Robert is a newly promoted engineering manager. Not too long ago, he was “one of us”, a developer in the trenches who was producing high-quality code, and still found the time to help other developers solve hard problems. Now, he is supposed to do this thing called “managing”, but thinking about himself as a manager or boss makes him feel rather uncomfortable. He sees himself more like what some people adequately call “programmer plus plus”: Still “one of the guys”, just with some extra 20%-or-so responsibility on top.
The fact is that the transition to management feels awkward to a lot of newly promoted engineers. However, I think feeling awkward about it is actually a good starting point, because let’s consider the other extreme: If Robert, after his career change, was already full-on in an “I’m the manager” mode, boasted about all the new privileges he enjoys, and started acting like a pointy-haired boss who has no understanding of the subject matter, no respect for his developers, and always wonders why everything is taking so long because he disregards the complexity involved - that would be a much worse starting point, and Robert’s people would be much worse off.
So I’ll say it again, because it is important: Feeling somewhat awkward at the start of your management journey is good. Rich Armstrong put it best:
Start learning to be a manager, and be uncomfortable about it.
If you are uncomfortable about it, it means you will work hard to justify your promotion. You are not doing this only for the power or the money, but to actually improve people’s working lives. You will be eager to create value for your team. You will get obstacles out of their way. You will let them shine when you get the chance to do so, instead of taking their credit. You will take the blame for them instead of passing it on (1).
I believe that for a lot of people, part of the awkwardness is the added exposure you have in your new management position. I once read a quote by a manager who said: “As a manager, you’re on stage every day.” And that stuck with me, because it elegantly summarized a vague set of feelings I already had. As a manager, people observe you more closely.
If you think that is not true, just think about how you pay attention to your boss or any person in a position of power walking around near you. Don’t you watch every one of their moves, and try to guess what mood they are in? Don’t you sometimes, out of the corner of your eye, watch what’s happening in that glass-wall meeting room where the boss is talking and gesturing wildly to somebody, while you pretend to be working and not noticing anything? Many people do - it’s human - and you will “enjoy” the same attention if you are in such a position. You will be on stage, if you like it or not, and you will play a certain role.
Hiding is not an option
Many IT people are rather introvert, and don’t enjoy being the center of attention. They don’t want to be on stage. Maybe you don’t. So, because you feel observed, you might want to avoid walking around and interacting with people. There might be days where you didn’t sleep well the night before, you don’t feel strong or confident, you don’t feel like talking, and you would rather hide behind your screen than get up and discuss awkward topics. It happens to all of us. All you think is: “Leave me alone! Please, not today!” But that option is a thing of the past. Maybe it never even existed, but now that you are a manager, it exists even less. Hiding behind your screen is detrimental to your productivity.
The good news is that you will get used to it over time. It takes a while, but things that used to be awkward will start feeling more natural. I used to hate running meetings, for example. In certain meetings, there used to be this booming silence, with twelve people waiting for you to say something. Individually, I had a great relationship with most of them, but when I faced this small crowd who I was supposed to motivate and inspire, this did not seem to help. Those meetings felt forced and hard-going. I used to be glad when they were over.
After a while, though, I became more relaxed. Most of the time, I was too busy anyway to worry a lot about the meetings beforehand. Being more relaxed, the words came to me more naturally, my sentences became less complex and convoluted. Talking became easier. This, again, contributed to a more pleasant atmosphere.
What I want to say is: Yes, you play a role at first. But that is not a bad thing. You should be yourself and find your own style, but it is important to play that role professionally. This means controlling your emotions, staying out of personal quarrels and gossip, being oriented towards solutions instead of finding out who to blame, leaving your ego aside, and not shying away from unpleasant duties and conversations. These are things you might expect from anybody in the workplace anyway, but they are absolutely crucial for people in leading positions. If you firmly stick to these guidelines, you will automatically feel more and more at home in your role, and the awkwardness will go away.
What about you?
So what about you? Are you an engineer and unsure if you should take on a management position? Maybe you have been asked if you could imagine taking that step, but were surprised to be considered? Me? A manager? No, I’m not the type. Why not? Because you cannot picture yourself as a manager very well? The thought makes you feel uncomfortable? I hope I convinced you by now that’s a plus. And you do care a lot about the people you work with? Congratulations, you possess some crucial qualities. Believe it or not, some of your colleagues might be very happy if you stepped up to the challenge.
I will leave you with another message from Rich Armstrong: “The only reason there’s so many awful managers is that good people like you refuse to do the job.” Think about it.
I worked for about 3 hours to write this blog post. Most of it was on the train while commuting to or from work.
1. Of course, feeling uncomfortable managing (“I cannot let my people do all the real work and just stand by”) is also what drives many people into the “programmer plus plus” mode. The problem with the “programmer plus plus” mindset is that it is not sustainable over time. If you are torn between development and management duties, you will most likely do a mediocre job in at least one of them, unless you work 80 hours a week, or “manage” at most two other people (and hence don’t really need management on the team). At some point, you have to accept the fact that management is now your primary duty, and one to take seriously.