and leadership side of things?
14:38 - Identifying bottlenecks - What tools and strategies are used for this?
19:00 - Technical and personal parallels - How are personal bottlenecks handled differently than technical ones?
26:47 - Important leadership qualities - What does Eric look for in a team member?
31:40 - One-on-one meetings - There's one important question that gets asked every time.
34:32 - Eric's advice to himself - What advice would Eric give his younger self?

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There are different types of bottlenecks. While there are always engineering bottlenecks, there are also people bottlenecks.

Read on to find out how Eric Valasek uses his engineering expertise to identify and address these bottlenecks from a leadership perspective.

Eric's background

Eric Valasek is the Senior Director of Engineering at Nauto, a company specializing in predictive AI for drivers. They have a smart dashcam that helps eliminate traffic accidents that are caused by human behavior rather than situational circumstances.

They can predict when drivers start to get drowsy and alert them of their drowsiness, preventing them from falling asleep at the wheel.

They also look at other factors like if the driver is distracted, tailgating, or eliciting other dangerous behavior, then the device alerts them by ringing a few dings, whistles, or some audio.

First leadership position

Eric's first leadership position happened by accident. It wasn't his intention to become a people leader, however, in one of the businesses where he was working, the manager left. The role wasn't being filled for a long time and there was no movement from the upper management so Eric just kind of started doing the things his old manager did.

He slowly started taking on more pieces and started transitioning to things he had seen done, but also things that he thought would be beneficial to him and the team as well.

Their team was very small. There were only four people. Eric didn't have the title. So it gave him room to experiment and to grow. He has this mindset that if he messed up horribly, it wasn't that big of a deal because there were only four people. He was like, "Oh, well, that wasn't really my job anyway".

That was his first management opportunity. He eventually became a team manager afterward.

The freedom to fail mindset is important regardless of what role you're in. It is one thing Eric carried on through his career.

Freedom to fail

How does Eric foster the "freedom to fail" environment within his team?

His team starts with smaller buckets of responsibility. Then, as they increase their proficiency, they get bigger and bigger buckets.

Nauto also did the same thing on the management side. In the first year, they're not given a $10 million budget, they're getting maybe a quarter-million-dollar budget in terms of company output.
Then there's a considerable amount of review in their decision-making.

Nauto is trying to give them a safe place to fail. So they can learn and not blow up the budget or the company.

The company is controlling the environment that their people can fail within, in order to build the confidence that they have to continue to push the boundary at their own pace. Regardless of what pace it is, Nauto is enabling that based on giving them the constraints to operate within, see how they do, and continuously increase it.

As they get comfortable with the decision-making, the relationship grows, and that person's skills become more proficient, they then grow the bucket. Some people grow faster and some grow slower, so you have to constantly adjust your buckets.

Everyone has a different appetite for growth and that's okay. Everybody has a set of strengths. They have a set of ways and experiences that they can rely on. They have progress that they will make, but it's going to be different.

Recognizing that there is no one perfect path or timeline that applies to everyone is an important leadership principle.


How do bottlenecks apply to Eric on the engineering and leadership side of things?

On the engineering side, a lot of engineering organizations build hundreds of applications under the hood that do multiple different things and run at different scales. They're always trying to deliver features that their customers want and enjoy.

To keep these coming out, you have to do a lot of planning around these different cadences. You have to line up all the pieces behind the scenes and make sure that the software production ends up with a widget at the end of the day.

If you have a bottleneck or unforeseen slowdown during the process, that's going to percolate all the way up to what the customer sees. So you need to solve that bottleneck quicker before it becomes a big problem.

This is one of the larger problems that Eric faces as an engineering leader.

Identifying bottlenecks

What tools and strategies does Eric use in identifying bottlenecks?

They're using a retrospective to find bottlenecks. They chunk out the work and they put an estimate on how long it's going to take. It gives them a baseline where to work from and from that baseline, they track the amount of time to completion.

Other times they have a one-on-one meeting schedule. Their first question is, "What was the biggest pain point that you experienced in this six-week or 4-week period?".

In these one on ones, they are constantly watching for problems to arise, things that are becoming pain points will probably further down the line become a bottleneck for your production.

Technical and personal parallels

How are personal bottlenecks handled differently than technical ones at Nauto?

When they notice that people are becoming stressed, they would have an extra day off which they call "Mental Health Day". They would turn off Slack and not answer emails. They also come up with special activities and offer prizes for people to amp it up prior to the event.

That's how they helped with these personal bottlenecks and that got people to unplug from the situation.

A Mental Health Reset Day is very important. People are in a better space after.

Important leadership qualities

What are the most important leadership qualities that Eric looks for in a team member?

One of the most important leadership characteristics on Eric's list is somebody who is technically proficient and can interact well with others.

Another one is somebody who is very organized, who takes an interest in how the other team's work is progressing, and who takes the initiative to incorporate another team's work into his or her work.

Once people find those two fits, Eric starts to think that that person is ready for more coaching. You have to get their temperature first because some people don't want to go into management.
But once they want to take on more responsibility, then they start coaching.

You never know when one of your team leads is going to leave. So you should always have a couple of people building their skills up in anticipation that they will take over a role, where your team structure will be growing dynamic enough that you can actually break your current team up into a couple of pieces.

One-on-one meetings

There's one important question that gets asked every time during their one-on-one meetings about the biggest pain point that the individual has experienced or is experiencing. How did this one question become so important in their one-on-one meetings?

This question serves two purposes. The pain point isn't a technical problem nor a personnel problem, or a corporate problem. It can be anything. So you can get a read on a lot of different types of problems that are coming up.

It gives them the opportunity to get ahead of the game. It also gives them so much insight into how people are thinking and what's really on their minds.

Eric's advice to himself

What advice would Eric give his younger self?

Focus on what you want to do and don't waste your time doing a lot of periphery activities. The quicker you can make that decision, the better. Make up your mind about what you want to do.

Spend your time honing those skills. Make sure you're spending your time solving the hard and correct problems. Try not to get distracted.

Always focus. Younger people tend to want to focus on everything but it's just not possible.

Don't try to do everything all at once. Be good at a few things and then grow your career from there.

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