How does an engineer rise to the executive suite and retain her technical roots—while keeping her organization on-mission in a world turned upside down by a pandemic?
At the Debug 2020 Summit, hosted by Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, Intuit CTO Marianna Tessel sat down with a longtime friend and industry colleague, Cowboy Ventures Founder Aileen Lee, for a mainstage fireside chat to explore the principles, priorities, and trade-offs driving innovation today. Following are excerpts from their wide-ranging conversation, touching on the impact of open source to maintaining cultural cohesion and personal well-being in the midst of COVID-19. Visit here to register and view the “Building Software at Scale in a Virtual World” session replay.
Aileen Lee: When we met a decade ago, you had four kids and a working full-time spouse and you were one of the few women in a VP role at VMware. How has the experience of being a woman in technology evolved since then?
Marianna Tessel: I didn’t think much about it at the time because we were all kind of working through our careers. But as time passed, this became more of a conversation. People would say, “I’m a woman in tech,” or “I have these difficulties,” and that was an aha moment for me where I would say, “I’ve been having these kinds of difficulties too.” And that’s been great. I felt a lot more empowered since it became more of a dialogue in the industry, and I’m very thankful for that dialogue.
AL: What was it like growing into management from a technical background?
MT: I had to learn quite a bit, and my journey is not done. I still continue to learn every single day. I had the technical understanding for the job, but had to develop the people skills and leadership skills, how to propagate a change, and how to decide on a vision and a strategy. Meanwhile, you need to be not just a people leader, but also a technologist. So that’s a dance that I’ve been doing the last several years, especially with technology moving so fast. I put a lot of effort into making sure that I develop as a leader without leaving behind my technical skills.
AL: How do you see your mandate as the CTO of Intuit? What’s been on your list to try and accomplish?
MT: In my current role, I’m responsible for our technology vision and our technology strategy, as well as the execution of our projects. I’m responsible for a team of 5,000 engineers spanning not just technology, but also IT and security. One of the most important things I did as I stepped into this role was that I stopped and listened. Intuit is very good about this transition and announced my appointment several months ahead of time. That allowed me to meet people and talk to them without actually being operationally responsible for their role. I met with teams and customers to understand the issues they faced and got advice from other leaders both externally and on our own leadership team.
Because Intuit had a new CEO and a new CTO at the same time, there was an opportunity for a lot of change. We made the decision to declare a strategy of being an AI-driven expert platform, not just a collection of products. In order to do that, we needed to make strategic investments in a few areas—in particular, AI and data.
We also looked at whether we’re structured the right way, culturally and organizationally, to deliver on our strategy and mission. There are a lot of changes I’ve made to try to develop our culture as a truly amazing technology organization, leaning more towards open source, speaking externally more, and things like that. I’ve also learned to appreciate the notion of not just having good ideas, but also making sure you can put them into an operating structure that allows for scalability so you can make them a reality. So we put together an operating rhythm for engineering, and we’ve been operating on that rhythm ever since.
AL: How has COVID-19 affected the way you think about that rhythm?
MT: As I’m sure is true for many companies, we initially assumed that with people working at home, productivity would go down. To get an understanding of that, we started to measure releases to production—the number of PRs (production releases) we created and merged. We were surprised to see that PRs were actually going up. What we realized is that, beyond taking some overhead from people, the fact that they were at a home all the time meant that they might not have quite as many other things to do. We loved the idea that people were investing more time in coding. But, we also didn’t like it, because we believe people need to have a work-life balance. They need to preserve their mental health. So that’s something we’re emphasizing more—making sure people don’t invest beyond what they should in their work these days.
I had this experience for myself during COVID. The first few months I worked pretty much 24-7. Our dining table became our desk, and I’d get to work in the morning, then finally go to bed after midnight. I started to feel like it wasn’t healthy for the family. I didn’t feel like I was making better decisions as a result. I had to set boundaries for myself.
AL: Are there new kinds of metrics you’re using, and new lessons you’re learning?
MT: One thing that’s been interesting to see during COVID is that all of our meetings are now in Zoom or in other ways you can measure. We keep all the personal information out of it, but it helps us understand where our engineers spend their time. We saw that people have a lot of interruptions during the day. We’re trying to fix that. They don’t have quite as many meetings, so that’s one of the things we are able to do now that we couldn’t before. At the same time, people also tend to focus more these days, where maybe prior to COVID, it was easier to get into a discussion. Now you have to be more deliberate about it if you want to schedule a meeting. We see a lot more people either find a resolution themselves or just use Slack.
AL: How have you need able to maintain your rhythm and rally the troops during COVID? How do you keep the drumbeat of what you’re trying to accomplish as CTO, building momentum or maintaining it?
MT: On the product side, when COVID started, I think our initial reaction was the easiest one. “Oh, we should do the GoFundMe,” which we did to help small businesses. Then we got a little more in-depth. We got QuickBooks Capital approved by the small business administration as a non-bank lender, which allowed us to participate in the Payroll Protection Program to make over $1.2 billion in loans and save over 220,000 jobs. Because we already had the data for a lot of those companies, we were able to help them get approved for new financing super quickly. We were very proud of that. We have a lot of very emotional letters that customers wrote as a result. There was a lot of confusion about eligibility for the CARES Act, so we wrote Intuit Aid Assist, which is a tool that allows you to come in and figure out, “What am I eligible for and what can I do as a next step?” These were very meaningful ways in which we were able to help our customers, and they helped our team feel a sense of mission and purpose in their work.
AL: How has the adjustment to remote work been for you personally?
MT: It is hard, I have to say. I draw a lot of energy actually talking to people and not just small images on a screen. Not being able to be in a room, not understanding exactly how people react, has been tough. As a leader, I really miss that interaction. While I enjoy the fact that I can spend time in between meetings with my kids, I really miss the energy of talking to people, these corridor interactions that we had. I did notice, however, that I have become better at reading people online, and I think a lot of us have. I’ve seen that sometimes people lean when they want to talk. In the beginning, I wasn’t as sensitive to that, and now I find myself saying, “Alex, did you want to say something?” I am getting better at reading small images on the screen.
AL: How do you make sure that the Intuit technology and engineering team stays in touch with tech from a cultural perspective?
MT: Part of fostering a technical culture is for me as a leader to show my interest in technical topics. When I sit with a team, I ask very technical questions, and I look at code, and I ask that we look at demos, so we go in quite a few details there. So the whole conversation is very technical. It helps propagate the expectation that all of our leaders know the details of the technology. I also encourage others on the management team to get external inspiration and connect with other people in the industry, ask what other companies are doing, and have those kinds of technical discussions. Our operating rhythm includes everything from financial planning to business planning, but it also includes technology. What is our strategy? We revisit and look at new technologies on a weekly basis. We meet for a whole day, and those discussions are very technical.
We also talk a lot about open source. I don’t want to get too much on that soapbox, but I am a big believer in open source. So one of the things I said to the team is, let’s be very bold about using open source technologies, contributing to open source technologies, and open-sourcing some of our components.
And we’ve been doing all of that. Some of Intuit Open Source code components are now a part of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, and as a result, we won an award for open source contribution. That gave the team a lot of pride in what they do, and again, it’s super technical, and it’s recognized in the industry as technical. This comes in part from my own startup experiences at Docker, where you constantly think everything is possible and you are ready to push the envelope every single day.
So let’s just take risks. Let’s adopt modern technology. Let’s use open source. We were one of the first companies to adopt Kubernetes at scale (for example, running TurboTax on Kubernetes). And, that has enabled a lot of speed for us.