For software engineering organizations, building successful engineering teams requires strong partnerships across engineering, product, and many other groups. That’s why more organizations are investing in engineering operations, to help build collaborative environments that enable engineers.
Melanie Zens is an engineering operations leader who has been working with engineering and technical leaders for over 20 years, driving operational initiatives and communication strategies to enable engineering teams to perform and grow.
She’s sharing her insights on how to build successful engineering operations frameworks, how to enable engineering teams, and the importance of people, communication, and learning. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up on this career path of engineering operations leadership?
It wasn't by design! After graduating with a liberal arts degree, I didn’t have a clear career path. I got my foot in the door at a startup company in Calgary where I wore a lot of hats—writing code, managing projects, running marketing campaigns—basically doing a lot of learning by doing. That was the start of my passion for delivery and operations, and more specifically, the intersection between strategy and execution, and enabling teams to do their best work.
What draws people to operational success and delivery, and why are engineering operations roles so important?
People in operational roles come from all kinds of backgrounds and can bring different strengths to their organizations. In rapidly growing tech companies, there is so much opportunity to build systems, practices, and processes to help scale organizations in a sustainable way. You have to be passionate about making things better, building strong relationships and working across teams and functions to get things done. For me, it’s people first, followed by process and technology to help them do their best work.
How would you define or describe operational success?
Operational success is a journey that requires focus and prioritization. It’s about supporting the business and ensuring that teams have the right tools and processes to enable them to meet business objectives. And creating healthy, vibrant cultures that empower people to experiment, innovate and learn from mistakes. This involves looking at the entire employee lifecycle, from hiring to onboarding to building great learning & development programs. All of this needs to be measured and continuously improved along the way. Creating a metrics strategy that aligns with business objectives is foundational to measuring success.
Speaking of the employee lifecycle, what is your approach to building good technical onboarding practices?
Start with smaller steps and build up best practices over time. Some of the basics include assigning a buddy and creating a structured 30-60-90 day onboarding plan with clear expectations for what they should be focusing on. Facilitate introductions to key people across the organization inside and outside of engineering. Check in frequently and ask for feedback, making improvements along the way. Publish a wiki page and share templates with others to streamline the process. Look at ways to leverage technology and tools to support onboarding at scale.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in supporting technical teams and meeting business objectives?
Tech companies are under a lot of pressure to scale up fast. Leaders need strategies to prioritize and grow their organizations in the right way, and this is why operational leadership is critical. There is so much uncertainty, instability, and ambiguity in the world - pandemic, climate change, and political conflict to name a few. On top of this many of us are now working in a remote-first world. All of these things impact well-being and productivity. We need strategies to support people, taking a human-centered approach while managing and growing the business. It has to be a balance.
What do you think people often misunderstand about your role?
I've been in delivery and operations roles for a long time as a leader, practitioner and consultant, and I think there is often a misunderstanding about what project or program or operational leadership is. In a delivery role, people sometimes assume that you're a task master, and you're telling people what to do by when, that it’s very prescriptive. To me, modern delivery leadership is absolutely the opposite of that. When you think about truly delivering in an agile way, it's about enabling and empowering teams because they are the experts. You need to trust them and give them high autonomy to cultivate a sense of ownership. And it's got to be a two way conversation. Operational leadership is about providing a framework and culture that supports delivery and execution. You need a good understanding of delivery to build an effective operational framework.
How do you know what support role a company needs, be it engineering operations, program management, delivery support, etc.?
It depends on where the organization is in their stage of growth. Small companies and start-ups have fewer people and fewer roles - sometimes one person fills multiple roles. As companies scale up, their processes and operations need to support growth and product complexity, and roles in operations and program management may become more formalized. If companies grow quickly, it requires constant checks and balances to determine the right mix of people and process.
What engineering operational trends
or tools do you hope to see develop in the space?
Remote work is here to stay, and leaders need to remove friction and barriers to help teams deliver their best work and support their well-being. There are many ways to do this, and it starts with leadership. Empathy, humility, and vulnerability are foundational values for leaders looking to create healthy and inclusive cultures. I’m seeing a positive shift where leaders are encouraged to be more vulnerable and talk openly about mental health with their teams. Partnerships between People Ops and engineering are key to equipping leaders with the skills to lead and retain their teams in a pandemic world and beyond. We can provide training to leaders that is geared towards managing remote teams. Training should be accessible to all regardless of location, and it should be effective and engaging. Luckily technology provides a lot of great options to enable this.