Home » 2015 » January

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.