9 tips from Instacart’s Head of IT on being a successful modern IT leader

The term “modern” is thrown around a lot in IT—but what does it mean to put in practice?

At our most recent IT Kit Fireside Chat event, atSpoke sat down with Anais Farges, Instacart’s Head of IT, to pick her brain about the tools, behaviors, and processes of the modern IT leader.

We took away nine key lessons from the conversation. Here’s what we learned.

1. Provide excellent customer service by asking people what they need. Then, build trust by telling them how you helped.

“As a modern IT leader,” Anais says, “you have to create a culture of excellent customer support. On the support side, that means you’re available and knowledgeable. On the engineering side, it means building tools that are efficient and secure, making things as simple as possible for people.”

“At the end of the day, you’re making sure that people can do their jobs, so you really have to have a good pulse on what it is to provide excellent support.”

“For example, right after I started, we ran an NPS survey of sorts where we asked things like: ‘How would you rate our WiFi?’, ‘How do you like the setup in conference rooms?’, and ‘How is onboarding?’”

“After we got the results of the survey, I adjusted my roadmap for the next couple of months to target the things that were really important to users. We rebuilt our entire network and completely redefined onboarding, among other things.”

“Then, we did something fantastic: we told people we did it. We said: ‘Hey, we fixed this. Let us know if you have any feedback.’ And I think it helped us build trust with people. It showed them that we were going to target the things that they cared about.”

“Modern IT is no longer just sysadmin and help desk. And some people in your company don’t know that, so tell them what you’re doing. Tell people so that they see that there’s a benefit to what you’re doing.”

2. Onboard tools because they solve problems—not just to have them.

“My tech stack is probably pretty similar to what every other startup uses,” Anais says. “We use G Suite, Okta, Meraki, Slack, Workday….”

“But what’s important about these tools is not that you should have them. It’s how you implement them, and how you connect them together to create a good experience for users and how you keep your company secure and flexible in the process.”

“For example, when we were thinking about Okta, we were thinking, ‘How do we streamline onboarding from an IT perspective?’ At every single step of the way—from signing an offer letter to someone’s second week on the job—we wanted to make sure that we were providing people with a streamlined experience.”

“We don’t onboard tools that do one thing if we can automate it a different way. We’re not trying to collect apps.

3. Stop being afraid to ask questions, and start learning more.

“I ask questions constantly. Asking questions so you fully understand something is really important.”

“For example, when I first started doing office builds a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about electrical things. The guy who was walking me through everything wasn’t making any sense; he kept throwing around acronyms I wasn’t familiar with.”

“About seven minutes into the site walk, I handed him a legal pad and asked him to just explain it to me. And here’s the funny thing: he was really excited to teach someone. Now I know more about electrical.”

“Similarly, it’s crucial to ask questions to your team. When an engineer walks me through a deployment scenario or implementation plan, I always ask questions. One, you may surface things that he or she may not have thought of and catch something before deploy. Two, it’s knowledge sharing—that engineer will always remember those questions next time and incorporate them into a rollout preemptively.”

“So don’t be afraid of asking questions with your team, your peers, vendors, etc. You’re going to benefit because you’re going to learn something or teach something.”

4. Take (calculated) risks.

“Another thing you shouldn’t be afraid of,” Anais says, “is taking risks. I was in a meeting a few years ago with several Engineering Directors and VPs. One of our software engineers was just let go. I asked why he was let go, and they said because he couldn’t make a decision. He was stagnant. He would have 17 options and he couldn’t move on one.”

“Don’t be stagnant. Do your research, have options, and pick one. Sometimes you’ll realize: ‘Oops, that was the wrong option.’ Then you just readjust. And you’ll learn something.”

“But being stagnant is probably—for your career, your team, your company—the worst thing you can do. So embrace taking risks.”

“Another part of not being stagnant is doing research and constantly learning. I listen to security podcasts. I read the Harvard Business Review. Maybe these have nothing to do with IT, but gaining that knowledge is key. Reading everything helps you become a more well-rounded person.”

5. Get ahead of things by knowing your company’s goals.

“You have to know your company,” Anais says. “You have to know your company’s business model. You can’t have your own spin-up IT roadmap that doesn’t align with what the company is doing.”

“I know it sounds super elementary, but I’ve been on teams before where we didn’t align with the company’s priorities. If your company’s goal is to grow to 1,000 users in the next 18 months, build an IT infrastructure that will support those users. Don’t wait. Just do it.

6. Gain support for IT initiatives by forming partnerships with cross-department teams.

“You have to work with people at the cross-team level,” Anais says.

“Within my first few weeks at this job, I met with leads of other teams: finance, legal, HR, security. I was trying to understand what was on their roadmaps and how IT could help. I met with everyone just to have an understanding, and I really started forming partnerships with them. Now, we work closely together.”

“Here’s a great example of why cross-team collaboration is important. We didn’t have an SSO solution like Okta. I knew if I just went to finance and said, ‘we need Okta,’ it wasn’t going to be the best pitch. So instead, I spent a few months talking to other departments and saying: “Here’s how Okta would be great for you.”

“After that, I built my business case with a page of notes from every single team I met with, describing how Okta was going to be important for their teams and the company overall. When the time came for the proposal, all of the pre-work and relationship building helped getting things approved quicker, and showed how important cross-departmental work is.”

“If you build relationships with people, consensus happens more naturally.”

“And those people will have your back when you’re not in the room.”

7. Embrace feedback to learn, grow, and excel.

“Feedback is a free career coach,” Anais says. “You want to strive for critical, actionable feedback from your boss, your team, your users, and your peers. If you don’t know about critical feedback or appropriate feedback, just read Radical Candor by Kim Scott.”

“Feedback is so critical. Sometimes I just ask people—like if someone on my team worked with another person—I’ll ask them for feedback about that other person so I can convey that feedback.”

“You can also employ methods to accept cold feedback and flip it to be useful to you. So if someone’s like ‘That’s not the way I expected it,’ you can say: ‘Oh, how did you expect it?’”

If you’re scared of your users’ feedback, you’re doing something wrong. When we have a bad rating, I follow up on every single negative response. We need to know where we’re dropping the ball. And sometimes the comments people make are things I didn’t think about but will remember for next time.”

8. Grow professionally by asking others for help.

“I send a lot of cold emails through LinkedIn,” Anais says. “I think mentorship is really important, and LinkedIn is really designed for that.”

“Sometimes, there’s not a defined career path because we’re the first ones in our roles, or a lot of people are, say, IT managers, but they’re the only person in their department. So how do you get to the next step if there’s no one in your company that you can model?”

“Go on LinkedIn, find someone who’s doing the job that you want, and ping them. Ask ‘Would you have 15 or 30 minutes’—never make it more than 30 minutes, that’s just polite—‘to answer some questions for me on a phone call or get a coffee.’”

“The trick is that you have to have solid questions. You can’t just say ‘Help me solve my career.’ Instead, you have to target people who are doing things you have specific questions about. So instead of asking a generic question, say something like ‘Hey, I notice you’ve deployed [tool]. I was wondering if we could get coffee and talk about how you did that?’”

“80% of the people I reach out to say ‘no problem.’ People like teaching people.”

“Just connect with people and try to ask for their advice. If you’re not really good at a certain skill, match with someone who’s good at it. This is literally free help, and the success rates are really high. And the worst thing that can happen is that someone doesn’t respond.”

9. Give your employees opportunities to learn and grow, too.

“Micromanagement is a waste of time,” Anais says. “Empower your team to find answers and solve problems on their own.”

“A lot of times it’s feels quicker to just tell them the answer or do it yourself, but I prefer to ask people ‘What are some solutions?’ It lets them know I trust them, and it’s a good exercise for helping them learn and grow.”

“Asking questions first will help you in the long-term. It will teach your team skills like project management and vendor research and management. I want everyone on my team to have those skills. I don’t want to be the only person.”

“But it’s also important to recognize that not everyone will embrace every type of task. Don’t force someone who’d rather just be in the corner doing the help desk to do an analysis of a vendor—that’s not what they want to do. Make sure you find the thing that drives that team member.”

“Ask your team members what they want to do. Where do they see themselves in the future? Do they always want to work help desk? Do they want to move into a manager role? Do they want to be a staff engineer?”

“Then, if your company doesn’t have a clear path for people to move into those roles, turn to LinkedIn for ideas. Find people who are in those roles currently, and trace their career paths. See what they’re responsible for. Then start plugging those responsibilities into your employees’ roles. Have them create a roadmap or work on a special project.”

“Finding ways to help your team members grow is extremely important.”

The keys to being a successful modern IT leader

“Ten years ago tech was different,” Anais says. “And ten years from now tech will be different.”

“The modern IT leader knows how to communicate. The tech stacks will change, but being able to tell the narrative of your team to stakeholders is crucial—and being able to back that up using data and positive feedback. Show all the good things you’re doing and the impact that you’re having, and partner with other teams like security, legal, and finance.”

“In the end, being a successful modern IT leader boils down to three key things: building a great customer experience so that people know they can trust you, partnering with every single team to support them in their goals, and making sure your roadmap aligns with the company’s priorities.”

IT teams use atSpoke to manage their work and automate repetitive tasks. Then, they use the time they save to focus on researching, learning, and building partnerships.

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