A great engineer as a bad manager
6 December, 2017
VP of Engineering at Apartment List
When I was working at Blackhawk Network, we had a lot of company reorganizations, and engineers were regularly shuffled between teams. During one such reorganization processes, there was a very smart engineer who joined my team. Before my engineer's move, my VP had promised her that she would become a manager. In the previous team, she was an excellent tech lead, but when she joined my team, the rest of the team was told that she was coming in as a manager. Because of this perception, the team expected a lot out of her in terms of management expertise.
While she picked things up really fast like the codebase and domain, she really didn't know how to manage people. She hadn't been given any mentorship in terms of becoming a manager. She didn't realize she needed to have one-on-ones with her team members to talk to them about their career goals.
She also didn't know about processes and didn't realize that she needed to work to build a relationship with the company's product team, or that she needed to manage the agile process. She needed to manage the stakeholders and shield the team from randomizations. Things started to go bad pretty quickly.
I met with her and set some expectations and clear goals around what she needed to do and her role. We also discussed her objectives for the year. She understood, but things didn't really improve. She also had a communication problem, due to a language barrier, which wasn't much of a problem before because her tech lead role had only required her to communicate within the team and one other architect.
The extended cross-functional team didn't understand her well and it became more of an issue due to her being in a management capacity. She didn't communicate delays well, and she didn't set clear delivery expectations for the business. She was also going through a lot of personal stress, because of the new role and what was expected of her. Often, if there were project delays she'd step in herself and would burn herself out in fixing a problem, as she didn't know how to delegate or work with the business to reduce scope.
I spent around three months with her, trying to coach her about the responsibilities of a manager. I tried to get her to delegate more and to coach engineers and help them in their career path. However, even after these three months, she felt like she'd been put into a role that she didn't really enjoy.
I started to have deeper conversations with her about why she decided to become a manager, and how she came to this stage. She shared that she'd been looking for a promotion and our VP had told her that if she became a manager this would be a promotion. However, this was not true, as we had dual career paths, where you could either choose to grow as an individual contributor, or you could choose to grow via a management path. She hadn't actually been given a promotion due to budget considerations during that time. Instead, she was laterally moved across to management, given a small raise and was still at the same level in terms of career growth. By talking to her I worked out what her career goals were. Following this, I changed her role back to a team lead. She was very successful, and 6 months later she was promoted to the role of a Principal Engineer. She was thrilled with the outcome and became a foundation to the success of that team.
Many engineers want to be managers, as they view it as a promotion. Companies should try to avoid having only one career path, with management being the ultimate goal in terms of promotions. Different engineers will have different skill sets, and some won't be suited to management roles. Companies should be clear, showcasing their career paths so engineers understand that management isn't the only path available.
Engineers should think about why they want what they want, and should be given the opportunity to try out a new role for a bit. If they don't enjoy it, they shouldn't hesitate to go back to their previous role. Being transparent top down and laying out different options in front of employees when there are budget constraints can go a long way instead of choosing one path for them.
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