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?