December 16, 2016

Day 16 - Trained Engineers - Overnight Managers (or, The Art Of Not Destroying Your Company)

Written by: Nir Cohen (@thinkops)
Edited by: Daniel Maher (@phrawzty)


It has been said that managers shouldn’t be appointed randomly. The right people should be thoughtfully selected, should know that they’re changing their career path rather than being promoted, and should not be transitioned into management too early.

I’d like to add something to the discussion that I believe is missing: much like with being a good parent, to become and remain a good manager, you need to be educated, trained and be continuously mentored.

Unlike engineers, who usually go through technical interviews where the requirements are both known and demanding, managers are often hired and appointed by intuition or under the pressure of immediate need.
The effects of this manager appointment process will ripple through a company since untrained (or, for that matter, atrociously bad) managers can not only damage their employees, but also their managers and colleagues.

I’ve been appointed to four managerial positions both in development and operations roles in the past 6+ years, and one thing I can tell you is that no one has ever evaluated my abilities to manage before giving me the job (nor mentored me post-assignment). I was given great power, without being taught about great responsibility. In practicality, I’ve been unfortunately given the role of deciding how to ruin other people’s lives and make the companies I work for fail.

Poof! Manager!

My ten month old daughter knows how to sit and stand all by herself. I don’t have to tell her to do these things - she has the know-how and is pretty good at doing them on her own. When she needs help, she cries, and I help her. It is important for her to fail sometimes though, because this is how she learns - through practice.

The reason why my daughter knows how to do this is because I’ve trained her. I haven’t told her how to do those things but rather set the stage upon which she can make the unconscious decision that “babababiba”, or, in plain English, “Now I can sit down and I will”. At some point in life, she will be able to manage herself and make conscious decisions about many important things in life, like deciding when to go to the bathroom, when to buy a house, and, some day, how to teach her children those things.

How was I able to teach her these important things? I was trained myself. More often than not, managers don’t get that kind of education and training before becoming managers themselves. Let’s take an example from company X:

There was once a young Operations Engineer (we’ll call her Jenny). Jenny was analysing packets, maintaining production, writing basic scripts, monitoring systems and all the wonderful things that Operations Engineers did back then. Jenny loved her work and was good at it. She cherished the moments when production was stable and Nagios and Cacti (!) were all green. She also felt that rush of excitement whenever they pushed using their half-baked CI pipeline. She had passion, skill, and drive to solve system-wide problems.

A year or so passed, the company grew, and more Operations Engineers started appearing next to her. Then one day, Jenny’s manager, Bob, came over to her desk and said: “We need manager, want promotion?”

“OF COURSE I DO! More money, tell people what to do. Decide on bigger things. Hell yeah!”

Jenny was in for a treat.


Appointing managers on a whim can have a potentially destructive impact on a company, not only from a day-to-day business point of view, but also by directly affecting employees’ short and long-term careers.

Managers should be on a continuous, career-long process of learning and growth. It should begin with direct, regular mentoring by more experienced colleagues. Over time, additional learning opportunities like formal training and certification will pay dividends.

Jenny, who right up until her recent “promotion” by Bob, spent most of her time looking at graphs, analysing system state, writing Chef recipes and configuring VLANs. Suddenly, Bob expects her to deal with people’s idiosyncrasies, manage their time, tend to their needs (often on a personal level), and understand how to make them happy while also dealing with interpersonal conflicts. This isn’t a reasonable expectation from someone who has never had any managerial training. In my opinion, she needs to be taught psychology, not engineering (to make the point).
Even worse, Bob, who was “promoted” by his boss two years ago, might not have had proper learning experiences either, so he might not even know what Jenny really needs to do to be a good manager. Or even worse, Bob might not even know that it at all matters.

A study published in Harvard Business Review suggests that there’s a linear proportion between employee engagement and happiness, and the overall effectiveness of their supervisors. Non-effective supervisors actually degrade the effectiveness of other rewards as they’re over-shadowed by the bad-boss-character.
Miscommunication and mishandling of employees may also harm the employee and the company in a variety of nefarious ways.

Before moving into management, Jenny needed to have proper learning and mentoring opportunities over the course of her engineering career. Absent that background, her chances of being a good manager are lowered considerably.

Over Expectations

Google’s Project Oxygen shows that the most important attribute of a good manager is being a good coach. To be a coach, you need to have been trained in coaching yourself, and you need your own accumulated knowledge and experience in developing your employees.

Back to our story, Bob is now expecting Jenny to do a difficult, important job, without any idea of where to start.

How could he? He didn’t illuminate her way.

In a Perfect World

Obviously, you would want to avoid mistakes in appointing the wrong employees to be managers, and there are steps to take to help you do that. The problem we’re dealing with, however, is much more complex. We need to identify people who seem to fit a managerial role early on and invest in them for that role. This isn’t an easy task and it requires investing resources in inspecting employees to see that they’ve got what it takes to manage a specific team in the company.

The main point is this: educate your employees evenly and watch for the ones with innate managerial skills to start floating upwards. It is through the learning opportunities that people will show their qualities for managing others, from which you can deduce that someone might be a good fit for the role.

From my experience, teaching employees to first manage themselves - and challenging them with different processes - will make them better at management principles. It doesn’t mean that it will necessarily make them good managers, it just means they’ll gain some skills and some perspective, which are both necessary for managing people.

Let’s take just a few examples of how managers could empower their employees to help them become good managers.

Let them manage their time

Don’t manage your employees’ time for them - let them do it for themselves while you manage their productivity by advising them on how to optimise their time. Employees who manage their own time gain confidence and feel responsible. They learn how to manage time by iterating their work processes and gain muscle memory understanding how much effort they need to put into things to deliver it on schedule. Employees who manage time well will be more accurate at making estimates on what they can achieve, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Let them manage their tasks

Give them projects, not tasks. Provide product level requirements and help them with design instead of choosing tools and with architecture rather than implementation. This will make them think of problems on a higher level and find solutions themselves.

Let them review other’s code

Code reviews are really just a way to smartly tell people where they should put their focus, what they’re missing and how to improve an implementation - skills that are invaluable for a manager.

Help others solve problems

Give them the time to help others with their problems and brainstorm without forcing yourself into the conversation. You can help them help others by mentoring them on how to brainstorm efficiently, and at different levels of granularity. As managers, they’ll have to do that anyway.

Let them push information towards you instead of polling them for it

By creating a regular process (team scrums, bi-weekly team updates, weekly 1 on 1’s, etc..) in which each and every member of the team must update on what they’re doing, where they’re struggling, and about ideas they have, they will be implicitly taught to raise flags, provide feedback, and take responsibility. You can help by asking them to identify key problems in a process, architecture, or implementation and by asking them to solve the problems they raised - or, at the very least, suggest how to solve them. This will also help you identify high performers and get the monkey off of your back while teaching them how to do the same - something their future managers will appreciate.

I would even go as far as explicitly asking them to initially update and provide feedback on anything they feel they need to update on. At first, some of it will be redundant and you will be overflowing with questions and information. But eventually, after several iterations in which you help them differentiate the trivial from the non-trivial, they will be adept in providing good feedback and pertinent updates without you having to ask for anything.

Have conversations with them on their performance as managers

A good assumption to make is that you, at the very least, want to keep employees who are able to manage themselves. We’ve already established that managers should have recurring conversations with employees as it makes them feel more secure and cared for. While you might invest time in talking to your team members about their tasks, their interests and their productivity, you should also take time to jointly evaluate their self-managing skills. This will help them (and you) assess their managerial abilities later on, while also training them to have the same types of conversations with their future employees.

Of course, you should also help those who do not fit into managerial positions develop in different paths. You must provide each and every employee with opportunities.

Give your employees the opportunity to solve organisational or team level problems

Your team members might see problems from a different angle. By allowing them to both access and provide solutions at this level, it will help them develop a state of mind for those types of problems. This is something required from managers, but maybe lacking from pure engineers as they’re focused on purely technical issues for most of their career.

Provide a solid platform for knowledge transfer

As a manager, you must be able to transfer strategic information and professional knowledge to your team members and to others. Allowing your engineers to do that early on can help them develop communication skills.

Let them try and fail

One of the key requirements of a good manager is knowing how to face failure. One of the best things you can do for your team members is to identify which problem they should solve on their own (or with minimal help) and which requires deep intervention. It is reasonable to say: “Look it up” or “Here’s a clue… go figure it out”. You will be doing them a favour by forcing them to psychologically withstand failure, and conversely, feeling good when they do manage to provide solutions.

Hold Them Accountable

That being said, you should hold employees accountable for the systems they’re managing, products they’re building, and for their mistakes. Over time, this will make them remove their defence mechanisms and face problems head-on instead of running away from them. Note that it’s very important to distinguish blame from accountability. Blaming people will make them afraid of admitting mistakes and failures, while holding them accountable will make them feel responsible and effective.

From my experience, holding meetings where each team member talks about where they went wrong when making a decision or solving a problem also helps them open up to other team members. It also makes for great discussions on how to solve each of these issues - or how to prevent them in the future.


Clearly, this isn’t an exhaustive list of how you would educate and train managers. Empowering successful managers to appoint other managers, and appointing long-term mentors for young managers are also important.

I could draw up a complete picture of what it means to be a parent and it would almost perfectly fit the description of a manager. If you look at the eight pillars of Project Oxygen, you’d notice that at least seven of them are (uncoincidentally) hard requirements for being a good parent. The most important thing to understand is that by appointing a manager, you’re assigning someone the role of “parenting” human beings, and it goes without saying that you can’t do this with everyone.

Managing people requires muscle memory but it also requires theory - it isn’t enough to appoint someone and train them on the spot. Continuous mentoring is important because the amount of different permutations of how people act and interact with their managers is infinite, and managers with tens of years of management experience can shed light on situations that young managers (as good as they might be) did not stumble upon.

One of the most basic things to realise is that managers need to put more time into their teams than they invest in anything else - something which I wish to would have realised myself early in my managerial career. Someone should have told me that! Someone should have said (and I’m simplifying): “We’ve estimated your abilities to provide managerial benefits for the company and it seems like you would be a good fit”. This should have been followed by: “We would like to offer you a managerial position. Here are the things you should know.”. And also: “Meet your mentor: …”. Had I gone through this process, maybe I would have decided that I don’t want to be a manager (apparently, like most people). Perhaps I would’ve have at least thought it through before agreeing to take it upon myself to affect the careers of others.

If such an approach catches on, it might create a positive feedback loop for growing new managers, as good managers will create better managers.


1 comment :

Arse said...

Hey, thank you for this article, I really enjoyed it and shared it with my leadership team and on LinkedIn. I hope this is ok with you? Happy holidays! :)