Michele Titolo | Blog | Speaking

Lessons from Managing for the Summer Part 2

Between June and September, I managed my team while my manager was on parental leave. The summer was mostly quiet, until a reorg happened in August. Three weeks before my manager was schedule to return, another org was folded into ours. For my team, this meant getting one new engineer, additional responsibilities, and an additional headcount. This abruptly changed the pace of my work, which in turn led to some additional lessons.

This is the second blog post about my lessons learned. My first post dealt with leadership and management skills that could be developed without being a manager. This set of lessons took more time to come up with, partially because work was quite busy after my manger returned, and partially because I just needed the time to reflect. The result is more management-focused lessons, hopefully shedding some light on what it’s like for those who want to try it one day.

Lesson 4: Give yourself breathing room

The last 3 weeks of managing my team were drastically different from the first 9. In the quiet initial 9 weeks I would find myself with down time more frequently than when I was an IC. This is to be expected — as there’s always more bugs to fix and features to build than the team has time for. But there isn’t any sort of “manager backlog” I could turn to during slow times to figure out what I should do with the odd 30 minutes to 1 hour blocks between meetings. At one point I made a short list to check to make sure I wasn’t forgetting something:

  1. Is my team currently set up for success? Do they need anything from me?
  2. Is anyone outside my team waiting on something from me or my team?
  3. Do I have an idea of what the team should work on next? Does the team?
  4. Is there something I or my team should be paying attention to, but aren’t?
  5. Is there something I could be doing for my own professional development?

If I answered “yes” to any of these, I’d work on them. In the weeks leading up to the reorg, I found myself spending more time on professional development, #5, than I expected. This was a good thing, because the things I was doing for myself weren’t particularly time sensitive, and therefore easy to drop. Even with all of that, I still had breathing room and downtime, which was admittedly needed. Right after the news about the reorg, that all changed, and I didn’t really get any more breathing room until mid-November, even though my manager came back on August 31st. There’s always been a cycle between busy and slow times, but I didn’t feel the difference as acutely until I was a manager.

Lesson 5: Plan transitions

There were 4 transitions over the course of my summer as a manger: me ramping up, then down, as the manager of the team, transitioning a new engineer on to the team, and adding new responsibilities to the team. As I mentioned in my previous post, me ramping up as my team’s manager was uneventful. The other transitions were much harder, because they were all related.

My skip-level manager and I did our best to phase the transitions — even though they were happening all at the same time. There was a set date for my manager to return and the new engineer started on my team the day after that. My skip-level and I agreed that figuring out the boundaries and nuances of my team’s new responsibilities should be taken on by my manager when he got back. This framing was key, because some of the work the new engineer was doing before joining our team, and therefore we needed to account for in his transition to the team, overlapped with my team’s new responsibilities. Since I knew that would be tackled by my manager when he got back, I was able to put those items aside and focus on more immediately actionable parts of the engineer’s transition and my manager’s return. Any sort of planning is about saying “No” or “Later” as much as it’s about saying “Yes.”

Transitioning the rest of the managerial responsibilities back to my manager had a longer tail than when I picked them up. I sent a “Read this first” email the Friday before my manager came back that included links to the relevant reorg emails, links to announcements of work we’d shipped, docs we’d worked on for the new engineer’s transition, and in-progress docs about our team’s new responsibilities. The first week my manager was back I was still mostly running things so he could catch up. The next week he mostly ran things, but we were in constant communication. I’d say the 3rd week is when I was really able to step back from the management work I’d taken on over the summer, just in time to start annual planning.

I’m on what some call a central cloud team. We don’t own everything with the word cloud in it but we are the central point of coordination and planning for large cloud efforts. This means annual planning is a lot of work, which I stepped up to help with as my manager didn’t have the bandwidth at the beginning of planning season. There was one other thing I’d started over the summer that didn’t make sense to hand off, so between annual planning and that I was doing some manager work until December. This wasn’t ideal or what we had originally planned, but it spread work out so no one was overwhelmed, and everything was able to be completed in its necessary time frame. The tradeoff was worth it in my mind.

Lesson 6: Become a technically proficient manager first

The 3 months I spent being a manager confirmed that I have the skills to be a technically proficient manager. I take the term from an article by Nickolas Means on the LeadDev blog — where Means compares being technically proficient to being a singer who hits all the right notes, but doesn’t necessarily have that extra something to set them apart. Not having that extra something for a short period of time is okay; in the long run it’s not. This is why I still think taking over for a manager on parental leave is a great way to evaluate if you have the skills to be a manager. Since it’s framed as temporary, no one expects you to be the greatest manager ever.

Being a manager during an important reorg reinforced my belief that those technically proficient skills need to be ready and sharp. When you’re a manager, getting a bunch of new responsibilities added to your plate doesn’t mean you can stop doing all the things that keep your team going. Being able to keep the chaos around your team from negatively impacting your team relies upon these foundational skills. Developing extra things that set great managers apart from proficient ones is important, but I wouldn’t recommend focusing on the extras until you are confident that you are proficient.

Recovering and Reflecting

My first set of lessons focused on foundational leadership skills that can really set anyone up for success. This set focuses more on lessons specific to management. Great managers, I think, apply all these lessons. The hardest one for me was giving myself breathing room, as I tend to take on a lot and this fall I had to cut things from my work in progress list two different times. As of writing, I’m on day 5 of a (hopefully) 2 week vacation, which apparently was necessary to write this post.

My experience over the summer hasn’t changed any of my current career goals. It was useful to confirm that I have been developing skills that will translate well to being a manager sometime in the future. For now I’m going to continue working on and leading projects as an engineer.

© 2021 Michele Titolo