Am I jealous of my team?

For the past two months or so I have been searching for something new to learn, but haven’t been able to make my mind up as to what area it should be in. Should I look at the new .NET Core? Swift? Should I maybe look at some design tools to make our products look better but quicker? Lots of things to learn, so little time I’m sure you will agree. However what troubled me most wasn’t that there was too much to choose from, it was the why did I want to learn something… as that was a question I didn’t really want to give anyone the answer to.

It all stemmed from a routine day at work when a colleague wanted some background information to a story they had been given. I heartily booted up an IDE and began plugging away to find the answer in the database. I knew where to go and hell, I probably knew the answer already but I had to make sure; except I had froze. It was like I had been given someones hands and brain other than mine for that specific task, one which previously I would have zipped through in moments. I busted my way through the cobwebs and managed to get the answer. Wiping sweat from my brow I leaned back in my chair and muttered “oh crap”.

It was at that moment four words battered around my brain as well as a feeling of nausea in my stomach; “I’m off the tools.”

Teams, the way they work together, the processes, conversations and the end product of all that human interaction fascinate me. My average week consists roughly of the following;

– 3-4 interviews – numerous 1-to-1 sessions with my direct reports as well as my own boss – analysis of the current direction as well as alignment of the department – meetings with users, stakeholders, executives and my teams

Not one single part of my day, week or year is regarded as time that I would sit down and build things. Should I be ok with that?

As a manager of an engineering team, I’m responsible for setting the tone and the direction of 40+ colleagues working in a number of different technologies such as C#, .NET, JavaScript, AngularJS, TypeScript, Objective C, Swift, Business Intelligence and SQL. Not to mention the conversations and strategy we have around product branding, UX and testing. Add to the mix the Agile transition and frameworks the teams are trying to work under, it’s quite a pot of knowledge that everyone is acquiring as they work on their respected toolset day in and day out. Nobody can expect one member of a team to be comfortable in all of those technologies, you just wouldn’t have enough hours in the day to learn it all. However as I searched PluralSight and Treehouse for a track to follow I began to ask myself a question; am I jealous of my team because on a daily basis they get to build things?

Unfortunately the answer was yes.

Becoming a manager can happen in a number of ways. The most common is the path of a successful individual contributor. One whom shows that they can handle everything thrown at them as part of their teams. They can communicate with their teams as well as representatives from outside the group, present themselves well to the larger business and so are fast tracked to collect more and more responsibility until they can’t take anymore. Now it must be assumed that taking on more responsibility as a manager means less time to build things. It’s simple math.

So when that balancing act becomes far more about the team and less technical ability, it may take a while to notice due to the hundreds of things on your to-do list app you have on your phone. You need to speak to Becky about her upcoming presentation to the MD. You need to make sure the next sprint has valuable work as the new Scrum Master is pretty new in the door and doesn’t know the different between a critical feature and a nice to have. You need to speak to Infrastructure because we’re now moving cloud providers and you need to make sure that everything is in place so you can move as quickly as you can.

You won’t notice your technical skills dropping. The conversations still happen with the team as you discuss features from a business level only to then delve into the more technical aspects around how the script that pulls the data is about to collapse as someone went trigger happy with UNIONS (SQL pun in there). You won’t notice until one day at work, when someone asks for your help, you boot up the IDE right in front of them and freeze.

Now up until this sentence this post has mostly been a negative, self pity rant… but it was only until I asked myself the question did I start to begin to focus on what I actually wanted to do and also reflect on what I have done since I came “off” of the tools;

– Lead a team expansion from around 15 to now 40+ – Moved the department forward into using Agile methodology where possible and where it helps the business and product – Helped shape and mould the future of the team, by hiring the very first Junior developers in the companies history (they aren’t Juniors anymore) – Lead the team to deliver one of it’s biggest oversees projects in the US – Will soon be part of the team which delivers the biggest software project the company has ever seen, as well as assist in defining the future of it

If I was still actively contributing to products, could I have done all of that? Definitely not.

Now I can’t speak for all my fellow managers when I say this, but I love building shit. Playing with something new, shiny and interesting is what sparks so many great ideas for the team to move forward, whether it be a product to help deliver management information or a brand new set of tooling to go along with web stack. Thats why I now give myself one night per week to go and learn something on the tools, even if I need to sacrifice a game of DOTA for it!

The rest of the my education needs to assist me and my team achieve it’s goals. It also needs to ready me for the plans I have in my own career with the things I want to do and the places I want to see. It’s about me becoming a better manager, leader and person while having 40+ colleagues look to me for the direction when the going gets tough. It’s about being the person they can trust to give them the objective, and allow them to do what they can do far better than I ever could; build it.

I once read an article about potential managers and the author stated that he would ask any upcoming manager one question to see if they were going to be good for the job.

“Your product has a problem and 30% of the users can’t get in. Everyone is going crazy and your the manager of the team. What do you do?”

There are two ways you can answer the question. If your first instinct is to take your laptop, find a quiet corner, knuckle down and eventually fix the problem to the delight of everyone in the team, then you are probably not going to make a very good leader. If however, instead of taking it on yourself, your first instinct is to help guide the team through the storm and finally onto a resolution which they take credit for, then you are off to a good start.

No two management gigs are the same. From speaking to former colleagues as well as fellow managers I understand that my role in the organisation and the team is far bigger than it was previously and it will change constantly as the team fluxes, people leave, people join and business direction changes. My role is to give my exceptionally clever team the environment in which to do all these things so that we can build amazing products which our colleagues and users want to use on a daily basis.

So if I forget to do a little bit of coding what’s the big deal… I’ll get there in the end. Just go and get yourself a coffee and when you come back I’ll have the answer.