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Why being a manager is terrible...and wonderful

By Scott Williams · March 13, 2020
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If you told me 20 years ago that I would be a manager—and actually enjoy it—I would've called you a dirty liar. And yet, here I am.

I should back up a bit. My name is Scott, and I'm an Engineering Manager. I've been a manager of some form for a little over five years now, and at Zapier for the last year. I absolutely love it.

Which is hilarious to me, because management used to be the punishment for shoplifting in some countries. Somewhere along the way, despite my best intentions, it became my vision to become a great manager. Turns out it's terrible...and wonderful.

First off, the bad parts about being a manager

Let's start with the terrible.

Above anything else: you will spend more time managing and less time using the skills that got you to this point in your career. If you're an engineer, like I was, this means that professional coding time will decrease significantly and eventually go away altogether. I like to think that I'm still highly technical, but my code time is now constrained to hobby hours. At Zapier, we want our engineering managers to be "technically curious," which means keeping up on tech, trends, architecture and design patterns, and the like, but that's pretty much where it ends.

So what will you be doing instead? Managers are in meetings. All the meetings. One-on-ones, strategy sessions, interviews, partner calls, and meetings about how to schedule more meetings. One time I accidentally screen-shared my calendar on a team call. "Scott, your calendar is stressing me out," was my co-worker's response. You'll need solid time management skills to not drown in it all.

My calendar is...not empty

You'll also find that you have more responsibilities—and that means at some point you will fail. The necks of managers tend to be exceedingly long and very easy to wring. A big part of your job is decision-making, and you are going to get some of those decisions wrong.

I've sure screwed up. Just recently I gave my team incorrect instructions about self-evaluations. The good news is that it's not too often that failure is completely terminal: you apologize, learn from your mistake, try to make it right, and then move on.

The kicker is that the feedback loop is long. Really, really long. You might not know if you made the right decision for weeks, months, or years. You might not be able to iterate if that loop is long enough.

Lastly, performance management is hard. You're dealing with humans, and humans are gonna do things. It's up to you to concretely identify if a thing is bad, and, if it is, help your employees fix it. Hopefully the situation will improve. It might not. No matter how much care and effort you put into this part, it could still go sideways.

And it's harsh, but you can't avoid it: if you do this job long enough, you will have to fire someone. People may dislike you, perhaps intensely, because of the decisions you make, and you have to be ok with that.

While all of that can drain your soul, it's not all there is to being a manager.

The good parts about being a manager

Seeing your team succeed feels amazing. I've been fortunate to witness this in some small ways since getting to Zapier. Nudging someone in a direction, seeing it work, and then seeing them get plaudits for their success feels just as good to me as when the code finally starts working after hours of inscrutable errors.

You can have a direct and positive impact on a lot of different people. The obvious is to help your people get to the next level in their career. You can also be their advocate, stretch them just the right amount so that they grow, and even give the right kind of push to get them out of the nest at the right time.

Icon of a manager with lines to two employees

This kind of work lasts. Occasionally I get texts from people I used to manage asking for my thoughts or advice in a situation. It's like an icy cold balm on a scorching day, knowing that I made some kind of difference in their careers.

Aside from people, you're responsible for processes as well. Fixing a broken process is something that might not be immediately obvious, sure, but the repercussions are felt for a long time. It's a big win when something that used to be a raging trash fire no longer is.

You also have an outsized influence over the makeup and expansion of your team. The way you divvy up and assign work has a direct effect on all the stuff from above. Is someone on your team curious about something outside their purview? Give them a related task normally assigned to a senior employee and see how they do. Is someone struggling? Pair them with your all-star and see what happens. Is there something that's dragging productivity down? Talk to your co-workers, discuss it, map out a plan, and give it a shot.

It almost always won't be that easy, but you get my point. Management is a chance to shape people's careers for the better. That's inherently rewarding.

You have a tremendous amount of responsibility for your team, but you also have the leeway and room to figure out how to fulfill that mission. Ultimately, you solve things that are beyond code—or whatever your team's version of code is. It's challenging, because the rules are far looser and the ways to do that are not defined, but the impact can be huge.

Your actions matter, more than you realize

As a manager, you loom large in people's minds, whether you realize it or not. You need to know how to wield that power for good. The title "manager" means the things you do carry far more weight. And if you don't realize this, you can make a mess of things.

I've made offhand jokes in meetings before that had a much deeper impact than I could have imagined—I was tearing down people's confidence instead of building them up. And I didn't even realize it until someone gave me that feedback. Oof. The good part of this is that you can be a powerful advocate for people and use your title to allow them to reach new heights.

At Zapier, one of our core values is "empathy, no ego." This is important for everybody, but even more so for managers. Empathy creates psychological safety and yields honesty and openness. High performance teams are built on that.

When you become a manager, you become a bureaucracy filter, a scapegoat, and a hobbyist at your trade. You also become essential: the success or failure of a group depends on you. That always makes me clench up a bit, but it means having a tremendous opportunity for success. Use it.

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