When I first became an Engineering Manager, I remember being inundated with blog posts about the subtlety of role modeling. The idea, more or less, is that whenever you are given some recognition or title of any modicum of levity, people around you will begin to model your actions. The subtlety is in that neither you nor they will likely realize that it’s happening. The takeaway seemed to be that it’s important to maintain at least enough self-awareness such that you are netting out neutral in this shadow interaction. And if you can spike on self-awareness, you can even come away with a team that’s operating with a little more excellence than they might otherwise.
As conditions improve in the US, I’m preparing to return to work from an office. If you’re also in the US, you might already be a stalwart of the office and a few months or weeks ahead of me. Maybe you and your company are waiting it out a bit longer, and that’s fine. A lot of us are remembering old practices in different ways. I am preparing for what in-person one-on-ones will be like after being fully remote for almost 18 months. I had previously built up principles for my one-on-ones that I have applied in my remote setup, and I’m starting to think about how I can combine lessons learned remotely to evolve my in-person one-on-ones.
It’s been about sixteen months since I’ve worked from an office, but my return is around the corner. I’ll have a commute and a routine and not the sketchy mishmash of home and work on which I’ve survived. I have a former coach who advised me to “protect your mornings”. I stand by this advice, and I do my best to heed it. But I get a lot out of the entropy of the start of the workday. As people come into the office, they pinball to and fro, and there’s a benefit to being a pinball, too. And so I learned to appreciate the art of hanging out in the kitchen.
Engineering management books and blog posts will often try and describe the holistic job of management. They will list of a handful of generic responsibilities and almost always end with “the responsibility of hiring (and firing) for the team”. The “firing” is always brought up in this dramatic way. It never sat well with me. And so when folks ask me for my responsibilities as an engineering manager, I substitute the dramatic phrasing for “the responsibility of shaping the team”. At first, I leaned on this phrasing because it seemed more personal. But over time, the framing has been useful and never more useful than when I’m planning a backfill for a teammate who’s leaving.
There’s an old story that’s meant to promote the value of investing in your team. It goes something like this.
A CTO and a CEO are discussing the budget for the upcoming year. The CTO is trying to carve out budget for education for his team. The CEO is unsure. CEO: “What if we we set aside this educational budget for our employees and they leave?” CTO: “What if we don’t, and they stay?”