Transitioning from engineer to technical manager is tricky business. Normally, startups are run by the founder, who runs the entire team for a time. When all hell breaks loose, a startup realizes they need management, and top engineers are asked to fill these positions. But wait, are management skills just magical powers you finally gain control over when you’re asked to step into a managerial role? No, that’s not how it works. Yet, most engineers move into managerial roles with no formal training.
There are plenty of tips and blogs out there about what makes a great manager, but you can bet the best managers didn’t go out and read a few tips online and instantly become their highest managerial self. Like anything in life, learning to manage is a process: a process arguably similar to building a project. The cycle to build a manager also involves the same things: learn, iterate, test, pivot. Treat learning to manage as a process, with the goal being to arrive at managerial market fit in 90 days.
Why a Plan Works
Experienced engineers already have most of the tools needed to become managers: an in-depth understanding of the workflow, the technical requirements, and the ability to work in a team environment. Managing people, on the other hand, is a different story. That’s why it’s important to set goals, develop checkpoints, and constantly check in on your progress as a manager. David Loftness, formerly Twitter’s Director of Engineering, came up with a 3-part, 90 day plan to help engineers transition into management. His break down:
Day 1-30: Own Your Education
Day 31-60: Find Your Rhythm
Day 61-90: Assess Yourself
Built into Loftness’ plan is the possibility that, in the end, the developer decides they do not want to manage. For the purpose of our post, we’re going to assume you are making the choice to be a manager, stay a manager, and be a remarkable manager at that, even though not everyone will.
Day 1-30: Set Initial Goals, Understand Your New Role
Set a Clear Expectation for Your Own Coding
Obviously, once you start managing, your main job is no longer building. Yet, you don’t want to lose contact with code entirely, because it will separate you from your team and your projects. Zero management participation in the code leads to uninformed managers who have difficulty doing time estimates, setting expectations for technical debt, and gaining the respect of their developer team.
It seems to be a commonly held belief in the tech industry that once engineers become managers, their coding days are done. However, we’re trying to create remarkable managers, which are few and far between. Remarkable managers develop a happy medium between participating in code on a scheduled basis, while staying above board on other managerial duties. Eliot Horowitz, MongoDB CTO, believes that an ideal manager spends 30% of his/her time coding. The percentage is not arbitrary, Horowitz found that this is enough time to keep up with changes in the code base, while delegating yourself plenty of time spend on your non-coding responsibilities.
Most importantly, make sure your participation is helpful to your transformation into a great leader, but don’t disrupt the work, try to ‘fix’ team members work, or step in every time your team falls behind. If you do, you become either a crutch or an impediment.
As a developer, as a manager, and as a human being, you should always be making an effort to learn. In the first 30 days especially, you should make it a priority to spend part of your week studying. Your study sessions can involve reading up on best management practices, or setting up mentoring sessions with a senior manager. Mentoring is very valuable; mentors have the unique ability to share real-life management experiences and give you insight on some of your current challenges.
Don’t hide your schedule, especially your study sessions. No one wants to wonder what you’re doing as a manager; secrecy tends to build tension. Instead, put it on your calendar, with your educational sessions out in the open. Your team will appreciate both your efforts to be a better leader and your transparency.
Days 31-60: Don’t Schedule to Schedule, Find a Rhythm that Works
Meetings…that’s what you do when you’re a manager, right? This is an easy trap to fall int;, many new managers think getting a group together and talking is making progress, but it’s not. Challenge the idea of meetings. Most meetings are worthless time drains. Do this for both yourself and your engineers.
Managers constantly get invited to meetings that may have no direct impact, no need-to-know information, and little political significance. Be staunch about guarding your time, and only go to ‘optional’ meetings if they are pertinent to getting your job done. And when it comes to your engineers’ time, be even more critical of meetings. Even mandatory meetings should be quick and to the point, because your team will be most productive when they have uninterrupted work time. For a more in depth resource about the toxicity of meetings and how they choke out real work, take a look at Jason Fried’s TED talk. It’s a pretty critical case against managers and meetings, but it’s the kind of stuff manager should internalize, and learn to avoid. Trust us, it’s better advice than the motivational crap you find scattered across the internet.
Meetings you can and should schedule: 1:1’s with your engineers. The only way you’ll be able to be a great leader is by truly understanding the needs, strengths and weaknesses of your team members. Also take this opportunity to build your team up, and have your team members working to their full potential. The best way to do this is to really get to know each member, finding out what they need from you to do their best work. Again, schedule defensively. Meet with your employees when it is least likely to disrupt their day, either at the very beginning or the end. Never schedule just to schedule, if there is no new information to be discussed with that team member, let them get back to work.
Loftness came up with event loops, useful tools to run through periodically, and when to check in on daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Again, the important part of having an objective is to fulfill it. That only works when you build it into your schedule. In the second phase of your management transformation, it’s necessary that you find a rhythm and a schedule with the tools you set in place, otherwise they become pointless guises of productivity…without the actual productivity.
Day 61-90 – Assess Your Strategy, Progress, Productivity
Is the Team Delivering Results?
What’s the status of team morale?
Does the Team Meet Expected Deadlines?
At this point, you should be able to have clear answers for all of these questions, and it’s okay if every answer isn’t stellar. Results are important for the company, but being able to understand how to get these results should be your main focus in the first 3 months of management. The ‘how’ should not only apply to your employees, it should reflect back on you as well. Be aware of your contribution when answering these questions: did your team fail to meet deadlines because you underestimated the work?
One thing you should have down at this point, however, is the knowledge of your team. Both individual and group strengths, flaws, impediments, etc. This is the tool that will allow you to draw meaningful answers from your questions, and it’s necessary if you are going to be a remarkable manager.
After 90 days, you should start to see evidence of value. Though you’re still learning and getting your bearings, you should be honing in on the attributes that landed you the job in the first place. This 90 day mark should be a priority on your calendar, just like all the other milestones. This is where you take a good hard look at what you’ve learned; it’s your ‘test’ phase. From here on out, you have the understanding of where you can improve both your knowledge and your rhythm. Pivot, adapt, make the necessary changes based on feedback, and you’ll end up a great manager, in just 90 days.