Before I became an engineering manager, I had some front-line managers I swore to never emulate. In hindsight, nothing I experienced was terrible, but at the time, each situation felt like a nightmare. I’m pretty sure that everybody goes through this at least a few times in his or her career.
If you’re an engineering manager yourself, you might have a suspicion that you’re on somebody’s “hate list.” If you feel that way, chances are that your intuition is correct. But you might not have any idea why.
Here are some possible reasons.
Reason 1: You think it’s your job to make them better
You’ve been trained on the idea that people are moldable in a broad sense. You believe that there’s an ideal engineer template and that all engineers should aspire towards it. You think it’s your HR-bequeathed duty to show your people how they’re failing to match at least 3 of the prescribed traits in each performance review. “You’ve done some great things this quarter,” you say, “but if you want to get promoted, you’ve got to work on these bullet points first.”
This attitude is only partially your fault. You were raised this way, and like an obedient child, you’re unwittingly inflicting the same nonsense on your children. You may not remember, but you once hated your boss when she pulled this same stuff on you, harping on that one time that you let a major bug slip through while marginalizing your incredible leadership on your most recent project.
Try a different path. People are who they are, and you can’t change them in the few months or years that they’re reporting to you for their 40/week. Instead of talking about the “needs improvement” column, work around the weaknesses and accentuate the “exceeds expectations” column. Contrived examples:
- Is John a fantastic solo worker who gets in quibbles with everybody on the team during in-person code reviews? Make an exception and let his code reviews happen asynchronously, or do them yourself so you can bear the brunt of his arguments.
- Is Sally great at writing emails but incredibly shy in meetings? Don’t force her out of her shell in the hopes that she’ll transform into a orator. Let her communicate her thoughts post-meeting in a follow-up memo to the team.
- Is Donald a natural leader but sloppy with his code? Let him run some team meetings and present to the executives, while silently assigning another engineer to review his check-ins more regularly – without harping on the issue.
If you’re having a hard time coming to grips with this concept, read First, Break All the Rules with an open mind.
Reason 2: You don’t follow through
You have a lot of problems brought to you each day, most of them minor, a few major. You promise to follow up with your boss about some of them. Some of them you say you’ll take care of personally.
And then… nothing. They stay in your head or your email or notebook for a short while, until the next urgent issue arises – maybe even that same day – and then they’re forgotten. One of your engineers brings up one of these issues again a few days later and you say, “Oh, yeah… I’m still working on that.”
Engineers, like everybody else, hate this in a boss. Once you’ve gained this reputation, you stop hearing about problems, and then you’re blind.
If you have a conversation with one of your people where an obvious problem has arisen, however minor, say that you’ll deal with it and then follow through until you do. Whatever it takes to remind yourself of it, do that – set a calendar reminder, keep a detailed log, whatever. Each day, revisit that to-do list. If you haven’t resolved something by a certain time – 24 hours, 48 hours, 1 week – follow up with the originator of the request without being asked. Even if the report is simply, “I’m still working on this,” you’ve communicated that you’re on it and haven’t forgotten.
Reason 3: You’re fake
You regurgitate what your leadership team tells you without injecting your own opinions, even when what you’re being told to say or do is complete crap. You’ve bought into the idea that there must be a “unified front” projected to the underlings. Instead of admitting to your people that this situation is FUBAR, you play the compliant manager and hand-wave the obvious logical contradictions and atrocious decisions away. “For the good of the team,” of course.
Engineers tend to be natural cynics and can see right through all of this. A surefire way to earn their ire is to not voice your mind. Put yourself in their shoes: you’d feel a lot better if your boss told you, “Yeah, I know it’s stupid that we have to hit 95% code coverage on unit tests as a blanket requirement, and I’m working on changing that.”
Say what you really think, even when it’s at odds with what your boss thinks. You’ll earn massive respect this way, and your team will go to war with you even when a particular battle is hopelessly lost.
Reason 4: You talk too much
You go into 1-on-1’s with a list of things you need to communicate and are surprised when your engineers don’t have much to ask. When you’re in team meetings, everyone waits on you to move things along. You have a response to everything. You find yourself wondering why most of your team is so quiet, even when you ask for their opinions.
Hint: shut up.
You learn nothing when you talk. Your engineers know so much more about what’s happening at ground zero than you do, but you’ll never know it if you’re running your mouth. And they’ve learned that you’ll do most of the talking for them, so they’ve withdrawn to the point that they just don’t care to try.
The next time you’re having a conversation with an engineer or your entire team, ask a question and then BE QUIET. When the conversation stalls, ask another question! It’s like a game – see if you can go 10 questions in a row without a single statement of fact or opinion. You’ll be delighted by what you learn.
Need more reasons? Ask the people around you
If your spouse or significant other has ever told you something unflattering about yourself, chances are that somebody who works for you has noticed the same thing. Ask him for an exhaustive list of all the reasons you’d be a terrible boss. It might be painful, but – assuming you have a relationship built on mutual respect and open communication – it’s a safe way to reach a new plane of enlightenment.
And then, if you’re brave enough, take your intuitions to your team. Ask them for their feedback very directly. Don’t allow for easy escapes – prompt them with specific examples of how you think you’ve messed up and watch for the confirmation in their body language. By doing this, you’ll telegraph that you’re introspective and recognize your own humanity, which will earn you a lot of grace.