Aubrey Rhodes

Measuring Up

May 19, 2020

Switching into managing people from being a developer can be a mindfuck for a lot of people. One of the biggest things you will struggle with is lack of feedback. As a developer, you will write a test that will turn a red light into a green one when you have finished coding a feature. In your new role, you will not get any more immediate feedback. That is because you are moving from work that can take a few hours to complete. Now, work like helping a team grow that can take months before you see any real progress. It is important for you to start to build habits that will let you see your progress every day. Otherwise, it is very easy to burn out as a manager.

Think about a landscaper versus a gardener. Landscapers get immediate feedback. Mowing lawns and cleaning out flower beds show immediate results. When you are maintaining a lawn, you can tell an obvious difference after a days work. Being a developer is like being a landscaper. At the end of your day you can usually point to something that you built that was not there before. It is easy to build a sense of what you accomplished. Managers are much more like gardeners. Gardeners tend soil, making sure that there are all the nutrients their crops will need to thrive. They plant seeds into soil. They water consistently. Everyday there is no evidence that the work they do has actually changed anything. Yet, after a few months of consistent effort, they have something beautiful. To be successful they need to think on longer timescales than a landscaper does. The same is true for managers.

The first thing you have to do is to understand the goals you want to be tracking toward. Do you want to hire new members for your team? Does your team have an issue with the quality of their releases you would like to improve? Is one of your team members trying to grow in some way? It is important to first understand and document what you are working towards. Make a document with all your current goals and their timelines. This may or may not be something that ties into a larger goal of your organization. It could be something you keep private for yourself. It needs to be clear in your mind.

Once you understand your goals, take time everyday to track your progress. Take 15 minutes at the end of your day to document the tasks you completed that move you toward one of your goals. At the same time, lay out the things you are going to do tomorrow as next steps. From there, once a week, try to figure out how much closer you are to your goal. This forces your brain to appreciate the work you are doing daily.

As an example, imagine you are trying to hire a new engineering lead for your team. This might be daunting, especially if you are not very experienced with hiring. You decide that two months seems like a reasonable amount of time to find someone for your team. Your first tasks may be around creating job descriptions. From there you may look on LinkedIn or talk to your team about their networks. Each day that you work on the project, you document the steps you took and their results. After some time, you will find that you have a list of promising candidates that your are courting. This would not have been possible if you had not started with the basic steps of looking for candidates. Each day in itself may not feel like you are moving forward. Because you have documented what you are doing you can see the process moving forward over time. When you get a great candidate to accept an offer, you will know that the success was a culmination of all that incremental progress.

If you document your steps along the way, it becomes much easier to value the work you are doing day in and day out. Without this, it becomes very easy to undervalue you effort. This is one of the top reasons for manager burnout and going to back to being an individual contributor.

Written by Aubrey Rhodes who builds software engineering teams in Atlanta.

© 2020 Aubrey Rhodes