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Management Mutex

The transition to management, elusive goals, and keeping your eyes open.

I'm three weeks into my new job and really enjoying it. It's also hard. For the first time in probably a year or two, I actually feel challenged by my professional responsibilities. Since I'm now an engineering manager, the biggest challenge has been that my goals are far more ethereal: my team's success is my success, and the day-to-day work involves a lot less doing and a whole lot more listening and thinking. When I was a full-time programmer, the goal was simple: write the code, write it well, and try to write it on time. (Obviously, I'm glossing over a hundred other miscellaneous activities that go into that, but that's the end goal.) As a fairly skilled front-end developer, the way to this path was obvious if not always easy.

As a manager, my goal appears to be something like exert influence and provide assistance to help my team accomplish their goals on time. Also, maybe code a little. About 70% of my responsibilities have moved from the concrete to the abstract, and I idly wonder if I've Peter Principled myself. After all, there's the idea that when senior software engineer a goes into management, they become a junior engineering manager.

I'm being a little dramatic, though. I've always gravitated toward leadership positions but was never a formal manager-that-deals-with-hiring-firing-compensation-stuff-too. I'm relatively comfortable in this role, but in the past strategic thinking was my ulterior motive in individual contributor roles: now, it is my explicit responsibility. So that's cool. The main thing I'm getting used to is the fact that mostly, I'm no longer the one responsible for writing the code that fixes the problem. Instead, I make sure that the work we want to do is the right work to do, and then I delegate it. So far, this seems to be a common conversation:

Engineer: There's a problem. This is what it is.
Me: How can we fix it?
Engineer: We can do this.
Me: OK, let's do that.

Sometimes it goes like this:

Engineer: There are two problems.
Me: Let's fix the second problem because it's worse.

And that's about it. Then someone just goes and does it. (And a lot of the time, our very talented contractor just has that conversation for me.)

Of course, in order to make those calls, I have to pay close attention to the company's goals, the current business environment, technical factors, time constraints, engineer happiness, cultural inertia, and more, all the while balancing these things. So basically, just sitting and reading management texts at my desk is a valid use of some of my in-office work time, and that feels weird. (But also, another part of me is like, finally. I fucking love management texts.)

All of this amounts to a form of constant observation and listening. I'm ingesting as much information as possible in order to balance competing needs and priorities. One of my main jobs coming into the company as a new employee is to identify and report my observations into culture and process. This is a challenge, because the culture of feels fairly similar to that of other companies I've worked at, which makes assimilating into that culture fairly easy. In turn, this means that it's really easy to become blind to issues and broken processes that I've already accustomed myself to in the past, or to overlook divergences in what I consider, on whole, to be an experience I'm already familiar with.

When I interviewed for the job, I spoke to the CTO who told me a great line: "In about two years, I'll be a part of the problem." The moment you get used to a thing it becomes much harder to examine it critically and objectively, and even harder to visualize how that thing could be different. So as I decomposed my understanding of my job description into goals and responsibilities, I made sure to add a section titled "Insight / Perception": keep my eyes open, continue to recognize patterns, continue to ask questions, continue to probe the goal. Ask myself: what is the real challenge here? And what other challenges are there? What impacts the bottom line the most?

Then, I try to look at this list every day. I'm hoping that I can avoid, for as long as possible, the normalization of frustration and the tolerance of dysfunction. It's also led me to think about my own life, personally: when you talk about being part of the problem in two years, I've certainly become part of the problem in the last 27. In what ways have I allowed myself to stagnate, calcify, or permit myself to suffer? Is the life I'm living the life I actually want to live? Am I doing the right things for myself? (Don't worry, I won't wax on this too long. It's near the end.)

It's weird to realize that I actually have trouble visualizing in what ways I would want my life to be concretely different right now, in this moment (besides being rich, debt-free, and five pounds lighter). It's also weird to realize that I'm more actively called upon to use my imaginal self, that part of me that visualizes, fantasizes, and problem-solves, more in my full-time job now than I am in my real life. What's up with that? I'll add that to my life's list of goals and responsibilities.