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What Does It Take to Be a Successful Tech Lead with Marin Flügge (Tech Lead @ Zalando)

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

In this video (podcast), Martin Flügge, Engineering Lead at Zalando SE in Berlin, joined us to share his insights and inspirations with other Tech Leaders across the business world. Martin has captured a wide variety of experiences and reflections on what it means to bear a Tech Lead's responsibilities.

Here, he shares his purpose and mission as a Tech Leader, his superpower to be an effective leader, his mindfulness practices, and his morning routine that helps him set the tone for the day.


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Dr. Reiner Kraft 0:10

Hi, this is Reiner, founder of the fellowship of mindful tech leaders. And in today's interview we're here talking with Martin Flügge. Martin is an engineering leader at Zalando. And sprint has been working on a lot of interesting things. And so we thought it might be really cool. Martin here and share some of his experiences and insights around certain topics that are also helpful for a lot of other tech leaders when probably viewing this podcast here. And so welcome, Martin.

Martin Flügge 0:59

Hi, thanks for having me.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 01:00

Sure. And maybe I mentioned a little bit that you're working in engineering at Zalando, maybe you can introduce yourself a little bit. Tell me, usually it is a short version of your life's journey so far. Which could be of course, also of interest for others.

Martin Flügge 1:25

Alright, yeah, cool. So I'm working, as you said. Actually, I work at the moment as an engineer's leader. So that should give a brief history of my career and actually started like, I think, for most engineers in a way that I, I just did not know what to do. And I think you will see this as part of my career that just decided I want to do something with computers. So I actually started there, started an apprenticeship. And after the apprenticeship, I started to do real work as an engineer. But I quickly found out that something was missing there. So I wanted to have more knowledge. So then I actually decided to study. And as I was already working, I brought in parallel to my studies, 20 hours, sometimes 30 hours a lot of working experience to during my studies. And after I reached the end of my studies, there was another way where we had to decide about something. And I tried to get a PhD. So this was like, was actually never my plan. But it was a quick decision after the end of my studies that I was working as an official substitute project manager, to charity at University, University Hospital in Berlin, kind of leading people. So this was actually the first time when I had leading experiences. Also, this was not disciplinary, so it was just just working with people. But they kind of observed me as the lead. And I kind of acted like this without knowing what leadership is. So after four years, it kind of turned out that I did a lot of things there to learn a lot of things. Unfortunately, I did not finish my PhD studies. And it turned out that it would have taken me like three more years to finish this. So I just decided to go back to the industry working as a senior engineer for a while transition then into an IT project manager. And after that, I accidentally, again stumbled into this leadership role. So I just had the opportunity. And I said, Okay, let's try this out. And the other strikeouts now tastes for a bit more than six years. And that's an engineering lead. And I think I'm pointing to this.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 3:40

So you became a leader in 2014?

Martin Flügge 3:44

Yeah, I would say the most around 2014. Exactly.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 3:47

It was more by accident, so to speak.

Martin Flügge 3:51

Yeah, this was actually when, when the BRT project that was leading there came to an end, there was no other project and I had the decision whether I want to become the lead engineer, or take over possibility as engineering leader, or just leave the company and back then I said, Okay, want to still continue with this company? And, but it sounded interesting to me. And I said, Okay, maybe I will never have the chance to lead something and try this out. So I just jumped into Shark Bay and tried to swim there.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 4:21

Sounds good in how you like it so far. Was it a good decision?

Martin Flügge 4:26

I would say it depends on which day you're asking. So on some days, I say, I really love this. This was absolutely the right decision. And when you get good feedback from your directors, when you see that you can develop your direct and it's okay, is definitely the one thing that I always wanted to do. Of course, there are sometimes days where things do not work that well, and then I question the decision, sometimes I think I will stay positive. I still miss the coding part. So I was really loving coding all the time. And sometimes I really miss this and think, Hmm, maybe I should go back to engineering, but most of the time, so so. So coding, most of the time, I would say I'm super happy and being an engineering leader.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 5:10

Yeah, and that is usually a big decision for senior engineers at some point to decide whether to start moving one or two leadership tracks, move more into an expert track, become eventually a principal, engineer, architect or whatever. So that's an important decision. As you said, both of them have trade offs advantages. But yeah, that could be a whole nother topic we go into this. But looking now a lot of stuff happened in the past year with COVID appearing all of a sudden, on the landscape. And now looking forward, a lot of things have changed. What do you see currently as one of the major challenges for tech leaders nowadays that they're facing in today's world? And also given a lot of uncertainty? And what advice would you say in terms of preparing for it?

Martin Flügge 6:13

Yeah, I would say this, this is the biggest change that we have had in the last year. And it kind of really influenced the way that I lead teams. And I think the biggest challenge is that you kind of are disconnected to your directs. Because before that I was in a team area and was seeing them and saw how they connected to each other sort of communications, and had the chance to see if there's a potential conflict arising. At some, some some fun talks, and coffee talks and all this stuff. And that nowadays, I just have them in a meeting, I see them on a flat screen, sometimes they even switch up the camera so that I can see them. So this makes it super hard to identify if there might be an issue or a conflict or the people are stressed. So I think you have to develop their other techniques to figure this out. So what I did is focus more on the one on ones, try to talk more about personal things to the one on ones, just to understand if the people are maybe on the wrong track, because the second thing that really changed is the stress. So for me it feels like there's more and more stress. Both we do this remote setup, and I'm like, I think I'm on 12th of March. So more or less, you're like one year at home, never visiting the office again. But feels to me like it's time that has been saved by not going to work is now spent into the work and even more. So the workload also increased and handling this stress for myself, as a prominent Arctic, also discovering the stress on the people's side. Yeah, and I need to be much closer to people. And I needed to grow some more antennas to feel that something is wrong, just from the small data points that you have. So they're less ways of figuring out what's going on with the database. And this is something that really changed.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 8:07

That it makes sense. In a lot of those challenges you point out. You hear them, it's not something you basically face alone. It's really a global, global thing. And the thing Yeah, I think the ability of empathy, compassion and tuning into your teams is much harder for sure. If you have this screen with all these little videos, as you said, some of them you don't even see the face and some meetings. It's definitely much harder to create that makes sense. I wanted to ask you. Since you're a tech leader now for many years, you probably had some time to reflect and really think in terms of the bigger picture. What actually is your mission isn't technically How do you see your mission currently?

Martin Flügge 9:02

The mission. I'm not sure if I really have permission, but it's something that kind of drives meor actually device stores my leadership style. And this is actually I want to create an environment where people really are happy so this just reflects from our personal experiences. So we all know that most of the time that we spend is at work right? So it is like eight hours 10 hours 12 hours sometimes. And this is that we just lived for such a short time on this planet because the news actually passed by super fast. And I want to create an environment where people really feel that they don't waste their lifetime when they come to work. And this was for me Actually I had experiences where it felt for me like wasting a lifetime and this where I felt okay I never want to do this or want to have this situation again. And I have situations where I really was passionate and love to come to work in the field. Sometimes even after 10 hours I feel super refreshed and felt I achieved something. This is if you want to price this like an admission decision. Something that I want to achieve for my direct digits, that's my driver, one of my drivers.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 10:16

That's a good one. But when you think about it and reflect that this is your basic mission, helping others to be more happy makes the most of you and their time. This is an ongoing process, usually, in my experience, figuring out what that is that drives you. And let you know, in our motivation, did you have any insights methods for when you basically came up with this set, right? So that could be helpful for other leaders who may have not thought of their mission and thinking about how to identify what their inner motivation and purpose and mission is.

Martin Flügge 10:58

I mean, I actually realized this technology again, by accident, so I just realized that motivation can influence me, and then I started to think about it and I think this is advice that I can get if you want to find a mission that just reflects what drives you and what makes you happy. And I found out that doing something in engineering, having a good motivation makes me happy. And then I thought about the Why Why is that? So? What happened? What makes me happy? And then I found out that the leads that I had in this time made me happy. So there will be, that was a time where leadership was not that widespread, and people want to talk about leadership, but I realized that they led me in a way leaders do now. And I said maybe one day if I become a lead, I want to do the same. So my advice would be to find out what makes you happy, and then go in this direction.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 11:51

It's great. I think yeah, that's a good one. It's really reflecting on what drives you and what makes you happy. Yeah, there's different ways of doing it. I would ask you about your definition of success professionally. And also as a human being

Martin Flügge 12:15

Success. I would say you are successful professionally and privately if you are happy and I think this this this is important when you when you achieve the states and so like I described this before, when you have had a really hard working day and you worked a lot of hours maybe even all the time, but then you lay in bed and you reflect the day and say this was a nice day this was a good day, I think if you come to the state and I think is a super hot but this for me is what what success means because this then you created maybe some purpose. Maybe for the people around you, but at least for you, if you're happy at this moment.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 12:57

Okay, very good. The other question is also based on reflecting on yourself as a tech leader in the past years, about your own leadership qualities that helps you to be an effective tech leader. And here precisely I want to ask what is your superpower is a tech lead

Martin Flügge 13:18

Superpower? I'm not sure if I have any superpowers. You should ask my direct about them. If I would say I have a superpower or maybe a strong driver then I would say it's passion. So if you really like my fire for a topic, then I really want to go the extra mile so I'm really driven by motivation. And I think sometimes I even can like a fire on other people's site with his motivation. So not always, of course not everyone can be passionate about the same things. But I think I can motivate people and at least I can motivate myself to go some more miles if needed. I would say this is kind of a superpower.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 13:52

Absolutely, absolutely. Could you maybe share with the people also understand that maybe one situation or difficult situation in the past maybe in the past months or longer before when you use that superpower, basically to solve it.

Martin Flügge 14:10

I'm not sure if I have a concrete example. But if I relate this to this Corona situation when I had more stress and more stress, and actually my workload increased by more than 10% at least but I still do not feel like it is more work. So for me it's like work and a lot of things to be done and there's a lot of context which is but but still it feels to me like I've worked the same amount of time like it did before and I think it stems from from from the passion that I have for the topics and that I want to drive this forward. And if I see the results, I'm super happy. And I hope at least just my guys can answer this. I hope that I can kind of spread this passion to them and make these Coronavirus easier.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 14:50

Yes. Now, that also of course passion is great is a great motivation and also of course requires energy is. Well, to keep that motivation fresh up and running. So I would ask you actually, do you have maybe one one suggestion, one strategy that you use to improve that superpower further, right? Because I always think in terms of when it comes to leadership development, focus, focus on your strengths, right? Think about how you can get better. Any advice on this particular one? How can you improve that?

Martin Flügge 15:29

Yeah, okay, how to improve passion. Okay, whenever I think about this, I think I need to be honest, because the superpower is also my kryptonite. So this is like, it brings me to work more and more and more. And I think one thing to improve this, this superpower is actually true to see my limits and to kind of stop myself with my passion and want to work more that I kind of listen to understand that my body actually cannot follow my, my my passion and my superpower they have to stop and relax. With this is something that I can approve, and also passion. Sometimes I find myself in situations where I'm super passionate about something, but other people are not, then, then sometimes it can be kind of frustrating, because, of course, not everyone can be passionate about the same thing. And everyone has their topics on the plate. And I think improving my passion or making more out of my passion is actually just to keep them under control from time to time. And this is something that I would like to improve on that I think I should improve to leverage more from this superpower.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 16:35

Okay, now, switching gears a little bit. Because we're here around with the fellowship of mindful tech leaders, the whole topic of mindfulness, as you know, is the underlying foundation to thrive leadership, the cross personal cross is valid. I'm just curious. Also, on your side, any experience with mindfulness or mindfulness training personally, or even if you have how to apply it in the workplace, was one example that would be great.

Martin Flügge 17:09

And I do. So again, like we had this before I stumbled into this topic without planning this. And this happens like, like several years ago, when I was in a life situation where I actually was forced to reflect myself. So this is like me, I was kind of stuck in a situation that was not good and was not healthy for me. And I had to change something. Now, by accident, I stumbled about mindfulness. And I started to exercise on some things. So I actually started with PMR. So with this progressive muscle relaxation, I tried out some breathing techniques, which did not work back in the days. I learned some very basic Qigong forms, which I still practice from time to time. And these things they really helped me in, in working life, and they really helped me to calm myself down. So let's say you have a stressful meeting, and maybe you are on 180. Because something was not like you expected, as you say, then maybe depression actually went wrong. This kind of helps me to slow down, to calm myself down.

Also, another example is, I tried to do my lunch breaks to do some sort of breathing exercise. And now it works. And it's super interesting thing about this is that now I realize that after five minutes, 10 minutes, I'm more refreshed than before. So I didn't expect that this would happen. I just wanted to relax. And now I feel that I'm more refreshed. And this is super helpful. Because then I can start the afternoon with a clear mind. And also this reflecting myself helps me to reflect or see my mind and my engineers more. So this helps me more to have these fine grained antennas to hear you some words and to see more people are maybe endangered by burning out and so on. And so this experience that I had really helped me and he said to become a better leader be more sensitive about emotions and to direct

Dr. Reiner Kraft 19:07

It seems then you use the techniques you mentioned quite a few from breathing Qigong, progressive muscle relaxation, probably meditation is a form of meditations. My guess is well, it seems then one of the benefits and what seems to work actually pretty good is stress relief. Stress Management is one of the key things. Maybe the question would be how did you even get into mindfulness in the first place? Was it because of high stress levels? Because this was also something I'm always curious about? how did you get into realizing that is something interesting to explore?

Martin Flügge 19:48

Yeah, exactly. So I was, as I kind of already settled in, in a very strange life situation that was related to a lot of stress. Where I kind of had to tackle the stress. I'm actually at St. Qigong. I learned to swim. We're friends. So I had some discussions with people who were in similar situations. So they kind of helped me there. And this is how I started to try and learn to get more into this mindfulness.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 20:13

Sounds good. Yeah. And that's why a lot of tech leaders get into it. And that is usually something that creates some opening where he said, oh, let's, let's explore this a little bit. And then once you start getting in, there's all those different things you can do and experiment to see what works, what doesn't work. So that's great. You really, another thing I'm curious about and I'm sure a lot of the listeners here on the video, also are curious about, I usually like to ask for some good, like, best practices. In general, I think, always start with a good morning routine. Every person may have different things when they all get up to what that person is doing. But usually, over the years, you find out that works very well. It helps you to go through the day's work more effectively, whatever it is, maybe share a little bit of what you do there as part of morning getting up that helps you to be effective.

Martin Flügge 21:21

Alright, yeah, I mean, this is like, one thing that helps, it definitely is my morning tea. So this is like, like a routine that I have. But before this tea, I took a long time. So this takes like 15 minutes, sometimes 20 minutes. And this is a moment that I believe, reflect myself and reflect about how I feel at the moment, because sometimes you wake up and you're stressed. And you don't know why I used this time, usually to understand why I am in Wyoming. So maybe something happened the last day or I had a bad dream or something like this. And this really helps me to sort out what's going on, maybe your partner's emotion and have a more fresh start into the day because I can just talk to the negative things, because I already thought about them and found out how they are related? Then I usually try to do some short Qigong exercises. So there's like five minutes, 10 minutes, sometimes I even skip this. And the third thing that I kind of do is I check my calendar. And I can go through the meetings and then I try to listen to myself, what kind of emotions do I have when I see the meetings? And then I try to understand, okay, why is this emotion there, then maybe you have a full week of full days of stressful meetings where I know traders will be stressed. And this also helps me to focus on this and prepare myself for the day and say, Okay, this will be a stressful day, you might be exhausted in the end. But having this clarity and this understanding where you helps me or, for example, you have a nice meeting, maybe in the afternoon, then I know, okay, might be a series of stressful meetings, but there will be this nice meeting, maybe with a nice colleague, and then I kind of create some anticipation for for this meeting. And this also can help me

Dr. Reiner Kraft 23:08

Very good Since then, the shower is subfields like then probably like some form of meditation, right? And kind of themselves, right. And then LinkedIn, there's also a lot of reflection going on, looking at things coming up and achieving more clarity. That's great. Yeah, I can see that the combination of those things can be very helpful. And also credit you integrate the Qigong right? Maybe not every day, but that's pretty cool. Very good. Now in terms of growing as a leader of personal growth, it seems you're definitely doing over the course of the year and months and weeks and days a lot of reflection that usually gives you also data points on areas where you can improve and get better. Do you have a strategy for this small set aside on how to optimize or thrive your personal growth? But also, is it a priority to set some time aside really for food every week, maybe share a little bit on this?

Martin Flügge 24:23

Now, so for the person who broke I must admit that I skipped this for a very, very long time. So it was really awesome. Now this is not correct. I was not planning for it. So to say well, I was really focusing on bringing my team up and working with my team and of course why you do things like this and try out things you really practice and learn. Well what a pipe call buyer was really planning something like actual video or growth or something like this. This is something that I picked up some months ago just to focus again on me and I try to reflect on what is the most important thing that can help one to get better. So personally, privately and so on. And for me, it's communication and talking to people. So this is like, find people where you think they're more experienced than topics like you and set up regular meetings with them talk about topics, even if you have people who are, let's say, less skilled in some properties, then you can also train them because training, talking about things can all also like make make your opinion stronger, or your understanding stronger. So teaching people really helps a lot. So I think this is for personal growth, the best way, and I'm not a guy who reads books. So I cannot really make that much out of books. I need to communicate with people trying to help them solve problems, asking people about solving my problems, or some ideas. So these four partnerships, I think they are really helpful for me personally, and maybe four hours to grow into topics.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 26:08

Yeah, so one question I hit now was on as a tech leader, and usually over the years, as you're doing this for many years, you develop, you develop at the end of the day, principles, like all them simply leadership principles that serve you. Well, you know, if you basically know if I do it this way, right, as a principal, I know that this is something that works for me that I had. And then over the years, I'm sure you build up a few of those, now maybe you can share just one principle where you set for other tech leaders, where you say this is very effective.

Martin Flügge 26:49

Principle, again, I'm not sure if this is a principle. But this is something like a model or guideline that I stumbled upon some years ago. And this is sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. So I saw this sentence on the laptop of one of my leads. And since then, this really influenced the way I lead and also how I perceive failures. So since then, I started to see failures, always as positive things, because you can learn from them, you can get better from them. And this is also what I really teach my direct team. And we've really established a culture of obscene failures as learnings and drivers to make us better. Yeah, so I would say this is kind of my guiding principle that had the biggest influence on how I lead in the last two years.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 27:40

Okay, very good. Definitely, I also see the importance there to learn, the right to learn based on failures. It's clear, right? And it also requires a lot of self reflection again, to do that, right. Otherwise, you can make a lot of these mistakes, but you'll repeat them if you're not reflecting small enough, what actually happened. Very good enough, now, we're coming to the end. Usually, what I asked, are your top three recommendations for people who want to perform better at being a tech leader? Would you say it was three things that you said, this is a thing that worked for me right now. It's what you would encourage others to explore

Martin Flügge 28:30

two or three things. Okay. Um, I would say the first one is, like code less, lead more. So I had the luck that the first team that I took over was really skilled and really experienced, I had no chance to go there on the technical level. So I was kind of forced to get out of this coding, although I love this. And I see from some leaders that it's, it was super hard for me, and as it is for others. That is, it's really, really hard to get out of this, this coding, because we often come from engineering backgrounds, we love coding. And we always have to pee or at least I had the fear that I would lose touch with the tech. But I think this is the wrong way, I think the right way is to accept that you now have another responsibility and actually focus on this leadership thing, and get more out of this type. So it does not mean that you lose it completely. But I would say stop coding, at least for a while and focus on this. The same thing, I think this is the second, this is some sort of a mindset thing that is really helpful if you want to lead people. Simon Sinek once said, I'm not sure if I'll phrase it correctly, but he kind of said, if you are leading that actually, if your team succeeds, they get the frame. And if the team fails, then you get to blame and I think this is leadership and this is also something that you need to change with your mindset, right because if something goes wrong, then of course your team did it because they did the hard work. You're just the one who guides them through processes, but if something goes wrong, you are counting. For this because you are accountable for the team. And this is a mindset switch that you have to make. And that requires a lot of putting your ego aside. And I think you're already ready to do this, I think that the faster you can go into a real leadership role.

And the last thing is, I would recommend reading a lot about people. So I always like to say, when you want to build products for people with people, the first thing that you have to care about is people. And I didn't read that many management books, but I read a lot of books about people. So not about how people behave, how conflicts are, and so on. Repeat is also kind of my experiences as a leader and how I can act as a leader. So I would say these four things could be good advice.

Dr. Reiner Kraft 30:55

Good. So to summarize, make sure everyone understands, like the first principle is basically code less lead more. And yes, definitely, I see this a lot, when for tech leaders to still be hands on doing a lot of things. But at the end of the day, as you said, it's more about supporting the team, right and how to do it. Well, it's a good thing. I think the mindset of accountability is cultivating the mindset of accountability, and also figuring out how to really weave it into the DNA of yourself over time. But also establishing it in the team, like this sense of responsibility plus accountability is the third point. Looking, reading, getting more information information, I think you mentioned also earlier, when talking about learning from experts in certain subject areas, we're doing something really well. So having an order to do it. I think that also fits into this. So basically, maybe to abstract it a little bit is keep learning, keep learning, learning from the best in the field, maybe and this combination could be then something that is not doesn't work trust for you, but you would recommend for pretty much everything. Right, exactly. So this is like, just just understand that you never learn out. So there's always something new to learn, and just never lose the hunger for learning.

Very good. So this is basically it. And definitely I saw there were a lot of cool insights. And so encourage people to probably rewind the video, make a few notes. If you haven't, take some of these bullets. There's a lot of actionable stuff in there. We'll also try to summarize the video in the notes and some of these action items that you can kind of safely quickly get to the point of. And then thanks, Martin definitely for taking the time today to meet and share your insights. Definitely very much appreciated. And with that said, I would say good luck and success on your journey is evolving and doing a lot of more stuff in the leadership space and helping other tech leaders and teams become better. Yeah, thanks again.

Martin Flügge 33:37

Perfect, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure. Yes.


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