A Day in the Life: Julia Grace (Senior Director of Engineering, Slack)

We’re continuing our series exploring the tech journeys and ways of working of tech leaders and managers. For this edition, Julia Grace shares insights on her “jungle gym” career path, how she uses Slack for 1:1 preparation, and what she’s looking forward to working on this year.

You can find out more about Julia’s journey at Slack from her conference talk at The Lead Developer New York on Scaling Yourself During Hypergrowth.

What has been your journey in tech so far?

I started programming at age 12 on a super old Commodore64 and I was instantly hooked. I studied computer science and math in college and went on to get my masters degree in CS focused on distributed systems. Careers are almost never ladders that go up and to the right; mine is more of a jungle gym where I’ve held roles from Research Scientist at IBM Research, to Product Manager at a early stage startup, to Board Member at the Computer History Museum, to CTO at a company I co-founded, to now Senior Director of Engineering at Slack.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced moving into your current role? And how are you working to overcome the challenge

The biggest challenge is also what I find the most interesting: constant change. Every 6 months my job has been significantly different. I started at Slack working on the Developer Platform team helping us launch the Slack App Directory, then was asked to build our Infrastructure Engineering organization. I grew that team from ~10 engineers to nearly 100 in 2 years, then went back to Product Engineering to lead a new team focused on building network effects in Slack. This has meant a steep learning curve after steep learning curve where I was rapidly learning new things, applying those learnings, adapting to feedback, making changes, and doing it all over again.

Soon after I joined Slack I got a coach. I talk to her 2–3 times a month and she has helped me develop frameworks and approaches as I tackle new things, as well as work through difficult situations.

Briefly describe your stack and workflow

I was always a VIM user, but rarely get to exercise those skills these days. I spend most of my time in Slack, Superhuman for Email, Bear for writing (I do a lot of writing — but mostly English, not as much code anymore), Things for managing my to-do list and Google Calendar (I even memorized the shortcuts!). I also take a lot of handwritten notes in notebooks.

What does your typical day look like?

Most days I get up at 5:40am and am out the door by 6:20am. I have an hour train ride from my house to San Francisco. On the train I typically do a lot of writing, planning for my day, and sorting out my top priorities. Then I have a 30min walk where I listen to podcasts or take calls.

Once I get to the office around 8am I sometimes get a quick run in with a colleague or mentor (we luckily have showers at work) then take meetings from ~9:30–4:30pm. I color code my calendar to understand where I’m spending my time (every day is different). I’m back on the train at 5pm catching up on Slack, email, to-dos.

Since my schedule revolves around the train schedule (which only comes once/hour) I always leave work at the same time, no exceptions. That helps keep me disciplined, and be home for dinner with my daughter and husband each night. I almost never work at night or on the weekends so I can maximize that time with my family.

I spend a lot of time in Slack; here are a couple of things I find very effective:

  • I have a 1:1 channel for every direct report. We use it for notes, topics to discuss, etc; I name them #weekly-julia-derek for example. I always ask my directs to spend a few minutes prepping for our 1:1s (I do the same) and we use the channel to drive the agenda.
  • I have a channel that includes all my direct reports where we talk about all things engineering related for the team, and do a standup meeting in a channel every Monday (I set up a Slackbot reminder to ask us what is Top of Mind, what our biggest challenges are and everyone replies in a thread).

What’s the best and worst part of your job?

Best part of my job is the people, by far. The worst part is my long commute.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Always take a few minutes to set an intention before you go into a meeting, or have a high stakes discussion. Being clear with yourself on what you want to accomplish helps filter out noise and keep you focused.

What is your most useful resource (book, blog, newsletter)?

I read a lot of books. I loved High Output Management by Andy Grove. The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier. Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Recode Decode podcast by Kara Swisher.

What’s one thing you’d like to learn, develop or work on in 2019?