Sunday, May 27, 2012

Management 101

You're a lead programmer and have been for a number of months, or years, and one day your manager taps you on the shoulder and says that there's going to be a change.

You're going to be a manager!


Welcome to management!

Your work life will never be the same! Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration but things will be quite different. You've had a taste of leadership and mentorship leading up to now (right? ...right?!), so the difference won't be so stark.

I'm not going to talk about management styles so much as point out a few things that may not be obvious for programmers who are new to managing people instead of software.

Obvious-yet-not-obvious point #1: Managers are information conduits.

Your primary goal is to get all the information to your team that it needs in a timely manner. You need to beat the rumor mill; every time they look elsewhere for information, their faith in you degrades a tiny bit. Think about when you go to your manager most often -- it's not to ask about your raise (well, maybe it is...), but it's to know what's going on, who needs what by when, what's coming down the pipe next month, or who should be taking care of that urgent support issue that just fell out of the sky.

Obvious-yet-not-obvious point #2: Nothing should be a(n unpleasant) surprise when it doesn't have to be.

Pleasant surprises are great. "Beer this Friday? Company's paying? Sweet!"

Unpleasant surprises aren't. Some are occasionally unavoidable -- the company often can't give advance warning about layoffs because that will wreak unnecessary havoc on morale and the share price -- but many aren't. If you're about to give someone a below target performance evaluation it should not be a shock to them. The lead up to this should have included several, possibly difficult, conversations about where things are heading and the consequences if the trend continues. Not only that but a case like that should have a plan for remediation.

Obvious-yet-not-obvious point #3: You are responsible for the growth of your people.

One of the big differences of being in a management role compared to being in a mentorship-focused lead role is that when one of your employees didn't get a promotion for which they had been hoping, you are now the first person they will ask why. And you better have good answers for them.

Every quarter I sit down with each member of the team and we put together a list of accomplishments that we want to achieve over the following three months. This list of objectives is broken down into what's expected (on target) and what goes above and beyond expected (above target/significantly above target). At the end of the quarter we go over everything that's been accomplished, and at the end of the review period it's obvious to all parties if there's been continuous, steady improvement.

Although the onus to execute lies with them, you need to coach them, guide them, find opportunities for them and help them find their way out of ruts.

Obvious-yet-not-obvious point #4: Trust is difficult to form but easy to break.

One item to keep in mind is that topics that come up in a 1-on-1 meeting should be considered confidential. If you ask your star why he seems distracted and not his usual affable self and he mentions that he's dealing with some unpleasant family issues, you'll want to keep those discussion notes private. "Jim's not on his A-game because his Mom died" is not an appropriate point to mention at the team stand-up meeting. It's also not appropriate to mention if anyone else asks why Jim seems to not be his usual self.

During that conversation, a lot of faith and trust was placed in you when that news was broken, it may have taken them a long time to work up to telling someone at work about it, and if you violate that trust you may never see it again. This may mean that you'll never be the recipient of other personal thoughts, like "I'm unhappy with my job and want to do something else, probably somewhere else."

Obvious-yet-not-obvious point #5: You'll have less time to do programming at work, but that's OK.

Much of your schedule is going to disappear to meetings, to the overhead of task scheduling, to problem solving, and back to meetings. At first I felt that I was failing because I was doing less programming work but this wasn't the case -- it just took a while to recognize that all the other tasks filling my schedule had value too.

Obvious-yet-not-obvious point #6: People aren't machines, they don't have instruction manuals.

You can't attach a debugger to one of your employees to find out what's wrong, nor can you write an automated test to prevent problems from coming up. Forming a network with your current and former managers is extremely helpful when it comes to fielding these new problems that you will run into. Failing that, you can always ask HR, they are going to become surprisingly helpful in your new role.

I hope that I didn't scare you -- you're going to do fine. Really. Some adjustment will be needed but it'll all smooth out soon enough. In my next post I'm going to talk about establishing stability after this minor organization shake-up.

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