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Why Management? Making a Difference

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.

Fuck.

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.

Why Management? I’m Really Not a Control Freak

I was at a conference last year that had an “unconference” session on “How not to be a Pointy Haired Boss”.

Many of my peers said, “No way do I want to go into management.”

It’s pretty common wisdom that managers in IT suck.

So you’re a manager of software engineers, developers, programmers, what ever else you want to call them. Maybe you’ve heard, or even said, some of the following:

  • “No way I want to go into management.”
  • “Managers in IT suck.“
  • “Management is a necessary evil.”
  • “I don’t want to have control over other people’s lives.”
  • “Engineers don’t make good managers.”  (I just overheard this one at my coffee shop.)

I’ve heard or even said some of these things. And then I became a manager.

I started out my management career half manager, half software engineer. This proved to be more difficult than I thought. At best I would only have an hour or two each day available for coding – and that was non-contiguous. With increasing frequency and severity, management deadlines directly conflicted with project deadlines. My own manager was supportive; he would prioritize my work. Most of the time, that meant the coding work went to someone else because I was the only one who could do the managerial work. At the end of the first year, I knew I needed to choose. I could have delayed the choice. I had support to delay the choice. I could have chosen to give up the management work and go down the architecture path. After all, when I was hired that was what I thought I wanted to do. There was just one little problem with all of that.

I like management.

There. I said it. I said something that is unfathomable to many – especially engineers.

I like being a manager.

There. I said it again. How could I like management? Am I a control freak? Well, a bit. I’ve been accused of being CDO before. I’ve even said it about myself more than a few times. But this is the weird part: I have never felt less in control than when I became a manager. That might seem like a contradiction, but hear read me out.

Management != Control

When I started out as a manager, I learned that the most effective managers don’t operate from their role power, i.e. “I can fire you.” They lead with influence instead of control. This kind of leading is about inspiration; it’s about making the team more important than yourself. It’s about communication and relationships. That’s not a position with a ton of control, believe me. I started reading more and more about leadership, empowerment and servant leadership. It was daunting.

Then I learned that relationships with my peers across the organization were going to be essential to doing half of what I wanted to get done. My team was isolated from the rest of the organization. I was shut out of the planning and strategy process, or included only at the last minute. I started using lunch as a means of getting to know my peers and sharing my vision with them.

I made mistakes…. Okay, I made a lot of mistakes. I made a few really big mistakes. I learned later that your first promotion to manager is the hardest. I believe it. I was highly regarded by my peers as an engineer. I had put in my 10,000 hours. Now I had a few hundred hours, tops. While hours aren’t everything, certainly my lack of hours was a significant factor in my lack of skill.  I don’t know anything that makes me feel less in control than feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing. For several months I wasn’t sure I had made the right choice.

I struggled making the transition from doer to coordinator of doers. I struggled figuring out how to relate to people in roles that were the one I just left. I struggled learning how much to communicate when. Sometimes I struggled just with what to communicate. I struggled as my calendar spiraled out of control. I struggled finding a calm within the storm and time to myself. I struggled with not being in control.

Sometimes stubbornness is a strength that we call perseverance.

Refusing to be Peter

I became obsessed with being the perfect manager. Honestly, I’m really lucky to have a life partner that knows me and understands or I might be single now too.

You see, if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well. Very well. I refused to be an example of the Peter Principle. So I absorbed as much as I could as quickly as possible. I took a class on supervision. I started working with a professional coach. I read blogs. I asked questions of my manager. Every opportunity I had, I learned more about managing people – especially engineers. I became a little obsessed—that’s the CDO again. I neglected a lot of other things along the way. That cost me dearly. I’ve learned a lot in the process.

Of course, one of the biggest things I learned was that I like management. Not the firing or disciplining part. Only sociopaths like that.[1] I love being in a role where I had the influence to really make change. I love building relationships that make it possible to really get things done. I love creating a vision, helping other people understand it, shepherding it through and watching it come to fruition. I love coaching and mentoring my team. I love seeing them grow to greater potential. Managing has some major upsides.

Paying It Forward

A good friend of mine encouraged me to start blogging. I was reluctant.  Then articles persuading engineers to write showed up in my twitter feed. I ran across a video on vulnerability. I’m sure I was just especially attuned to the messages. Still, I thought “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?” I would write a blog about leading in IT and software engineering in particular. I would probably include more than a few on iterative, collaborative software development. I’ve started acquiring quite a list of resources. I’ll be sharing those too.

Here are my thoughts, opinions, questions and rants. I hope you find them as useful to read as I do writing them.

1. I am not a psychologist, I use this term for effect.