6 Months. 6 Lessons.

Danbo likes to learn
Credit: Flickr / Kai Lehmann

Last week marked my six-month anniversary at Ride, which also marks six months of being a manager. It coincided with my team being in Medellin all together for our offsite. It was amazing to have everyone here, and this was part of something I have been thinking about since I started this job – how do we become not just an iOS team, and an Android team, but one mobile team? The offsite was the final step in that process.

Back in December I shared some resources that I had been finding helpful. One of them was a post by @marcprecipice called “what do you make as a manager?” in which he talks about the impact you have over the long term and the relationships you build.

But the question “What do you make as a manager?” is one that I have asked myself a lot. Maybe, if you’re lucky, if you have a good boss yourself, and a good environment, and some amazing people, you get to build a team. Maybe you get to have a milestone, like this one, where they see, and you see, what’s changed. Maybe they change the way they talk about the team, maybe you make a new slack channel, maybe one of them looks at you and says, “you’ve built a good team”.

That was my week, anyway. And it was the best way I can imagine to mark six months.

But if that’s my biggest achievement of the last six months, what have I learned?

1. Intentions Do Matter

I’ve long found discussion of “intentions” completely worthless. I just don’t want to hear about it. Especially in the context that it invariably is – men who tell me about their intentions after screwing things up. I still don’t think there is much value in discussing intentions. But intentions are actually the place where your actions come from, and that is important. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. And regardless of what is said about intentions, people always know what your intentions really are. For example feedback can be given from a place of “this will make my life easier” or from a place of “this is how I believe you can be more effective” – which one do you think is better taken?

One of the engineers started talking about my intentions and I cut him off to tell him intentions are worthless. But he stopped me and finished what he was saying, telling me that “no-one can doubt that you care about us”. Which is not something I really talk about that much. But it is something I show up and do, every day.

2. There’s a Difference Between Honesty and Openness.

This is the loneliest thing sometimes. Where I never, I would never, lie to my team, I find myself not always being able to be open. Change the topic. Give a less than satisfying answer. Redirect the question. Often part of my job (especially at a startup!) is to take uncertainty and turn it into direction, which means you don’t relay every thought in your head about the uncertainty but focus on the direction, and the outcomes you think will be helpful.

On the flip side, if you are a new manager your team knows that and you don’t need to pretend you have all the answers. They’ll be pretty confident you don’t. You may as well admit what you know you don’t know, or find hard, because it’s probably pretty obvious to them. There’s something that I realised I wasn’t doing well a few months ago, and I’ve been working on it ever since. An engineer commented how much he appreciated that I had been doing better at that, because he knew it was work for me.

I doubt he would have been quite that positive if I had just kept being bad at it, or pretended it wasn’t an issue.

3. Time Spent Understanding People is Never Wasted.

I do bi-weekly 1-hour 1:1s, and make an effort to spend quality 1:1 time with engineers who report to me when we are in the same place. If your team is a system, the people who report to you are components, and the better you understand how they work in general the more sense their behaviour will make in times of stress.

When you join a team, things are the way they are for a reason. There’s a hubristic approach that says things sucked because you weren’t there yet – and it’s wrong. Things are the way they are because of the people, because of the structure of the organisation, because of the constraints people are working under.

Structure can be both explicit and implicit, and hard to figure out. Constraints can be stated and unstated. People, if you are kind, and patient, and accepting, will mostly just be who they are, because anything else is too much work. If you get to know who people are, then a lot of things will make sense. And, they’ll probably explain to you their realities of the structure and the constraints, too.

But understanding goes both ways and there are things people won’t always ask you. I think people often talk about their Achievements and Experiences to explain who they are, but I’m much more interested in the how and why of making decisions. It tells me a lot more about how people think, and what they value. So I’ll ask people about why they think a decision is the right one, and I’ll also explain my decision making process in return. I feel like I’m winning when engineers on my team can predict decisions I make, even when they would make a different one.

4. Questions are Better than Answers.

If you tell people things, they may or may not believe you. If you ask them good questions and get them to see the world in a different way, they are much more likely to adjust what they are doing.

This is something I continually work at, because I’m always tempted to just give the answer – it’s more efficient! And I’ve been trained by Prove It Again to always, y’know, want to Prove that I Know What I’m Talking About. But – asking good questions is so much more effective.

I asked one of the engineers how often I gave him advice and he said “constantly”. I responded, “wow! I’ve really been trying to ask questions instead.” He told me that he took asking questions as a form of advice giving. So I guess this strategy is very transparent. But still – effective.

5. The Worst Mistakes Are The Ones You Don’t See Coming.

Three months in, I posited the theory that a manager is only as good as their worst screw up – and I still think this is true – but depending on the severity you can use it to make your relationship stronger. You can apologise. Talk about what happened. Be accountable for your actions.

If you learn the way in which you will make mistakes, you can look out for them. For me a big one is that I care too much – largely the result of having terrible managers and being so determined to be a good manager myself, and so afraid that I don’t know how to be. Which sounds like a humble brag. Like “oh I will only screw up because I care too much and try so hard” but the fact is fucking up is fucking up. It might come from a “good” place, but that only goes so far. And frankly, any place where you are lacking self-awareness to the point where it impacts your team isn’t all that good.

The worst mistakes you make are the ones you won’t see coming – it won’t be the thing you know you are bad at (unless you hide from it and refuse to take responsibility), so it’s all the more likely that your worst screw ups will come from a place of “good intentions”. Now that I know that caring too much is how I will make my biggest mistakes I will be more intentional about spotting them before I inflict them on my team.

6. Build a Shared Language.

This was something that we worked on a lot at the offsite, on building commonalities across platforms and as a team. We worked through a discussion based on the book Leadership and Self Deception (Amazon) and now we have this shorthand where someone will say “that will put me in the box” and everyone knows what they mean.

But what was cool was how much of a shared language we already had. Much of our weekly schedule is oriented around cutting the build every Thursday. Both teams were doing what we call “123” in Slack (I wrote about some processes for running a remote team). Both platform teams had similar rhythms, similar challenges, similar frustrations. When we came together, it was pretty straightforward to talk about them.

Bonus Lesson: Recharging

The bonus lesson is what we all know: being a manager is a different job. But that doesn’t just change what I show up and do at my job, but also outside of it. It’s changed the kind of work I want to do on side projects; I’m writing code on my side-project in a way that I was never able to sustain as an IC. I need more alone time to recharge, and I’m much less excited about the prospect of giving talks, because giving talks are about other people, in the same way that my job is about other people, and I want to recharge by doing things that are for me.

6 Months Down. ??? To Go.

The learning curve and emotional exhaustion of being a manager has been really steep. Whenever I think about my next job, I think there’s a good chance that I’ll go back to being an IC. But I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity and whilst I have my current job I’ll keep trying to learn and do better.

And to go back to the question of “what does a manager make?” if you’re not continually reflecting and trying to do better, you’ll probably make a big mess.

But if you’re lucky – as I was – and thoughtful. Maybe you’ll get to make a team.

Thanks and love to my team, because they are kind, smart, hard-working, hilarious and adorable, and because every day I work with them I learn something.

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