Zarathon Viana, Software Engineering Manager at Wildlife, talks about how autonomy empowered him to be more confident, learn from mistakes and build a solid team
“Autonomy to do what you feel like” may be something coveted by some who don’t have it, but also scary when such power is given to you (“Uncle Ben was right the whole time”, Spider-Man would say). Last year, for the first time in my life, I was handed this power, and I’m here to tell you how I went from “absolute fear” to something truly amazing.
Before we get things going, allow me to introduce myself. Hi, I’m Zara. Well, “Zarathon”, actually, but nobody aside from my mom and my wife when they’re angry at me calls me that. I’ve been working with software for the past 17 years – the last seven dedicated to software engineering team management.
And, I kid you not, throughout my career, I never had a “full autonomy” experience such as I do here at Wildlife Studios.
Keep reading so I can share some details with you.
Let’s dive first into this word, small in size but heavy in meaning: the origin of the word “autonomy” comes from French – “autonomie”. This, in turn, derives from two other words found in Old Greek: “autós”, which means “self” or “to oneself”; and “nomos”, which means “names” but can also be translated to “norms” or “rules”.
In other words, “autonomy” can be understood as “make your own rules”. And that’s exactly what I got on the day I received an offer from Wildlife: a blank page to kickstart what would become a new area, that I needed to plan and develop from scratch so it would, in the end, bring results (and, of course, as we always say, impact billions of people).
At the very first moment, you feel that fear of failure, that “Will I make it” kind of anxiety. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, things went smoothly and, so far, this has been a very joyful journey. However, a good part of this was only possible because Wildlife Studios gave me not only the necessary autonomy, but also a much needed support to make all of this tangible and accessible.
I joined the company on the first few days of the COVID-19 pandemic: the remote work model was still being implemented and the overall environment was one of uncertainty. On the other hand, this “spice” was the cherry on top of the cake for me to take this chapter of my (and our) life (at Wildlife) and make it even more challenging. But since I love challenges, I thought everything was great.
At the very beginning, the team consisted of four engineers, building a proof of concept for what nowadays has become a monetization platform for the company. My first challenge was to think of a way to connect with these people, these four engineers whom I had never even met and now were reporting to me. At that moment, again came that feeling of “self-sabotage” we talked about in the beginning: a sense of dread and insecurity, thoughts like “if I fail, will I bring this all down?”.
Luckily, however, that feeling went away quickly, since I soon realized I could make a difference by applying management models that I thought would be more impactful. And so I did! Without much detail, I quickly established practices that would bring me closer to the people and help them towards their own objectives.
Having the autonomy to pull off a transformation this size, right on the first days of work, made me realize this was the place where I could shoot and miss, but also learn from it – and that was liberating.
This autonomy brought me a sense of self-confidence that I haven’t felt in a long time, giving me the courage to face head-on the challenges that would come ahead (spoiler: they did come). After the first deliveries, the results came following and, after that, an implied request: “we need to increase the size of our team. Also, we need more teams”.
Since I like to see my missions through, I once again put my autonomy to the test. I met with the recruiting team and, together, we came up with a strategy to bring a certain amount of engineers, in very little time. Once again, being sure of the fact that mistakes are tools for learning liberated us, and motivated us to promote a recruiting process that was efficient and objectively conclusive (in other words: another delivery, another success case).
The recruiting team faced several challenges of their own, after all, we were (and still are) going through a very delicate period on our time – one that our generation never faced before in this context (the pandemic), but having this freedom liberated us from the shackles of bureaucracy and helped us focus on what really mattered. In just under three months, we hired another dozen engineers and made it to 2020’s end with three active teams.
The Talent Acquisition department also grew with this challenge. They needed more able hands and more speed in order to meet the demands within the available time. We understood that, with more autonomy and less bureaucracy, we were gaining speed on hiring processes and decision making. In this, one of our key values (We Think Big) could be seen, allowing us to see beyond and think outside of the box.
In the beginning, besides thinking about process restructuring, recruiting and hiring managers also needed to build, establish and strengthen a partnership between them – since this entire environment was new to everyone – and once again we put our values and autonomy to the test for, together, shooting for another successful mission. The magic formula for this to work came through the confidence that was placed upon recruiters. In other words: the autonomy to run the recruitment process in the best possible way, and the liberty to have readily accessible stakeholders whenever it was required.
In the same manner I have the autonomy to work, I learned to give that autonomy to those I lead. It’s funny to see how people react differently to this power, but that initial fear is common among everyone. As I learned my own way, I needed to create mechanisms that helped me and also allowed me to teach other people to handle this liberty on the team’s daily routines, and the result that comes from it can only be enriching. Today, we have teams that own their own stories, creating a psychologically safe environment to make mistakes and learn from them, where there’s not a culture of fear, but one of engagement.
“We care for each other“, “We are committed” and “We are fast” are a few of our company values, and they reflect on the day-to-day of these teams (and the company as a whole).
There are no hard feelings, only positive ones, for these are the ones that nurture the motivation that people use to keep working towards the results they deliver and the impact they generate. Having autonomy creates trust and giving them to the teams creates motivation. A team full of motivated people is key for each and every single positive result.
We’re still a long way from our final goal, but I know that the key for our success in our future challenges relies on autonomy, be it for my own purposes or to give it to other people.