In this episode, Marcus Blankenship talks about wanting to be in management vs. just ending up in management, the idea of organizational alignment and not agreement, defining the word “boss”, and the up/down managerial hierarchy.
This episode is sponsored by Crickstart. They make organic cricket protein bars, gourmet crackers, and fruit smoothie mixes made with organically farmed crickets and other delicious wholesome ingredients.
Visit crickstart.com and get 20% off with promo code GREATERTHANCODE!
01:12 – Marcus’ Superpower: Helping Engineers Become Good Bosses
02:30 – Bosses Who Don’t Wanna Boss: Ending Up in Management
10:37 – Are there people who just aren’t cut out for management or leadership?
14:20 – Applying Rationality to Organizations
20:23 – Alignment Not Agreement
24:52 – Is there a safe way to try and fail at management? Trying on Hats
31:16 – What does “BOSS” mean?
36:03 – The Up/Down of the Hierarchy
36:03 – What are the skills that good managers have? How do you know if you’re doing a good job?
53:26 – Giving and Receiving Feedback and Support, Reinforcing Behavior, and Focusing Attention
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Jamey: Management vs. leadership.
Sam: “I need this from you,” vs. “Why didn’t you do this?”
Jess: When we react to something, it’s rarely about the thing we think we’re reacting to.
Additionally, management is like being on stage and you can be uncomfortable in your own role.
Marcus: Listening to others is critical and impactful. Also, letting people taste and see what it’s like to be in management and leadership without the commitment.
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JESSICA: Good morning. Welcome to Episode #103 of Greater Than Food. I am here today with my friend, Jamey Hampton.
JAMEY: Thank you, Jessica. I think that maybe, you just made a typo out loud.
JESSICA: I never typo out loud.
JAMEY: But maybe, this is actually Episode 103 of Greater Than Code and I’m also here with my friend, Sam Livingston-Gray.
SAM: Why don’t we split the difference and go out with a fishy theme and call it Greater Than Cod?
JAMEY: It’s a good compromise.
SAM: Right. Enough of that. I’m pleased to introduce our guest today, Marcus Blankenship. Marcus has been a team lead, software manager and CTO for the better part of 19 years. He believes that every programmer deserves a great boss and he’s working to build the next generation of technical leaders. Companies like Box, Netflix, PayPal and Atlassian hire him to help their best engineers become great leaders and build high performing software teams.
Welcome to the show, Marcus.
MARCUS: Thanks, Sam.
SAM: As you may know, we have this lovely little ritual where we start the show with, no, not a sacrifice but a question which is, “What is your superpower and how did you acquire it?”
MARCUS: Oh, my superpower is helping really good engineers actually become really good bosses, frankly because I think every engineer deserves a good boss. But I acquired it by becoming that finally after many years of struggle, learning how to become a good boss after being a pretty good engineer, never a great engineer. There was a lot of pain in the transition, you might say. A lot of resistance to being a pointy-haired boss or maybe, wearing Dockers and [inaudible], whatever you consider bosses do — matching socks and hair gel and all that stuff. I just realized eventually that it wasn’t as bad or in fact, it was actually pretty wonderful to learn to be an engineering manager, so that’s why I try and help other people find the joy in.
SAM: Wait, so are you saying that — let me get this straight — somebody who is a talented engineer doesn’t just automatically know what to do when they get promoted into management?
JESSICA: Yeah? Don’t they know what every other engineer should be doing right now?
MARCUS: Well, it turns out they don’t. Shocking! Are you shocked? Does anyone here surprised?
SAM: Just shocked.
MARCUS: Just shocked. I am curious. I have a question for you all. Have you ever had a boss that did not appear to want to be the boss and maybe, they actually secretly wanted to be an engineer again.
JESSICA: Oh, not secretly.
SAM: Yeah. I’ve worked for more than one person who tried to be a boss and also, continued their individual contributor role in their spare time, which turned out to be two fulltime jobs.
MARCUS: Shockingly enough. It is and which one do you think they preferred?
JESSICA: The one they did voluntarily?
MARCUS: Which was?
JESSICA: The one in their free time which was continuing to be an individual contributor.
MARCUS: Yeah, the coding.
JESSICA: Maybe, we’re good at code because we like.
MARCUS: I think that’s true.
JAMEY: Why do you think that happens? Do you think that people who think they want to be managers like being wrong about wanting to be managers? Or do you think it’s like people getting promoted into this role that they didn’t ask for?
MARCUS: That’s a good question. You know, so far and I have only asked less than 100 people but no one I’ve ever asked, “Did you want to be a manager when you grew up?” answered yes. I don’t think there are many eight-year olds out there thinking like, “Middle management. So fun. I can’t wait to do reports.” I don’t think that’s a thing but a lot of people say, “I want to build cool stuff and make a difference,” especially when you’re young. I know that’s how I was.
I think a lot of people get tapped on the shoulder. I would say that. You know, you’re doing a great job, the Peter Principle says you’ll get promoted to your level of incompetence and so, you are a great engineer and so, clearly you are the right person to lead the engineering efforts here because you understand what these crazy engineers do and we can’t just put anybody in there. Golly, there’s a pay raise and there’s a promotion and there’s the business cards and you get a parking spot and you become one of us now. It’s quite a temptation, to be honest to say, “Okay, do I want to make less money?” This feels in corporate America like the next logical move for most people.
JESSICA: The Peter Principle, I’ve often heard it formulated the way you said it, which is getting promoted to people’s level of incompetence. But the other day, I heard — credit Matthew Jones on this — a talk he gave the Peter Principle in its original form which was you get promoted for being good at that job you’re currently doing but then, you get promoted into a different job, which you may or may not be good at and so, you keep getting promoted until you get promoted into a job that you’re not good at.
MARCUS: And then you stay.
JESSICA: Right, which feels like a lot more positive in the sense you didn’t get promoted because you were going to be incompetent at it.
MARCUS: That’s a great point. Maybe, it’s more about the limiting factor. You’ll go high enough until you begin to not be good at your job to get the next promotion.
JESSICA: Right, which feeds into this, “Okay, now, I’m going to have a rep,” but maybe, we’ll talk about how there’s this assumption that there is exactly one place to go from where you are and that is promotion.
MARCUS: Hold it. This is what a ladder is. If you’re on a career ladder, ladders don’t fork. They go up and they go down. There’s room for one. It’s kind of a single track thing, right? At least at most companies —
JESSICA: Yeah, and we think about our careers in more than one dimension.
SAM: Well, there are at least two dimensions on any given org chart, right? There’s like one person at the top and then there’s tree structure branching down from there and they all converge to the one job that everybody wants, I guess.
JESSICA: Oh, yeah because everybody wants to be —
JAMEY: Wait, what is the one job that everybody wants, Sam?
SAM: I have no idea. I don’t want it.
JAMEY: I want to be a water slide tester.
JESSICA: That’s awesome. Marcus, what’s your dream job?
MARCUS: You know what? I think now, it’s water slide tester. I don’t know that was a job before this.
JAMEY: I have no idea that’s a real job but I feel like someone must have to do it.
MARCUS: Yeah, they must. It sounds less risky than rollercoaster tester, to be honest.
SAM: You know, it used to be an honored profession but now, in the age of downsizing and inefficiency, water slide testers have been replaced with a slingshot and a dummy.
JAMEY: Man, they’re taking our jobs.
JESSICA: Hey, hey, hey, the sling shot and the dummy, we’ll use them first to test safety but after safety, somebody has to evaluate it for fun.
MARCUS: I don’t know what to do with that, I’d be honest —
JESSICA: I’m going to save this career track because we need. If you get bored on the ladder, try the water slide.
MARCUS: The downside is there’s only downside to a water slide. It’s very hard to go up the water —
JESSICA: Can somebody disrupt this and make a water slide that goes up?
MARCUS: I guess, at the end of the day, I think most people do not enter this honored profession of engineering management because they sought to start there. It’s where they end up and they end up in, oftentimes very unhappy.
JESSICA: And then we’re stuck because our career path is one dimensional.
MARCUS: Many times, it’s very hard to go back. Anybody here ever taken a demotion?
MARCUS: Or voluntarily stepped downwards? You have Sam?
SAM: Yeah, I stepped into a tech lead role for a couple of months and unfortunately, this technical lead role turned out to also involve being a product manager at the same time, which was one more job and I was able to do. In my view, the best thing to do for the team was for me to step down and say, “You need two other people in this role,” and that’s what we want up with.
MARCUS: How long did you do the job before you stepped down?
SAM: About two months.
MARCUS: And how long after you took it did you realize, “This is not going well?”
SAM: Maybe two weeks.
MARCUS: A couple of weeks in. Most people find their organizations apply a certain amount of social pressure to not make that move. I’m interested to find out, did you feel any concern about going back to being an individual contributor?
SAM: I guess I was a little bit concerned about when I might get another opportunity to try that and since then, I’ve remained a senior developer. That was… Oh, my gosh, like five years ago now, which is fine with me. But as to the pressure to not make that move, I actually was able to work for a really great boss. Shout out to Glenn Vanderburg, I would totally work with you again.
MARCUS: Nice. Now, there were certain things that people did at the big company I worked at that I won’t name but anyway, we would sometimes call them career limiting moves. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a CLM, a career limiting move. But Sam, I’m curious, do you think you performed a career limiting move because it’s now been five years and you haven’t been asked to do that work again?
SAM: No. I think there are a bunch of other factors.
MARCUS: Good. I hope so. I always found that idea that you could do one thing and somehow, send a signal to upper management that somebody wasn’t and I saw this happen all the time, sort of behind closed doors, where people would say, “That person is just not cut out.” That drives me crazy — not cut out to be a manager, as though somehow, managers get cut out in this big factory that they’re stamped and designed and all that crap.
SAM: As though are limitations were baked in from the get-go and we can’t ever improve.
MARCUS: Exactly. What a terrible world that would be, right?
JESSICA: Yeah. So then, you get the assumption that the really good senior developer somehow is cut out to be a manager, as opposed to having that potential with other factors like training.
MARCUS: Yeah and that’s why the movie, Office Space is so awesome. It’s because whoever has people skills, it gets thought of as being cut out for management, which isn’t at all, I think really a qualifier.
JAMEY: Do you think there are people that aren’t cut out for management? Or do you think that it’s valid for someone to say like, “I am not cut out for management,” which is like a different kind of limiting?
MARCUS: That’s a great question. I can say there are people who can say, “I choose not to be a manager. I choose not to do that work. I choose not to learn those skills. I choose to stay here and invest myself in this way and I choose it because I want to. I want to stay as an individual contributor.
Sarah Mei talks a lot about how women in tech are getting a lot of pressure to move up very quickly and she actually has told me, “I feel like more women should say, ‘I want to be an engineer. I don’t want to be a manager after just 18 months and I don’t think you should expect me to because of my gender.'”
JAMEY: That’s a great point.
JESSICA: I like how you phrased it as, “I choose to –” It’s not about what you’re choosing not. It’s about what you’re valuing instead.
MARCUS: That said Jamey, I’ll be honest. I think anybody can be a manager or a leader in the same way as I think anybody could learn to program computers. I think if you can bake a cake or fix a car which are skills that were very, very common much longer in the past, you can follow a recipe and program a computer. I think that it’s all about deciding that you want to invest there.
JESSICA: God, I wish that programming had the property of cake and of cooking in general, especially cooking rather than baking. If you change it a little bit, if you mess it up, if you do something differently than the recipe says, it’s still food. Your program will probably not still run.
JAMEY: When you’re saying that you wish it had the property of baking, I was waiting for you to be like, “There’s base goods at the end.”
JESSICA: And you can eat it. Maybe, it produces something greater than food.
MARCUS: Oh, very funny. I was just hoping you would send cake but evidently, that wasn’t the point. Jessica, let’s talk about that for a second. If you don’t follow the recipe exactly, you still have food, right? And if you whip on it and you decide to put in dark chocolate chips instead of regular chocolate chips or margarine, instead of butter, you still have an edible cake and you can make it to your liking. That actually feels a lot like code.
JESSICA: Yeah. Once you understand the ingredients, then you know which ones can swap out on the effect that that will have. But even when you’re just trying it, if you don’t have olive oil and you put in vegetable oil, it’ll taste a little different but still food. That’s my success criteria for cooking. Is it food? All right, success.
JAMEY: That’s a pretty low bar of success.
SAM: You’d be surprise, Jamey.
MARCUS: But if you swap salt for sugar, it still food —
JESSICA: Still food.
MARCUS: — But —
JESSICA: Sometimes it’s food for the raccoons that will eat it out of my backyard.
MARCUS: So it’s always food for someone or something?
JESSICA: It is possible to burn it so much that it’s not food and that is a complete failure.
MARCUS: But I think that what you said about baking and you get to know what ingredients to swap out, that means you understand the fundamental way that they interact and why they are used. Isn’t that exactly the same with code or management and leadership like there’s no one right way to do any of this.
JESSICA: And you’ll never get really good at it if you don’t sample it. You have to eat the chocolate chips and know what they taste like. You have to play or you’ll never get good at it. It will —
MARCUS: Which means you have to fail.
JESSICA: Yeah. If you only follow the recipes, you won’t become an expert.
SAM: Speaking of metaphors that we’re applying from one domain to another, one thing that I’ve heard some people say is that they’re interested in going into management because they want to be able to apply their architecture and their object-oriented programming skills at a higher level of people instead of with code. Does that even work?
MARCUS: Well, I think there’s two parts to that. On one hand, I could have heard that and thought, “They want to have a greater influence over the code structure over what is built or how it is built.” I like that. I like people who say, “I want to help my whole team improve and be better,” or maybe they’re saying, “I view people as functions to be arranged and stuff gets passed in and stuff gets passed out and I just want to think of them as an algorithm.” That, I don’t like as well. Which way did you think it was meant?
SAM: When I’ve heard this, it’s been more in the sense of somebody saying, “Well, really an organization is just like a program and so, I can apply those same analytic skills.”
JESSICA: Not every chocolate chip is the same.
MARCUS: I do think organizations are actually a lot more like — no one will like this who hears it — families than they are programs. The first organization you ever joined, you were born into, you learned about hierarchy, power dynamics, bosses, punishment, reward, the whole nine yards that you’re still carrying around with you when you were born. I think that’s actually a better metaphor. If someone imagines that their organization is rational, then they’re probably going to be pretty disappointed.
JESSICA: On the other hand, you can still apply rationality to the organization but you have to learn a completely different way of observing than in programs.
MARCUS: Putting in logs statements or you got to know where your console is, right?
JESSICA: Yeah, what your methods of visibility and influence.
SAM: I feel like the debugging metaphor is based on a faulty assumption that we have deterministic process and you cannot go back through the same thing twice than have to go the same way.
JESSICA: And that we have bugs, then again you are what you eat.
JAMEY: Wait, are we doing this now?
SAM: I guess, we’re doing this now.
MARCUS: I was wondering. Here we go.
JESSICA: Okay, okay, okay. But to make sense, you have to know that this episode is sponsored by Crickstart, real food made with crickets. It’s greater than food because it has cricket powder and plant-based ingredients and it’s organically farmed, free-range crickets which is a lot easier than like free-range cows because they’re way smaller and realistically, a free-range for cricket does not take an entire field. Sam, did you try it?
SAM: Yes. Crickstart, which I think is an amazing name by the way, sent us some samples and I actually really liked the cinnamon cardamom bar which happens to have 40 organic crickets inside it, which is a wonderful little factoid.
JAMEY: How many?
SAM: Forty organic crickets per bar.
MARCUS: What’s the FDA recommended allowance of crickets per day?
SAM: I think if you’re eating them on purpose, it’s as many as you want.
JESSICA: They have lots of calcium and iron and a balanced protein.
JAMEY: — Right?
JESSICA: Yeah and they have more potassium than a banana.
JAMEY: This is not the first time I’ve eaten crickets. Crickets are like a good part of the diet, I feel.
SAM: Yeah, obviously this is a commercial thing that we’re having fun with but I do want to add that I actually think eating crickets is going to be a really interesting and more sustainable way for us to get some of our staple protein, just because they use so much less land and water. They sent us factoids. It’s like 12 times less feed and 2000 times less water than beef for the equivalent protein.
JAMEY: I work in agriculture and we work with cricket farms and they’re really interesting and really sustainable. I totally agree with that.
JESSICA: And they don’t like taste like cricket, not that I know because I haven’t personally eaten a cricket yet, although I would. The cricket powder is all ground up and they totally taste like pumpkin seed butter and sunflower seed butter and the other things that are in them. Oh, I’m sorry. Organic pumpkin seed butter and organic sunflower seed butter, organic dates, organic ham, etcetera. Visit Crickstart.com and get 20% off with promo code: GREATERTHANCODE, all capital letters, all one word.
SAM: If you are legit crustaceans, you’re may be allergic to crickets. Your mileage may vary. Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt.
JESSICA: Speaking of professional drivers and closed courses, it does feel like when we’re promoted to management as a developer, we’re like thrown into this rat race without any training.
MARCUS: Not a closed course at all. Lots of people are endangered, lots of other drivers on the road. It’s a lot like working in public like being on stage and so, that I think is one of the reasons why it’s hard to talk about when it’s not going well. Everybody’s watching, everybody is looking at you and your moves are all magnified. It’s almost like you’re speaking through a megaphone. If you as the boss say, “I’m not sure I would have done it that way.” What does that really mean? How should we read into that? Should we be afraid the boss is mad? Or is he just giving an opinion? And so we have to really think about and learn to observe ourselves as you said earlier, Jessica.
JESSICA: Oh, yeah and as a developer, being the outspoken one who’s ready to present your opinion and make recommendations is a positive that gets you attention, that gets you promoted but still, you’re the manager. If you do that, it’s terrible because of that megaphone.
MARCUS: Yeah, a lot of the managers I worked with feel like they wish the team would not actually take them so seriously. As an individual contributor, they could give feedback on ideas and know that there was a healthy debate versus the idea that once they speak, the decision is made and it’s very frustrating to them. They don’t get a lot of new ideas, so they get stuck.
JAMEY: We have a core value at my company, “Alignment, not agreement,” and so the idea is that you’re supposed to feel like you can disagree and bring things and talk about concerns and everything talk openly and then, we have a discussion about it but then at the end of the discussion, we make a decision together and we all line behind that decision. I just think that it’s helpful for that feeling of like, “Oh, I don’t want to contradict my boss,” or whatever because it’s part what we do and only value, pointedly and consciously, if that makes sense.
MARCUS: Yeah, I think that’s great. This is the sort of phrase that a lot of companies throw out there — alignment not agreement. The interesting and hard part is how you live it out and I think it’s when disagreements come up and when misalignments appear and so, I’ll just ask you Jamey, what does your company do when that happens?
JAMEY: We’re small enough that we can just literally have a discussion with everybody who has an opinion about it. Our product team is like seven people at the entire company and so, we really value open discussion about concerns. It has come up in feedback too as like, “I really value that you disagreed with me and brought up your concerns about this.” It’s just pretty cool.
MARCUS: That is pretty cool.
JAMEY: But I think if you decide that you want to value something like that, that’s like a cool thing to do but then you have to actually value it and that sometime is the hard part.
MARCUS: I think it goes back also to this idea of if you’re working on stage and you’re uncomfortable in your role, which we all are and somebody disagrees with you for some reason, for me there was this voice in my head that wanted to kind of react in a strong way against not being right. I don’t want to really talk about this but that voice sounded an awful lot like my dad’s voice, to be frank, when I would disagree with him when I was young.
He would say, “No, you’re a little and I’m big and I’m right and you’re wrong,” and things like that. I found myself thinking that’s what respect look like. That’s what leadership looks like and that was really a wrong impression of it, that I kind of had to get over was the idea that I really did want other people to push on my opinions. Otherwise, I wasn’t actually very safe because I was just walking around blind thinking I was right with a bunch of people saying, “Sure, boss. That sounds like a great idea.” Just like driving at night without headlights.
JESSICA: When everything is watching you and jumping out of your way, you think you’re great at it.
MARCUS: You think you’re amazing. I was just talking yesterday with Rob who’s the CTO at CircleCI and he was saying, “We have a very safe organization. Safe for ideas, really lots of psychological safety,” and then he paused and he said, “Well, at least I think so.”
JESSICA: That’s really easy as CTO, to feel psychologically safe.
MARCUS: And that’s exactly what he said. He said, “Well, I’m at the top, so I have to recognize that I have to now put in place other mechanisms to find out if other people feel that way too.”
JESSICA: Yeah because when you’re a manager, there’s a super power that you lose. You lose the ability to see into the team because they won’t tell you the truth. They can’t because you’re just in a different position and the conversations are constrained.
MARCUS: Yeah, my junior high experience, unfortunately was not being with the cool kids. I was always felt very different. I hate to say it but when I became a manager and I lost the group of peers, my individual contributor friends and buddies and I was promoted from within and I was told, “You have to manage these people that you used to work alongside,” I felt so different. That’s right, they looked at me differently. I felt different and it was kind of horrible, frankly.
JESSICA: That free parking spot gets you into one group but is that the group you really want to be in?
MARCUS: And that is a hard question. Unfortunately, I don’t think it has to be this way. I think eventually, I learned to create rapport and trust and to work alongside my team but in many ways, I felt like I was in a different group and they felt like I was in a different group and that’s all that mattered the first year. It was really hard.
JAMEY: I have a question. We’ve talked a couple of times about being promoted up into management and this decision about like if that’s something you want to do or not. If someone is not sure that that’s what they want to do or not, how can they find out?
SAM: What’s a safe way to fail?
MARCUS: I think like a lot of things, why can’t we try? Why can’t we do an experiment? For example, when I did it, my boss gave me the opportunity — when he went to India for three months — he said, “Would you leave the team while I’m gone?” and I said, “I have no idea what that means.” He says, “Yes, you do. You’ve been watching me do it. You know all these people, you know the project, you know the clients. Do what you see me do for –” I guess was actually only for one month, “– for one month and see if you like it.” That was an experiment and it was pretty safe to fail because everybody already knew their jobs with a place that wasn’t going to just fall down. But I think this is actually an area that a lot of organizations can do better with and I am seeing —
JESSICA: Time box.
SAM: Time boxing? I see positions now coming up like feature leads, where someone is leading a very small initiative: a story, a feature and they’re getting an opportunity to use their team in new ways to lean on them as resources, to practice some delegation, to understand how to facilitate problem solving. I hope that organizations create ways that people can say, “I’d like to try this without having to buy a whole bunch of matching socks.”
JAMEY: This is kind of where I am right now in my career, to be honest which is kind of why this topic is really, really interesting to me. I kind of felt like I was one of these people that wasn’t cut out for management or whatever and I asked about that earlier because it was something that I put myself. I was like, “I don’t think I could do that. I think it would be too much for me. I think I’ll be overwhelming for me,” and now, I recently took on the role of hiring manager at my company, which isn’t like a real management role. I think it’s a little different but I am suddenly in this position where I’m making decisions and doing scheduling and delegation stuff that I didn’t used to do. It’s kind of really interesting because I really enjoy it and so, now I’m taking out like, “Maybe, I am good at this. Maybe I didn’t think about this the right way before,” and so, I’m still kind of percolating on it, I guess.
MARCUS: Did you get to wear that hat all the time? Is that a full time job or you –?
JAMEY: No, it’s in addition and it’s much less than a full time job, actually. It’s kind of just like a responsibility and I’m still pretty much mostly a full time contributor, which is a little bit hard but like I said, we’re a very small company.
MARCUS: Well, congratulations. I use the metaphor of a hat there just briefly. I do think that sometimes, if you think about a different kind of work or a different attitude, as a hat you can put on but it also means it’s a hat you can take off. Other people see the hat, you choose whether to put it on and how it fits and you can even choose what kind of hat it is but the reality is you’re always in control. Has that new role giving you any insight into individual contributor work? I’m just curious if you learned anything in your hiring manager work that you’ve been able to bring over into your individual contributor work, whether you see yourself or your team any differently, now that you’ve been exposed to some new things?
JAMEY: I think mainly, I realize that when you’re doing stuff that’s not code, it takes a long time. It takes longer than you expect. Especially if I started, I felt like I was wasting so much time with doing my recruiting responsibilities and my boss was like, “It’s not a waste of time because it’s very important and we need someone to do it and you’re doing it and I asked you to do it and it’s not a waste of time,” but it felt like a waste of time because it felt like it was taking so long to be like, “I don’t know, I sent some emails,” and so I’ve been kind of realizing the value on that for myself but also, when other people are doing stuff that isn’t code, I’m like, “Oh, I bet that’s going to take a long time.”
MARCUS: And a lot of times, when we’re doing that stuff, it doesn’t feel like real work either.
SAM: I want to jump back real quickly to something you were saying, Marcus about a management role being a hat that you can choose to put on and that you can choose to take off. I think that’s a really useful way of approaching a temporary or a trial role where you’re not sure if you’re going to want to continue with it or not. I think that can be a really healthy way to approach it, so that you are less intimidated by it.
At the same time, I also want to call out that what we were talking about earlier about how your relationship changes when you become a manager to the people that you are working with. The reason that that is because you have a lot of power over somebody’s life. You can fire them, you can take away their income, you can put them on shitty projects, all kinds of stuff that fundamentally changes the way that people interact with you. I do want to call those two things out as separate.
MARCUS: I’m glad you did because most people who move into these roles think, “I want part of it but I don’t want the whole thing,” and the part they don’t want is to be looked at as more powerful. They actually don’t want to be thought of as scary. They are like a 12-year old wielding a big heavy sword. It’s like sword in the stone. It’s really hard to pull out and then it’s awkward and they just haven’t developed the muscles and the nuance for it yet and so, they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid they’re going to hurt someone, maybe even themselves.
JESSICA: Oh, I have a suggestion on the ‘how to try it’ question. If you’re wondering if you would like to be a team lead, one thing you can do is go to Ruby for good where people form teams and they do some work for a charity. As a senior dev, you could be a team lead and as a junior dev, you can pair with people more senior and so, you can work in the next roll up because you’re doing it for free.
MARCUS: That’s wonderful. I suppose you might even be able to take some sort of leadership role in an open source project or other kinds of opportunities too. There are no shortage of needs around for people to practice leadership and management skills.
JESSICA: One thing that I keep noticing in this conversation is we use the word ‘boss.’ What does boss mean? There’s so much in there.
MARCUS: Well, what does boss mean to you, Jessica?
JESSICA: You’re not the boss of me. That’s my —
SAM: Stop bossing me around.
JAMEY: Oh, it’s going to be like, if something is cool and it’s totally boss.
MARCUS: Well, we’ve got two negative impressions of the word and one pretty tubular, awesome –
SAM: Bitchen, even.
MARCUS: That’s right.
JESSICA: You mentioned that power differential, that’s totally part of it. The boss is the person who has the power to affect your employment.
MARCUS: Yeah and you know, I just think that the truth is, is that everybody else is going to look at you as the boss, even if you refuse to own your boss-ness or however. As Sam said, people are going to look at you and Jessica said it too, differently because you are now different. You have a magic badge, a magic hat. You have something they don’t. It’s scary to them how are you going to use it.
I use the word boss sometimes because I think it’s the word most of us use when we’re talking about the person they ‘report to.’ Best I can tell, I have yet to find someone who really loves being managed but I have found that everyone wants to be led. I don’t know why this distinction is really important to me but I feel like we manage our money, our time, our portfolio, our apps, our code, our servers. We manage things —
JESSICA: And resources.
MARCUS: Yeah, but then we start managing people and people resent it. They hate being managed but they love being led, inspired, set free, empowered, all of that —
MARCUS: Right, aligned. Yeah. I think that it’s really too bad and this is where I think most engineering managers move is first you move into management and then hopefully, you actually transition into leadership. But there’s another odd thing that happens here and that is every one of you can imagine there is a person in your organization who you identify as a leader but not an appointed manager. Is that true?
MARCUS: Jamey, what does that person do different that you see, that you would call them a leader?
JAMEY: They take responsibility for more than just what they’re doing, like someone who is worried about me and what I’m doing, hopefully in a nice way like, “Jamey, I’m worried about you. How are you doing?” That person doesn’t have to be my manager. It can just be someone who cares about other people on the team but also steps up to take their responsibility and say something about it or do something about it.
MARCUS: Sam, I think you nodded as well.
SAM: Yes. On the team that I’m on, there’s one person who steps up to facilitate our weekly retrospectives and just makes things go a little bit more smoothly because they’re prompting people to speak in turn and bringing things up and this person also goes and takes some extra time to look through our backlog and groom things and bring them into our up-next queue. Those are things that are necessary to the functioning of the team and helpful and this person just sort of steps up and does them. I think that’s really cool.
JESSICA: So as a leader, you want to bring people into alignment for the goals of the system, for the work that you’re collectively trying to get done. You’re asking people to support the system but at the same time, you’re supporting those people to give them what they need with retro-facilitation, with aligning things up in the backlog. That’s helpful and with the checking in if there’s anything that they need, if something’s wrong. It’s like there’s a circle.
MARCUS: Yeah, it sounds to me like the people that you identify as leaders, both of you say, “They help us work better together. They help me work better. They check on other people. They care about other people. They help the system work.” I think Malcolm Gladwell talked a little bit about this in Outliers that there’s some people that are always kind of like connected and even though you can’t quite figure out what they’re doing, it’s magical and the projects they’re on, go better.
JESSICA: The generative.
MARCUS: Unfortunately, a lot of managers aren’t doing this. They are running between meetings, they are coding when they shouldn’t be and they’re basically just telling everyone what to do and hoping the team can figure things out and probably, also abusing Agile but we’ll talk about another day, though.
JESSICA: Sam, you wanted to talk about that up-down of the hierarchy.
SAM: Yes. I keep coming back in all of this conversation to this idea that I think comes from the book, Metaphors We Live By, which is that the idea is basically that when we talk about a hierarchical organization, we talk about it with a special metaphor of up and down, where up is the most powerful purpose person in the organization and then power and commands flow down from that person to other people further along the chain.
There’s no reason that we have to look at it this way. It’s just that everybody talks about it this way and we just sort of pick it up as part of the air we breathe. That said, I have heard some people talk about inverting that structure so that they think about the manager as being underneath the people that they work for and their job is to support those people and give them the resources that they need to get the actual work done, which is still using an up down metaphor, which may be not the best alternative because it’s still a single dimension that you’re looking at and people are complex and contain multitudes but it, at least acknowledges that metaphor and tries to consciously subvert it, which is cool.
MARCUS: Yes. Sam, did you notice that as you describe the leader at your organization, that you used an up-down phrase?
SAM: Did I really?
MARCUS: You said, they step up.
SAM: Awesome. Thank you. That’s great.
MARCUS: Right. You said, “They step up and do these things.” Even though it’s not their job, it’s sort of like they’re at level X. They went to level X plus one. They stepped up somehow and did those things. I just noticed that’s the way you described it.
JESSICA: That is the metaphor in our language.
MARCUS: I don’t know if I can speak to it if it has to be. It certainly is the metaphor that we learned while we’re in college, the organizational psychology, how businesses run, every org chart looks like a tree —
JESSICA: The org we are born into.
MARCUS: Yeah, exactly. There’s a wonderful book called ‘Humble Inquiry’ by Edwin Schein. Dr Schein is quite an old now but he’s writing a whole series of books on humility and leadership. He’s got Humble Inquiry, Humble Consulting and Humble Leadership. But in the Humble Inquiry book, he really teaches leaders how dependent they are on their teams and you have to use language that is very open and you have to be, in particular very curious, what’s happening on your team that you really need to know about, that your team may not be talking about because of power hierarchies, humiliation, risk of penalty.
He basically uses the analogy of a chief surgeon, an anesthesiologist, a nurse and a med tech in a surgery theater and he talks about how, if somebody sees something go wrong, if the patient starts bleeding from someplace unexpected, if you are a family member or the patient, wouldn’t you want anyone in the room to like raise their hand and say, “Wait, there’s blood coming out over here. Is that okay?” But in a lot of cultures, in a lot of professions, that’s not okay for the med tech to question the doctor and it’s not okay for the nurse to question the anesthesiologist. To question someone, it implies that they’re fallible and he basically talks about how ridiculous that is.
JESSICA: It’s deference, right? Deference is destructive.
MARCUS: Yeah, that’s a good phrase. We should just get t-shirts that say that. But you know, I want to go back to what somebody else said like if we invert the hierarchy, the reality is that the managers need the programmers, maybe more in these day and age and the programmers need the managers. The programmers can go find other jobs but the managers can’t be successful unless the programmers write code, work well together. You can’t force someone to do a quality job. You’ve got to inspire them. There is so much inverted need that it’s almost like this artificial construct that organizations put up that say, “The top is what’s more important than the bottom.” It’s just not true at all, though.
JAMEY: I have a question. We’ve talked a lot about the skills that a manager has and how anyone can learn them and you also talks a little bit about there’s not support for them to learn those skills, that someone may fail at their roles as a new manager. But what I’m curious is what kind of skills do you think those are and how does one go about learning them? This is kind of big question.
MARCUS: It’s kind of a big question but I think it’s a really important question. Most companies don’t have manager training programs. Many do, I’ll say that but when I joined the company in a traditional manufacturing company, there was a manager training program and it applied to everyone who ran glass lines and vinyl lines, all the way up to accounting managers and everything else. I think that’s because no one assumed that someone who could paint a house would be able to manage people who could paint a house. It was almost like a big jump from manual labor up to management but I feel like one of the reasons is when you’re technologically savvy and you’re a programmer, you have a degree, they figure how hard can it be. It’s like a little half-step into management. There are —
JESSICA: Well, as a manager of developers, you need to bring the engineering together with the organizational objectives and there’s this assumption that the engineering is the harder part of that to learn.
MARCUS: There is, so if you don’t know the engineering, like you can’t just take a regular old manager and have them manage programmers. That would never work. That’s the theory —
JESSICA: It doesn’t work. Maybe, we’ve learned this through observation, at least but then again, when we say regular old managers, we’re talking about a different kind of manager who maybe, isn’t quite used to the same power differential that you just talked about because that part — I love what you said about the manager, cannot be successful without these programmers who have this context: writing the code and working together and getting along and having a smooth dynamic within the team. Whereas, in the case of Sam mentioned Amazon warehouse workers, that’s not true. Not everybody has the power that we have in our extremely privileged knowledge work.
MARCUS: I’m not going to disagree with that. We have a job market, where all of us probably could land another job in 30 days and maybe, even make more money. That’s the reality. That’s a pretty good job market. On the other hand, all of those Amazon workers could walk out of the warehouse today and Amazon would suffer —
JESSICA: But it would take all of them.
JESSICA: — And the individual workers is replaced.
MARCUS: It can be easily replaced, probably by a robot if you’re an Amazon warehouse worker. But I want to go back to what Jamey asked and that is how do you acquire these skills. I have to be honest. I’m really glad we live in an age where more people are writing and speaking about technical management in engineering. Ten years ago, there was two books on the topic that I remember. Now, you go on Amazon, there’s 25 or 50 books on the topic and they’re really good, whether it’s Michael Lopp’s Leading Humans or… I’m sorry, I think it’s Managing Humans. I’m butchering the name now. Or Managing the Unmanageable by Ron Lichty or —
JESSICA: That’s odd.
MARCUS: There’s so many good books and there’s courses and there’s videos. I feel like we as an industry are now talking about engineering management and leadership more than we ever have, so that encourages me and it makes me think that there are a lot more resources for people who say, “I want to do this but I don’t want to have to invent everything and I don’t want to necessarily go it alone.”
Jamey, as you think about moving into a new role, what areas do you find yourself wishing you had support or training on?
JAMEY: It’s a great question. I guess, I don’t know, which is like such a bad answer but maybe it’s almost like, “I don’t know what I don’t know yet.”
MARCUS: How long have you been coding, Jamey?
JAMEY: How long have I been coding? Five or six years.
MARCUS: Okay, if we go back six years and somebody said, “What do you need to know to be a great coder?” would you have said some similar answer like, “I don’t even know what I don’t know.”
JAMEY: That’s also a great question. I think I would have been able to spout out something about like, “These are the languages I want to learn and I want to be better at this,” kind of thing.
JESSICA: But you have been, right?
JAMEY: I don’t know.
SAM: Would you have known why?
MARCUS: You kind of hit on that old… What do they call it? The Rumsfeld thing, like the known unknowns, the known knowns and you’ve got a bunch of unknown unknowns and this is a real problem with engineering management because we have to master this thing called management which nobody ever wanted to do when they were seven years old and we really want to move to leadership, which we see people doing around us even though they’re not appointed managers and yet, we actually want to be effective. We have to bring those two things together and try on a new hat. At the end of the day, I think it’s about getting some exposure, probably finding a mentor and maybe even starting to think about the categories of work that this job entails. It’s probably a lot different than you think it is. For example, when you first started coding, were you really excited about Git?
MARCUS: But how important is knowing Git well?
JAMEY: Totally, of course.
MARCUS: It’s super important. Well, there’s stuff about —
JESSICA: I love Git.
MARCUS: Well —
JESSICA: I’m totally excited about learning about Git but I’m weird.
JAMEY: I’m much more excited about it now but I don’t think six years ago me is excited about it.
MARCUS: Maybe that’s because you see how important it is and how bad it is when you get it wrong.
JAMEY: That’s what I’m always thinking when you ask the question about what do I think I would need support on too because sometimes when I’m doing hiring manager stuff — I’m doing these air quotes around it that listeners won’t be able to see — sometimes I feel like I’m doing a really good job and then I’m like, “Oh, this is so awesome,” and then sometimes, I feel like I’m doing a really bad job but when I feel like I’m doing a bad job, I’m like, “What am I doing wrong?” I don’t even know and I was like, “I don’t know what. I need to know about this to be better at it.”
MARCUS: Yeah and viewing yourself doing new work is really hard too. Observing yourself, getting any kind of feedback so that you can adjust or stop and sometimes, if you actually want to be better at something, find someone who will give you feedback about it.
JAMEY: It’s hard, though because taking feedback is so important but it can be hard because I think it can be like an emotional feeling to be like, “Oh, someone is saying I’m doing a bad job at this,” and it’s like, “Of course, I’m doing a bad job sometimes. I just started and I don’t totally know what I’m doing,” but it’s really hard to hear like, “I think you’re doing a bad job.”
MARCUS: Yeah, it is.
JAMEY: It makes you feel like, “Was it a mistake to do this at all?”
MARCUS: “Am I cut out for it?”
JESSICA: But I mean, bad job, that’s not a useful feedback.
JAMEY: Right but even though that’s not what someone says, sometimes you’re going to be like, you feel what they say.
JESSICA: That’s true. When you’re uncomfortable in your own role.
MARCUS: You know, communication is so hard and so interesting. Virginia Satir did a bunch of research. She was a family therapist in the 70s and 80s —
JESSICA: Oh, Rein is going to be so happy. He’s one of the other panelists who’s not here today but he always brings up Virginia Satir.
JAMEY: He brings up Virginia Satir almost —
SAM: Every time.
MARCUS: Okay, perfect. I feel like I’m home. I’m going to weep, like literally. She talks about the idea that when you get that communication, Jamey, when someone says, “You should adjust this way,” there’s many levels of communication that happens there and one of those is that you remember a time — a powerful time — in your past when someone else told you something and you actually remember how you felt about that situation. Oftentimes, our response is about a past situation, not about the current situation, which then is why when someone reacts in a big way to a little thing, it can be really confusing because they’re not actually reacting to me. They’re reacting to their father or their mother or a boss they had 10 years ago.
JESSICA: The org they were born into.
MARCUS: The org you were born into. Exactly.
SAM: What you’re saying is that everybody should go through therapy before becoming a manager?
MARCUS: Just the first part of that sentence is fine. I will tell you this, that based on my favorite leadership theory, the main thing, Jamey that you have to nail as a manager is only one thing. It’s really only one thing. One thing, that nothing impacts your team’s motivation and productivity more than your relationship with them. If you build a strong positive trust relationship with your team, they will be far more motivated and far happier and far less likely to leave than if you don’t. Everybody can build relationships. We’re all wired for that.
SAM: You know, that actually leads back to something I was thinking about at the top of the show when we were talking about that manager who had been promoted from coder and still trying to be a coder in their spare time. The person that I work for, that I was thinking of, one thing that I remember that they did really, really well as a manager was give me their full attention whenever we were talking. That made such a huge difference. It was almost kind of intimidatingly intense because this guy was really good at making sure you knew you had all of his attention and it was kind of like, “Oh, my God. What is happening now?” But it also meant that I felt really heard.
MARCUS: And what did it mean for you to feel really heard? What did that imply to you?
SAM: That I was worth listening to, that I was valued. This also, as it happened as I was at this job, my dad got a diagnosis of a really rare form of cancer and I had to take some time off and this guy, when he said, “You can take all the time off that you need to,” I felt that he really meant it, that he wanted me to do well as a person and wanted to support me through this hard time too.
MARCUS: Did you do good work for him?
SAM: Oh my, yes. Well, I tried to.
MARCUS: Yeah, you tried. You cared. You did your best. You know, almost universally, the people that I ask, “Who is your worst boss?” they can tell me. They know right off the top of their head and I say, “Did you do your best work of your life there?” They’re like, “No, I didn’t. I was checked out. I was resentful. I put whatever it was,” but then you invert that and you say, “Who is a boss that really cared about you? Who is your best boss?” and it’s very individual. They say, “Yeah, I loved it there. I absolutely thrived,” and so, there is a particular area of management and leadership research called ‘leader-member exchange theory’ that sociologists have come up with from the 70s and the idea goes back to what I told Jamey like the relationship with one’s manager is the lens through which the whole work experience is viewed. That’s it and other things do matter but nothing matters and impacts happiness and productivity quite as much.
JAMEY: That totally makes sense to me because even if there are other things that are problems at work but you feel like you have this person on your side, it’s much different.
MARCUS: Yeah. We can all go through a terrible storm together, right? One of the hard things though is and Sam, I think you mentioned this in chat is how do you span the power differential to get feedback on your work when you’re a manager? The best thing I found is you have to create that trust relationship individually with each person on your team and you have to ask for feedback. You have to tell them why you want it, like I wanted to improve. I don’t want to punish you. It’s not a trick and you have to ask for it privately and then the last thing is just be consistent.
If somebody asks you 10 times in a row at a weekly private meeting, “How can I do better? What can I do to support you? What could I have done differently in that situation? What do you think would have been new ideas that I could have tried with that client or whatever?” You do that consistently. People will start to think, “Maybe, she actually wants that. Maybe my boss actually wants to hear from me. Maybe it’s not just some weird psychological trick.” I think consistency and kind of being really insistent that, “I’m not perfect. I absolutely have to have feedback in order to do this job properly,” I think it’s an important position.
JESSICA: And then when you get a piece of feedback, especially a tiny one, your reaction to that is going to determine the rest of that relationship. Always say thank you first and then do something with it and then report back.
MARCUS: Yeah, absolutely. Receiving feedback is as tough as skill as giving feedback because that person has really taken a risk. If you don’t recognize it as taking a risk, you’re kind of missing it, I think. They took a risk to give you a gift and if you just say, “You know, I think though, Jessica you could have done this other thing better.” If they immediately turn it back or they say, “No, it was my boss’s call –”
JESSICA: Never going to get feedback again.
MARCUS: Exactly. You should enjoy that one piece of feedback because that’s all you’re going to get.
JESSICA: This works in a romantic relationships too, by the way of when your partner tells you that they don’t actually like it, when you don’t put a dryer sheet in the dryer. If you say, “Oh, thank you. I’ll try to remember more often,” then you’ll find out more of what they really think. But if you say, “Dryer sheets are stupid,” you’re not going to improve your relationship.
MARCUS: Or if you say, “Okay,” and do nothing, that sounds like agreement but it’s really just ignoring, right?
JESSICA: Yeah and people learn so quickly that you’re not going to care, that you don’t respond positively.
MARCUS: Imagine if you put a little sticker on the dryer that said, “Remember to put a dryer sheet in,” and your partner saw that, wouldn’t that, “Wow, they really took that to heart. Holy cow.” You might have stickers all over your house but there would be no sense of my feedback is being ignored.
JESSICA: Oh, that’s a good idea.
SAM: As someone with ADHD, I can wholly endorse the notion of putting sticky notes all over the house.
JESSICA: Because it would take time to notice that the rate of dryer sheet forgetting has gone down but when you deliberately took action to change your personal environment, such that you’re going to function better in the desired way for the system and that deliberate environmental change is immediately visible.
MARCUS: And then, maybe you put an Amazon Dash Button right next to the dryer so every time you got low, you could press it and that would be another visible part of the system that says, “I’ve now made it so easy to do this in a way that we both agree is better but I was, for one reason or another, struggling to do before, I’m going to just remove those obstacles of memory and getting around to it. Now, if you disagree, if you hate dryer sheet, if they make you itch, then you actually get to have an opportunity for a different kind of discussion, right?
JESSICA: Yes and then you’re having an information exchange, which is also constructive.
MARCUS: Right and now, you’re doing something that all leaders must do, you’re negotiating. You’re saying, “My side, your side, let’s have our side.”
JESSICA: Oh, yeah. It says, “That’s interesting. Thank you for that information. I have some information about this topic too. Let’s share that with each other.”
JAMEY: Alignment over agreement.
JESSICA: And in fact, if you say that and then decide you’re going to use dryer sheets or maybe switch brands of dryer sheets and then you take action on that, that’s even better when you demonstrate the alignment.
MARCUS: Now sometimes, when somebody says, “Why don’t you use a dryer sheet?” it goes back to what Jamey was saying like we get that feedback and it can almost feel like attacking, like you’re doing something wrong and so, we have to short circuit that reaction from when our parents said, “You have to put a dryer sheet and you’re just being lazy,” because that’s what it feels like and instead, because it’s very easy to go, “I don’t like dryer sheets and you must not like me because you must not itch all the time.” Well, that’s not true. You now need to give them more information and say, “Do you realize this is happening? And that’s why I made that decision so let’s talk about it.”
JESSICA: Yeah because we do that pattern match with things that other people have said to us before and then we get all those feelings, which goes back to what Sam said about the attention. Because when you’re really focusing with that attention in the present moment, you’ll do less of that pattern matching because it won’t be about you. It’ll be about the person in front of you and it’ll be about them right now.
SAM: Yeah and actually, this kind of goes into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which is that I have noticed that I have a lot easier time responding to requests of the form ‘I need this from you’ than I do requests of the form ‘why didn’t you do this?’ Because ‘why didn’t you do this’ enters my brain and it gets translated into ‘you’re a terrible person and you’re deficient in every way.’ Whereas, ‘I need this from you’ is ‘oh, here’s a thing I can do to support this person that I care about.’
My first step on having that realization was asking for feedback to be in that different form and that does put the burden on the asker, so maybe the next step I can take from there is translating those mentally in my head before it short circuits the pattern matching and just goes all into the fun, negative self-talk.
MARCUS: You need like an ETL layer that takes data in one form and you hit the nail on the head. The first thing is realizing, “I’m reacting to something that is not about the person in front of me. It is actually about something else,” and it is sparking within all these thoughts that make it really difficult for me to actually give you what you want and —
SAM: And all my attention is now on me again.
MARCUS: Right and so, yes, you could certainly and sort of level one of self-actualization. You might be able to say, “Could you please ask me in this form because I’m having trouble giving you what you need?” But of course, the next phase is to say, “I’ll be responsible,” and instead, maybe I’ll repeat back the question and say, “Are you asking me for this?”
JESSICA: “I hear you saying, I need X from you.”
MARCUS: Right. The reason being an important ‘why’ when I hear, “Why didn’t you do this?” I think about justifying my existence and my faults and all the ways I failed, so maybe you’re turning it into, like Jessica said, “I hear that you’re telling me you need access to the server. Is that correct?”
JESSICA: This is an amazing discussion, however, it’s time for reflections. Jamey, have you reflected?
JAMEY: I’ve been reflecting this whole time, actually but I’ll do it now, actively. I think the thing that I’m thinking about, particularly is this kind of dichotomy that Marcus brought up about management versus leadership, which I think is really interesting and really helpful. When he said that people don’t like being managed, that totally made sense to me but then I wasn’t sure what was going to be said next like instead of management and I was like, “I didn’t even know what word is going to be here,” and then it was like leadership and it felt so natural like that totally makes sense.
I think the idea that you can look at people that you know that are kind of stepping into that leadership role, whether they’re designated or not and be able to pick out and think about things that they’re doing that makes you feel they’re leading in a way that you do like, rather than micromanage. You used the word managing a lot we didn’t use the word micromanaging, which I feel like it was in my head the whole time, though but I think that’s an action item, to be able to identify people like that in your life or specifically, I’m going to do this in my life and I think about why I feel that way about them and then learn something from that, this idea that you can learn from people without even knowing that you’re doing it and that’s pretty cool and important, I think.
JESSICA: Cool. Sam, do you have a reflection?
SAM: I think I already did. I’m going to incorporate the conversation about ‘I need this from you’ versus ‘why didn’t you do this’ as my reflection.
JESSICA: I took a bunch of things from this conversation. This was super, super full of interesting point. I think I could make a talk out of this. I really liked the phrases, “The org you were born into,” and how we brought that around to when we react to something, it’s rarely about the thing we think we’re reacting to and it’s really about us and it’s really about our past experiences in our families and in that first place that we worked that is burned into our brain.
One of the things that’s put forth by ‘the org that we’re born into’ is the idea that promotion is the goal. I want to reference in the show notes a blog post by Will Larson who is my manager at Stripe and he’s amazing, about that career ladder is not the only direction for your career. I mean, [inaudible] your career according to your personal goals, not some ladder built by HR. We have alternatives.
Finally, I want to also return to that phrase that management is like being on stage and you could be uncomfortable in your own role. I think that applies to every role, not just management and I like that phrase a lot better than impostor syndrome because you don’t have to have the extreme of impostor syndrome to feel uncomfortable like Jamey said, you know that there’s some unknown unknowns which to be fair is better than not knowing that there’s unknown unknowns. If you think you’re great at this job and you were just cut out for it and you’re a natural, you’re wrong. Learn something.
SAM: Thank you, Dunning-Kruger syndrome.
JAMEY: I was actually also thinking about this because I was thinking about the word ‘boss,’ though and I think that there is a confidence thing about it. I made a joke about like an old saying but another slang that boss is like, “Oh, you’re so boss,” like you’re so in control, you’re so confident and that’s another kind of positive thing and you’re right about if you think you’re great and you’re not, that’s not ideal. But I think to some extent, there is like a confidence thing about it like, “I am managing people but I’m nervous about it. I’m scared of the sword that I’m wielding,” versus like, “I’m confident about this and we’re going to figure it out and we’re going to do it together and it’s going to be great.” I think that could be a little bit of that management versus leadership thing too.
JESSICA: That’s true. There’s confidence in your team that’s different from a confidence in a particular thing you’re doing right now but rather, confidence that we will figure out.
MARCUS: And I like the thought that we do leadership together, not just about me. It’s not about one person. It’s about us.
SAM: Marcus, as the guest, you get to your last with reflections. What stood out to you?
MARCUS: I’m thinking about how impactful it was, Sam that somebody listened to you. In a time that was really important, it actually reminded me of a manager that listen to me when his phone rang and literally, he didn’t pick it up and my title was junior programmer. I thought, “I better just go,” and he’s like, “No, it’s the VP. I’ll call him back.” That was shocking to have someone listen to me and I still remember it today.
Also, I’m thinking about Jamey’s Rumsfeld anxiety about, “What don’t I know? What is around the corner and how do I even get started on this work that’s so different?” It is so different from other kinds of work that we do and I just hope that in the next 10 years, fewer people will say, “How do I get started?” and it’s almost like we need a Rails framework for engineering management, where there’s just a whole lot of stuff already baked out and we know this works and it’s a great way to get started.
I’m just also noticing, I really picked up on Jessica’s obsession with systems thinking. She really likes that and the more we can think about ourselves participating from within a system, rather than being the one who dictates, we understand that we are influenced by the system and the systems influenced by us. It is very circular. Those are the things — Oh, the last thing was I love this idea that maybe as an industry, we can start to let people taste and see what it’s like to be in management and leadership without having to go get a tribal tattoo that says, “I’m a manager,” that’s honest for life.
JESSICA: Marcus, since this conversation was super useful, I’m sure some of our listeners will want to hear more from you. Where they can go?
MARCUS: Jessica, I hope so because that’s how I make my living. They can go to MarcusBlankenship.com and sign up for my free email list, where I will send them a deluge of management and leadership thoughts on a very regular basis. They can sign up, coming in January. We have another cohort of our introduction to engineering management called ‘Software Leader Seminar.’ It’s a 12-week virtual seminar that people can go through. We’ve got 100 students. We’re hoping to run through that one. We’re midway on the first one. It’s going very well and you know what? You can always write to me with your problems or your successes at Marcus@MarcusBlankenship.com. I’d love to hear from people.
JESSICA: And what’s your Twitter?
MARCUS: @JustZeroes, which only makes sense if you know the joke. Do you know the joke?
JESSICA: What’s the joke?
MARCUS: The joke is that an old programmer was talking to a young programmer and he was saying, “You know, in my day, we didn’t have ones and zeros. We just had zero.”
JAMEY: Marcus, this is really, really great. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
MARCUS: Thanks for having me.
JESSICA: Yeah, this was way better than cod.