August 1, 2018
I recently passed the two year mark of making the switch from IC (individual contributor) to manager. At the time, I knew managing was something I wanted to try and I had a feeling I could do a decent job of it, but I had no idea what it entailed. My expectation was somewhere along the lines of “similar to what you’re doing now, but with more power and some people to mentor and coach.”
Narrator voice: she would soon find out that she was very, very wrong.
The first year was rough, partially because of circumstances beyond my control, but mostly because I had to come to terms with the fact that I had given up a job I loved and signed myself up for a completely different job that I needed to learn how to do from scratch. I spent a lot of time debating whether or not I should throw in the towel. I even made a Google Doc where I listed out the pros and cons of managing, dividing into subcategories: What I like about managing, What I don’t like (but am good at), What I don’t like (and am bad at).
I shared my struggle with mentors and confidants throughout the year, and they all told me the same thing: it will get better. One person reminded me that it takes a year of managing to have really experienced all aspects of it—so much of the position is cyclical and in line with the calendar: planning out the roadmap, getting headcount, hiring, performance review cycles, etc. I realized I had to stick to it for at least a year before giving up. Sure enough, right around one-year mark, I started to enjoy it.
My second year has felt less like frantic learning-on-the-job and more like foundation building. Now that I have a hands-on understanding of what it means to manage and a bit more confidence in my abilities, I’ve had the emotional energy to start shaping the type of manager I hope to be.
While I still feel like it’s a new craft for me and I have a ton to learn, I wanted to share some of what I have learned so far. These are the things I needed to hear just over two years ago, right before I made the switch.
As an IC, I was a doer; I thrived on shipping. I could measure if I’d had a good or bad week based on how many things I personally moved along or got out of the door. Those metrics no longer apply. In the early days of managing, after spending a solid 8 hours working, I would close my laptop for the day and feel like I didn’t get anything done. My professional self-worth was so tied up with creating visible things, that without them I wasn’t ever sure if I was doing enough or how I was contributing.
A typical day for me can be made up of: 3 hours of meetings (a mix of 1:1s, project check-ins, and team meetings), 2 hours of giving written feedback or reviewing PRs, 2 hours of chatting in Slack with multiple people to help clarify something, and 1 hour of project planning in a google doc. I’ve had to learn to stop defining success by how much I get done in a day, and instead to look at the big picture. Is my team as a whole shipping what they need to? Are my reports happy, fulfilled, and growing?
I think this is a saying about parenthood, but I don’t have kids so I’m going to repurpose it for management. When I think back to low moments I had as an IC, causes may have been that I got feedback I didn’t agree with, a project got cancelled, or I had too much on my plate and was stressed about deadlines. As a manager, I absorb all of these same lows from my reports, and then have my own on top of them.
My job comes with the weight of knowing that the decisions I make directly affect the lives and careers of others. I don’t take this lightly, and so I am more deeply affected by my work than I ever was before.
Luckily, this goes both ways. The rewarding highs of managing balance out the lows. No amount of shipping can compare to the feeling of knowing that I’ve helped someone through a tough situation, given a well-deserved promotion, or heard from my team that they’re happy.
This is less about management and more a reflection on how I felt for an entire year, which was, in short, uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable the first time I delivered a performance review. I was uncomfortable the first time I had to let someone go. I was uncomfortable the first time I raised concerns to leadership. I was uncomfortable when testing out how much to control to retain, and how much to let go.
What I wish I had known is that this discomfort wasn’t in vain; it was the feeling of growth. There are some skills that can only be honed by throwing yourself in the deep end, and being a manager is one of them. If you’re in the deep end now, know that it will get better. Slowly, over time, you will learn to tread water, and then swim.
And if, after a year, you decide that managing isn’t for you, at least you will know how to swim.
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