December 16, 2009
Dan Candela Guides Software Development at Walt Disney Animation Studios
Cites Important Skills for Software Technology Managers
Dan Candela became a father just four weeks before starting UCLA Anderson's Executive MBA (EMBA) program. After completing his MBA in 2007, Candela left his job at Apple Inc. to become the Director of Technology at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Now, Dan's daughter is four and a half years old and loves watching the new Disney movie The Princess and the Frog, which was produced using software tools that her father helped create.
"The Princess and the Frog was hand drawn and then scanned and finished on computers using a combination of external software we integrate and extend, along with internally developed software," said Candela. "It's very gratifying that people enjoy watching movies that I've contributed to, and it's fulfilling being able to produce software tools that make a user base very happy."
Reporting to the chief technology officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Candela is responsible for software development, and has just under 70 employees in his department including five managers who report directly to him. It's a challenging position requiring Candela to interact with engineers, artists and senior management. He draws on his background as a programmer and engineering manager - as well as leadership skills that he honed at UCLA Anderson.
"My role is to define projects, put teams together and provide management oversight," he said. "We have many productions going on at one time, so I meet regularly with the production leadership to both understand their needs and priorities and to communicate what the software group is doing. There's also a lot of communication with the executive team and other key stakeholders to keep them aware of what we're focused on."
At UCLA Anderson, Candela considered other career directions including finance and product marketing, but in the end, decided to use his experience to take his career as a software engineering manager to the next level. He did it by enhancing skills he considers essential in leading software development initiatives.
"When I look at a technology manager," he said, "I see three main functions. First is people management. That's the soft skills. It's being aware of yourself and your leadership style. It's being able to behave effectively in different situations. I really learned a lot about that at Anderson."
"There's not always the opportunity to just read a book and go practice a new leadership style," he explained. "In the EMBA Program, we worked with the same team in every class during the entire first year. It made a comfortable setting where we could try different types of leadership. If something works, then you can build on it. I took a lot of knowledge about leadership directly back to work."
Candela works at developing effective relationships with his employees and helping them reach their potential. Each of the managers who reports to Candela also leads a team of software developers. "I encourage each of them to support their people and help them succeed," he said. That is the role of a leader.
According to Candela, the second main function is project management. "It's important to be able to really plan out projects, run them and track them," he said. "And communication is critical. You have to listen to your users and identify their pain points."
Software users at Disney include production artists in a half dozen different departments. They work on a variety of projects and continually push the boundaries of computer graphics. "You need to be able to understand what's really going to help your user get their job done better," added Candela.
Disney has implemented what Candela calls an "agile development process." "Any stakeholder who has an idea for an application can put it on our backlog," he explained. "The ideas are prioritized by both key stakeholders and software leadership, and the development team does short iterations of the best ones. This is repeated every few weeks."
Once the development team has gathered the requirements and prepared a detailed plan for a project, no changes are permitted. This allows software engineers to execute the plan efficiently.
"Something I learned at Anderson is that you're taking intellectual capital and creating value with it," he explained. "We still have our strategic priorities and long term plans, but our immediate focus is dynamic. We release new software almost every day."
Candela says that the third function of a technology manager is technical vision. "If you don't understand the technology well enough to execute it, then it's hard to lead engineers," he said. "You don't have to absolutely define the technology vision. You can work with people to do that. But you need to have enough knowledge to express the vision, get it amalgamated and put it out there."
"These three skills are all vital," said Candela, "and people with all three are very hard to find."
In forming one of his teams, Candela asked two employees with complementary skills to manage together as a team. "I had a very senior developer who is really great with creating a technical vision," he recalled, "and I paired him with someone who is a great people manager and has strong project management skills. They work -together - and learn from each other and. They have been a very successful team."
Team building is part of the culture at Disney, but Candela also works to prevent silo mentalities - particularly among his managers. "I ask them to focus on the success of our department as a whole rather than that of their individual teams. That's tricky because it goes against human nature. I want them to understand what other managers are working on and what our larger priorities are, so they can have the greatest impact on the organization as a whole. A lot of it comes back to communication."
Candela is currently developing and implementing a strategic plan for the software group that focuses on quality assurance, program management and interaction design. "These are cultural changes for our environment," Candela noted, "but we're developing new ideas and metrics to make sure every step we take has value. This will really pay off in efficiency."
Candela clearly enjoys being part of the creative process at Disney. "We have a couple of large projects that will support movies that won't come out for three or four years," he said. "It can take over a year to develop tool sets for these movies, and they need to be in place before a show goes into production, which can take up to 24 months."
"We discuss these ideas at the management level and among the technology managers," he continued. "After we decide to go with an idea, I shepherd its further definition, get the resources and assign one of the managers on my team to own it. Once the project is defined, we launch it and follow an agile development process."
For those who aspire to be a technical manager, Candela is reassuring. "These skills can be learned," he said. "One point I particularly want to make is that technical ability, although still a requirement, is less important than having emotional intelligence and being able to work with people, listen to them, engage them and build a culture in which they can really excel."Contact Information
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