Every engineer who’s made the transition to manager has a different decision story. Some get promoted up through the ranks and stay at the same company. Some move into it fresh. Some do the transition all at once. Some do a slow roll; they’re both a manager and an engineer for some transitional period. I think it’s helpful to hear about others decisions to move into full time management. It might help dispel the feeling that you’re alone, that you’re the only one who’s been through it.
This is my story.
When I was hired it was as a Supervisor-slash-Engineer. My time was to be spent about 50/50 between the two roles. It never really worked out that way. I was repeatedly pulled away from coding because of my managerial duties that only I could do. Repeatedly, the deadlines of my management work would be in direct conflict with my coding work. When I went to my manager to help prioritize, the coding always moved to someone else. After all, I was the only one who could do the management work.
I was approaching my one-year anniversary as a manager when this all came to a head.
Setting the Stage
I was ramping up to do my first performance reviews and write my first business case for quarterly planning (back when we did those things). I was adding new functionality to our newly rewritten application for our big year end push. I wasn’t sure how to implement this at all, but I was determined to figure it out. It was a stressful time, but I was getting through. I was determined that this time my management work wouldn’t get in the way of me being the one to implement this feature.
It was a Monday morning a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. My Architect asked me to chat in the conference room. Well this can’t be good, I thought. Yep, he’s giving notice. I’m unsurprised but It still hits me in the gut. I’ve never been through this. I try to communicate something that says how much I appreciate his work without making it sound like I’m laying on a guilt trip. I have no idea if I succeeded. We go to tell my boss. “Fuck,” he said. That was my sentiment too. He just said it out loud. You see, our newly rewritten application was my Architect’s baby. He had written a huge portion of the code by himself. He knew it inside and out and no one else did. There was voodoo magic back there.
Much of the next week was consumed by managing the various administrative tasks that happen when an employee leaves: coming up with a plan to divide up his work among the team, getting authorization to fill his position, deciding what that would be, and getting a job description written and posted. It was quite a whirlwind.
In Over My Head
The next Monday I had my 1:1 with my manager. Instead of being my normal, energetic self, I was hunched over. When he asked me how I was doing, I hung my head. “I can’t do it,” I said. I was in way, way over my head. I was falling further behind on all of my other work–you know, the work I was barely keeping up with before all of this happened.
I should give some perspective here. I have a long history of doing more than is possible. I have gone through many times in my life when I had too many balls in the air and couldn’t let any of them drop. I have gone through many times that put me off the charts on those little stress tests. The first time was when I transitioned from middle school to high school, my sister was an exchange student for a year, and my parents got a divorce. I’ve gone to school full time, transferred schools, had a part time job, had a young child and asked for a divorce. I’ve graduated from college, got kicked out of my living arrangement and had my child go spend the summer with his father. I raised a child with a disability, with an adversarial ex, while not making enough to put food on the table. In fact, going through times of massive change in lots of parts of my life is a common theme. I’m used to doing a lot with not a lot of help.
This, all of this, it was too much.
My manager did what a good manager does. He got a complete list of all of the balls I had in the air. He said my first responsibility was exiting my Architect, getting my team in the right place and getting a replacement for him. He ran interference with HR on the performance reviews and took over the business case. The coding got moved to someone else. I was relieved. I could breathe.
The situation passed. I worked through it.
However, through all of it I had a thought that I couldn’t dismiss. My coding had moved to someone else. Again. Again the work that was supposed to be half of my time got moved to someone else. I had only had time to finish coding one sizable piece of work in a year. One. I started a lot of others; I just never finished them.
I thought about it and talked with my partner a lot. It was clear. I had to choose.
Fortunately, by this time the choice was obvious to me.
Making My Choice
Back in my manager’s office for our 1:1. I’m talking with him about the fallout from the previous few weeks. We’d had this type of conversation before after each time that he had to prioritize away my coding work. Each time I had said that I could work it out. I could juggle the coding and the management. Each time he was supportive of my choice. This time he told me about a point in his life when his employer had told him that he had to choose between architecture and management. He quit rather than decide because he wasn’t ready to decide yet. He was supportive of giving me the time I needed to choose.
I told him I appreciated the time and the support and I had already made my choice. He was surprised, but I pushed ahead. I choose management. Yes, I can code. I’m good at it. I enjoy it. But lots of people can code well. I can also manage. I’m good at it. I enjoy it. Very few people do that well.
I felt a kind of responsibility to do this thing well that so many do badly.
Making a Difference
As a manager, I showed my team how to approach problems differently. I coached them and help them grow. I had the authority to do things that I hadn’t had before. I solved problems before they hit the team. I developed relationships with my peers in the rest of the organization that changed my team’s work for the better. As a manager I make a positive difference in people’s work lives.
There are many managers in IT that don’t know how to manage. That’s unfortunate, because there are a lot of resources out there. I worked hard to find those resources. I was also lucky; I had great guidance and support when I started as a lead and in this first management role. I owe thanks to many people who helped me with this transition. They gave me the space, confidence and experiences to really see the difference I could make.
I hope to pay that forward with the same abundance in which I received it.