“Are you in a meeting?”
My six year old daughter thinks any time I'm at my computer that I'm in a meeting, the answer is usually yes. She used to ask if I was working. She knows better these days. When I told her what I do now she asked, "so you tell people what to do?". That's a good question, because a lot of adults think that's what a manager does too.
I transitioned from a fairly long career as a builder of various types of web pages into management at the company I've been with for a bit. This is a typical story of someone that had been leading projects for some time that thought, "why not make my work harder?". If you would have asked me even a few years ago if I wanted to go into management, it would have been a resounding no. At my current employer though, I felt like this transition would be handled well. I was right, too. I wasn't forced into it to advance in my career, and I was always given the safety net of going back to coding should I choose to at any time.
I was also right about management being the right next step in my career. I'm two feet in and absorbing like a sponge. It actually reminds me of my early days coding, everything is difficult and new again. Most of what I'm doing in my day-to-day are things I've wanted my managers to do since the beginning of my career. Seeing how difficult, and sometimes impossible, it is to be halfway decent at it I can understand why most of the time things slipped through the cracks.
I've officially been an engineering manager in title and duties for a bit over a year, and in the beginning of my next career I've learned quite a bit. But the perspective here should be tempered with that tiny bit of experience.
My time is your time
I have two teams with direct reports that work outside the normal squad on two separate projects. There's a lot of coordination that needs to take place, as well as simply learning what people have been up to and what challenges they're facing. I'm constantly thinking about my people and where they are in their careers, their current projects, their personal lives, and all the myriad other factors that go into human relationships.
To keep up with this on an individual level, I've found that the 1:1 weekly meeting with each person is one of the most important things I can do. My team quickly learns that this is the case when I consistently tell them that my time is their time. Take as much of it as you need. It's my job to be interrupted with sticky situations around the edges where logic starts to break down. By consistently showing my people how important their time is to me I unlock a level of trust that I hope allows us to accomplish anything, including the difficult stuff. This seems to be the best way of understanding my team's needs and motivations. So far, it's been the secret sauce to moving the needle in ways that haven't been done for their careers to date.
This does mean I'm in a lot of meetings, especially 1:1's. There are days that I'm amped for it, others not so much. I'm regularly much more exhausted at the end of each day than when I was writing code. The grind is real here, and it's important to acknowledge. Pushing through the grind to make those human connections is something I'm getting better at with time and experience.
With a little power comes great responsibility
They say frontline managers don't actually have very much power, which is true to a certain extent. I give my recommendation on who to promote, or how much to pay people, but at the end of the day I don't hold the purse strings of the budget. I can give my thoughts on who would be good for what project, but those decisions are made final in meetings I'm not invited to. I need to pick my battles and make a lot of compromise to succeed, oh also I never get all of what I want.
That said, the power that is entrusted to me is enough to make a drastic change to someone's life. If I make a mistake with that little power the collateral damage can be extensive.
Although I don't control the budget, or what projects are deemed important, whatever the recommendation I give is generally listened to. I am the person that decides who out of the pipeline to hire. During performance reviews what I say can alter the course of a person's career. When more help is needed on another project, I decide who to send. The list goes on, but each of these types of decisions literally changes the course of someone's day-to-day, career, or even life trajectory. Missing the mark on one of these decisions haunts me. I see the life altering potential behind each of them, so I take a great deal of care with every one.
I've already made mistakes that have affected people's lives in a way I didn't intend. The gravity of those mistakes is something I didn't understand until I lived it. This is an extra layer of stress on a job that's ostensibly about keeping spinning plates from falling, inevitably one always will. This part of the job is my primary reason for maintaining a network of people leaders. You need to be able to bounce ideas off of people you respect, especially those that have been around the block. This has been critical to my small success, and I highly recommend you do the same if you're in a similar position.
This is the game
Working with a group of humans toward a common goal is going to involve politics, no matter how many times we try to deny it. Those that are good at this will excel at management and leadership. This isn't something that people like to hear, politics is a dirty word because of professional politicians, but if you run away from it then you and who you lead be left behind. You've got to play the game. This isn't a bad thing, this is how you navigate the waters of leadership.
I don't care what hoops I have to jump through to keep my people fulfilled with their career. I'm going to bend to all the seemingly arbitrary processes and jump over all the hurdles placed for what feels like the sole purpose of making it hard. I'm going to win over the hearts and minds of decision makers in leadership and HR by playing their game well. From time to time I'll pick a battle to stand my ground when I think it would help, removing any hurdles for those coming behind me raises all boats. I do all these things because I realize this game is the only path to success for my team, if I want them to get what they need out of their jobs.
If you're not willing or able to stand with your team to play the game, and make the sacrifices necessary to take the responsibility you have deadly serious, the damage you might cause will negatively affect many people. Sometimes in career or life altering ways.
Hearing all of this, especially if you're six years old, management might seem like a shit job. It's not easy to be good at, but the reward for seeing people on my team grow by leaps and bounds far exceeds any discomfort I have along the way. I can help change people's lives in not-so-insignificant ways for the better if I take a great deal of care with that responsibility. That alone makes it all worth it.
2022/07/26 - Rearranged the ending thanks to some feedback (TY KR); added a note about jumping into politics isn't a bad thing, but a necessary one; more context on 1:1s