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Do you really want to be a manager?
When I started this substack one of my objectives was to share my point of view on managing people and how we generally get this wrong.
Eventually I decided that I was going to share my opinion on everything (a perfect mirror of what I do for a living).
However it’s time I talk about management and how I think good management looks like. This will probably end up being a couple of posts across several weeks, who knows, we’ll see.
Do you really want to be a manager?
Given my profession I talk often to people that want to be managers or are fresh managers but unsure if this is the profession for them.
The first, most obvious, thing I do is to check their motivation: Why do you want to switch career and go into management?
Here I only check for red flags like: “so people will listen to me” or “is the only possibility to be promoted”. Without the right motivation nobody can be succesful in any career, or in some cases will even burn out. Every job will suck at some point and if you don’t have the right motivation you won’t be able to get over that bump.
Then I list all the downsides of being a manager, if you are still motivated after this list then we can talk about what first-line management really is.
Here’s the list:
You start from the bottom again, as you know I don’t believe non-technical managers should exist at all. So you are an individual contributor wanting to get into management, and probably feel quite sure about your contribution. Now forget everything about that, is back to school again and you are the least competent person in the group.
Any mistake you make has real consequences, sometimes heart-breaking. Breaking production is bad of course, but is fixable. Management mistakes can be really bad, you can fuck up someone compensation, or unwillingly provoke burn out. As engineers we know that mistakes are inevitable, and the guilt of causing harm to another human being is really painful (as anyone that has been in this profession long enough can confirm)1
The light stops shining on you. Successful managers ensure that their people shine, they highlight their team achievements, credit to the team, blame to the coach. This is the rule, you can’t break this rule.
You need to learn to control yourself. You have to be conscious about what you do and say, your team will see your inconsistencies, everything you say will be taken more seriously. You need to learn to keep your own state of mind or emotions in check, nobody can get an harsh feedback because you had a bad day. That is extremely unprofessional and not the actions of a good manager.
It takes a looooong time to see results. We are used to have quick feedback loops coming out of our work as individual contributors, even in larger projects there are feedback loops that have maybe a span of weeks but not more than that. When you are a manager it’s very hard to see any result faster than 3-6 months. To make it worse, sometimes the first results you see are pretty terrible, people reject your ideas or call bullshit on it. This can lead to the terrible feeling that you haven’t contributed to the business at all.2
Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Part of this job is to listen, sometimes people will be angry at you for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Sometimes they’ll tell you things that are heart-breaking and there is nothing you can do to help them. You have to learn to deal with those emotions, both externally but also internally. Never bring those emotions home.
Your attention gets fragmented. Probably the most difficult trick I had to learn was to manage my energy to make sure I don’t fragment myself too much. Managing means that is easy for everyone to want a pice of you, your attention gets fragmented and if you are not conscious about your time and interruptions you might end up going home with an headache and very little accomplished.
Your career slows down. Just a simple mathematical fact, you don’t need as many managers as you need engineers. Be prepared to need more time and energy to find a new job, especially if you pursue even more senior management roles.
It changes you, personally. This is often overlooked and often received with disbelief. But the work you have to do on yourself to be a good manager has impact on your personal life, on who you are. I can’t completely explain how, because everyone reacts differently to this, but it’s inevitable. This is also why having a group of peer managers to talk to regularly is so important, it’s hard to be understood by someone outside of the profession.
Some people are either crazy or don’t believe me, so they accept those downsides and want to know more about this.
What is management anyways?
Defining what it means to manage a team or an higher level organization is a complex task, for the most part because this term is so generic that every company defines its management practices differently. But I will try to describe a generic mental model that I use for it, and that I will probably try to apply to different roles in a later post.
A basic definition
As I said before, I think that management is not a necessary evil like some proponents of holocracy or other practices want you to believe. Anyone that thinks that management is bad and shouldn’t exist never had a good manager, I understand your experience but throwing away a profession because we are unable (or unwilling) to teach people about it isn’t really a solution.
The best definition of management I ever heard was from Jose Mourinho in the documentary serie “The Playbook”:
(answering a question on how he can coach a star player like Cristiano Ronaldo)
“You are not going to teach Ronaldo how to take a free-kick. I don’t coach football players, I coach football teams.”
“I don’t teach Ronaldo how to play, I teach him how to play in this team”3
This is really the core, your job is to lead a team of people (or a team of teams) to reach their personal, team and business objectives.
To be more practical I divide the role into 4 responsibilities all equally important: Managing the People, Managing the Team, Managing the Business and Managing the Technology.
When people think about managers they think only about this, and I find that sometimes they are very surprised to hear that I consider this just one of a long list for the role.
If you stop and think about it, if we were to take this quite literal, this would mean spending 10-12 hours a week on this and, unless my experience is so uncommon, I don’t think your team wants you to spend more time on this.
How this looks like on your agenda:
Weekly 1:1s with your reports. Real 1:1s, not business updates in coaching’s clothes. This is their time not yours, they set the agenda and your topics come last only if there is time. This is the best time to use your coaching skills and no time is wasted in 1:1s. Personally I schedule 1 hour weekly for each of my direct reports.
Meeting your HR business partner. You should meet once every 2 weeks or once a month depending on your role. This time is not only topics that are hot right now but also to exchange ideas on possible future situations and on learning and development topics. I have a strong opinion that most people topics should be addressed by managers with the support, training and coaching of the HR department.
Skip-level meeting (if you are a manager of managers). Reserve time to do skip level meetings, meet with future “promotion-worthy” colleagues to know them better but also collect ideas on what you can do better and improve. Is very easy to close yourself in an ivory tower and lose touch with reality.
Mentoring junior colleagues. It’s always a good idea to reserve some time to mentor high potential colleagues, good for both of you.
Other topics like performance reviews, promotions, underperformance, etc. These topics are like air, they fill the void, so make sure to timebox aggressively.
Your main job is to lead a team! Making sure people are working together effectively, are clear on what they are supposed to achieve and that even when things are unclear and fuzzy, the team can figure things out. This is particularly important in matrix-y organizations, for example in technology is very common to have at least one person part of the team (a PO/PM, or maybe QA) that does not report into the manager of the team but effectively works as part of the team.
How this looks like on your agenda:
(if you are a first-line manager) Agile/Sprint/Whatever-system-you-use ceremonies. Even if you don’t use SCRUM you will probably have some version of this, once a week/forthnight/month you sit down and talk about the plan.
Standup. Can be daily or less often, but is a good practice to have a checkin to figure out what’s going on, if people are blocked and need help. This is extremely important in a remote-first setup where you can’t see each other in the office and personal relationships can be strained. Seeing each other every day becomes a moment of bonding as well.
(if you lead a team of teams) Weekly staff meeting. A team of managers doesn’t work together daily and is important to have a weekly checkpoint to discuss higher level topics, blockers and coordination issues. Also a very good moment for the leader to share more insights into upcoming changes and strategic decisions. Good idea to invite guests from time to time for deep dives on important topics.
Quarterly retrospectives. Quarterly retrospectives are not about the business but about the team: how do we work together? what can we improve? They are also a good way to celebrate and bond as a team, my suggestion is to make them part of a remote culture as well (maybe less often but still).
Team metrics. A fuzzy topic but you should invest some time in defining and measuring team effectiveness metrics similar to the DORA metrics. I know is always hard to find time and energy to measure them unless this is a company wide effort.
At the end of the day your team exists to serve the business, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. And yet I am often surprised to hear that many don’t consider this to be part of the job of a first-line manager, I vehemently disagree4.
How this looks like on your agenda:
1:1s with your counterparts. This should be self-explanatory, especially in matrix organizations, if someone shares responisibilities with you on the delivery of the team then you should meet regularly.
1:1s with your peers and staff meeting with your manager. You are part of team yourself! Meet regularly with your team.
Objectives/KPIs cadence. This depends on how the company works but most companies have some cadence to set/review business objectives and can be very time consuming.
Meeting with business stakeholders. This higly depends on your role in the organization but I often find that engineering managers are completely hands-off and leave to their product counterpart the entire burden of managing business stakeholders. While this is indeed not stricly required I believe that there is a lot of value in meeting business stakeholders from time to time also if it’s not part of your job description.
Your team owns a piece of technology, it’s your responsibility to make sure everything is on order, from operations to architecture decisions. Not that you have to do it yourself of course, but as a manager you are end accountable for this.
This is also very very very subjective, it depends a lot on your team and stack so I won’t be too specific here.
How this looks like on your agenda:
Daily morning routine checking operational KPIs. Is everything ok? Did anything break during the night that we didn’t know? Did we get any alert? Is the CI pipeline ok? And so forth
Occasional code reviews (or whatever applies to you). Especially when onboarding more junior members.
Occasional work from incidents/outages.
Architecture forums/Work with the team on planning new designs or refactors.
Research on new techniques/technologies/practices.
Your mileage might vary!
This entire list is really just an example, each company is different and how you split your time depends A LOT on the health of your team and the growth stage of your company!
Why would you be a manager?
If the above list didn’t scare the wannabe manager, then is time to explain why I am still in this job and why I still love it.
The outsized impact on the business. Your action have a deferred impact yes, but the size of that impact is multiplied several times. This is something that is very rare to experience outside of leadership positions and is very common for management roles.
Making a difference in people’s lives. Being someone in a role that they don’t like or having a personal problem, it’s always rewarding when you make someone’s life better. In my career I have “demoted” people multiple times from a management role that they didn’t even like but were stuck with, they all ended up thriving as individual contributors.5
Learning a lot of different things. The fate of a manager is toward being a generalist, in fact I often joke that my objective is too be bad at a lot of things instead being good at just one. The reality of the job is that you are exposed to a lot of different problems that you need to solve, often by yourself, like hiring, budgeting, tradeoff decisions, difficult HR topics, etc etc. This provides a lot of space to learn a lot in fields that are adjacent to yours.
Meeting people outside of your bubble. Because of the above, it means that you will end up meeting people outside of technology that have a completely different experience than yours, you might frequently meet customers as well (depending on company, role etc etc). This burst your bubble and provides ample opportunity for personal growth.
You grow, as a person. Life is tough, the darkest corners of this job will make you grow and be a better person, sibling, partner or parent. Often you will be in a sink or swim situation but life lessons are never cheap and you should consider this a benefit of the role.
That’s it for now, I have all intentions to dive deeper into the various types of management roles in another post but I think this is enough.
So you want to be a manager now?
Unless you are a psychopath, but then you probably shouldn’t be a manager either
A personal example: once I started leading a new team that I deemed dysfunctional. So I introduced a few basic practices to make the team functional again (standups, weekly, retros, etc). The team was very unhappy at the beginning, all this useless time spent in meetings they said. Two retros later the feedback was “We are very happy that we had the idea of introducing the practices”. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
If you are not familiar with European football: Cristiano Ronaldo is an all-time star player that won many awards including several balon d’or. Jose Mourinho is a legendary coach that won many tournaments including the “triplete” with Inter FC (the combination of the national league title, national cup and UEFA champions league).
In fact an onboarding exercise I give to newly hired managers is a spreadsheet that I partially fill with a list of people they should meet and I ask them to not only meet with them but also write notes to understand if they should meet regularly and ask them who else they should meet. This creates a business map for them and helps the manager onboard much faster.
Must note here that as a manager you are not equipped to be a psychologist, often the best impact you can have is to make someone realize that they need help, being professional therapy or mentoring/coaching.