My journey to engineering manager and leader
6 min read
I've been in the tech industry for over 20 years and whilst I've never strayed too far from coding, roughly half of my experience has been in management and leadership positions.
Some of my recent teams have said nice things about me and my style of leadership and yesterday someone asked me how I got started in management, which in turn inspired this post.
The first thing to say is that whilst there may be helpful things to be learned from my experience, I would stress that these types of journeys are personal and the result of many factors. I'd also stress that I'm writing this from memory and I can only imagine how much my mind has adapted these memories over the years.
My first real foray into management was around 2007. I was promoted to Head of Technology for the small tech agency for whom I worked. I'd had zero management training, was lacking confidence and still trying to find my feet.
I think I enjoyed the whole experience, but I struggled with many things. By writing about it, I hope I might help you avoid some of my mistakes or at least be more aware of them.
What am I actually doing?
Switching from coding to managing, I remember feeling like I wasn't doing any real work. I felt like others were contributing whilst I was just pushing paper around and doing unimportant things. The key thing here is that there is a mindset shift required to understand how you can add value. As a manager, you are trying to act as a multiplier for others - removing impediments, making sure folks have what they, communicating information where it needs to go, etc.
Related: I've lived with imposter syndrome my entire career and as a manager that didn't change. Whilst it never goes away, I can rationalise it because I know that it is something that a lot of people are affected by and it's unlikely that all these people are imposters. There is a danger that you let imposter syndrome stop you from making a difference. If you can set it to one side, you can get on.
Better at everything
One of the biggest issues I had going into management was my ego, so this might be something that affects you less than me (or more depending on your ego! 😀).
I bought into the idea that teams are hierarchical and managers are above non-managers and if you are above then you have to be better than those below you. This was a problem because I was now managing developers who were better than I was. That was one of the hardest things I had to come to terms with.
You don't have to be the best at everything - which is lucky, as chances are, you won't be. As a manager, your role is not to be better than the rest of the team, your role is to get the best out of the team.
To flip this around, it is an amazing feeling when you manage people better than you and help them to produce something awesome. It's all a matter of perspective.
Tangentially related, I struggled with managing people older than me. Culturally, I expect to defer to my elders, not tell them what to do. Working out how to manage those relationships was hard for me.
In a curious contradiction to the above, whilst I felt I needed to be better than my team, I didn't believe that I had any authority. This is a strange one. You can be granted authority, but unless you believe that you have it, you cannot use it.
At times I was asked for advice by none technical colleagues. I would say something like: "you have two options, A and B. A will be amazing and will do all the things that you want. B will be hell and will ruin everything". My colleague would then choose B and things would burn in flames.
It took me a while to realise that my job was not to present options. My job was to provide solutions. I was the subject matter expert. I had the authority. By only providing options and not the solution, I was abdicating my responsibilities.
This is a bit of a simplification - I know sometimes you need to give options, etc. But there are times as a leader when you should say: "do X - it is the right thing to do".
The company I worked for brought in a consultant and one of his roles was to mentor me. I felt very insecure when he started but I can honestly say that it is one of the most pivotal moments in my career. I suspect that he doesn't realise the impact he had and the lasting impact he has had on my career, and, by extension, the people who might have subsequently been helped by me. I owe Alexis a huge, huge thank you.
The chosen path
I was asked about my motivation to become a manager. This was an easy one to answer as I wasn't motivated. I felt like it was what I was supposed to do to climb the career ladder.
You start as a developer, then work your way up through management.
The funny thing was that the further up the ladder I got, the less happy I was, though at the time I couldn't connect these two facts.
It was only after I'd seen Simon Sinek's Start With Why talk that I thought about why I got up and went to work in the morning.
Having thought about it for a long time, I realised that my "why" was nothing more complicated than wanting to make technology work better for people. That was it. Fixing a printer, writing code that solves a problem, managing a team to produce something useful - it didn't matter, as long as I made things a little bit better.
When I realised what motivated me, I stopped pushing to be a manager / leader. I still find myself in management / leadership positions, but I do it now if it seems like that is the best way I can serve a team.
I've now built my management / leadership style around coaching. I'll help people work out answers, I'll let people make mistakes, I'll put safety nets in place, and, if necessary, I will occasionally tell someone what to do. I'll spend my time making sure the team has what it needs. I'll act as their shield when needed.
It's not the only leadership style, but it's the only one I know and it is how I like operating. Like most things, it has its strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, when it works, teams can operate autonomously at a high-level. On the downside, it takes effort to get working well and can be easily disrupted.
There is a saying "leaders should take a little more of the responsibility and a little less of the credit" - I'd like to think I do that. When I was younger, I think I spent more time with my mouth open and ears closed. As I've got older and gained experience, I'd like to think that I've reversed that.
A book that I have found illustrative about this style of management is Humble Inquiry.
Something I love about the servant leader role is that you learn so much from those around you. Everyday becomes another amazing learning opportunity.
A team of leaders
I like the idea of a team of leaders. That is to say, a team who work for each other and can each lead when needed. I think that creates a powerful, resilient, flexible set-up and allows for the growth of each team member.
That was my journey (so far!). Let me know what you think and whether this resonates with you! What have been your pain points?