EPISODE 7: Diversity & Inclusion Q&A with Johanna Belfrage
EPISODE 7: This month, I had the privilege of speaking with Head of Engineering, Johanna Belfrage. We discuss the importance of establishing a culture based on trust, inclusion, transparency and not being afraid to make mistakes — “If something is a challenge, just go for it and think what is the worst thing that can happen?”
Johanna shares some fantastic tactics for dealing with adversity and managing work/ home/ family life during a pandemic. Along with some great advice for anyone wanting to transition from a hands-on developer to hands-off manager and the mindset shift required.
Check out our full video interview here: https://youtu.be/AhG3TANXrFg
Johanna, thank you for joining us and welcome to our Diversity and Inclusion Q&A initiative! We are so excited to hear your story and would love if you could please share a little bit about what it is that you do and what a typical day as a Head of Engineering is like for you?
“I’m working at Avanza, we are an online bank revolutionising our industry, working to help millions of people to have a better future.
We have around 24 tech teams and as the Head of Engineering, I am responsible for the Engineering Department which consists of a just over 100 people.
In my team, I have 7 Engineering Managers and 3 Agile Team Coaches. I am also part of a management team where I collaborate with our Head of Products and CTO. We are responsible for helping our teams work in the best way, ensuring we have the best possibilities.”
What does a typical day as Head of Engineering look like for you?
“I’m currently working from home, the day starts with morning meetings with my teams. We have sprint planning and take the same approach to planning as the tech teams. We take time to look at our board and assess: What have we done? What should we focus on right now? How can we be the most effective?
My day will consist of a lot of meetings that could typically be:
Workshops: A team or domain might become too large and we need to look at how and if we need to split the team. Do we have the right set of teams? How are we looking at that?
Strategy: We previously had a big technical change with our Frontend Development, we went from our native development into progressive web apps so at that time I had a lot of meetings regarding the strategy/approach/vision.
Interviews: We are currently hiring!
Frequent 1:1’s — With the Managers and Coaches that I am responsible for, helping and supporting them as maybe they have some challenges and obstacles.
Every day is very different, as you can probably imagine and I really enjoy that, it keeps it exciting.”
It’s great that you can mix things up. What do you enjoy the most about your position?
“I really enjoy helping people and teams grow within the business. Also, I enjoy that I work at a company that I’m proud of. We are value-driven, have a great culture a genuinely nice way of working and everybody has a focus on how we can help our customers and each other, which is very important. For me, working with system development and in the tech industry as a whole has always been super fun and enjoyable.”
Awesome! What do you think makes a great culture?
“I think it’s important to have a culture where you can be yourself, you can trust people and you give freedom.
At Avanza every team has a mission, and I think it’s important that you let the team decide themselves how they can reach that goal? Let the team do the work and trust them.
Also, to embrace a culture where it’s ok to make mistakes. To be creative and innovative you need to let people make mistakes so they can learn from their experience. In general, my ideas on culture are very aligned with Avanza’s and their values.”
On the topic of values, how would you define Avanza’s?
“We trust people, include people and embrace the mindset that it’s ok to make mistakes. We are very customer-focused, so always looking at “How can we help each other at Avanza to make the best for our customers?”
To us, it doesn’t matter what team you are in, you do not only work within that team but for the whole of Avanza and our customers. Everybody’s very motivated and inclusive.”
Sounds great, I can see the reasons why you’ve stayed at Avanza for nearly six years!
You have an extensive background in technology. How would you define your technical expertise?
“I have a Master’s Degree in Engineering and for several years previously worked as Java Developer. Now, I’m working a lot closer to “How can create and establish great product development? How can we create a great organisation and teams?”
Having spent over 7+ years working 100% with hands-on development, how was the transition to management?
“I really enjoyed coding because to me, it is so much fun. Initially, I struggled to let it go because I didn’t want to. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many women go from coding to other positions, so this was a struggle.
I do enjoy working with people and I soon realised that I was good at it, so made the decision to continue with it. I realised that if you can reach a point in your position where you can help teams get to what you believe in, then you can help and contribute even more by getting the right culture and having the right possibilities and so on, so that realisation also helped me with the transition to purely management.
After being a developer, I worked for some time as a Scrum Master and after that Team lead and System responsible at H&M. I joined Avanza as an Engineering Manager and for the first few months, I worked very closely with our Head of Engineering at the time. Unfortunately, a few months after I started, he left the company. I was then responsible for the teams in an acting ‘Head of Engineering’ position together with another manager colleague. A few months later I got the official position as ‘Head of Engineering’ which was exciting for me.
I’ve stayed at Avanza for nearly 6 years because my role has changed so much, it’s so fun. In the beginning, we had 6 teams and now we have 24 teams!”
Incredible growth! Are you still able to code in your current position?
“Right now, I’m no longer coding. At first, I found it hard as I missed it a lot, but now I have gotten used to it.
In the beginning, not at Avanza but my former position, I tried do both coding/leading when I had a leading role, but it was too hard because, there are so many different things to focus on.
I still really enjoy being close to the development side of things and listening to the tech teams and so on. It’s nice that I know what my tech teams are talking about and I try help out where I can.”
What would be your advice to someone who has reached a peak in their development career, who wants to take the next step into management, but is scared and nervous about letting go of coding?
“If you work in a tech team that is working Agile, you can start with trying to be a Scrum Master because your focus moves onto the needs of the team members and those they serve (the customer). Allowing you to try some form of leadership.
I’d say it’s just a case of you starting. Don’t be afraid, try it out, take help and talk to other people that have that role. Look to get a mentor and just go for it, have the confidence in your abilities!”
Thanks for sharing some great advice. Would you say you are still learning daily?
“Absolutely! I hope I will never stop learning because then I will probably need to change my job. Constantly learning more all the time is something that drives me.
At work I’m always learning from such inspirational, talented people — It could be within technical/leadership stuff, when holding or being part of a workshop you learn something new every time.”
Constantly learning drives you, so how else are you furthering your career development?
“A way for me to develop myself is to collaborate with others and learn from them. So I’m always trying to find interesting people (and it’s not hard) who share their stories and I can work close to.
I want to continue to learn all of the time and over the years, I have had mentors, coaches, networks and have been included in leadership courses and so on.
I also listen to Podcast’s. In Sweden we have something called Karriärpodden which is a podd where you can listen to inspirational women who have gone far in their careers. They have over 150+ episodes! And of course, I listen to podds delivered by men that I have learnt a lot from as well.”
What else would you like to learn this year?
“In our department both on the IT and business side, we’re working Agile. So, I’d like to learn more about how we can get the whole company (every department) to work Agile.
Another focus for me has been continuing to learn more about product development & product discovery. For example: How can we get the whole team to be included in product discovery?
Many companies are now doing transformations, we have done several too and now I’d also like to learn more about what is our next step as a business to get even better and take us to the next level?”
Thank you for sharing Johanna. You mentioned mentorship earlier, what would be your advice to women who are seeking a mentor? What approach should they take to find one?
“I initially went into a mentor program, but I’ve also always tried to find mentors myself. I’ve had supportive mentors which have always been a great learning experience.
You can start by joining networks — I’m involved in different women-focused networks for example Women For Leaders. Ask around, do your friends or colleagues know anyone that they think could be very good for you?
If you’re impressed by someone and you want to learn from them, reach out to them. Get talking, build a relationship and ask them “Would you like to be my mentor?” You will be surprised by the number of people that will be willing to help you.
So, join a network and talk to people because it’s good to have a mentor and it’s also good to be a mentor because there will be so much that you can learn as it works both ways.”
Thank you for sharing. What have been some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced on your journey to becoming ‘Head of Engineering?’
“There have for sure been different challenges.
For example, when I became an Engineering Manager and then suddenly one day, I was responsible for a much larger team and department and at the same time, I was responsible for on boarding another Engineering Manager who just started. That was tough.
I think the only way that I learnt was to just throw myself into the position and responsibilities, take one thing at a time and do things in my own way.
Something that was very important to me was to uncover: What is my stand in this? How do I want this to be? And then to make small or bigger changes along the way to make it the way I envisioned it. And of course, if you have your ground values work with them and collaborate with people.”
I can imagine it’s been a real journey of self-discovery for you?
“Yes, and it has not always been easy!
It has been a personal struggle in the past, as someone who works by the Agile values to join different companies (before Avanza) and meet different people, who are not necessarily working by the Agile values and have different views on it.
Trying to convince people what you believe in (Agile values) is tough when those people are so used to the way it was before and do not want to let that go of that.
Each challenge is a lesson learnt, take time to reflect and keep moving forwards!”
If you dig deeper into the challenges you’ve faced so far. What are your five leadership lessons that you’ve learnt and why?
“One lesson that I took from being a developer is stealing with pride -
If you find someone is doing something that you think is good from a workshop or anything, copy this and try to use it yourself!
I’ve learnt that trust is really important. Also, to include people very early on with transparency. For example, a few years ago we did a transformation at Avanza. We heard that some people thought that it was a struggle, and should we really be doing the transformation?
We heard these concerns a lot so decided to create an open survey on Mentimeter so everybody could do it in real-time — We had over 100 people in a room.
From the results, you could see that only 4% were against the transformation. This was surprising to us, as we thought it would be a lot higher because of the concerns voice before. This was a real moment confirming to us that we need to include people and be transparent.
When we did the transformation, we told the teams early on that we’re going to do a change, we don’t have all the answers, but we will learn along the way and we need you! We did lots of workshops including all the teams.
Another lesson learnt is — Ask for help. I believe in teamwork so take help from co-workers or the leadership team. You can share your thoughts and when you’re planning to do things, they can challenge you and because of that, the results of that will be better.
Take help and include people. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and think if something is a challenge, what is the worst thing that can happen? Try it out and you will learn from it. Don’t hesitate too much.”
Thank you for sharing! What would has been a really proud moment throughout your career?
“A proud and fun moment for me was when we did something called ‘Self-Selection’ during our transformation at Avanza.
We decided we would have 11 teams for the transformation and picked the Product Owner, who then pitched what the teams mission was and what they will be doing.
Then we had a 1.5-hour workshop on ‘Self-Selection’ — Meaning we had 11 teams, and everyone could freely choose what team they were going to join.
Of course, we were a bit hesitant before the ‘Self-Selection’ like will this work? Will every team get members? How will we know that the right people are in the right team?
It was a very proud moment when the ‘Self-Selection’ worked and a great feeling seeing all 11 teams achieve this in and only one and a half hours. It all comes down to putting trust in the teams, and you need the courage to be able to trust.
Our other option was management selection, the traditional way, management would select who would be in what team, but it felt right and we found that it was more effective giving people the freedom to choose their team, the motivation is a lot higher.”
Allowing that level of flexibility and freedom is brilliant. Did you always know that working in technology was what you wanted to do?
“I’ve always been interested, but maybe I didn’t know in the beginning that it was a career that I would pursue. I always thought it was easy to read the technical mathematics and those kinds of subjects.
My dad was also a programmer, so I learnt a lot from him. He included me in a lot in technical stuff, so it didn’t surprise me when I chose to go back to study coding after being been abroad for two years.”
Cool that your dad was already working in programming. Who else inspired you to get in the space?
“I’ve always had a lot of people around me who have inspired me throughout my studies and work, like great developers, both men & women developers. I’ve also had some very talented managers who have supported me.
For me, I’m not sure if it was a specific person, it was more the fact that technology is something that moves fast, and I wanted to be a part of that movement. I could see the future within tech and loved that it offered so many possibilities and different areas. For example, now I’ve been working in the banking industry, retail and telecom.
Also, I guess inspiration come from wanting to show that a girl can do as well as a guy within this space. For me it’s just a fun challenge!”
The possibilities really are endless in tech! Have you had any women role models or mentors throughout your career?
“When I studied, I had women around me who were really good and interested in tech. But I wouldn’t say I had any specific women role models.
I think it’s more that from the beginning I felt that I had the same possibilities as the guys working in tech and because there aren’t that many women role models, it made me even more determined to make a positive impact in tech. I think that’s something has had always triggered me.”
I love your drive, belief and passion Johanna! What would be your advice for other women wanting to become leaders in their career?
“Talking is key — It can be with leaders, friends, and in general people that work within tech. Ask them how their own experiences have been transitioning to management, learn from this & study it.
Approach different companies ask them if you can have some kind of internship within leadership or if they have any mentors in leadership. Just go for it, don’t overthink it, you will learn so much just by doing, especially if you have the right support and encouragement around you.
Tell your current manager and the team that you want to become a leader let them know “This is the direction I want to take. How can you help me learn more in this area? Are there courses that I can go on? Can I shadow someone with leadership experience in the company? Because if your company knows that leadership is the path you want to take, they will hopefully, help you get there and it will open up possibilities. If you don’t say anything then it’s hard for people to know.”
So do not be afraid to speak up! Have there been any specific books, podcasts, courses that you’ve experienced throughout your career that have been a huge game-changer for you?
“A book called Five Dysfunctions of a Team is really good, especially if you want to know how a management team can work in a good & efficient way. I can also recommend Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders.
I also attended a one-week course called The Human Element, where you work both in groups and individually and explore your limitations and the tendencies you have when interacting with others. This was a game-changer for me, because if you’re going to be a leader, you need to really get to know yourself and what your values are.”
Thanks for the recommendations. Earlier, you mentioned that you’ve been working from home. Can you please share some advice on how to best work from home while balancing the needs of family life?
“Good question…I have 2 kids. Fortunately, they have been able to go to school so are not home most of the time that I’m working.
My advice is to try to find a room where you can have your own workspace. Be sure to get outside and move, maybe go for a daily walk or something but look to establish a routine as soon as you get up in the morning.
For example, I love yoga, so I do this in the morning before work and it starts my day in the right way.
Be sure to take breaks, especially at the end of the day to change your mindset from work to family mode.”
Thank you for sharing some helpful tips, allowing yourself a break and being disciplined with that is so important. How do you balance work and in general family life?
“Both my husband and I have been working full-time all the time. Something that helped us is that we share everything, both taking care of the children and the other responsibilities around the home.
Also, take help from family/friends when you need it.
It’s certainly hard to get the balance. You can’t do everything at the same time, so you need to find a focus, especially when the children are younger.
Now my kids are 10 and soon to be 13, they’re getting older which means I get a lot more free time than what I had before.
Try to get the best balance that you can specify to your circumstances, set the right expectations of yourself. Remember, everybody does it in different ways, there is no winning formula.
Finding the balance is so much easier if you find a job that you enjoy as it will give you energy.
A struggle for me is to keep energy left for my family and not to use it all at work. Because, when it’s fun at work, you kind of go full speed and then you realise when you’re going home or end your workday “oh, I don’t have that much energy left.” So that’s something I worked on — How can I get some breaks during the day? So I have energy left as well for my family.
Find what a good break is for you, it could be only for a few minutes, it could be talking to a friend, having a food break. Just do something that will shift your mindset and focus.
Especially now with working from home, I find that I get quite tired looking at the screen all of the time, especially when you have workshops/conference calls with several people. It can take a lot of energy. It’s so important to give yourself some breaks from the video, do a walk and talk for example!”
What are your tactics for dealing with adversity? How do you get through a tough day at work?
“Of course, there are tough days — I always try to talk to people and take help. I tell myself “Just take one thing at a time and I will get through it.” Have the belief that the next day things will get better and easier for you.”
Thank you for sharing that, it’s important to remember that not every day is perfect, we all have our struggles and that’s ok.
How we like to round off Part 1 of our Q&A is by uncovering a fun fact about you and some hobbies that you are into…
“Not an easy question! I lived in Ireland for 2 years, but that was nearly 20 years ago now, so I’m not going to say how old I am :’)
I enjoy running, yoga, horse riding and being with my family and friends.
I also really enjoy singing; we actually have a choir at our company so we can sing together. But of course, now with the pandemic, we haven’t been able to do this for over 6 months. But before this, it was super fun to meet up and sing together once a week.
We talked about culture earlier and this is something that I think is so important, letting people at work meet each other in different ways.”
Johanna, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you, thank you for sharing your story! I look forward to tuning in next week where we will discuss all things diversity, inclusion and explore ideas on what more we can do to attract and appeal to women in tech. ✨
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Are you a woman in the technology field too? How has your experience been similar or different? Do you have any questions for women in the technology industry? Would you like to get involved in this initiative? I would love to hear from you, please contact me on email@example.com
By Ellie King - Principal Talent Partner - Data / AI - Nordics