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Skills and Insights for First-Time Managers

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A recent edition of the Arrested DevOps Podcast invited Ben Greenberg, head of DevRel at Fuel Labs, to discuss his experience in leadership and the challenges faced by first-time managers. Clear differences exist between the skills required for progressing into management, compared with other leadership roles. Talking with Matt Stratton, the director of developer relations at Aiven, they discussed the skills required to be an effective manager homing in on local context.

Citing Lindsay Holmwood’s classic article It’s Not A Promotion - It’s A Career Change, Stratton and Greenberg discussed the confusion which individual contributors (ICs) often have around leadership roles, and the need to disambiguate between management and technical leadership. Stratton has had to coach senior ICs to appreciate that management requires a range of orthogonal skills. These are skills which require specific training, such as "people management, career coaching and engagement coaching." He has seen this successfully addressed through the use of internal training programs delivering management and director-level skills.

GOTO’s Book Club recently published an interview with James Stanier, author of Become an Effective Software Manager. To aid new managers, Stanier used "prescriptiveness" to reduce cognitive load and provide "one way for doing things." Gergley Orosz chatted with Stanier about the book’s patterns which cross a range of skills, covering hiring, "interacting with humans," one-to-ones, delegation, growing staff, running projects, and using politics positively.

Stanier explained that even a seemingly simple skill like delegation has nuances. Delegation is a new skill for many first time managers, and Stanier has refined it into a spectrum ranging from full control through to full delegation. In choosing how one delegates, the manager should remember that they are always accountable, and factor in the needs of the IC.

Spectrum of Delegation

Greenberg cautioned against being seduced by the "hero complex" which is often projected onto new managers. His personal realisation was to "stop, shut up and listen for a bit," rather than diving straight into change. When interviewees are told they are required to come in and fix a major dysfunction, Stratton shared his experience that often the "organisation is not ready" for the change. According to Greenberg, context is an important factor in explaining why such dysfunctions exist:

If you understand organisations as a culture of people, then ask what is the story behind why we are at this moment? Are you going to be the invading coloniser who comes in, uproots and disrupts? Or are you going to be the person that sits with the people, listens to their stories, and then, from amidst the people crafts and contours new directions?

Stanier acknowledged that it’s hard for internally promoted engineers to be sure that management is the right path for them. Speaking at QCon SF in 2022, Charity Majors described the Engineer/Manager Pendulum where interested ICs could take a 2-5 year secondment in management to develop their leadership skills, without sacrificing long-term engineering competency. Sharing his experience at Shopify, Stanier's solution is to provide new managers with a "safety net" so that a promotion can be rolled back if it’s not working out. He said:

If you've already demonstrated that you're good at your job, and you've demonstrated leadership, and the ability to get things done … you can basically come up with a safety net, to say, "Hey, why don't we do this for some fixed period of time? Maybe for six months or a year."

The pathway to management does not have to be one-way according to Stratton. He discussed his own experience of previously stepping away from people leadership to "chop-wood and carry water," as an individual contributor. When he was offered the opportunity to become an Infrastructure Architect, he realised that a move away from management, even without a salary reduction, would potentially be perceived as a demotion. This resulted in requesting a formal letter to his wife stating that "this is not a demotion." Greenberg warned that management should not be the only trajectory for continued growth:

You do not need to become a manager to be promoted and there must be paths of excellence for ICs to fall up the ladder. If you have to be promoted as a manager to get the raise you deserve, then there’s something fundamentally wrong in your organisation.

Greenberg and Stratton also talked about management interviews and the expected protocol of massaging a failure into a success story. Greenberg instead favours failing fast with authenticity, acknowledging that individuals make mistakes and learn from these. He said:

... I shared a moment where I really messed up and it was still raw. It was something I was still processing. Let me use this interview to process it with them and share how I’m thinking through it. If they can hire me, it will be knowing that I am far from perfect and make mistakes. That I will continue to make mistakes. Let me share with you how I process those mistakes and think through those mistakes. And if you still want me after that, maybe this thing might be for the long term. Maybe it’s a place I want to be at.

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