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.