I'm a new manager, new to both the company I work for and to management. When I joined this company there were several fires for me to help put out, and every day I was busy dealing with one urgent task or another. But now I'm drifting. My boss doesn't have time to tell me what to do, I don't have any features that I am responsible for, and no one is urgently requesting my time. What is my job, now that things are no longer on fire?Ah, yes. One of the challenges of management that we don't often talk about is those times when you have no clear urgent tasks. Engineers deal with uncertainty in relatively bounded forms, such as, how should I break down this big project into smaller chunks, how should I architect this system, who should I talk to for information about this feature, what library should I choose? These are enough to stymie some, but usually by the time you've been working for a few years you know how to get started on these types of problems.
Management, however, is a different beast. Management is like being in operations. Operations engineers must balance a series of ad hoc needs (system configurations or permission granting, say), with fires (outages), and long-term strategic projects (moving to a new data center, upgrading a major piece of critical infrastructure). As a manager you also have regular ad hoc needs (1-1s, meetings, small decisions) and fires (hiring, firing, projects in trouble, outages). And you have long-term strategic projects (planning for the team growth, thinking about the next quarter's goals, anticipating future obstacles). Like operations engineers, many managers get really good at the ad hoc and the fires, and really bad at the long-term strategic projects. It's much easier to do things right in front of you than it is to think abstractly about unclear topics.
When faced with the blank slate of empty time and no obvious deliverables, what can a manager do to make the best use of that time?
As a new manager to a new company, downtime is a good chance to learn the existing systems. Learning things that you aren't actually working on can be really challenging, so if it's feasible you might find small bugs to fix or minor improvements to build, things that aren't urgent (in case another fire crops up) but that will give you the feel for working in these systems. You can also use the downtime to meet with other teams that your team works with, learn about their projects and challenges, look at what they're busy with. Lend a hand to their managers, or help your boss fill that gap if they don't have one.
At some point, though, you will have gotten comfortable with the teams, the code, the projects, and you'll still find yourself with downtime. This is the chance to flex your strategic thinking. Take a bigger-picture look. What are you not doing that is important, but not urgent? Maybe it's planning for reviews next month, setting up a team dinner, doing some proactive outreach to candidates you may want to hire in six months, or finishing that presentation that you have promised to give on testing but keep putting off. What are the recurring problems your team is having? What is not going smoothly? What could you be doing to resolve that? Remember, part of your job now is to define what work needs to be done. Your boss won't always be able to tell you what to do, and she probably expects you to tell her what needs to be done. Use this time to answer that question.
Sometimes we put downtime to use in bad ways, and I don't mean procrastination. There are times when the best thing you can do with downtime is take a breath, check in on the internet, watch a talk you have been meaning to see. All of that is better than using downtime as an excuse to make work for other people, which can happen if you're not thoughtful. If you use your downtime to half-bake a feature and throw it into prod for your team to support, that is harmful. If you use your downtime to wander around and interrupt your engineers who are busy working, that is harmful (and yes, I'm guilty of that sometimes!).
You are responsible for finding productive uses of downtime, and part of that is resisting the urge to meddle, micromanage, and distract your team just because you don't know what else to do. Is everything going ok? Are your teams productive, getting things done, working on the right stuff? Great! Use your time to think about the future, write a blog post, catch up on small unfinished errands. Don't worry, there will be another meeting, another fire soon enough. Enjoy it while it lasts.