Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: The Constant Introspection of Management

I've been a serious manager for a little over a year now, and it has been my biggest challenge of 2013. Previously I had managed small teams but looking back, while I thought that would prepare me to lead multiple teams and manage managers myself, in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

The hardest part for me of going from individual contributor/architect/tech lead to managing in anger has been the lack of certainty. I believe that, for experienced managers, management can have a level of rigor and certainty, but I'm not there yet. I am striving to be a compassionate manager and that requires developing a level of emotional intelligence that I have never before needed. And so as a result I would have to say that the past year has probably been one of the most emotionally draining of my life (and that is not even counting the baby I had in the middle of it).

I do not want to be a dispassionate leader who views people like pawns on a chessboard. But the emotional resilience that is required for management makes me understand how folks with that tendency may find it easier. A successful manager needs to care about her people without taking the things they do personally. Every person who quits feels like an indictment of all the ways you failed them. If only I had given better projects, fought harder for their salary, coached them better, done more to make them successful! If you wonder why it seems sometimes that management roles get taken up by sociopaths, just think that for every interaction you have with a difficult coworker, your manager has probably had to deal with ten of them. It's not a surprise that a certain bloody-mindedness develops, or, more likely, survives.

In addition to the general emotional angst of all those people, there's the general feeling of utter incompetence. As an engineer, I know how to design successful systems. I can look back on a career of successful projects, and I know many of the best practices for building systems and writing code. Right now, if I were to design a system that ultimately failed for a technical reason, I would be able to pinpoint where the mistakes were made. I am a beginner all over again when it comes to the big-league management game, and it's discouraging. I miss doing what I'm good at, building systems, and I'm afraid that I've given it up for something I may never do particularly well.

One of my friends who has faced the same struggle put it best. 
I like the autonomy/mastery/purpose model of drive. This feels like an issue with mastery. Not building means moving away from something where you have mastery to something new. There’s fear of losing mastery.[1]
As a new manager I believe you lose both autonomy and mastery for a time being, and arguably autonomy is lost forever. You are always only as good as your team, and while some decisions may ultimately rest on your shoulders, when you choose to take the "servant leadership" path you do sacrifice a great deal of autonomy. But I think for many engineers the loss of mastery hits hardest. When you've spent ten plus years getting really, really good at designing and developing systems, and you leave that to think about people all day? It's hard, and no, there isn't always time for side projects to fill the gap. In an industry that doesn't always respect the skills of management, this is a tough pill to swallow. After all, I can become the greatest manager in the world, but if I wanted to work in that role at Google they would still give me highly technical interviews.

So why do it? In the end, it has to be about a sense of purpose. I want to have a bigger impact than I will ever be able to have as an architect or developer. I know that leading teams and setting business direction is the way to ultimately scratch the itch I have for big impact, for really making a lasting difference. And I know that a great manager can have a positive impact on many, many people. So here's to growing some management mastery, and making 2014 a year of purpose and impact.