Thoughts on a year as engineering manager

In the fall of 2022 my boss asked me to take on the lead/eng manager role for the platform/infrastructure team I was a part of.  I'd just joined as an engineer, but - why not?  After all, I have been studying management concepts and theory for some time now as my job-hobby, surely I was ready to practice what the theory said would work!

Well, it has been a rewarding year, but a hard year.

Rewarding, because my time in the role confirmed what I had strongly suspected - the socio is in fact more important to spend time on than the technical, that management is indeed all about redesigning systems.  The year was hard, because - by all accounts - I experienced many of the difficult and uncomfortable parts of management in a very short period of time.

It's difficult to share the experiences while keeping a certain level of discretion, so bullet points will have to suffice.

  • Persevering in storytelling/making information visible does indeed yield results.
  • Applying Cynefin, I believe, made me more effective in my decision-making, and - I think - made my teams' experience a bit less painful.
  • Short-term pain from saying 'no' is worth enduring for the greater long-term effects.
  • Sociotechnical systems is beyond accurate.  It should really be SOCIOtechnical systems.  Indeed, socio-politico-technical.
  • 'be content with what you have' and 'do the best with what you've been given' and 'day by day' and 'just the next step'
  • Systems can be redesigned; but the nature of this broken world often requires you to locally optimize.  See it as 'modelling good behaviour' vs. 'hurting the whole'.
  • Know your limit, play within it - never forget the influence of the other systems around you, recognize your sphere. (tension: be willing to stretch when the opportunity comes)
  • Outcome-thinking (c/o value prop canvas, JTBD) when applied to platforms really comes down to designing for flow.
  • Understanding the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, this seems to fit alongside 'common sense'.
  • Individual performance management, as traditionally viewed, is indeed the devil, as the devil prefers nobody think in systems.  Rather, growth coaching seasoned with accountability, this is worthwhile.
  • If you must do performance reviews, be disciplined about keeping wins/growth/challenges captured in a doc, else risk having to do 'the perf review panik' dance.
  • Re-orgs reduce engineering effectiveness.  Re-orgs too closely on the tail of one another compound engineering ineffectiveness.
  • The advice I once heard, 'if you're going to be a change agent, here's your hard hat' is a truth.  You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs, this is also true - but people do not like eggs being broken.
  • Doing the best thing for the system often requires self-sacrifice in many real terms, especially with the knowledge that the result will probably be much less than you'd hoped for.
  • Layoffs crush trust.
  • Firing people is the absolute worst, especially when your failures have contributed to the situation.  Furthermore, I have new and great compassion for those who have to execute layoffs.
  • The three-month new hire probation period works if you are willing to have hard conversations and keep the bar high.
  • Feedback is amazingly hard to do well; if you are not working hard at feedback loops, you are failing (or a genius/gifted and you should write a book).
  • Follow-up, un-given negative feedback compounds.
  • A manager without a heart of service will be drained in short order.
  • "Am I willing to be influenced?  Am I willing to learn?" was put hard to the test this year.
  • Willing students are the pride of a teacher.
  • Mentoring is crucial to every member of the organization - I'm fortunate to have had help on my journey!
  • The growth of those you are responsible for is the manager's treasure.
And so, my manager journey ends (pauses?) with the latest round of layoffs and restructuring.  I am very thankful indeed that I am able to continue working with my wonderful colleagues.  However, the continuation required me to lay down the manager's hat and take up the engineer's hat once again.  Such paths!  Perhaps one day I'll have another wonderful opportunity of rewards through hard times.  Who knows?  Not I!

I come into 2024 with truths that continue to be my bedrock: Do the best you can with what you've been given, and take it day by day.  Day by day!


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