Management Trust So You Can Scale

A Disclosure

My management career began with a misunderstanding.

“Rands, you’re doing a great job on tools development and I’d really like you to Lead the effort.”

It sounded liked your standard professional compliment. Atta boy! Go run with it! Problem was, I didn’t hear the capital L.

Lead is what my manager had said. Not lead, but Lead. He asked poorly and without definition and specifics, but he did ask. He was subsequently baffled two months later when I said, “I don’t think I can finish this by next month, I need more time.”

Him: “Why don’t you hire another engineer?”

Me: “Wait, I can do that?”

I see three possible situations whereby you might become a manager:

  1. You decide. “I believe I am going to be a better manager than engineer. I choose management.”
  2. You evolve. This is what happened to me. Essentially, a series of small decisions and actions where, at the end, you end up being a manager.
  3. You have no choice. “You. Manage this team. Go.”

Whether you get to choose or not, there are aspects of management that you need to understand.

Management is a total career restart. Now, if you’re evolving into the career, this will be less obvious, but if management just landed in your lap, realize that while you’re in the same game, it’s a totally new game board, and you’re at square #1. You will use the skills that made you a great engineer, but there’s an entirely new set of skills you need to acquire and refine.

This sensation will appear at the end of the day when you ask, “What did I build today?” The answer will be a troubling, “Nothing”. The days of fixing ten bugs before noon are gone. You’re no longer going to spend the bus ride home working on code; you’re going to be thinking hard about how to say something important to someone who doesn’t want to hear it. There will be drama. And there be those precious seconds when there is no one in your office wanting… something.

You go to a lot of meetings. You already knew this, but Managers Go to Meetings. Meetings are the bane of my existence and I consider it my personal goal to kill as many possible, but I still go to a lot of meetings. As best I can tell, there are two useful types of meeting: alignment and creation. Briefly:

Alignment meetings sound like this: “It’s red, are we all in agreement it’s red? Ok, swell. Wait, Phil thinks it’s blue. Phil, here are the 18 compelling reasons it’s red. Convinced? Done now?”

Creation meetings sound like this: “We need more blue. How are we going to do that? Phil, you’re our blue man. What should we do here?”

There are other meetings out there, but you will learn to avoid them. One being the therapy meeting. They sound like this: “Show of hands, who likes to talk about blue? Or red? I don’t care. Let’s explore our color feelings for the next 60 minutes.”

In time you will learn which meetings to attend, but when you start you will go to all of them because…

You are a communication hub. One of your primary jobs as a manager is to be a communication hub not only for all of those working for you, but for everyone who needs something from you. This means you are going to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in random conference rooms and listening. Hard. Who are they? What do they need? Do I understand what they are saying? Should I say no now or let this fester?

Confusingly, as a manager, you often get credit just by showing up, sitting there, and nodding. As a career management strategy, the “nodding fly-on-the-wall” approach isn’t proactive or helpful. But there are critical times when all that is being asked of you is that you are the receiver of the rant. Simply by listening, by letting an idea be heard, you are helping.

However, you need to do more than listen. Whatever is being said in this meeting isn’t just for you; parts of it are for your team, which means you need amazing skills of…

Abstraction and Filtering. During these endless demands for your time, you do need to communicate, but if you’re relaying all the information that’s being thrown at you during the day, all you’ll do is relay. Your new job is one of abstraction, synthesis, and filtering. During that 30-minute status meeting, you need to develop the mental filter to listen for the three things you actually need to tell the team in your alignment meeting, but in a mere three minutes instead of 30.

Your thought is, “If there are only three things I need to know, why the hell are we spending 30 minutes in this meeting?” First, I relate to your frustration. Second, the three things you need to relay are different than the three things each of the other folks in this meeting needs to relay. Third, if you blow this, here’s what’s going to happen: more meetings.

See, your world has expanded, now…

You will be multi-lingual / translator. Each group in the company has a different language they speak and a different set of needs. As a manager, you need to be able to speak all the corporate dialects of those you depend on. Think of the healthy tension between Engineering and QA. Remember that flame war that went on between you and the QA guy for a week in the bug database? Engineering and QA actually speak the same language, but have different goals. As a manager, you will discover an entire company of languages and goals. For example:

  • Sales cares about selling and doesn’t much care how hard it is to build.
  • Marketing is passionate about brand, content, and voice and will argue endlessly for details you find to be irrelevant.
  • Tech supports talks to the customer ALL DAY, but still feels no one listens to what they say.
  • Admins speak many of these languages and have more power than you think.

Everyone believes their job is essential, everyone believes everyone else’s job is easy, and, confusingly, everyone is right.

These roles exist for a reason. The groups each bring something unique to the corporate organism. You can giggle and make fun of their bizarre acronyms as an individual, but as a manager you must speak their language, because once you do, you’re going to better understand what they want.

Learning new languages is tricky, especially when you’re just getting started. You’re going to spend 90 days being totally confused, and it gets worse because there’s…

Drama everywhere. Your manager calls you into her office first thing on a Monday morning. It’s clearly urgent. She sits you down and starts, “I’m, uh, making a change in the organization. Amanda is really excelling in tools development so I’ve asked her to take over Jerry’s management responsibilities. I think this will make everyone more successful.”

Wondering what happen to Jerry? Feel like you’re getting half the story? Wrong, you’re getting 1/10th of the story. People are messy and a huge part of the management gig is managing this messiness. Who knows what personal or professional issue Jerry has that is forcing this management change. It’s really none of your business. However, it is your manager’s business because the people are her job.

As an individual, you’re seeing 10% of the organizational drama your manager is seeing. I know it’s intriguing to get the full story, but again, it’s often none of your business, and it’s not your job. As a manager, you get front row seats for all of the drama in all its messy glory. This is why you have a monthly 1:1 with Human Resources. Their job is to train you how to manage the drama. This is why you need to become a great…

Context Switcher. This is your morning. Six 30-minute 1:1s starting at 9am. This day is unique in that in your 4th 1:1, your architect resigns. The guy who has been designing the heart of your application for 18 months has been poached by a start-up and had piles of money thrown at him, and it sounds like there’s no way of saving him. Sounds grim. What’s harder is that when your sky-is-falling 1:1 is done, you’ve got your next one with your QA Director who has no clue your architect resigned, and she urgently wants to talk bug database, and that’s exactly what you need to do. You need to quietly and confidently forget that you’re fucked and give this team member your full attention.

There will be a steady stream of curveballs headed in your managerial direction, each with its own unique velocity. One of your jobs is to not only deftly handle the pitch, however bizarre, but also shake it off and calmly expect an even stranger one.

There’s a reason you’ll see an inordinate amount of bizarre organizational crap as a manager. See, the individuals can handle — and should handle — the regular stuff. You want a team of people who aren’t bringing you every little thing, but if you successfully build this team, your reward is that what is ends up in your office is uniquely kooky.

As these freakish pitches whiz by, you will be judged in two very different ways. First, what did he do about the pitch? Are we going to see more of these? Second, how was his composure as that pitch whizzed by, missing his nose by an inch? Does it look like he handled it or is he freaked out and ready to bolt?

Leadership is not just about effectively getting stuff done, but demonstrating through your composure that you aren’t rattled by the freakish. Fortunately, one of the new tools you have to control the proliferation of freakishness is the ability to…

Say No. This is your second most powerful tool. Whether you’re a manager, considering management, or just here for the Rands, I want you to pick the hardest problem on your plate. The one that is waking you up at 4am. I want you to decide and to say out loud:


You’re not going to do that thing. QA can’t test it. Engineering won’t finish it. If we attempt to do it, we will fail and we don’t fail, so the answer is “No”.

You had this tool as an individual. You could say no, but you usually did so by cornering your manager and explaining, “Here is why No is the right move here,” and then he’d say no.

As a manager, you are caretaker of No for you group. When it is time to do the right thing by stopping, it’s your job to bust out the No. You defend your team against organizational insanity with No.

No does not come without consequences. Saying No because you can rather than because it’s right slowly transforms you into a power-hungry jerk, but again, this is your new tool to do with as you see fit. Also, it’s not all No, you can also…

Say Yes. Yes is how you begin building both people and things. It’s not just a positive word; it’s the word that provides the structure for moving forward. “Yes. Begin”, “Yes, I know he’s leaving. What are we going to do?” and “Why yes, we should tackle the audacious.”

There will be times when your Yes needs to be unencumbered by reality, where it needs to be the inspiration that demonstrates how you perceive the unknowable.

“Yes, I think you’d be a fine manager.”

Trust So You Can Scale

As a new manager, whenever the sky falls, you’ll become an engineer again. You’re going to fall back on the familiar because those are the tools you know and trust, but it’s time to trust someone else: your team.

If I could give you one word, a single, brief piece of management advice, the word would be “scale”. Your job as a manager is to scale the skills that got you the gig in the first place. You used to be the guy who did the impossible when it came to fixing bugs. Ok, now you’re the guy whose entire team does the impossible bug fixing.

It’s time to translate and to teach what you’re good at to those who you work with, and that starts by trusting them to do that which you previously only asked of yourself.

The benefits of defining and maintain this trust create a satisfying productivity feedback loop. By trusting your team, you get to scale, and scaling means you hopefully get to do more of what you love. The more you do, the more you build, the more experience you gather, the more lessons you learn. The more lessons you learn, the more you understand, and that means when more shows up you’ll have even greater opportunity to scale.

32 Responses

  1. As always, spot on. This is one of those articles that makes me say “Hey great – now I don’t have to write it! I can just point people here!”


  2. Wibble 15 years ago

    well this past month I have come close to chucking it all in. it seems too hard. too much. and no one understands.

    but i suppose that isn’t different from any other month!

  3. Just wanted to say how I nodded in agreement, and laughed, and thought harder about my career. Thanks “Rand”, you’ve made my day better, great post 🙂

  4. BlogReader 15 years ago

    As an individual, you’re seeing 10% of the organizational drama your manager is seeing. I know it’s intriguing to get the full story, but again, it’s often none of your business, and it’s not your job.

    So business as usual then?

  5. Spot-on accurate. Nice write-up.

  6. Excellent write-up as usual (nothing less can be expected from Rands).

    I totally agree with you on the ‘learning languages’ and the ‘communication hub’. The main reason I feel that, these are probably the biggest hats a technical manager should wear is that —

    (a) most engineers hate to understand/interpret how other non-engineering groups think/talk (most even think it is not their job);

    (b) most engineers are not very good in communicating to upper management (they either write too much/too less/too harsh ; or add too many/too few people on the cc-list).

    Rands – one thing that I would love to see an article on randsinrepose is, ’email etiquette for engineers’ – specifically for engineers.

  7. Excellent, as usual. Just one little bit you forgot to mention: individual contributor to manager is NOT a one-way door! Not at GOOD engineer driven companies, anyway. The fear that it WOULD be an irreversible choice scares many excellent engineers with management potential away from trying their hand at it.

    I’ve been going back and forth between IC and management ladders, every few years for 20 years now, and I think it’s a great career path — all I learn as a manager makes me a more effective senior engineer when it’s time for me to go back to engineering, and then a few years spent engineering refresh and recharge me for the next stint at technical management…

  8. Gareth Hill 15 years ago

    I’ve fallen somewhere between situations 2 and 3 and I’m at square #1 on that new board game. This is excellent at describing what I’m experiencing and how to understand and deal with it! Another great post.

  9. Very nice article! As a new manager myself, I’ll be returning to this every now and again for guidance. Thanks!

  10. I wish every company was a direct as “I’d really like you to Lead.” You reminded me of the time I almost wound up in management. My managers at my last job kept giving me leadership responsibilities. It really confused me – I kept thinking “what’s wrong with my code that they don’t want me writing it anymore?” I started working harder and harder, cleaning up bugs, assisting other projects with their features, working on any code I could get my hands on. Still, they continued to give me management tasks, so I left before had a heart attack from stress or got a bad review. I found out later that they were trying to reward me, but – for reasons I still don’t understand – couldn’t explain what they were doing (I did ask a lot). I guess I’m not ready to evolve. 🙂

  11. I really really wish my clueless manager would read this blog. I bought him your book and he has yet to read it even though it would solve many of the problems that he has yet to admit exist 😉

    Rands, where do you work and can I come work for you?

  12. David 15 years ago

    A: I won’t finish in time.

    B: Why don’t you hire another engineer?

    A: I can do that?

    Not to be a complete jerk about it, but do you see something wrong with this interchange?

  13. JohnO 15 years ago

    Rands, well done again. I have one question though. As a manager interacting with other managers, one team wants another team to do something. It is essentially a shifting of responsibilities. Yet the group manager keeps on saying “No” to accepting this, which can be perceived as a refusal to learn something new. How should/could that be approached?

  14. I always read your blog. Then I read this post. Now I read your book. Nice post.

  15. Right, so, management requires skill?

    And the best way to select a manager is take someone who’s brilliant at something other than management, and put them in a position where their old skill set is less applicable and their new required skill set is below standard?

    And then I’m sure the genius who came up with that strategy won’t whine when the new manager is less than perfect, and I’m also sure that fairies live at the bottom of my garden.

    And then we get the well known peter principle: “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence” because when you’re good, you get promoted, and eventually you reach a position where the skills that got you promoted just won’t cut it but you’re not very good at your new job so you don’t get promoted again.

    I love management.

    Two months later you’re saying “what, I can do that” ? Really? Well, sorry, but I have bad news – you were promoted by a moron who doesn’t know how to do his own freaking job – which includes making sure the underlings know what they’re doing and are good at their job.

  16. One other comment, in response to Ben’s post.

    Management tries to “reward” people by promoting them to management, and somehow becoming a manager is “evolving” and you’re a lesser being if you’re not “ready to evolve”.

    So how come we don’t demand they evolve into programmers, huh?

    Oh, right. “My job is easy, your job is hard, therefore as you’re not management like me, you’re less important than me”.

    Yes, management is necessary, important, difficult, and requires skill. So, has anyone observed one of these managers displaying the amazing “people skills” they assure us they have that are necessary in order to show their employees some respect?

    No? Weird.

  17. Johan 15 years ago

    Regarding the comments above about why engineers should stay out of management. I am a software engineer whom decided 5 years ago that architecture and team management is what I loved from the start (the other aspects of project management is fun also, but those 2 is what really drove me), and I have since been studying very hard on all kinds of skills required. It includes everything Rands mentions. Already I am great at managing my small team of developers – and if any project manager feels threatened by my skill, sorry buddy. You had better hope that you beat me at that next interview. 10 years experience with software architecture, and now 2 years experience with project management. I bet a small software company can use me much better than a non coder!

  18. Steven Pennebaker 15 years ago

    About 20 years ago, there was a day when this would have been EXACTLY what I needed to see. Excellent work.

  19. Baylink 15 years ago

    > Not to be a complete jerk about it, but do you see something wrong with this interchange?

    Sure. But I don’t think it means what *you* think it means. 🙂

    The ‘something wrong’ comes right afterwards, when the upper manager fails to realize that *he’s* the one who screwed up, in not making sure the three-way handshake of transferring management responsibility actually completed.

    And, for that matter, project leads don’t typically have hire/fire anyway.

  20. Kirsten 15 years ago

    Every employee promoted to a management position should be given a copy of this blog. The emotional prep work provided here would minimize the initial weeks/months of self-doubt, confusion, and frustration. The “ah-ha” epiphinany this piece provides is priceless.

  21. Kirsten 15 years ago

    Every employee promoted to a management position should be given a copy of this blog. The emotional prep work provided here would minimize the initial weeks/months of self-doubt, confusion, and frustration. The “ah-ha” epiphinany this piece provides is priceless.

  22. This article is amazing.

    I bet most of managers in the industry has no clue about what managers really should do in their daily work. This article should be referred to them as 101.

  23. whitelight 15 years ago

    Hmmmm… you described every single aspect of it so clearly. i mean i have seen this happening in front of my eyes and daily deal with it. but you have provided better solutions wish my manager evr read this blog…. 🙂

  24. IdlnPb 15 years ago

    BlogReader wrote:

    As an individual, you’re seeing 10% of the organizational drama your manager is seeing. I know it’s intriguing to get the full story, but again, it’s often none of your business, and it’s not your job.

    So business as usual then?

    On January 26, 2009 2:31 AM

    I always remind foilks I won’t share YOUR personnel file; so don’t ask me about the 90% you don’t know. This is called being a professional, it would be easy to tell you the whole story, but think of the other guy…

  25. IdlnPb 15 years ago

    BlogReader wrote:

    As an individual, you’re seeing 10% of the organizational drama your manager is seeing. I know it’s intriguing to get the full story, but again, it’s often none of your business, and it’s not your job.

    So business as usual then?

    On January 26, 2009 2:31 AM

    I always remind foilks I won’t share YOUR personnel file; so don’t ask me about the 90% you don’t know. This is called being a professional, it would be easy to tell you the whole story, but think of the other guy…

  26. Great post. I’ve discovered recently the not-so-sexy truth that I either decide to lead or I don’t. I stand up and give feedback or I don’t. My biggest missteps have been my “long-pauses”…. when in-action turns into loss of momentum and strength.


  27. A. Peon 15 years ago

    I’m struck by something here: Rands, you’ve climbed the big-company and startup-that-acts-like-a-big-company ladders somewhere out there towards the left coast in the technology field… as such, there are two more routes that you’ve missed:

    * You start a business. Surprise, you’re in charge of shit!

    * You start, or get involved with, a “project.” Surprise, you’re in charge of shit! — Or in this postmodern era, nobody might be in charge, but you still have to deal with people to accomplish anything.

    Now, these sort of correlate to the existing categories you’ve proposed, but I do observe that people who don’t realize they’re “managing” are even less likely to acquire “management skills.” Even though “management skills” are useful as regards dealing with people and making a living [or achieving whatever the success-metric is].

    To look at it from another perspective, companies that are “corporate” enough to develop a “corporate culture” naturally acquire a “management culture” as one of those social constructs we create, like government, to ensure some sort of basic level of civility and shared purpose. At “small shops” you’re far more likely to see “management” that has never acquired a skillset beyond screaming at people because there’s no culture, and no other divisions, to integrate with. [The same goes for, say, FOSS projects, but most people aren’t hanging their livelihoods directly on those, so when someone like Torvalds acts like a dick, it’s just “refreshing;” there’s really no reason at all for him to put up with anything he doesn’t like.]

    Anyhow, you’re good at stating the obvious in ways that people will sit up and listen to, so I think there’s a niche re: “Management Skills for People Who Don’t Realize They’re Managing.” Or in other words, whether or not someone with executive authority intends to grow an entity, or make it at all ‘corporate’ or ‘enterprisey’ in structure, all the interpersonal tips and tricks still count. For those of us in those situations, any chance you can cough up something to make those screamers be more rational and less dicks? 🙂

  28. liberty53 15 years ago

    In many industries a path up through management is the only way to get large increases in pay.

    Software Engineering is fairly unique in that one can probably get paid more by staying out of management.

    I always thought that organizations fell short in making clear that a first level manager should/will be paid at least a 15%-20% premium for having to maintain technical skills as well as the “soft” management skills.

    After all, management involves a lot of activities that engineers find unimportant and distasteful, yet are somehow completely necessary for the survival of the organization.

    Great Post!

  29. A great article for getting at all the unexpected events in a new manager’s work life. (There’s also all the junk that happens when you take these anomalies home!).

    I agree with the posts that suggest this is a “must read” for all new managers. In addition there is all the stuff that you/your new manager didn’t fall into yet that’s just waiting there to make your life even MORE interesting.

    Finally; once you think the “management thing” is coming under control (if ever) then there’s “Leadership”. Isn’t life grand?

    Two other thoughts:

    a) It seems to be particularly prevalent in the IT world that good “technical” performance is incorrectly assumed to imply good management potential. Accordingly, the new manager’s manager needs help.

    b) Looking backward in the organizational lifecycle: employees of new managers – who, often, 5 minutes ago were peers – need to read and know this too. Usually, from their perspective, their buddy of 5 minutes ago suddenly just underwent a “management lobotomy” and their former friend and associate has been sucked up into the ether by aliens who inhabit the other boxes in the management org chart.

    Code can be cool; humans are just utterly astonishing.

    Good one – keep the insights coming!

    Paul Reeves

  30. Ian M 15 years ago

    Just caught up with the backlog in my feed reader – just wanted to say this piece was extremely interesting, both thought provoking, and inspirational 🙂

  31. kevin 15 years ago

    great article… the only other thing I’d add is that when you become a manager, most of the time you are no longer “one of the guys” or “gals.” And in many instances, you shouldn’t be. This has been one of the hardest things for me personally. One minute you are on a team with a bunch of peers… the next your are the one deciding which way the ships sails. It can really change personal relationships with co-workers and have a big effect on your managerial role.

  32. As someone who recently forgot to step backwards when the “all those who want to Lead, take one step forward” call came, and having just finished my first 90 days, this is so incisive I’m almost dissected in half!

    Thank you for showing me I’m not alone!