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Spotlight on Ally McKnight, Engineering Manager at FireHydrant

The FireHydrant Team2021-08-31

Spotlight on the Leadership of FireHydrant

FireHydrant is proud of our leadership and we want to highlight our engineering managers in a blog post series so you can get to know all of them. Starting off, we have Ally McKnight!

Hi Ally, thanks so much for being open to being interviewed and featured on our blog! We're so excited for people to get to know you.

Would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

Hi! I'm Ally McKnight (she/her) and I live in Oakland, California with my wife, twin toddler sons, and a dog named Dinosaur. I started at FireHydrant about four months ago and before then I was an engineering manager at NoRedInk, an education start-up in San Francisco. I love traveling and, before I was an engineer, worked as an operations manager for safaris in Botswana, kayak tours in Palau, and hiking tours in Japan. When I'm not working or hanging with my kids, I love to cook. I make a lot of soups. My friends are often like "Ally, you doing okay?" and I say, "no, I ate too much soup". I'm also a big fan of woodworking. Recently, I started making spatulas and spoons in my workshop!

Let’s go ahead and start with the biggest question our readers want to know...Why did you join FireHydrant?

I joined FireHydrant because I was looking for a company that had the same goal I did: to build the best place in the world to work. Now, I know that a lot of people in the past have assumed that the best place in the world to work is the place that throws the most money and perks at employees and calls it a day. I don't disagree that compensation and benefits are a huge part of a value package! However, I wanted to be a part of growing a company that believes in career and personal growth, support, feedback, and transparency are all essential parts of employing an individual. In FireHydrant, I found management and leadership who shared these values and would work with me to build processes and policies that grew from our shared understanding.

What do you think are the most important things when building out a team?

Kindness. Everything else grows from there. When kindness is the basis that we work off of, we have better mentorship, more open collaboration, more communication safety, and closer relationships. Kindness, when pervasive in all team communication, can be the difference between going home at the end of the day exhausted and drained, and exhausted but inspired. It can open the door to effective feedback from all parties. It helps us be open to perspectives from people who are different than ourselves—which makes it an essential part of building a diverse team.

How would you describe the culture you like to foster in engineering departments?

An engineering department is most effective when all engineers feel they have just as much right to an opinion as any other engineer. When we all feel a part of the discussion, it opens up opportunities for people to have to justify their opinions and assumptions. The process of laying out a position can involve describing steps, risks, benefits, implementation details, and personal experience. We get to teach others and teach ourselves at the same time! To get to this point, we need a culture of low ego and high safety. Everyone must be open to learning and teaching—from the most senior to the most junior engineer.

What brought you into engineering leadership?

When I was a Lab Instructor at Hackbright Academy, I had the opportunity to advise a handful of driven, intelligent women and non-binary students each quarter. For the year I worked there, those budding engineers challenged me in every possible way. They challenged me to understand new technologies and algorithms. They challenged me to be able to support and empathize with individuals with diverse backgrounds and diverse future paths. I was ecstatic! I came home at the end of every day bursting with energy and the desire to learn. After that experience, I was an IC for a number of years but always knew I wanted to be a manager. My manager and mentor at the time helped me find books to read, participated in role-plays and reverse 1:1s with me, and sent me to workshops, all in the name of getting me prepared for engineering leadership. It's been almost 4 years since I became a manager, and I still find myself coming home at the end of the day energized by leading and managing my team.

What are the things that keep you in engineering leadership?

I get to tell an engineer who has been overlooked because of her gender, that she has earned a promotion. I get to help a team remove roadblocks and achieve goals that they get to tell their family about, which opens up doors for them to work on stuff they want to work on. I get to give feedback to people and coach them to be even more valuable, even more of a multiplier. I get to be a part of building processes that work toward better diversity, equity, and inclusion. When my team doesn't meet their goals, I get to be there to inspire them to keep going, to help them learn for next time. When I do my job well, I am able to support my peers, my managers, AND my reports. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else!

What's your favorite thing you've accomplished in your career so far?

During my 1:1s I always like to check that people are doing well holistically. While I want to know their feelings about their tasks, me, leadership, and team dynamics, I am also interested in knowing that the rest of their life is going okay—as much as they are comfortable sharing. It's important for me to be an ear for whatever someone wants to talk to me about. Now, I've accomplished a lot I am proud of in my career—completing complex features, contributing to equitable processes, surviving an elephant charge in the Chobe River—but one thing does stand out. When I had a direct report who was suffering from mental health issues, I did all that I could to find help and provide support for them. As a manager, I cannot be a therapist nor a savior, but I genuinely care for the people that report to me, and I will do everything I can to take care of them. That year, I got to be a witness to my report overcoming personal obstacles and addressing their mental health as they never had before. There's something about knowing you can be there for someone that makes you feel strong and that year gave me the strength I carry with me to this day.

How do you like to give feedback, both to your direct reports and peers?

At my first 1:1 with any direct report, I ask how they like to receive feedback. Many prefer in-person and immediately while others prefer in-writing and habitually. I honor any request about how someone prefers to receive feedback, and within those boundaries, I try to give feedback using guidelines from one of my favorite books Crucial Conversations. I've found that one of the most useful parts of that book is learning how to identify when a conversation has wandered into unsafe territory. If someone feels unsafe, it's almost impossible to keep an open mind and continue a productive conversation. It is important to lay out beforehand the hopes for what the conversation will accomplish and also the hopes for your relationship with this person. Knowing that we are moving in the same direction, which is coaching someone in the direction of improving their work, relationships, or career, can help us both feel like we are on safe ground and lay the foundation for a useful and safe conversation.

What do you think FireHydrant will be able to accomplish in the next five years?

Judging by the people who work here, it feels like the sky is the limit! FireHydrant has ambitious plans for our product offerings, but it is also putting in the work to build an equitable, transparent, and diverse company. These early moves make us prime to not only build the go-to software for incident management, but also a company that continues to attract passionate and talented people.

What's your favorite thing about FireHydrant since you started working here?

Every week we get paired up with a random co-worker to get some time to just chat for thirty minutes. Sometimes we talk about work and I have had some really great cross-team outcomes from the conversations. However, most of the time we just chat about life and interests. FireHydrant's team isn't just smart and motivated, it's also full of funny and interesting people! I look forward to that time every week no matter who I get paired up with. I haven't spoken with one person who I haven't enjoyed getting to know. I don't know what's in the virtual-water here, but everyone is just...awesome!

Thanks so much for allowing us to get to know you more. It’s been a pleasure🙂

Interested in working with Ally? Check out our careers page to see all of our open positions.

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