This week, I spent a pleasant time talking Support with Petros Amiridis!
Petros is CEO and co-founder of HeavyMelon, where they are building a customer support tool and which, he says, is “a software house where we build software for humans”. Prior to that he was a manager and a director at GitHub Support, and has been in full-time leadership about 5 years now.
Hi Petros! Thanks so much for telling me your leadership story today! You’re CEO now, but where did the Support story begin?
Hi! So, I used to be a manager and a director at GitHub Support. I started back in 2010 as the first international support engineer and switched to management in 2015. I quit in 2019 to create my own company, where we are building a customer support tool based on my 9 years’ experience at GitHub.
Before that, I worked as a programmer from 1998 until 2010. I worked as an individual contributor, team leader, software development department director, and as a freelancer. I always wanted to work remotely, so I began expanding my network in the US by volunteering in closed software projects.
At some point, I had subscribed to the GitHub Job board. One day I received an email with a job post from GitHub. They wanted their first support engineer in Europe. I applied without blinking my eyes. It was a career switch, but as a programmer, I had already been supporting customers. And as a support engineer at GitHub, I would be supporting mostly other programmers. And I could continue programming for fun and for myself. It wasn’t such a bad deal in my mind. I was an early employee at GitHub, and the second support engineer. The first one internationally. My role was to support GitHub’s customers all over the world. I did that remotely from Greece.
Although I’d been leading teams on and off since 1998, I permanently switched to management and leadership at GitHub in 2015.
When I joined GitHub we were about 10-15 people. As we were growing we were proud we to be a flat organization. We shared that story with the rest of the world and we liked it.
At some point, reality hit us. It’s easy to be a flat organization at 10, 30, 50, maybe even 100 people. What happens beyond a certain number of employees, makes being flat a bit difficult. One could even say, it makes it a bit chaotic. I don’t remember the exact number, but in 2015 GitHub Support opened a few people manager positions internally. I was a bit hesitant at first, but after talking to my peers (the folks I was going to manage if I was to get the position) I applied. A couple of internal interviews later found me managing the Technical Support teams in Europe and APAC.
Once you made that move, how did you find that transition?
When I first started as a manager, I was coming from being an individual contributor. As a manager you have to bridge the gap between leadership and individual contributors. You have to advocate for your team but at the same time explain to your team why a company decision is important even if they don’t agree with it. That was hard for me. I wanted to please everyone, but as you probably know, that’s not possible. You have to learn how to find the balance. This is what I learned the hard way.
The transition was my third bigger career change. I went from programming, to customer support, to managing people. Two concerns made me hesitant to apply in the beginning. Would I say goodbye to programming forever? And would I succeed in that role?
I never had formal training in people management. I had some concerns about whether I could succeed in my new position as a manager. Managing your ex-peers has an added difficulty. It’s not always easy to give them feedback. Especially negative feedback. Figuring out how to give feedback effectively was my main challenge.
Fortunately, a combination of formal training by our company, reading books, listening to podcasts, and a lot of practice helped me reach the end of the first year as a manager. In the end, I received positive feedback from my team which was what convinced me to keep at it, and become an even better manager.
How do you measure success?
I don’t like metrics much. I wish we wouldn’t rely on them. I know you can’t improve that which you can’t measure though. I also know metrics are a necessary evil in larger companies when Support may depend on Finance for their budget. Especially when it comes to hiring more people. I try to settle with a few standard metrics, and rely a lot on peer review (QA) and feedback. Finally, although I like not to bother my customers a lot, I will consider sending out a CSAT, CES, and NPS question sometimes.
When the metrics we’ve decided to observe as a team are going well, and at the same time the team is not overworked, they are growing and learning, and are productive I call that a success. I also like to pay attention to turnover. When it’s low, we must be doing something well.
Very true! And how do you help your team develop and grow professionally?
I like to create an environment where it is okay to spend time during working hours to learn new things or experiment. It’s not easy. People will not do it if there’s too much work. What I have found is there’s always more work one can handle in a day. That’s why I try hard to coach my team to help them stop working earlier in the day and spend some time on other tasks. Whether that’s out of the queue project, learning new things, or experimenting.
And what about you? How do you learn and grow nowadays?
I am not sure if I am doing anything deliberate. I always want to improve myself, and I grab the opportunity whenever I can. I used to read books, but nowadays I rely more on podcasts and screencasts. I will still read a book if it can keep me engage past the first couple of pages, but I find that increasingly more difficult these days. I also ask for feedback a lot which is not the easiest approach. People naturally avoid sharing their sincere opinion on something when it is going to be controversial. Or maybe they simply hate giving feedback.
The best resource for me at least has been https://www.manager-tools.com. I don’t agree with everything they say, but almost all of their podcasts are actionable. It’s not just theory. They give you steps you have just follow without even thinking about it. Then, you try their approach, and you adjust it to what works for you. Their content has been an invaluable source of both guidance and inspiration.
Awesome! So, to finish up, I like to remind folk that Customer Support Leaders are Customers, too! Do you have any stories of great or terrible experiences?
Not sure if it counts as a customer experience, but I think we can learn from such a behavior. When I first started at GitHub, I didn’t receive my salary on time one month. I didn’t say anything, but this kept on going on for a couple of more months. When I mentioned it, it turned out there was a problem with the bank automation they had set in place. Next month I received a doubled salary as a form of apology, with a “thank you” statement for my hard work. That stayed with me forever. I’ve used that approach with our customers by gifting months of subscription fees or giving generous discounts. Not only when we messed up, but also as a way to surprise and delight!
My worst experience was with the local telephone company many many years ago. It was a public service back then, and you couldn’t get out of certain situations. At some point, they had to close an appointment with me so that they could bring some equipment and help me install everything. They kept on giving me a huge window from 8am to 5pm, which meant I had to take a day off from work. I kept on pushing back asking them to give me a more specific time window. They wouldn’t do it, so we missed a couple of appointments. At some point, someone from their technical department called me, made a racist statement about my origin, and threatened they would beat me up if I don’t wait for them a whole day in my house. Needless to say, that’s not how you support your customers!!
Gosh, that’s really terrible! I’m so sorry you experienced that!Let’s finish up with my final, final question. How do you sign off?
Cheers indeed, Petros! Thankyou so much for sharing your story with me!
Watch this space for another leadership story very soon!
Carlos Herrera19th May 2020 at 3:28 pm
Such a amazing leadership story that you have enjoyed throughout your career and enjoyed it together along with your team and also shared it with us. Thank you for sharing such an amazing story with us. Keep sharing.