Interesting work happens at the edges.

December 17, 2020. Filed under management 127 career 20

Many engineering managers become obsessed with the transition to managing managers rather than managing a team directly. I’ve seen that pursuit of managerial scope become almost an obsession for some folks. That’s a shame, because group management is a very different job than team management, and is often both less rewarding and less likely to facilitate ongoing learning. In particular, I often get email from folks considering joining a hypergrowth company in pursuit of their first group management role, and my advice is, in its most concise form: Do it if you must, but be cautious.

There are only three paths to group management roles: getting hired at another company that has a group manager role, replacing an existing group manager within your company, or working at a growing company that frequently creates new teams. Companies hiring externally want to “hire in experience” and rarely hire folks without prior group management experience into group manager roles. Replacing an existing group manager within your company is a real option, but the timing is uncertain: it depends on an existing group manager leaving. This process of elimination leads many folks to pursue third path: joining a fast-growing company whose growth creates an ongoing demand for new group managers.

When I was considering what to do next after working at SocialCode, the company that acquired Digg, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get interviews for group manager roles. I was fixated on the pursuit of managerial scope, and that ultimately became my deciding factor in joining Uber. The organizational pyramid scheme of hypergrowth is hard to resist. Six months later, I was managing a team of teams–goal accomplished. It took me a while longer to realize that I didn’t care for much of the work.

Fast growing companies generate a huge amount of change, and the primary function of group managers in those organizations is to absorb change effectively. However, they often lack much control over that change, and end up with the underwhelming choices of pushing the chaos to their team or personally absorbing it. The former violates the manager’s pact–you’re there to help–and the later is a reliable path to burnout.

Learning to manage change effectively is an essential management skill, and you can learn a great deal navigating a chaotic organization, but you can only usefully learn the same lesson so many times. Because the other group managers around you are similarly consumed by change management, the role often settles into an odd mix of contentious, exhausting, and boring.

That doesn’t mean you should never take these roles, there are many exceptions. If your leadership is adept at change management, you’ll find working in their organization to be a rare combination of sustained growth and impact. Similarly, there are periods in your career where the financial and prestige advantages of these roles may be a worthwhile exchange for being grist.

One related observation is that there are many interesting long-term jobs at hypergrowth companies, just not in group management. The most interesting work at hypergrowth companies always happens at the edges. If you have the opportunity to be a senior leader at such a company, then you’ll be stretched in remarkable ways. The second most interesting management jobs are as a team manager. As a team manager, you’ll be directly involved in solving a critical, rapidly changing business or technical problem–as the constraint evolve, you can keep learning indefinitely. If striving for perceived career growth is preventing you from considering team manager roles, you’re doing yourself a disservice.