Irrational Exuberance!

Ways Engineering Managers Get Stuck

March 3, 2017. Filed under management

It's performance review season! Which also means it's an excellent time to reread Camille Fournier's How do Individual Contributors Get Stuck?, which Julia suggested as a framework for giving feedback.

Following in its tradition, I was thinking about the parallels for engineering managers. Managers work more indirectly, so when we get stuck it isn't always quite as obvious, but we absolutely do get stuck, both on individual projects and in our careers.

Here are a few ways that happens.

Newer managers, often in their first couple of years:

  1. Only managing down. This often manifests in building something your team wants to build, but which the company and your customers aren't interested in.
  2. Only managing up. In Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, "All power comes from the Earth," and in management all power comes from a healthy team. Some managers focus so much on following their management's wishes that their team evaporates beneath them.
  3. Never managing up. Your team's success and recognition depends significantly on your relationship with your management chain. It's common for excellent work to go unnoticed because it was never shared upwards.
  4. Optimizing locally. Picking technologies which the company can't support, or building a product which puts you in competition with another team.
  5. Assuming hiring never solves any problems. When you're behind, it can be tempting to spend all of your time firefighting and neglect hiring, but if your business is growing quickly, then eventually you hire or burn out.
  6. Not spending time building relationships. Your team's impact depends largely on doing something that other teams or customers want, and getting it shipped out the door. This is extraordinarily hard without a supportive social network within the company.
  7. Defining your role too narrowly. Effective managers tend to become the glue on their team, filling any gaps. Sometimes that means doing things you don't really want to, in order to set a good example.
  8. Forgetting your manager is a human being. It's easy to get frustrated with your manager when they put you in bad situations, forget to tell you something important, or commit your team to something without consulting you, but they almost certainly did it with the best of intentions. To have a good relationship with your manager, you have to give them room to make mistakes.

More experienced managers:

  1. Doing what worked at your previous company. When you start a new job or new role, it's important to pause for listening and fostering awareness before you start "fixing" everything. Otherwise, you're fixing problems that may not exist, and with tools that may not be appropriate.
  2. Spending too much time building relationships. This is particularly common in managers coming from larger companies into smaller ones, and creates the perception that the manager isn't contributing anything of value. This tends to be because smaller companies expect more execution focus than relationship management focus from their managers.
  3. Assuming more hiring can solve every problem. Adding a few wonderful people to the team can solve many problems, but adding too many people can dilute your culture, and lead to people with unclear roles and responsibilities.
  4. Absconding rather than delegating. Delegation is important, but it's easy to go too far and ignore the critical responsibilities that you've asked others to take on, only to discover an easily averted disaster later on.
  5. Becoming disconnected from ground truth. Particularly at larger companies, it can become frequent for decisions to get made which appear to be fundamentally disconnected from reality.

Any and all levels of experience:

  1. Mistaking team size for impact. Managing a larger team is not a better job, it's a different job. It also won't make you important or make you happier. It's hard to unlearn team size fixation, but if you can, it'll change your career for the better.
  2. Mistaking title for impact. Titles are arbitrary social constructs that only make sense in the context they're given. Titles don't translate across companies meaningfully, and they're a deeply flawed way to judge yourself or others: don't let them become your goal.
  3. Confusing authority with truth. Authority lets you get away with weak arguments and poor justifications, but it's pretty expensive way to work with people, because they'll eventually turn off their minds and simply follow orders (if they're in a complicated compensation or life situation, or just leave).
  4. Not trusting team enough to delegate. You can't scale your impact or engage your team if you don't give them enough room to do things differently than you would. Many organizations become bottlenecked on approvals, which is a sure proxy for lack of trust.
  5. Letting other people manage your time. Most managers have significantly more work they could be doing than they're able to do. This will probably be your status quo for the rest of your career, and it's important to prioritize your time on important things, and not simply whatever happens to end up on your calendar.
  6. Only seeing the problems. It can be easy to only see what's going wrong, and forget to celebrate the good stuff. Down this path lies frustration and madness.

I'm certain there are hundreds more ways that managers get stuck, but those are the ones which came to mind first! What are the ways that you see managers get stuck?