Being a Technology Leader

At Edward Jones we say that someone is “responsible” to another person instead of saying that they “report” to them. It’s a subtle change, but I like it. Being a leader carries a heavy responsibility. This post is not about Edward Jones specifically, just my thoughts on what it means to lead people on engineering teams.

After years of mentoring sessions with folks aspiring to leadership roles, and with other organizational leaders, I wanted to put in words my take on the role. It’s often misunderstood and misused, creating a missed opportunity for the organization and slowing down transformation.

What makes Managers unique

If Product Owners (POs) are responsible for the what and the why of where a team focuses, the Manager is responsible for the how (which altogether determines the when). Most companies have one PO per engineering team, while Managers might be responsible for several teams at once.

Look back at the image above. The orange items are not meant to be exhaustive, just representative of all the things that influence and drive delivery. In my opinion, the primary value of a manager is rooted in their knowledge of how that clock works. While the PO is focused on what is most valuable to the customers, the Manager understands how to diagnose when the clock hands aren’t working as well as they could. Managers are accountable for making the clock work better.

For example, Managers are uniquely capable of understanding the connection between:

Even more critical: they understand how individual actions of a team member influence those outcomes.

How do Managers drive change

A great Manager has influencing skills to bring about improvement to things that other people/teams are responsible for. They partner with Shared Technology Teams, such as an infrastructure monitoring group, or a developer tools team, to bring about change that helps their teams improve.

Individuals on a team need guidance and coaching, ideally from multiple sources, to learn and grow. Agile coaches, Scrum Masters, Site Reliability Engineers, Architects, and QA Experts are all examples of roles that should offer valuable coaching to team members. Ultimately, the Manager must reinforce that guidance and make it crystal clear when someone is behaving in ways that negatively impact their team.

Most organizations utilize regular performance management cycles. Once a year, for example, a Manager will decide what label best describes the performance of each of their direct reports. If the Manager is good at their job, these labels will never be a surprise for their folks. It should simply memorialize a series of conversations that have been taking place throughout the review period. These performance cycles are opportunities to make sure all that coaching is getting actioned appropriately, and only a leader who understands how that delivery system works holistically can have these conversations effectively.

A Heavy Responsibility

This is why I try to talk people out of aspiring to be a manager so often. Many people desire to have a greater impact, be more valuable, and make more money - all good things. However, often they conflate that ambition with taking on people leadership responsibility. I can’t really fault them - companies reinforce this confusion through their job family and compensation designs.

But there are so many other ways to grow your impact, and for most people I talk to those other paths align better to their passion and talent than being a manager. Taking on the responsibility of making it clear to someone that they are not meeting expectations because they are gumming up our Delivery clock is not a small thing. Bounded context, bias, and ego are all working against you - humans are wired to reject that kind of message by default. You are impacting another human’s life in a very significant way. If you fail, teams, products, customers, and the entire company are impacted.

So the irony is that while most engineers should probably aspire to leadership roles that don’t make them people leaders, only someone with engineering expertise can have these kinds of conversations with an engineer.

We are not a family - we get to be a team

This is going to ruffle some feathers, but it’s a pet peeve of mine. I love my family. They are not perfect. Sometimes they do or say things that hurt, and they make decisions that impact me or other family members in a negative way. But no matter what, at Thanksgiving we hug each other and sit down and eat together. We don’t get to choose our family, but we choose to accept each others faults. To me, that’s just what family does!

At a company as a Manager you do not have the luxury of ignoring when one of your direct reports gets in a habit of hurting their fellow team members. You can’t look past it and accept it. You have a responsibility to address it. Unlike with family, there is a long list of things that can and should get someone immediately removed from their team and from the company.

At a company we are a team. We back each other up and try to help each other. On a deeply personal level I care about the people I work with. But that responsibility is very different from my responsibility to my family. Calling your work team your family opens you up to all kinds of toxic confusion.

In my opinion, this is the burden and the responsibility of being a Manager.

We need hands on technical leadership

In my view it is inappropriate for the person responsible for performance reviews to try to contribute to the work. In small companies this is sometimes necessary, and there will be times we all have to “roll up our sleeves” to help out. However, it’s not a healthy practice in the long run. There is a power imbalance there, and few people can handle that well over the long term.

But teams need a mixture of experience levels, and we absolutely need senior contributors. There are so many paths you could take that would have a much bigger impact than being a manager. Solution or Enterprise Architect, Principal Engineer, and Site Reliability Engineer are just a few examples. These are not consolation prizes for folks who don’t like people leadership responsibility - they are vital roles that provide massive value by being force multipliers for our teams. They do something managers can’t do by being a leader who also gets the work of the team done. Remember: Leadership is action, not position.

Not all bad

I know I’m over emphasizing the performance management aspect of management, and focusing on negatives. Mostly because this is where I see people shy away or struggle. But, there is a lot more to being a manager, and most of the time the vast majority of the people on your teams will be doing great (provided you are hiring well). I love leading people, and I really love mentoring others on the art. I haven’t mastered it, and I never will. That’s what makes it so interesting.

If you’re still reading then I assume you’re either aspiring to people leadership or you are one today. The biggest point I hope you take away is that management is a distinct path from engineering. It’s a really rewarding, enriching career that many people really love. Just don’t think of it as the next logical step in your journey as a technology expert.

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