Why I Won't Choose To Be A Manager

How Charity Majors helped me close a door

swyx

0 reactions 2019-09-26

I recently decided that I will not choose to be a manager. This is how I arrived at that conclusion.

Being asked

When Sarah joined Netlify as my new manager, one of her first actions was to ask me if I wanted to be a manager when I grew up.

That was the first time I had ever been asked this in my professional life. Granted, I have had a very nontraditional career, so there really hasn’t been much opportunity between my career changes.

I wasn’t ready to reply. As a very analytical person who tries his damndest to be fair, I can often argue both sides. On one extreme, I’ve been told I lack “Emotional Intelligence” and communication skills. I’m definitely an introvert and don’t get along with everybody. On the other, I’ve been praised for my moderation work in r/reactjs and have actually (undeservedly?) been considered for a management job at a company I respect.

Why I was interested

I am a strong believer that fixing systems can have far more impact than any individual contributor, and, as someone who isn’t ever going to be the best coder I know, I will admit I am hesitant to define myself purely by technical competency - technologies change, but people and organizational dynamics don’t. Isn’t it better to specialize in something you can endlessly scale and build a career/brand in? (I love the Bezosian idea of investing in things that won’t change rather than trying to guess what will). Code is a means to an end for me: I will not cry if I don’t get to code anymore, especially if it means unblocking people smarter than me to do more than they or I could do individually.

Above all, having had a series of managers over the years, and observed and swapped stories on others, I was mostly of the impression that the state of management, especially in tech, is really terrible. Like, laughably so.

Don’t read this as some sort of self delusional, grass-is-greener, Monday-morning-quarterbacking type “I’m amazing so I can do that better” bravado. That isn’t what I mean. I mean that managers are failing their teams at really basic common sense shit. Shit like micromanaging details while being clueless about the broader context of how they fit in the company and roadmap. Shit like completely ignoring cognitive and unconscious biases in hiring and 1:1 and team communication. Shit like setting and forgetting OKRs. I could go on, but you get my drift. It’s not all their fault either, the lack of training and awkward transition from developer to manager is well documented.

The bar is low. For every Will Larson and Camille Fournier I can probably find you dozens of… less effective managers. I score as a manager on Nick Caldwell’s Voight Kampff test. I have flaws, but could I do better than the median manager? It’s quite possible. And if I can, shouldn’t I? Don’t I owe it to myself, and future teams I might work with, to try to find out?

I will also confess that I am cynical about compensation and career structure. Literally everyone makes the right mouth sounds around trying to make an IC career path as good as one in management. Few actually succeed.

Representation and being an ally also matters. David Brunelle thinks wanting to challenge existing power structures is a good reason to be a manager. The Bamboo ceiling is real, and I know from many DMs that being an outspoken, (outwardly) confident Asian in tech has helped others in their own lives.

Charity’s Charitable Chart

There was no more talk of the matter until Charity Majors dropped her epic list of 17 Reasons Not to be a Manager.

For the record, I don’t think she did the profession any favors. She did a great favor for individuals considering a career in management, like me, but on the whole the career path of engineering management already had a net negative rap from what I’d seen.

Of course it is a fact that “There are fewer management jobs” (Reason 3). This isn’t mutually exclusive from the fact that we are in really short supply of good engineering managers, and managers of managers. I don’t know of any company not looking for a VP of Eng.

It’s really lame to reconsider a career path because of a blogpost, but I’ll confess that is pretty much what I did. Really it was a great opportunity to revisit a question I have only considered, at best, once a year. What resonated with me, from Charity’s list:

  • Point 6: ENGINEERS CAN BE LITTLE SHITS.
    • Yes. Sometimes I am one of them. I don’t look forward to having to deal with me when I am in a Mood.
  • Point 8: A MANAGER’S TOOLSET IS SMALLER THAN YOU THINK.
    • As much as I’ve studied influence and persuasion, I have very little. I consciously spend more time on external influence than internal as I dislike telling other people what to do, and also don’t care to push anything on to people that they don’t intrinsically want to accept.
  • Point 11: MANAGEMENT IS JUST A COLLECTION OF SKILLS, AND YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO ALL THE FUN ONES AS AN IC.
    • True, although there is a gestalt effect of having scale and high level context.
    • I especially don’t like hiring, because I err on the side that many things can be learned/taught on the job while most tech hiring simply does not work that way.
  • Point 13: IT WILL TAKE UP EMOTIONAL SPACE AT THE EXPENSE OF YOUR PERSONAL LIFE.
    • One of my favorite jobs was my time trading currency options, when, after I was done with work, I could walk away and never take work home with me. I probably don’t have enough emotional space/stability to support others when they need it most.
  • Point 15: MEETINGS.
    • Oof. Yeah, I don’t love them. Half of Sarah’s week is just meetings. This one alone is almost a dealbreaker, if you abstractly consider management as just a series of meetings punctuated by emails and slack messages scheduling more meetings.

I didn’t agree with everything, and I was fine with some of the other points. But I agreed with enough. Objectively, my own behavior at Netlify and in prior companies has revealed that I would not enjoy being in management at best, and at worst, I would cause so much pain and cognitive dissonance that I would not last long.

I’ll make a couple of observations that I think don’t get addressed well in this conversation:

  • Saying that the main reason to get into management is to help nurture others’ careers is the politically correct answer, but it isn’t very helpful for prospective new managers (who have no direct evidence to work with) and feels like it comes from an assumption of privilege (of things being not-on-fire) and having bigco-level options and opportunities rather than the tight constraints of a startup.
  • Almost without exception, “going into management” in any of these conversations means going into middle management. Yes, being a shit umbrella is part of the job, but the organization can definitely wear you down and limit what you can do with unending shit.

Not By Choice

I very consciously phrase my decision as not choosing to be a manager, rather than not being a manager period. Given the above, I think I and the people I work with would be less well off if I were to choose to “go into management”. In the immortal words of Shakespeare the VP of Dramatic Engineering:

Some are born managers, some achieve managerness, and some have managerness thrust upon ‘em

I won’t choose to do it, but if I am so unlucky as to have to do it, you better believe I will do the best I can.

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