How Many Days Away Are You?
Here is how a career as people manager typically plays out. You are an engineer and really good at what you do. You are an expert in a technology or a specific domain. Then you become the boss. Your main responsibility isn't to be the expert anymore. It's to manage and grow experts on your team. So as you help others become experts, you personally start losing that expertise that got you into your manager role in the first place. Is that a bad thing? Well, not really. Unless of course you would rather be an engineer and not an engineering manager. But that's a whole different topic on how you ended up in the wrong job. The great thing about becoming a manager is you can take your expertise and apply it to a much bigger scope with a lot larger impact because now instead of one person (you) doing all the work, you can have a team of people doing it. I see new leads and managers struggle with keeping their hands on the technical details when they are getting pushed to go broad and think about the big picture and long term. And it's not just when you go from individual engineer to a first level lead, but even when you go from one level of management to the next. So how does someone stay connected to the technology? Or a more appropriate question, how does a manager feel comfortable being detached from technology and the details as dictated by their new job responsibilities when managing people who are connected to those technology details?
If you aren't comfortable with your level of detachment from the details, it will affect many parts of your job. You shy away from asking questions because you think they are dumb or that others will think that you should know the answers already. You have difficulty asking others to do work in this technology area or setting direction because you are so reliant on the tech details that without having them clear in your head, you just can't move forward. You also shy away from daily tasks like tech screen interview candidates or other items that a manager should do but now you start deferring those tasks to the individuals on your team because you feel uncomfortable about your level of knowledge around technology. Does any of this sound familiar?
Here is the way I think about it. If I stepped out of my manager job and focused on a certain technology, how long would it take me to learn it? And I don't mean being an expert at it like I could be if being an engineer was my full-time job, but knowing it enough to do the basic job tasks I'm asking my individual engineers to do. So how long would it take? If I did this exercise in my head, some things may only take a matter of a few hours (of reading books or watching YouTube videos). Other technologies may take a few days of experimenting and coding. And some of the tougher concepts may take longer. But overall, in a reasonable amount of time, I think I could know enough about any one topic to feel comfortable. How about you? How many days away are you from knowing something well enough to feel comfortable with it?
Now that's a great exercise to do in your head, but as a manager you never have the time to sit down uninterrupted and learn something for multiple consecutive days. And the goal of the exercise isn't to go through learning the tech you are detached from. At the point you are doing that, you are basically back to where you are at as an individual engineer. The goal is to get beyond being that manager who is uncomfortable being detached from tech, but not finding the time to get connected. So don't worry about getting connected. Instead, find comfort in that you know that if you had to you could get connected in a matter of a few days. Then that impossible technology that raises your anxiety when you think about it instead becomes something you can ask questions about and set direction on because you know in a few days you could know a ton more about it.
I feel fortunate because I contribute a lot of my thinking about this to my time in the Visual C++ team. I used to write code. I used to be a software developer. And by working on a dev tool, I internalized the attitude that it's not about the programming language, but it's all about the logic. The language is just syntax, but the logic can make or break your software. I know how build systems work (from 10 years ago), I know how compilers work (from long ago as well), and I know that if I interview you by asking a coding question, you can write it in C++, C#, Java, or some other language, and I'll be able to follow along, evaluate you, and determine if the logic is correct (whether or not your syntax is). That's how a manager finds that balance between knowing enough about tech without needing to know everything. And I apply this to my work every day. My team is investigating using some of the newest, coolest tools available for software development. Do I know all the details? No. But how many days away from knowing all the details am I? Not that many. It's not my job to know the details, so instead I can ask critical questions and set direction with confidence. And I let the other individuals dive into the details in order to do the actual work.
So for all those technologies that would only take you hours to learn to a level of comfort for you as a manager, you are already where you need to be - you know everything you need to do your manager job. Go help your team move forward. For those technologies that may take you a day or week to learn, you can still lead your team and set direction, you just may need more input from others. But have confidence that you also can be where your individual engineers are as to the level of expertise they have. It's just days away...and not a priority for you. All tech can be learned in days, not years. Any additional detail that someone learns from years of experience in the technology is a depth a manager, and most engineers, won’t need to get to. If you are afraid that it would take years to learn the tech your team is using to do their jobs, maybe you are in the wrong manager role. On the flip-side, if you know all the details about the tech your team is using, you potentially could be a bit too much into the details and having a hard time letting go and being a manager with broader scope and a more strategic perspective. You may make a great individual engineer, but you may not be acting as a great manager.
Don't feel bad if you feel uncomfortable being less connected to tech as a manager. You are only a few days away from expertise, which means you are exactly where you need to be as an engineering manager. My final thought is challenge yourself. If you have the opportunity to do tech screenings or interviews, or present a technical demo, or make decisions on technology-focused issues, do it! Don't delegate this to others and don't shy away from it. It keeps you in the tech, and keeps you confident that you are only a few days away from expertise.