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InfoQ Homepage Articles Becoming an Exceptional Manager

Becoming an Exceptional Manager


Key Takeaways

  • People are the most important principle to consider
  • Giving feedback is hard; you need to work on it in order to be a better managing
  • A one-on-one is the most important tool in management toolbox - come prepared
  • Iterate and learn, experiment with your behaviours, then expand your findings
  • Processes are important, but if you can, make them part of your culture

The book Manager in Shorts by Gal Zellermayer describes principles of management in hi-tech, focusing on people, processes, and culture. It provides tips and ideas that readers can use to develop their leadership skills and learn how to manage technical people and become an exceptional manager.

InfoQ interviewed Zellermayer on management principles, helping people and teams improve, giving feedback, building and maintaining a great culture, managing technical people, one-on-one meetings, fast decisions, and becoming an exceptional manager.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Gal Zellermayer: It’s funny actually. I get this question a lot. I think the most honest answer I can give is that I felt my cache was full and I needed to clean it.

It had started as a braindump. I needed a structured way to take thoughts and ideas I had running in my head for years and dump them into a file. Once I had done it, writing a book was almost called for, to release it to the wild.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Zellermayer: This book is intended for anyone who works with people in the hi-tech industry, or for managers and leaders all around the world. I think it would be most valuable for first-line managers, but I hope that it has at least several gems for senior and veteran managers as well.

This book describes the principles of management in hi-tech. It explains the fundamentals of how to support people, how to create a great process, and how to cultivate a team’s culture. It also explains how to keep people motivated.

In advanced parts of the book, it gives a glimpse of the importance of storytelling, and the art of second-level thinking.

Though this book is full of practical guides, tips and tricks which one can take and use instantly, the main purpose of this book is to make you think. I hope it works.

InfoQ: What are the most important managers’ principles?

Zellermayer: The entire management world in my eyes can be summarized into the PUPPET principles.

  1. People - the most important principle; you really need to care about the people you support; you need to treat it as your profession, which means your job is to help people be better, and help the team to be greater. You should identify areas where people need to grow to (e.g. are they investing enough time in writing tests for the code?), and areas where they are performing strong and which they need to leverage (e.g. maybe they have gained some technical expertise and can be a focal point for the wider team).
  2. cUlture and Process - a manager needs to know how to create a process and how to improve it, but an experienced manager will know when to transform the process into a culture. When they do, improvements are seen, both since it reduces the bureaucracy of the organization, and eases decision-making. How? Your values and culture behave as your north star and guide you.
  3. Product and businEss - a manager must know the product they are building, and the business they are trying to create; this piece is critical for staffing and planning, but more importantly, they need to it understnd the mission. The mission is critical in order to create long-term motivation and purpose for the people in the team.
  4. Technology - this is of course true only for engineering managers, but the essence here is not to be the best coder in the room. Actually don’t be that person; but, learn how to ask the right questions, how to direct the team’s culture to the right engineering one, and so on.

InfoQ: In the book, you mention that the most important thing a software manager needs to do is to improve the skills of their engineers and to improve the performance of their team. Can you elaborate on why that is?

Zellermayer: There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The trivial explanation is that, when people are improving their skills, they are becoming more effective. Their productivity increases. This is good for the company.
  2. The non-trivial explanation is that happy people are more motivated to do a better job. This is easy to understand. But the interesting thing is, great knowledge workers want to grow. They want to be masters of their craft; this is one of their drivers. It is one of the things that makes them happy. As their manager, it’s your role to support them in this area, helping them learn a new skill, and encourage them to go out of the comfort zone. If they grow, they will be motivated not only to stay, but to do a better job. They will be happy.

InfoQ: What can managers do to help people and teams improve?

Zellermayer: Managers have to first understand that helping people grow and teams improve is their job. They need to keep a critical eye on the behaviour and performance of individuals and teams. They need to spot weak and sweet spots. Identify these first, then come up with a plan to improve, leverage and measure them as you progress.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for giving feedback?

Zellermayer: Giving feedback is an essential tool for helping individuals and teams grow. At first this is hard, but at some point, once you make it second nature and declare it to yourself and to others as your role, it becomes just another thing you do. No drama; just a tool.

Some critical points: positive feedback (recognition) is more important than constructive feedback, so keep at least a 5:1 ratio between them. Use a simple structure in order to deliver constructive feedback effectively. There are many frameworks. I love the CBI one, since its simple: Context, Behaviour and impact. You describe the context in which you noticed a problem - for example, "In the last team meeting"; then you describe the behaviour - "you didn’t let people ask technical questions at all"; and lastly and most importantly, you describe the impact of the behavior - "which caused people to leave the demo, without a full understanding of the challenges."

InfoQ: What does a great culture look like? What can be done to build and maintain this?

Zellermayer: This is a great question. There are so many great cultures in hi-tech companies out there, and they are all different. So really, how can one define what a great culture is?

First we need to define what is a culture? I think, in its essence, it is the combination of core values, people, and their interactions.

Since there are so many different cultures out there, and it seems impossible to define one great culture, I would share just two thoughts on the matter:

  1. A great culture is an identifiable culture, meaning it is very easy for each individual in the organization to state at least a few of the main elements that describe the culture; usually this also means that the culture comes to play in challenging decision-making moments. When we don’t know if we should choose A or B, and we choose B since it is what the culture dictates, it means our culture is here and it’s real, not just a poster on the wall. For example, let’s say we want to decide whether we are starting a new risky initiative that could destroy the company potentially; whether we decide to go with it since one of our values is to BE BOLD, or decide against it since one of our values is perseverance - it means we are making decisions based on our values, on our culture.
  2. A great culture is one which puts people first. This means that the culture has at least some aspects of it where the employee’s behaviours are coming first. How does that come to play? It's a second order of priority; it can emphasize people's growth, or their collaboration or well-being. It’s important, but not as important as just putting people first.

InfoQ: Is managing technical people different from managing people from other backgrounds or with other skills?

Zellermayer: I think that most engineering managers in the industry would answer that differently than me. In my eyes, the short answer is no; it doesn't matter whether you are supporting engineers, designers, product managers, or people who are not in the industry. People are people, and the support a manager has to give for knowledge workers has more commonalities than differences between different industries. For most knowledge workers, there are three fundamentals to keep their drive high, as explained by Dan Pink in his book DRIVE: mastery, autonomy and purpose.

I would say that the difference between roles or industries include purpose, and also mastery, but the main behaviors and principles remain the same.

Usually the following question would be, can you take a manager who has no idea what engineering is and let them be an engineering manager? My surprising answer is maybe; it would take time, since the language is different, but if they have the passion, they will learn.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for keeping one-on-one meetings effective?

Zellermayer: A one-on-one is by far the most important tool in the manager toolbox for supporting team members. There are so many pitfalls and best practices for doing it right, but there is not enough space here (-:

The most important ones are included in the book in a dedicated chapter; however, I would emphasize here one tip that might not be so well-articulated in the book. Come prepared; come with an agenda. Don’t lead the meeting, but let the developer lead it. They might have important things to talk about, they might need to off load; that’s fine, it's great actually. But it's your responsibility to be prepared and come up with an agenda for the meeting; it can be feedback on the last week’s work, organizational context, or a conversation on a future career path. Just come prepared.

InfoQ: How can managers train themselves to make fast decisions?

Zellermayer: Decisions are hard to make. Fast decisions are even harder to make. Getting better at making fast decisions takes time and practice.  I would suggest to start making decisions fast on things that don’t matter. Then, measure the results; did the world fall apart? If not, it will build your muscle of fast decision making. If it did - it doesn’t matter anymore.

InfoQ: What’s the difference between a great and an exceptional manager?

Zellermayer: There are several, and it actually differs between different companies; but if I need to state one that is common across companies, roles and experience, it would be the ability to continually improve and grow. Assume you don’t know it all, since you don’t; try new things constantly and measure them. If they are working for you, adopt and expand (write about them, post about them, and talk about them); if they are not working, don’t sweat it, amend and expand (write about them, post about them, talk about the failures; it will help to gain more clarify, and the conclusion will be sharper).

About the Book Author

Gal Zellermayer is an author, manager and team leader with over 10 years of experience managing software development groups. A self-described "manager in shorts", Zellermayer has given over 50 talks in conferences designed to help managers become more effective and embrace the position that they are in. He believes in challenging managers to transform their mindsets, develop better management systems, and take their careers to the next level.


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