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So you want to be a Manager - Part 3: The bad and the ugly
What makes engineering management a really tough job
Engineering management (EM) is a road often riddled with potholes, a journey where the terrain is as unpredictable as the evolution of technology itself.
The belief that management is an easier job compared to being an individual contributor (IC) can’t be further from the truth. The focus of this article is to dismantle this belief by presenting some of the most challenging aspects of being a manager.
If you’re at a crossroads where you have the opportunity of becoming an EM, it's important to really understand what you’re signing up for and know it's not always all good things. The hard parts are worth it, but that does not make them any less hard.
If you’re not interested in becoming an EM, this article is still valuable to help you build empathy toward this role. Managers usually get blamed for everything that goes wrong, and this article will explain why they deserve more understanding.
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This article is the third in a 5 part series on transitioning from individual contributor to engineering manager. For more context, if you haven’t read it already, start with Part 1 and Part 2 (optional). If you’re enjoying this series, make sure to subscribe to receive the newest articles, as they get released, straight into your inbox.
With that said, let's dive into what makes engineering management so difficult.
It’s not about you anymore
One of the hardest mindset shifts for anybody in any type of leadership role is understanding that your work is not about you anymore. This change requires a complete paradigm shift from micro to macro, from individual to collective, and from personal achievements to team accomplishments.
As an EM, work is no longer about your individual output and needs, but instead the team output and needs. You’ll have new responsibilities you’re neither familiar nor comfortable with. It’s a whole new identity, a whole new relationship to work, and that takes time to sync in.
When it comes to job recognition, it’s likely that your work will be mostly in the background, and won’t receive much of the spotlight. It’s your job to shine the light on your team. Your team will become your top priority and their success will be your success. In Part 5 we’ll talk more about what a job well done looks like.
Goodbye, clarity. Hello, ambiguity!
As an EM, sometimes it’s very hard to tell whether you’re making the right decision or doing a good job. What’s expected of your job might be somewhat clear, but how to do it right isn’t.
A big part of a manager’s job is dealing with “people problems”, and we all know there isn’t a one size fits all approach to that. What works for a certain person might not work for another, what works in a given team might not work for another team, and what works in a company might not work in a different company. Trial and error is sometimes the only way to go.
To make matters more complicated, sometimes only time can tell whether you’re doing a good job or not. When it comes to people, results might take months, if not years to show—in the case of big cultural changes. It’s easy to feel like you’re failing, and it can be overwhelming to keep doing the same things and not see results, but with a lot of patience, results will come.
If becoming a more senior IC comes with needing to deal with some ambiguity, becoming a manager is that, on steroids. To adapt, you need to embrace a different mental framework for decision-making. You’ll learn to think more in bets and focus on outcomes rather than outputs.
Goodbye comfort zone
When I first became a manager, I was so nervous about giving feedback that my heart would start racing and I would get all anxious about it. I had to prepare, script everything and deliver the message exactly as scripted, resisting the temptation to sugarcoat to make the other person feel better. Besides time and practice, I got better at feedback because it dawned on me: as a manager if I’m not giving this feedback, who will? Giving feedback is my main job and one of my most powerful tools.
Unfortunately, feedback turns up to be one of the least uncomfortable things managers need to deal with. Other types of bad news managers need to deliver are: telling people they’re not getting a bonus or getting promoted, or worse, that they are getting laid off or terminated. This is more than just uncomfortable, it’s truly heartbreaking.
As a manager, oftentimes you need to resolve misunderstandings or mediate conflict between members of your team or your team and others. You also need to advocate in your team’s best interest, which can result in needing to push back on asks from other roles or even superiors. This can be really hard especially if you are a conflict-avoidant person. I don’t particularly like conflict either, but I don’t shy away from it because I know that it will benefit the entire team.
As a manager, you will have to make difficult decisions regularly. Sometimes, the weight of the decisions you make impacts people’s livelihoods. No pressure 😅. To make things more complicated, sooner or later business changes, conflicting priorities, limited resources, and tight deadlines will be added to the equation.
When staffing projects and planning the work, you need to make sure everyone is challenged but not overwhelmed, and that line is at times fuzzy. When assigning who gets to work on what, you’ll likely face conflicts of interest. Sometimes multiple people want to lead projects, but you don’t have enough projects. Or other times nobody wants to work on certain things that still need to get done. It’s impossible to make everyone happy, but choosing who gets to be unhappy is hard.
Deciding someone’s performance score is also not easy, because you might not have complete information about what that person did. It’s crucial to be fair, accurate, and thoughtful about these assessments. If you give someone a worse rating than they deserve, It's likely that they’ll get upset, and may even decide to quit the team.
Not making these decisions with careful consideration can lead to demotivated teams, projects falling behind, and an overall unhealthy work environment. Being a manager requires a lot of courage and not having all the answers is okay. Partnering with product managers, tech leads and other teams becomes essential to making these tough but necessary decisions.
Stress and emotional weight
Being a manager can be a very stressful and emotionally heavy job.
At times, it feels like you’re the group’s therapist. People might share very personal struggles, 1:1s can get very deep and emotional and people might even cry.
Dealing with conflict can be challenging because you must listen to different sides and mediate while also maintaining confidentiality and staying impartial.
You might even find out sad news—such as layoffs—before others and you’ll need to keep it all to yourself. Or worse, you get to decide who gets to stay and who gets terminated. And on top of not being able to share how you feel with anybody, you also need to keep a stoic happy face around your team.
Harvard Business Review claims that “when managers break down under pressure, so do their teams”. So no matter how hard things might feel for you and your team, you have to be very careful how you manage your feelings, or else you risk a cascading effect on team morale and psyche.
As an IC, a big factor contributing to your job well-being was feeling like you’re part of a team. Your peers gave you a sense of camaraderie that helped overcome difficult situations.
Being on a team feels different when you’re a manager because there is an invisible veil separating you from your reports. There are certain boundaries you need to maintain for legal purposes but also for your team’s best interest. You can’t be one of them anymore, and that can feel very lonely.
As an IC, you likely had more direct control over your work. To get answers to your questions you can just look at the code, and write a query, tool, or prototype. There was much more autonomy and independence in how you operate.
As a manager, you need to delegate work and empower your team to make decisions. Because you’re no longer hands-on, you depend on your team to do the work. It can sometimes feel like your hands are tied, especially when people on your team don’t follow your guidance. This can be frustrating, but it is the nature of things.
You need to adjust to the idea that you can only do so much, and be prepared to utilize the new tools you have at your disposal: communication, delegation, and giving feedback.
Focus? What’s that?
As Paul Graham wrote in his essay "Maker’s schedule, manager’s schedule" back in 2009, a manager's schedule looks very different from that of an IC. The long stretches of uninterrupted time you used to have as an IC will be replaced by tons of meetings, context-switching, and a very fragmented calendar.
Building software is inherently unpredictable, and projects
sometimes always encounter unexpected roadblocks. Managers must prioritize their availability to promptly address them and unblock their teams.
Your multiple responsibilities will be pulling you in different directions at all times, which is why scheduling requires a different strategy for time management. You’ll still need to carve out for deep work and thought leadership, but that’s a story for another article.
As mentioned in the previous section, a manager’s schedule usually revolves around others’. Having a calendar packed with meetings makes it more difficult for a manager to leave in the middle of the day for personal needs (like a dentist appointment), which is not a problem ICs have. Also, internal mobility can be less straightforward, and switching teams might require first finding a replacement for yourself.
To summarize: transitioning to engineering management involves shifting from an individual mindset to a team mindset, navigating ambiguity, embracing discomfort, making difficult decisions, managing emotions, adjusting to loneliness and dependency, mastering time management, and accepting reduced personal flexibility. As you can see, it’s a long list of adjustments, and I probably just barely scratched the surface.
My hope is that by reading this article, you gained more clarity into the EM role and feel empowered to make the most informed decision for yourself.
Was there anything that surprised you when reading this article? What are other adjustments or difficulties I haven’t addressed? I’d like to hear from you!
If you’re enjoying this series, head over to Part 4, where we discuss “The blast radius of bad management”.
Until next time,
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