How do I Acting Manager? Startup Edition
August 13, 2020 2:02 PM   Subscribe

My boss just quit to take another opportunity, and I’ve been tapped to lead my small team as an interim manager. I’ve been a lead developer before, but never an on-paper manager. How do I set myself up to take the best possible care of my people and grow into this? What do you wish you had known?

I’m in my mid-30s, and am a career software developer. In my last role I was the lead developer, but that was a largely ceremonial role considering I was also the only developer. I did spend a lot of time coordinating with other departments, though.

This time around, I’ve been part of this team for two years. I’m on good terms with my teammates and it’s going to be strange going from coworkers to direct reports, but I understand that’s how it is. I’ll be the most senior person who’s job is 100% software, reporting to someone who does other engineering but not code. Our code supports the whole business, though, so I’ll be coordinating with other people who either need to get us input, or use our software to get output. I figure my priorities are to facilitate my team in doing things that make my boss look good, and protect my team from as much noise as I can so they can do their thing.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were stepping into a role like this?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I love Lara Hogan's blog. She's such an inspiring tech manager, and I wish I had read her work when I first started working. Her advice on one on one's is something I'm adapted for our team.
posted by advicepig at 2:12 PM on August 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Remember: You do not to have do everyone's job for them. You know these people, you know their abilities.
posted by sandmanwv at 2:20 PM on August 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've been a manager for a little over a year. I have 1:1s every week.

I always start out with how has your week been so far, how are you doing? And let them drive that first conversation. You'll get a feel for if work things have gone shitty/well, if personal things have gone shitty/well, if they're feeling bored in their role, if they're overwhelmed. I don't try to lead any kind of narrative in the 1:1s. (The only reason a 1:1 would start differently is if there is big praise or something really negative has happened, in which case I either open with big praise or "look, I know this has been rough, let's address __ so we can get it out of the way.")

Then once that conversation reaches a pause, I pivot to actual work check ins, where are you at on your priorities from last week, here are some things I need you to focus on for next week. Then I directly ask if there's anywhere they feel stuck, or anything I can help with. If they ask for help I address & respond immediately and follow through.

If everything that needs to be discussed has been discussed, and there's still time in the scheduled call, I never end it early unless they've said that they're slammed. It's THEIR time, not mine. If there's a hole in the conversation, I might share the highlights of something stressful that I've been working on, and more often than not I've found that keeping that conversation open and casual has jogged their memory for something else work related that we can address. And if not, then we're at least chatting--which makes it easier and less panic inducing for them to have a conversation with me in the future, because we've built that rapport.

When I have my 1:1s with my manager, I make sure to dedicate at least a couple minutes to catching him up on the members of my team--their successes for sure, if I'm getting the sense that they're either engaged or listless, and if they've had pain points that I can't relieve on my own I will share those as well and ask for help.

I'm not, like, some genius amazing manager or anything, but I do have extremely successful relationships with the folks on my team and with my own manager, and 90% of that success comes down to two things: 1. not just open but active communication and 2. following through on what I say I'm going to do. I'm in HR and you would be shocked, SHOCKED at how many managers just refuse to do those two absolutely basic things. What are you even managing at that point.
posted by phunniemee at 2:41 PM on August 13, 2020 [12 favorites]

My experience:

a) I could be a lead developer or I could be a people manager. When I tried to do both I did neither well. My advice to 2010 me would be to choose one and only one and be vocal about rejecting the other one. So, what do YOU want to do, long term?

b) OTOH, my boss really liked having me be both the lead developer and the people manager. He got two expensive roles out of one semi-expensive person! Make sure that the company's long-term plan isn't "anonymous is going to fill both these roles indefinitely." Is the company starting to recruit for the missing manager role? If they're not, they may decide to just let you do double duty indefinitely.

c) You're taking on extra responsibilities. That should come with a raise or a promotion. It's great that you're thinking about taking care of your people, but take care of yourself as well.
posted by Sauce Trough at 2:50 PM on August 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

also, DO NOT skip scheduled 1-on-1s unless both you and the other 1 agree that there's no reason to meet. Nothing says "you don't matter" louder than casually blowing off 1x1s

except for maybe saying "you don't matter" directly to someone.
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:05 PM on August 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

You deserve an interim pay raise - you're doing them the favor, remember.
posted by Think_Long at 3:24 PM on August 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

The only things I was told during manager training (I was also temporarily filling in for someone else) was:

- do regular one-on-ones where the employee sets the agenda (so this isn't a status update) - monthly, or even weekly for more senior people
- praise good work
posted by meowzilla at 4:02 PM on August 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

How to be a good manager is a very broad topic, and there's a lot of great material available out there already. I'm particularly fond of and for management advice, and they have long histories of posts on specific topics you may find useful.

In terms of the "interim" part, I definitely echo what others have already said. It's going to be very difficult to do a good job of being a manager and a developer at the same time. These are both full time jobs, and you're going to risk serious burnout if you're filling both roles for very long. I suggest you use this opportunity to see how you feel about management as a career path going forward, decide which one you actually want to focus on full time, and then be very clear to your manager about that decision once you've made it.

Though having said that, this doesn't have to be a forever decision! I've moved between management and engineering roles a few times, and I know others who have, too. You can do both, you just can't can't do both well at the same time.
posted by djspinmonkey at 4:18 PM on August 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do those 1:1’s as recommended above.

Learn how to lightly disengage from the content of the work, such as code style or specific technical choices, and refocus up slightly to what your organization needs from your team and vice-verse. That might include predictability, keeping promises to other teams, or reducing uncertainty about product needs to make them buildable.

Buy Camille Fournier’s book on engineering management.
posted by migurski at 4:20 PM on August 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

- Protect the flow as much as you can. Choose one day a week for scheduling meetings with the team, and if you can, stack meetings to be at the beginning or end of the day. Preserving blocks of unbroken concentration is one of the best things you can do for your team

- Help them set regular goals and give them the bandwidth to learn new technologies.

- You might need to fight for detailed specs and requirements from the level above you. Don't let them cut corners.

- People are more likely to do things (especially make behavioral changes) if they come up with the answer themselves than if you just tell them to do it. Ownership really affects the quality of the change and you won't have to micromanage to get things done.

- Likewise, if you have a difficult conversation with someone where you're going to have to give critical feedback start by asking questions. Employees usually know where they're screwing up. Things go better if they tell you first; it saves face and is less likely to make them feel defensive.
posted by Alison at 6:55 PM on August 13, 2020

one more thing:

I’ll be the most senior person who’s job is 100% software

When you're a people manager your job is definitely not "100% software."

My experience as a manager and managee at several companies you've heard of is that the manager's work is like 5%-10% software focused, because there is recruiting, reporting, supervision, coaching, reviewing, planning, and more crap that needs to be done.
posted by Sauce Trough at 7:14 PM on August 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

What do you wish someone had told you when you were stepping into a role like this?

Get paid for it - you need to be paid more for taking this over, either with a temporary raise, extra stock grants, bonus, etc.

Your job duties need to be explicitly changed or you need a contractual "exceeds expectations" yearly review in exchange for taking on the extra work, because your development work is going to suffer.

Either have a timeline to get someone into the manager position (if you don't want to be manager) or ask to be made permanent manager (if that's what you want). You'd be surprised how slow some companies can be filling positions when they're busy burning out interim managers.

If you're not good at it and filling the position drags on, bail. There's no shame in being a good developer but a lousy manager. If they can't find a qualified replacement and you and your peers feel that you're not doing a good job, having a PM from outside your group step in is better than you burning out and destroying your working relationship with coworkers.

As far as what to actually do with your team, if you haven't read it, read (or reread) The Phoenix Project and think about how your team enables the company to succeed and what a manager needs to do to facilitate that.
posted by Candleman at 8:48 PM on August 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Be clear on why you’re doing this - do you want to be a manager some day? If so, cut with the interim bullshit and say you want team lead or manager in your title. If you don’t then yeah get a pay raise.

Welcome to politics.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:25 AM on August 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

You will make mistakes as a manager. Learn how to recover from them. Askamanager is ofrwn a good source of advice about how to do this for any specific problem.

Make sure you know what's going on with your team. Unless I have something specific to cover, I usually start 1-1s by asking how things are going, and then if that doesn't segue into work, asking what's on their list of things to do.

Remember that the things you talk about and ask about will be the things your team perceive as important to you, almost regardless of any other input.
posted by plonkee at 6:15 AM on August 14, 2020

also redux: I suggest that if your company is seeking to backfill the managerial role, ensure that your team gets to participate in interviews of their potential new boss.

This is one of the few things I got super right as a boss: my team intercepted a real bozo manager candidate once in our portion of the interview loop; the other interviewers on the loop were ready to hire the guy but we were like no way nope nosiree on this one.
posted by Sauce Trough at 6:17 PM on August 14, 2020

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