Asanka Jayasuriya, SVP Engineering at InVision on Effective Communication Skills for Engineering Leaders

November 27, 2019

Recently, Plato hosted a Community AMA (Ask Me Anything) featuring Asanka Jayasuriya, SVP of Engineering at InVision. Based in San Francisco, Plato is a community-focused organization that connects “engineering and product managers with mentorship from the top tech leaders in the world.”

Jayasuriya was interviewed by Rachel Zolotarsky, Director of Product at Lingo Live and Mustafa Khan, Head of Community & Events at Plato. Zolotarsky and Khan presented questions from the audience and asked a few of their own as well.

In this post, we summarize some of the communications tips shared by Jayasuriya

Direct the team without micromanaging

Leading your teams is about giving them the right amount of direction and support, without telling them exactly what to do. According to Jayasuriya, “No one likes to be micromanaged, but at the same time, managers are responsible for the delivery of their team.” This can be particularly challenging for first-time managers who recently transitioned from a senior engineer or principal engineer role.

“You come in as a strong engineer and you have strong opinions on how things should be done. You quickly realize that you’re telling your teams how to do things and no one is having a good time,” said Jayasuriya. Managers who strike the right balance, however, give their teams the leeway to discover the right solutions on their own.

Managers who find the right balance will be more successful overall, since micromanagement prevents your team from scaling: you’ll continually be the bottleneck that’s inhibiting growth. According to Jayasuriya, “A successful manager is so effective that he can take on more responsibility for the team, more responsibility for the business because his team is working well together.”

The foundation: transparency and honesty

Transparency and honesty are the underpinnings of effective communications between leaders and their teams. Jayasuriya finds that the more senior an engineering leader becomes, the more hesitant employees are to provide direct and honest feedback (e.g., “Hey, that’s a stupid idea”).

This terrifies Jayasuriya, because team members should be much more knowledgeable about the things they do than their engineering leader. To gain the trust of the team, managers need to make themselves vulnerable and demonstrate that they’re willing to be challenged in front of the team.

In addition, being transparent and honest means acknowledging when you don’t have the answer. “One of the traps that newer managers fall into is feeling like they always have to be right and they always have to be super-authoritative,” said Jayasuriya. The problem is that you’ll lose the confidence of your team. They can spot when you claim to know something that you don’t.

How to be effective with written communication

Jayasuriya manages a team of 200+ engineers who are 100% remote. Written communications make up a significant portion of how he keeps the team updated. Jayasuriya uses writing (e.g., emails) for broad communications to the team. He also writes documents for the purpose of tactical planning.

For broad communications to the team, Jayasuriya tries to write in a conversational manner, as if he’s talking to each person. For example, Jayasuriya will address his team with the word “y’all,” a term commonly used in Texas, where he lives. Everyone has a different style, however, and Jayasuriya encourages manages to discover their own.

According to Jayasuriya, “I truly believe that everyone can be an effective writer, with just a little bit of practice. It’s highly worthwhile for anyone who wants to go into a management career long-term to develop that competency.”

Giving feedback, while keeping the team motivated

It’s easy to give positive feedback, but harder to give negative feedback. One of the traps managers fall into, said Jayasuriya, is the “sh*t sandwich,” where they take the negative feedback and sandwich it between two pieces of positive feedback.

Instead, Jayasuriya said to provide honest feedback on what they did wrong or what they need to improve. In addition, tell employees that the goal of the feedback is to help them improve. “When people understand that the feedback is coming from a place of improvement, it’s typically received much better,” said Jayasuriya.

Watch the AMA on-demand

Watch the Plato AMA, “Effective Communication Skills for Engineering Leaders”: