February 15, 2020

The truths about management

I sucked as a manager. OK, maybe I didn't. My teams shipped on time, and I stayed on top of things quite well. But I always felt like I couldn't make any headway, and I criticized myself for that. When I moved back to an individual contributor role, I dropped to my knees, praised Jesus, and tossed a five in the collection basket that Sunday. And I promised I would never be a manager again.

I work in engineering at my company. There’s a stereotype that engineers don’t want to be managers and aren’t good at it anyway. There might be some truth to that. I believe the real problem, however, is this: Corporate America pushes the myth that if you want to be somebody (i.e. prove that you’re talented, competent, and a leader), you must become a manager. This is absolutely absurd.

Lots of people don’t want to be a manager, but with the pressure from family, friends, and today’s corporate environment, they feel it’s the only way to prove themselves. This is unfortunate; some people are unhappy as managers, and usually their only way out is quitting. My struggles as a manager had nothing to do with my competence. It was simply the wrong fit—120%. On a positive note I can share some of the realities I learned and reassure folks that it’s OK to say “No, thanks” to a career in management.

1. You have to be comfortable with people.

Seems obvious, but this point doesn't get much attention. Everyone plays up the “glory” of being an authority figure, but they don’t talk about the personal side of it. The reality is that as a manager you are—for better or worse—the go-to resource for your direct reports. For some people is simply icky, or if they’re lucky, just awkward. Here are some examples of serving as your team's guidepost:

  1. Giving performance feedback, even when they don’t ask for it
  2. Providing career guidance
  3. Working out conflicts with teammates (or you)
  4. Facilitating a happy work environment in which they thrive

Some people enjoy this. I struggled with it. Right off the bat I’m downright awkward around people. Second, I don’t have a nurturing nature. This is a quality you need if you’re going to be good at this. I’m not saying you have to hand-hold your subordinates. You are, however, their pillar and advocate, and sometimes you have to dole out tough love.

This is challenging stuff. Being accountable for your team’s well-being is a heavy responsibility, and it has to be measurable. If you want to succeed at this, you must have a true interest in cultivating people’s potential. But just as I have no interest in politics or plumbing, I have no interest in this. Sounds callous, right? But is it? Some folks are afraid to admit they're not into it because they might come off as jerks. The truth is, however, there's no shame. It’s an interest just like any, and no one is interested in everything.

2. Kiss good-bye to the highs of IC work.

If you’re like me, you love building things—both the process and the finished thingamajig. When I complete the DOM and CSS for a new feature, I’m proud of the finished piece.

When I was promoted to manager, I stopped coding. That’s a common thing; managers become less hands-on with feature work. And because your duties as manager are different, the day-to-day rewards are also different from that of an IC.

As an IC I enjoy the technical problem solving and strategizing through code. Since there are different ways to attack a problem or design something, my brain enjoys that satisfying victory after arriving at the most efficient solution. By contrast, my most common celebrations as a manager were:

  • Shipping a feature on time
  • Keeping my team’s backlog to a minimum
  • The company’s hitting its milestones and targets

Sure, ICs celebrate these things too, but only they can enjoy the highs of actually building something. As a manager I missed that technical work and having my code shipped and used by our customers. For some managers this isn’t a problem. They feel just as much accomplishment as their team does, and that's great. For me, I couldn’t. My work becomes personal, and if I don’t have a direct hand in something, I can’t bring myself to own it. That’s on me of course, but I accept that. I think a lot of people have this kind of relationship with their work too.

3. Being a manager doesn’t mean you’re better than the next guy.

Therefore, being an IC doesn’t make you a less-than employee. Just like any job, management requires its own set of skills. Some people are suited for it. Some aren’t. While executive-level management positions do require deep experience and hefty decision-making chops, an IC isn’t automatically less valuable, less adept, or less of a leader than a manager. We each bring our own strengths and expertise to the table, and no one person has them all. Your role plays an important part on your team. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be there. It’s as simple as that.

So what’s the gist here?

I can summarize this in two broad points. First, going from an IC to a manager will bring big changes. The question is whether you really want them. I’m not talking about the bigger pay, fancy title, and prestige. I’m talking about the day-to-day work. You have to be very clear on what drives you every day. The status symbols mean nothing if you’re miserable.

I’m not saying management is hell, but for some people it will be. If you’re not sure if it’s right for you, talk to some managers at your company. See what they love and hate about their jobs. You could also ask your boss if you may lead a future project with multiple ICs. Pitch it as R&D for your career.

The other point is that you should never, ever measure your worth on whether you’re a manager. It’s completely irrelevant and can set you up for the wrong path. Some old-school people still buy into the idea that being in charge means you’re a more superior employee. This comes from an antiquated, alpha-male mindset that having authority over others means you’re physically and mentally stronger than those who don’t. Well, we’re not apes, so don’t fall for that.

If you’re not interested in managerial duties, look into senior leadership positions at your company. If they can’t make those opportunities available to you, consider working somewhere else. Just make sure you’re very clear on what you want and that you’re acting on your gut, not the pressures of society.