Alexandre Freire, Sr. Director of Engineering at Nubank

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Alexandre is Sr. Director of Engineering at Nubank, the $10 billion digital bank. He has years of experience managing teams, has worked with distributed teams and also in different countries himself. He happily shared with us some of the wisdom that comes with years in the tech industry.

A practice that I really like is having a check-in and check-out protocol in Staff meetings. It’s a moment to take a deep breath, check how you’re feeling, tell us: “I had some issues at home with my family and that’s on my mind, it’s hard to pay attention today”, so we kind of go through the emotions before starting out, and it has been a really helpful practice.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

English speakers call me Alex because Alexandre is too hard to pronounce. I’m originally from Brazil, I had been living in California for a couple years and actually repatriated to come work for Nubank. We are fintech going up against established banks here but also want to offer our products and services to folks worldwide.  I love helping people build quality products, get a team to figure out things, and help their customers. I’ve been working with software development for a long time and I’ve been in management for a little bit more than a decade as well. But I’m originally a programmer too, I have a Master’s in computer science, worked a lot with Agile software development.

I always liked the people part of developing software: aligning, communicating, helping folks grow. I’ve had my own company, so I had to run it, manage my partners and my employees. So, even though I like to be very technical and still contribute technically, helping folks is really hard, keeping them motivated, finding out what makes them tick, giving them the resources they need to fulfill their dreams it’s something that brings a lot of sense of accomplishment. So when I see that I’ve helped an employee find his way, or even exit the company but go to the next step in their career, those are things that really motivate me.

What’s your history with burnout working in tech?

I’m not really burned out myself, in terms of being in a job and not being able to work. I’ve definitely been close to burnout and it has led me to quit and find a different job. At one point I managed a software as a service team in a big company, and after about 4 years of working there, lots of pressure, crazy commute, and the culture being a little toxic, I didn’t have that spark anymore, the passion for work was gone. I wanted to grow in technical but my boss wanted me to grow my scope and learn more manager things and that mismatch they thought that it wasn’t the most value that I could provide.

I’ve had friends and colleagues burn out in the past, I had this one friend who was in this very straining project where he would have to travel from Canada to Detroit every week, three weeks out of the month. So, as a friend, I would have these 1:1s to kind of check-in, and up until the day before he burned out he said he was ok, that he could go another week, and suddenly he just said I can’t. After that, he spent around a year and a half without work. That’s something I’m really sorry about, I thought we had these checks and balances in place but I wasn’t able to protect him. And it’s also a trigger for me, so if I see one of my employees and I tell them I see you’re close to burning out“, sometimes it’s hard not to freak out, based on that story. I understand it’s a very important issue. I’ve also seen friends in the industry suffer from it. I remember one of my friends in the industry, he really enjoyed being down in the weeds, programming and then one day he said “I just wanna do anything else but this, I’d be a baker or a body-builder, but I don’t want to touch a computer again!” and he wasn’t able to work for around two years, then he was able to go back.

In your opinion, why people don’t ask for help when they feel burnout?

I’m not a psychologist, so it’s only my opinion, but I think it’s because it’s very hard for us to protect ourselves in a moment of high stress, of being injured. So we need our colleagues to know that and to raise a flag when they notice something because having that self-awareness is really hard.  that’s why our bodies tend to go psychosomatic like saying “hey something’s wrong let me get you sick so you’ll realize that there’s something wrong here“. I think a lot of people don’t do therapy so it’s really hard for them to process subconscious signals and to have support to figure things out.  Also, I think some of it is shame,  who wants to admit that they’re burned out? Or that they need help, fear of how someone else might see you, or how you’re going to be treated like if they’re going to fire you if you need to take a month off or a sabbatical. People don’t really weigh out those options and they go another day.

How do you maintain your well-being?

I do go to therapy. For a long time, I knew I should but didn’t, it was the kind of thing where I recommended it to folks but I didn’t really do it myself,  now during the lockdown being at home with my kids and my wife, and during this crazy time in the world, it has been really helpful to be able to do therapy to talk through things, and to keep the anxiety down.

I also meditate every day, it’s something I’ve been doing for three or four years, I was able to turn it into a habit,  and it’s really helpful. I exercise, I love swimming, I’ve been doing yoga, it’s a way for the body to release a lot of energy.  I like to go out to restaurants with my wife, read a lot: web, blogs, articles, what’s popping on Twitter and stuff like that, but I also like to read fiction, the last one I read was Facebook about the future where Alan Turing hadn’t died and he had invented robots with artificial intelligence. I also enjoy reading comic books,  I find myself reading a lot of the things I used to read when I was a teenager.

Do you recommend those practices to your teams?

I do share these but everybody has different tastes. What works for some of them might not work for someone else. But I do ask the more traditional questions like are you going to therapy, and I give them real examples of things that I was able to work out through therapy.   I also share how meditation has helped me, not from a spiritual point of view, but from taking the time to myself, and I share which apps I’m using and my experience with them. So it really depends, but we do talk about it in our one-on-ones. Since we’ve been on lockdown I’ve been helping a few teams take a moment to discuss these things, share strategies of how we’re coping with stress, and people will post links and resources and things we enjoy. We have been doing that very proactively. This is on top of one on ones, we do it as a team, sitting together, or sharing a Slack thread, or talking to other managers to see what they’ve been doing to help their teams.

How is remote work during the pandemic going for you?

To me is like a rollercoaster, some days I feel really good  but some days is very difficult.  I’m used to working with distributed teams so I know what it’s like to work from home, but it’s very different when your 5 year old son is playing ninja behind your chair. We are all being very open about that but constant distraction is a real thing that’s happening. So I was able to move my schedule around and I locked 2 hours just to be with my son, and I go back to work after he goes to sleep. So sometimes  I feel really productive and some other days I feel like I can’t even focus for I’m tired or I wonder what’s the point of all this,  and it’s related to the rollercoaster of feelings but this whole thing is.

I feel really privileged and grateful that I have a job and I can work from home, I didn’t get a salary cut or anything like that, I didn’t have to fire anybody. And then I feel a lot of anger hot politicians that are thinking more about elections than saving lives,  or I get angry at my mom because she’s not taking necessary precautions to take care of herself and then I also feel very scared of losing someone I care about. One of our employees didn’t show up for a few days and I was worried that he was sick and didn’t have anybody to take care of them. Fortunately, I was able to reach him and it turns out that he wasn’t sick but he was burned out, your assessment helped!  so now he’s on a 15 day leave so he can take care of himself.

Anything that’s out of our control brings a lot of anxiety but I also feel a lot of Pride for my team and what we’ve accomplished during the lockdown. Banks are acting crazy right now and things are blowing up, but we fixed it in a day, but it comes with a cost, people get very stressed.

So, it seems that you can talk about your emotions at work, right?

I can, one of the advantages of being in Brazil is that our culture is very open. But for people that come from abroad, they’re shocked by how people talk about their personal stuff, and how they would share very private things about themselves the first time they meet you. And that’s just Brazil, that’s how we are. But in Nubank, one of the things I strive to do as a manager is to pen up the space, acknowledge that we’re human.

A practice that I really like is having a check-in and check-out protocol in Staff meetings. It’s a moment to take a deep breath, check how you’re feeling, tell us: “I had some issues at home with my family and that’s on my mind, it’s hard to pay attention today”, so we kind of go through the emotions before starting out, and it has been a really helpful practice. People can also check-out, they can just walk out and nobody will chase after you, or ask why, you’re an adult and you can make those choices, because I’d rather you not be here if your mind is somewhere else, I don’t want you to show up just to show up. Another thing we do is have a couple of sessions to lift the psychological safety of the group, where people share big mistakes and it’s really fascinating and freeing because we realize that everybody makes big mistakes. 

Ever since I joined I started learning a lot about Psychological safety and thought that it would be great to practice it. I do it with my teams, I support other teams, to figure out working agreements, or having these sessions that I mentioned, but it’s not a company-wide thing yet. 

In the end, what is the key to lead a remarkable team without compromising their well-being or culture?

There are a couple of key things. The first thing is alignment, you need to make sure that there are shared goals, because otherwise you can’t really be a team. One of my mentors, Christopher Avery said “What’s bigger than all of us requires all of us, and none of us can play an individual victory”. We have to support each other, we have complementary skills, so there’s no such thing as -the engineering team-, they’re just a specialty, we are all part of a big team. So everybody needs to understand what their role is in the global outcome, but we all rely on each other. The second thing is giving people to experiment and fail safely, I’m not going to micromanage, but if everybody knows what we are trying to do as a whole, and they tell me that they can do a certain thing to contribute to the goal, I let them experiment and if they fail, the blast radius is contained, it’s not a catastrophe, and it’s a learning experience as well.

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