Paper planes in white against a blue background with one red paper plane leading the row, symbolising leadership.
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‘There’s a distinct difference in being a leader versus being a boss’

19 May 2020

Karan Kanwar, engineering lead at Wing AI, discusses what he has learned from transitioning into a leadership role.

Karan Kanwar has been in engineering for a long time. After realising his passion for coding at just eight years of age, he set up his first SaaS company at 15 and has worked as in the area of AI for companies in Hong Kong, China and the US.

Kanwar is now the engineering lead at Wing AI, a start-up that has developed a hybrid-intelligence personal assistant. Here, he talks about his journey in coding and AI, and his experiences of transitioning from an engineer to a people leader.

‘Leadership isn’t as simple or glamorous as people make it out to be – doing it right is hard work’

What educational and professional experiences led you to where you are now?

I learned how to code, by accident, when I was eight years old after my third-grade teacher taught me how to make a hyperlink. I grew up in Hong Kong, where I did my first internship at 14 working for a university research lab. When I was 15, I was motivated to buy a new computer and started a little SaaS company that I was fortunate enough to grow and sell by the time I was 18, allowing me to pay for college in the US.

I went to the University of California, Irvine, where I got a degree in computer science with a concentration in AI. While in college, I worked at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong on AI-driven solutions focusing on risk mitigation for various institutional equities teams.

I also worked for a number of start-ups, at the most notable of which I was building AI-driven solutions for one of the largest providers of software for logistics companies in China. I also worked on a number of side projects. One such project received resources from the United Nations’ Counter-Terrorism Committee to help combat radicalisation online using AI.

Later, I worked as an AI consultant for a company in southern California that built software for major corporations and non-profits. After that experience, I found a home doing what I loved most: start-ups. Wing AI was an excellent fit.

Karan Kanwar of Wing AI is smiling into the camera.

Karan Kanwar. Image: Wing AI

When you took up a leadership role, were you still able to do the work you were really passionate about?

Definitely! While I do have to focus a lot on ensuring we are meeting objectives, planning, leading and managing people, all of that only really takes up about 50pc of my time. I spend the remaining 50pc doing work that I love. I get to architect new systems and features and work on projects that make our AI systems more effective over time.

In fact, I would go as far as saying that it’s important to realise that engineering is still indeed a part of your job. Especially in a smaller organisation with a limited runway, hiring three engineers to replace the work that you’d otherwise do yourself is a waste of budget.

Instead, hire engineers to focus on things that are time-sucks for you, such as data infrastructure and API development, and continue focusing on your highest value activity. For me, that’s developing AI.

What advice would you give to someone transitioning to a leadership role in engineering?

To focus on soft skills. Leadership isn’t as simple or glamorous as people make it out to be – doing it right is hard work. Some key skills are to be able to motivate and inspire, make people feel like their work is valued and their opinions are heard, and to effectively delegate.

However, that doesn’t mean abandoning your engineering training, as a lot of your job will still be architecturally focused. Getting some experience doing some of these things is a great way to prepare for the job to come.

In my experience, leaders are typically heavily biased to one side or the other. Either they’re excellent engineers with limited soft skills, or they’re great at networking and socialising but not very well versed with their functional area. The optimal balance to strike is to be an excellent engineer that is sociable, able to lead, inspire and to put ego aside and accept ideas from their team.

If you’re heavily introverted, think about how you might be able to expand your horizons and meet more people in order to slowly get better at some of these critical people skills.

What’s a common mistake people make when transitioning to a leadership role?

I can name two! First, I would say it’s with respect to the way you act as a leader and treat people. There’s a distinct difference in being a leader versus being a boss, a distinction that introverts like myself usually take for granted. I know I did at the start of my career.

As a leader, your job is not just to tell your people what to do, but to foster an environment where your people love their jobs, are excited to come to work every day and want to go above and beyond. Most leaders in technology organisations tend to be somewhat reserved and focused on the sprint ahead.

However, sometimes it’s important to focus on the big picture and inspire your team with what their work will achieve in the grand scheme of things. Being a leader also means leading discussions, but ultimately listening to what others have to say, as the solutions your team come up with might be better than your own.

Second, I would say failing to delegate effectively. Top-performing engineers – in other words, the engineers that typically ascend to management roles – are engineers that by definition are great at cranking out well-thought-out, scalable solutions to complex problems.

However, that doesn’t always translate to knowing how to delegate and lead. When you’re faced with a towering mountain of work, it’s important to know how to spread the responsibility effectively so everyone is doing work they’re interested in and work that’s of value.

How do you continue to work on yourself as a leader?

One thing I learned while changing my focus from engineering to leading is that there are some useful things an engineering mindset can bring. I did a lot of experiments, which I thought to be incredibly valuable.

In some instances, I’d pay engineers 25pc more than what they were expecting to see the effect on their performance. In most cases, this created some of the highest-performing assets on my team.

In other instances, I’d test the effectiveness of public versus private positive feedback. I found public positive feedback pushed someone to improve their performance. Constant experimentation was incredibly valuable to my career.

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