What I learned in my first year as a manager

Last December I made the leap to being a manager, having been a software engineer for 4 years previously. As a mentor, I'm sometimes asked about this choice. Some days my answer is "I love it", some days I say "I hate it and I want to go back", but always my answer is "I've learned a lot".

Here's some lessons I learned so that hopefully, you'll make the choice wisely and won't make the same mistakes I did in your first year.

1. No one knows what they’re doing

When I first became a software engineer, it seemed like everyone knew what they were doing all the time and I felt hugely intimidated asking any questions. This was something I spent most of that job working through and suffered from some anxiety whenever I needed to ask for help.

This is now my number one thing I tell engineers who are new to the industry - seriously, ask the damn question. You can ask it now and bother someone with no time wasted, or you can spend another 8 hours panicing trying to figure it out yourself and then ask the question and bother someone.

However, when I looked at the good and bad managers I’d had before I became a manager, and indeed at my colleagues who have more experience than me, I’d somehow forgotten this and assumed there would be some magic manual you get given when you become a manager that tells you how to handle every situation.

I spent many of my first weeks feeling lost and intimidated. I had never done this job before, never had the freedom and responsibility to completely determine what I should be working on, and suddenly had people who expected me to be leading the way.

It wasn’t until I started talking to my fellow engineering manager on a weekly basis and he was quite open about his problems at work and the challenges his team were facing that I realised that nobody really knows what they’re doing 100% of the time, not even managers. We’re all really just doing our best, the magic manual is really just whether that manager has handled this situation previously.

2. Don’t spend so long worrying about becoming a bad manager that you skip all the things that make you a good one.

I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things, particularly cultural (this is one of the reasons I became a mentor). I’ve seen a variety of companies, teams and cultures. Seeing bad managers and knowing I could do a better job is one of the things that made me want to prove it to myself.

A few weeks into the job, I was talking about a situation and how I was going to avoid something I’d seen one of my previous managers do. My partner said “don’t spend so long worrying about becoming a bad manager that you skip all the things that make you a good one”. This really resonated with me. Everyone’s had a bad manager right, and I’d hazard a guess that I’m not the only manager who became one to make sure others didn’t suffer the same fate.

You can easily keep a list of the things they did wrong and that you definitely won’t do, but you shouldn’t focus too hard on that list all the time. You should bring to work your “good manager” titbits from previous managers, your fresh take and your own spin in order to be a good manager, or you can easily drift into your very own camp of bad manager, but for different reasons to the ones you’ve worked so hard to avoid.

3. Try new things, but not too many at once

I remember a couple of years ago as a software engineer, my line manager said to me “try not to start too many initiatives at once”. This stung quite hard at the time because I was trying really hard to get promoted to senior engineer. I had so many ideas I wanted to put into practice which I felt would help my team, and I thought the best way to become senior was to do a lot of work for extra credit (pro tip: don’t do this).

Some of them worked well, but some of them took a lot of organising, emotional energy and time away from actually being technical. It was doing this and enjoying it that made me want to try out being a manager - I wanted to have more time to focus on communication and process to see whether that would change anything.

The problem with running these types of initiatives as a manager is that you don’t immediately get feedback as to whether your change has worked, so I fell into a trap. I’d wait around for the impact, and as I was bored and found other problems I could try to improve, I’d start trying to fix those problems as well.

Again this lead to being extremely tired and to be honest, it often leads to half starting one initiative then dumping it because something else is more important, or it takes a lot of energy for you to be involved with it.

Now that you’re a manager, improving processes is a part of your job, but you don’t need to improve them all at once, and remember that any initiatives you start will be on you to keep running, so choose wisely.

4. You won’t always feel useful, and that’s ok/normal.

When I first started out on my team, there were a whole bunch of issues where I could quite obviously see what my role was. We had a lot of projects to start and the team were bad at planning, or there were spiky interactions between various members of the team, or we needed to hire new people and then onboard them.

Those are the times when the next most helpful thing you can do jumps out and slaps you in the face, and even if no one thanks you for it, you know what you must do and you don’t question why you’re there.

This isn’t always the case, and you may go through weeks where all you do is meetings, 1:1s and wonder what you should be doing in the meantime. You’ll spend time pondering whether this was the right career choice and you were happier not doing management. You’ll think about how much you’re paid and whether you’re actually valuable to the team. This might last a day, maybe a week, maybe 2 weeks.

I mentioned this to my fellow engineering manager and he just said “Charlotte…I’m sorry to tell you this, but I don’t think that feeling ever goes away”. I’d sort of hoped, again, after my first year, I’d have it all figured out.

This time didn’t last forever, and for me it tends to be a rollercoaster - coming down in productivity or usefulness is usually followed by feeling hugely helpful and finding the next right thing to do. It’s also very easy to forget that the things I mentioned about what else you do - 1:1s, attending meetings even if you’re not contributing - are a very important part of your job.

Having been on a team with no team lead or obvious accountability for communication issues, the role you do isn’t obvious at times, but if you were removed things can go south very, very quickly.

5. Go easy on yourself!

Finally and most importantly of all - try not to give yourself a hard time for your mistakes. If you’re a new manager in 2020, this has been a rough ride, and one you didn’t predict. For many this is your first time working from home full time, which brings its own set of challenges as an engineer, let alone a manager. On top of that you’ve got to somehow help your team get through it when you may not be on top of things in your own life.

At all other times, management is a whole new job and career track, and notmerely a promotion from being an engineer. It’s quite the ride, and one which you will have bits you’re great at and bits you maybe fluff a couple of times before you get it right.

As is often quoted from Adventure Time, “Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something”