April 6, 2013

30b30#13: Learn how to be a better manager.

One of the things I wanted to actively work on was becoming a better manager, so that got a spot on my birthday bucket list. (Note: the big three-oh came and past, and there remains plenty of unfinished items I still want to do, and some I have no interest in anymore. A list update is imminent.)

I first became a manager of the security team I worked on at Google in September 2011. I was excited and terrified. That team is an amazing group of engineers (and people) and it was a privilege to move into a role where I could help lead the group. I also felt a huge pressure not to screw up so much that was already working.

There's no easy way to measure manager good-ness, and I never had an end state in mind, but I knew I wanted to do more than just wing it. After a year and a half, I don't know where I fit on the scale of Lumbergh to Management Sage, but I do feel "better" - more aware of aspects of management I struggle with and those that come easy, more knowledgeable and experienced, and most of all, more confident in doing this pointy haired thing. I ended up transferring to a new team a month ago, and am still digging the manager role, so I'm going to cross this one off the list.

Like many skills, improvement happens over a long period of time, and most often, from a lot of learning the hard way. I'd say that experience, missteps, and shared anecdotes from other managers were most helpful, but for any other newbie engineering managers, I also checked out these books:

High Output Management. This is an older one (published 1995), but it was a worthwhile read. Much of Google's management is based on the principles outlined here, and it provides a simple overview of the author's philosophy on compensation systems, meetings, performance reviews, and personal motivation.

Managing Humans. I gleam Rands' blog. His writing style is a bit stream of conscious, so it's less organized and edited than something you'd expect on management. For example, the book's first chapter is titled, "Don't be a Prick." I like this candid, honest style, but unfortunately, Managing Humans is not a lot more than a concatenation of his posts, which range in quality. I don't regret the read, but I don't think I got much out of this over just reading his blog.

Crucial Conversations. I quite liked this book, and I found its lessons relevant beyond just work or management. Having trouble in a relationship or with a family member or best friend or your landlord? Read this! It's a quick read and really helps break down common reasons communication breaks down when emotions and stakes are high, and how to go from a mindset of total resignation or anger to something more empathetic and constructive. Having just finished it and not had many opportunities to practice the lessons, it's hard to credit its effectiveness, but I enjoyed it.

Good to Great. This book quickly became a page turner. Not because it was captivating, but because I started skimming more and more aggressively, eventually just reading each chapter's grey box summaries. It's hard to take the content seriously given a few of the "Good to Great" case studies are failures today (e.g. Fannie May, Circuit City), but the book just reinforced common sense with some new jargon (e.g. Hedgehog concept, Washing your cottage cheese). It's been over 10 years since this was written, so maybe it was more revolutionary back then. Today, wouldn't recommend it.

Team Geek. I'm biased. I know both authors, and consider them manager mentors. I also know they have thick skin and could handle any criticism, but conveniently, I liked their book. It's a quick and entertaining read, and provides practical and frank advice about how to succeed as an engineer and be or deal with a manager in a software engineering company. In particular, "The Myth of the Genius Programmer," "Dealing with Poisonous People," and "The Art of Organizational Manipulation" should be required reading for software engineers starting their careers.

I don't consider myself a prolific reader in the first place, and certainly not for self-help or skill improvement books, so I've stopped seeking out books on management. Happy to hear any other personal recommendations others have though!

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