I lead engineering teams at Checkr and drive our engineering on-boarding program and "Women in Engineer" ERG. – Michelle Xue.Featured

Hi Elpha! I’m Michelle Xue. I'm the Director of Engineering for Foundation at Checkr, a background check company using artificial intelligence and machine learning to make hiring more inclusive and efficient. I lead the Infrastructure, Data, Platform, and Risk teams (~50 people), which make Checkr easy for our engineers to build on and to draw insights from.My other role is to help grow and scale the overall engineering team. I specifically drive initiatives like the engineering on-boarding program, and quality improvement through metrics. I also sponsor a "Women in Engineering" employee resource group where we host both internal and external meetups and tech talks, as well as doing other fun activities to ensure women engineers are supported.Before Checkr, I worked at NetSuite for 8 years first as a Senior Software Engineer and later Senior Director of the SuiteCloud Platform. My undergraduate study was in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at UC Berkeley. Afterward, I went on to Stanford for my Master’s Degree in Management Science and Engineering.I have a three-year-old son, so whenever I’m not working, all my time goes to him! We love exploring new parts of the city, whether it’s trying new restaurants, parks, or different activities happening in the Bay Area.Ask me about designing engineering on-boarding programs, managing managers, running employee resource groups, getting started in engineering, growing as a woman engineering leader, mentorship or something else!
Thank you Michelle for joining us this week! Michelle will be answering your questions before the end of the week. Please note that she may not have time to answer all your questions, so be sure to upvote the ones you most want her to answer with emojis.
Hi Michelle! Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA. You mentioned quality improvement through metrics, can you elaborate on what metrics you are using and how you work to improve them among the teams you work with?
Hi Andrea,Yes, we have an engineering quality dashboard that we look at on a regular basis which different granularities from department level to team level. We look at trending of bugs based on severity, SLA on our support tickets, deployment frequency and its success rate, PageDuty time to resolve (Mean time to recovery), Sentry error rate (unexpected error rate), # of incidents per month, HTTP 5XX Status weekly % change, etc. We look at the overall health of the engineering org. If some metric is bad, then we can drill down by team or project to understand whether it's a generic problem across the board or just on specific teams. We also set eng level OKR for some of the metrics that are not ideal. Different teams may also set OKR for their specific quality goal. Some team may improve on support ticket SLA, some team may improve on unexpected error rate. We let the team decide what's the best way to improve quality for their specific product.
Awesome, thanks for the thorough response!
Thank you for taking the time to answer questions. I had a couple:- Do you have any advice for balancing a senior leadership roll while having a family?- What do you think is most important to keep in mind when leading an engineering organization at a startup?- Are there any books or resources that you recommend for engineering managers?Thank you!
Hi RoseRegarding balancing, I set my boundary. I made it clear to my manager and on my calendar, I need to leave at 4:30pm in order to pick up my son from the daycare on time. When HR partner suggests in a staff meeting to start a rotation of having engineering leaders to visit our second headquarter on a certain frequency, I talked to the HR person offline to call her out that she is creating peer pressure and not being considerate to people who has limited travel availability because of family obligation. That being said, I still struggle with my time since I often need to work in the evening after I put my son to sleep and during the weekend. So I sometimes also wonder if I should find a slower pace company for work-life balance.As I mentioned in the other reply, I believe keeping things as consistent as you can is the most important thing at a startup, comparing to an established mature company. By nature, there will be a lot of chaos and growing pains in a high growth startup. Often, drama is created by things going too fast and people were caught by surprise. So I always remind myself be being mindful of the impact on people with any decision on changes and make sure we communicate it cleary and early. Instill general frameworks and principles that will stay consistent overtime.Many books to recommend depending on what area you're looking for. So I will name a few of different variety: "The five Dysfunctions of a Team", "Deep Work", "How to Win Friends & Influence People", "Drive".
Thank you for your suggestions and I'll look up the books! I recently read "How to Win Friends & Influence People" and loved it but I haven't read the others yet.
Hi and thx for the AMA. Do you have advice for a non-technical founder on how to manage her co-founders who are technical, and came in as a pair (they worked together prev'ly) and understand if the technical decisions are good ones? Thx!
Hi Jo,If you ask my advice, I would advise you not to spend your energy on checking the technical decisions of your co-founder. You shouldn't care what language they pick to build the product, if they pick AWS or GoogleCloud for infrastructure, if they use a relational DB or NoSQL, etc. However, you can set metrics and KPI to measure the success of an engineering team, quality metrics like bugs rate, uptime; delivery metrics like lead time, deployment frequency, etc. Set OKR for the engineering team.I may read into this too much, but having a mutual trust between the founders is very important for the success of the startup. There are so many things to work on in a startup, if you have to spend time to check on your cofounder's decisions, I don't know how you'll have time to work on other important things in your domain. Your cofounder will also feel being micro-managed. Anyways, just my 2 cents.
I appreciate your feedback… It seems like you’ve been on the other side of this and I totally get it! Thx !
Hey Michelle! How did you think about making trade offs between staying at the same company vs moving around?
Hi Jess, the decision between stay vs move around is always hard. Here is some advice I can share. First of all, I would advise not to move around just because it's the fastest way to increase your compensation. It will hurt your career. If you like the company and culture, but you are just a bit tired of working in the same team, I would recommend looking for a new opportunity inside first before looking outside. It takes time to get used to a new company, people and culture. So if it's just related to the specific technical work, it's much easier just find a new job inside the same company. Then, there are many reasons to look for a new opportunity: you can't find what you want to do in the existing company, no growth opportunity available, bad culture, unsupported boss, etc. I would say every job has some aspect that we don't like, but don't be so quickly to come to conclude that the solution is to find a new job. I recommend one first tries to fix the problem. After you tried and it looks pretty obvious it is not going to work, then it's probably a good idea to start looking for a new opportunity.I have been at NetSuite for 8 years. It's a really long time for staying at one company. Thus I decided to try something different. But it's definitely hard to leave my comfort zone, and I missed my ex-coworkers a lot! But I also enjoy the new opportunities and challenges I get at Checkr.
Oooo, you had me at 'managing managers'!What's been the biggest obstacle with managing mangers?
Hi Whitney,Very good question. I use the same framework and principle in leading and supporting people whether it's IC or manager. What I advise the manager on is definitely different from what I advice the IC. But the principle is the same, you build trust with you director reports, you want to give them autonomy (let them have their own style of leading their own teams), help them to develop mastery (mastery in management) and purpose (align them with what drives them). I would say the bigger challenge is that you really need to be aligned with your managers because it creates bigger damage when being misalign with your manager comparing to being misaligned with your IC. Because that misalignment will trigger down to the team, it will hurt culture and execution. So I make sure they're super clear on why and what, and there is the real commitment between the teams. I make sure I casade important messages down to my manager timely and clearly.
Hi Michelle, Currently working on a small start up (currently founders only).We are starting to look at expanding our team. So any insight you can provide on any of the questions below would be gladly appreciated. 1. How do I convince talented people to come work in such a risky highly resource constrained environment?2. How long does it take to determine if a new hire fits? 3. What challenges and wins have you experienced growing and scaling an engineering team?4. What does a scaled engineering team look like (cross-functional responsibilities?)?5. What are the key elements to an engineering on-boarding program?Thank you for your time!~Jessica
Hi Jessica,1. I would recommend you to read the book "Drive" by Daniel Pink. Create a very good culture in your company where you provide engineers a lot of autonomy and trust. Find people who has the same passion as you in forming your startup. People want to work on things that align with their purpose and drive. 2. It really depends. Ideally, you are able to assess technical fit and culture fit very well during the interview that you don't need to ask this question often. But have a good onboarding process and set clear goals in the beginning and evaluate them often, then you should be able to quickly tell when they're not a good fit.3. During hypergrowth, things go really fast, I often spread yourself too thin over many projects and it is very easy to become very reactive. All the wins I experienced is whenever I step out of my crazy schedule and really have time for deep thinking and be focus on only tackling a few things at a time than try to solve many things. With hypergrowth, I always look for repeatable processes and tools that will help to scale, automation, automation, automation. One piece of advice I would give is to keep things as constant as you can. The biggest complaint I see from people during hypergrowth is that things always change, as a result, one feels never know what to expect next. Also if you change too often as a leader, people will lose confidence in you.4. Not sure if I understand your question. But you know you scale the teams correctly is whenever you add a new team, there is little dependency they have on other teams, basically horizontal scaling. If you can continue adding new teams to build new capabilities without slowing down other parts of your engineering organization or making certain team become the bottleneck, you know you have a scalable organization. 5. You can first set your north star of the goal of your onboarding program, then it is relatively easy to determine what materials to include here. For example, if first day PR is the goal, then you will think about what takes for an engineer to set up the environment to make a small change, test it and push it to production. But in general, an engineering onboarding program includes an overview of the architecture of the system, data models, tools used and processes that need to be followed. Besides engineering onboarding, you should also onboard them to the company in term of understanding the core values, vision and mission of the company, products and business model of the company.
What are the most important aspects of the "Women in Engineering" ERG to keep women engineers at Checkr engaged? And how do you measure the success of the ERG?
Hi Kuan, I believe the most important aspect of the "Women in Engineering" ERG is to build a mutual support system among women engineers, where there is a strong connection formed. When we feel belonging to a place, it's much easier to be the best of us. Checkr conducts an Employee Engagement Survey every six months. So we are pretty lucky here to be able to measure the success easily through the existing survey, where we can break the survey result by gender. To be honest, a lot of companies just focus on diversity in the hiring process and forgot about looking at belonging. It has to be a very conscious effort to make sure women engineers are engaged after they join.
What were some of the barriers (if you had any) to getting into Engineering Management?
I was very lucky to have a supportive manager to help me to grow my career in management when I was at NetSuite. I had the same boss over my eight years there. Having a supportive and mature manager really makes a huge difference. But in general, all the common biases toward women can become barriers to management.