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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Getting From Here to There

As part of my work to make myself a better leader, I'm reading the book "What Got You Here Won't Get You There." The phrase itself resonates with me strongly now as I'm in reviews season and writing reviews for a number of senior engineers and engineering managers. One of the standard refrains I see in self-review "areas for improvement" is the desire to improve something very technology specific. A manager might say "I want to jump in more to the code so I can help take problems off my team." A senior engineer looking to grow to the staff engineer level might say something like "I want to get better at understanding distributed systems." Heck, even I am tempted to put "I want to spend more time in the early phases of architecture design so that I can help improve our overall technology stack." We're all falling victim to the problem of "what got us here won't get us there."

Engineers should spend their first several years on the job getting better at technology. I consider that a given and don't love to see that goal in reviews even for junior engineers, unless the technology named is very specific. Of course you're getting better at technology, programming, engineering, that's your job. You are a junior individual contributor, and your contribution is additive. You take tasks off of a team's list, get them done, create value by doing, and work on getting better at doing more and more. You got here because you put this coding time in.

After a certain point, it is more important to focus on what will make you a multiplier on the team. Very very few engineers write code of such volume and complexity that simply by writing code they enhance the entire organization. For most of us, even those in individual contributor roles, the value comes through our work across the team, teaching junior engineers, improving processes, working on the architecture and strategy so that we simply don't write as much code to begin with. There is a certain level of technical expertise that is necessary to get to this multiplier stage. As an individual contributor, a lot of that expertise is in knowing what you don't know. What do you need to research to make this project successful? You don't have to be a distributed systems expert but you should know when you're wading into CAP theorem territory.

It's harder for managers. Every time you switch jobs, you're interviewed with an eye towards the question, "can this person write code?" We don't trust managers that can't code, we worry that they're paper-pushers, out of touch. But when you hire an engineering manager, you often don't want them writing code. Managers that stubbornly hold onto the idea that they must write a lot of code are often either overworked, bottlenecks, or both. The further up you go in the management chain, the less time you will have to write code in your day job. The lesson here is not "managers should carve out lots of time to write code". It is, instead, don't get pushed into management until you've spent enough time coding that it is second nature. If you think that writing more code is the unlock for you to manage your team better, to grow as a better leader, you're going backwards. The way forward into true team leadership is not through writing more code and doing the team's scutwork programming. It is through taking a step back, observing what is working, what is not working, and helping your team fix it from a macro level. You're not going to code your team out of crunch mode by yourself, so spend your time preventing them from getting into crunch mode in the first place.

Coding is how you got here, engineering is what we do. But growing to levels of leadership requires more than just engineering. You've gotta go beyond what got you where you are, and get out of your comfort zone. Work on what makes you a multiplier, and you'll get there.


  1. Bravo. This is your best article.

    I was listening to a senior Technology leader in my firm today, who was asked: How do you define Leadership? She said a leader:
    *) sets direction - this is what people call The Vision Thing, but it's really about articulating an approach and getting the organization/division/group/team to follow
    *) grows her team - either as thought-leaders, managers, developers. How do you make them better?
    *) enables her team to succeed - How do you get the bureaucratic/technical crap out of their way so they can do their job well?

    Your "multiplier" comment speaks to all this.

  2. I agree, good food for thought here.

  3. What if you have no interest whatsoever in becoming a manager?


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