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Friday, March 23, 2012

A Managers Diary

Software engineering as a profession is fun. The role shift from a software engineer to a people manager in quite common place in Indian IT industry. Managing people brings forth its own set of challenges. For those with a MBA degree, the transition is relatively smooth. For others, the opportunity requires climbing the learning curve. I believe I’ve learned a thing or two from others experiences and my own experiences in managing people. I hope you find them useful.

1)  Be empathetic: You need to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to see things from their perspective, and have an idea of what you would do if you where them. One way is to listen to your engineers actively without talking, understanding their concerns or ask questions that allow them to tell you more about themselves instead of yes and no questions.

2) Communication - Lifeblood of a project: One of the major contributors to a project's success is communication within and outside the team. An average person is not a great communicator. In particular, a significant number of gifted software developers are introverts. Sometimes they have a lot going on inside, and little time to express it to others. As a manager you must overcome this obstacle by actively connecting with people, and helping them connect with each other. It takes effort to get communication going, and once the momentum is built up, things become much easire.

3) There’s always a right thing to do, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable: For instance, there are things at work that I would have done differently if I had been designing or coding a particular component. This doesn’t mean they would have turned out better or worse.

Last year, while I was busy on a project, my team was ready for another product release. The release bombed and we had to rollback. When I reconnected with my team to sync up on deployment architecture, they explained a number of deployment decisions they had made. My knee-jerk reaction to some of them was "this is not right". After thinking for a minute it was clear that they had done mostly the right things given their time constraints and resources.

Trusting people to do the right thing is hard, although it gets easier when your team is absolutely awesome. As a manager you have to let people do things that take you out of your comfort zone. That’s fine, because they must own their work.

The point I was trying to make is that a stitch in time saves nine. Don’t succumb to the temptation of doing the easy thing, because many times it will cost you in the short and long term.

4) Help others succeed: One of the most rewarding aspects of my job has been to see people grow and evolve. It feels great when you see someone who was a shy programmer fresh out of school become a great presenter who can design a system and explain it to others. Or when you can help someone get to the next level and share some of your experiences with them.

As a manager,  you have to continously challenge your team by giving them variety of problems and providing guidance. Let them evaluate the pros and cons and make an informed decision. Remember engineere have their own way of doing things. Often they will take shortcuts during development or make a quick fix and move on or simply reinvent the wheel. And such practices comes to haunt later when things do not work as expected in production or clients abolutely hate the application.

Yes, there will be some horrible mistakes and some stellar success. Helping engineers understand their mistakes, and guiding them in the right direction instead of being critical is one way to help them succeed.

It is something you have to genuinely want.

5) Be an umbrella: An important part of your job is to simply let people do their work. You report to people (your own boss, customers, shareholders) who want different things. In some cases they are contradictory, or change too often. Sometimes there are storms brewing in the upper atmosphere,  and which could be averted. There is no need to burden your team with constantly changing weather they can do nothing about. Shield your people. Let them stand under you umbrella.

6) Be firm but nice: You know that you have the authority to call the shots. That is a powerful weapon, and you must use it wisely and sparingly. It’s much better when you can motivate people to agree on what to do. It’s true that it doesn’t always happen, but that should be your goal.

With valuable inputs from my friends and colleagues. Please feel free to share your experiences.

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