Being an engineering manager wasn’t for me
We also talk about:
- how he became an engineering manager
- what he liked about this role
- what he did not like about being an engineering manager
- and why he decided to move back to an individual contributor role.
Nicolas Dular, is a senior full-stack engineer at GitLab, about his experience of becoming an engineering manager.
Read the whole episode "Being an engineering manager wasn't for me" (Transcript)
[00:00:00] Michaela: Hello and welcome to the software engineering analog podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Michaela and today I have the pleasure to talk to Nicholas Dular, a senior software engineer at GitLab. But before I start, let me tell you a little bit about my latest project awesomecodereviews.com. Yeah. All my work on code reviews has now its own dedicated home at awesomecodeviews.com.
You find articles about code reviews, code reviews, best practices, code review, checklists news about the latest research on code reviews and of course workshops and courses I offer around this topic. So please hop over to awesomecodereviews.com and check out my latest work. But now back to Nicholas, Nicholas is a senior full stack engineer at GitLab.
Before joining GitLab, he was a senior software engineer at PSPkit. And today I want to talk with him about his experience, becoming an engineering manager. Like many, Nicholas was dreaming of advancing his career in this direction. But after one year he had to come clear with himself that , this role is not what you wanted to do long term.
so he changed back to an individual contributor role. I'm so excited to talk with him today about his experience. So Nicholas, welcome to this show. Great to have you here.
[00:01:15] Nicolas: Thank you. Hello and welcome Michaela. Thanks for having me really excited to talk to you today.
[00:01:17] Michaela: Yeah, I know. One year, so we are friends, right?
And one year ago you were telling me about this awesome role that you're now in that you're an engineering manager and I know that at the beginning it was a little bit like stress ,hectic. Obviously you had to, you know, learn new things. But now you're back. How did that all come about and what were you expecting of this role and why didn't it work out as you, as you actually planned?
[00:01:43] Nicolas: Yeah. I'm where, where to start. So last year in 2021 in May, I finally had the opportunity to become a manager. So I always told my manager, I want to step up be a manager. I like taking our responsibilities. Mm-hmm like taking over, like helping others and overviewing projects. So I thought that this is the logical step for me.
Right. Yeah, then now we are here again one year afterwards and I'm back at the actual position I started at GiLab and I what happens? So I, I had the opportunity to try, try it out first. This is one of the principles of GitLab. You can be an acting engineering manager. So I tried it out if I wanted I, after first three months, I said like, yeah, this actually is nice.
I do something different now after being a developer for 10 years. And then I thought let's go for being an interim engineering mentor where I can gain experience for the actual promotion. And so I did this as well. And yeah, after six months I thought like, yeah, I, I will go for the promotion and I got promoted.
It was amazing. But after like six, seven months, I, I then like realized, oh, this is maybe not what I, I wanted it after all. And yeah, that's that made the hard decision to actually step back. And everyone who is the manager says like, this is a completely different job. And when you are not a manager, want to become one, you think like, yeah, of course Amy, it's a manager, it's not an engineer, but what it actually means is it's a really different job.
And I think you need to try to self actually to experience that.
[00:03:22] Michaela: Yeah. So this sounds all really interesting because so you first. Say you want to try something out. So is everybody allowed to try something out? Like if I'm a junior engineer, can I try out to be a engineering manager or do I have to be already somewhat capable or like, yeah.
I don't know how to phrase it. I,
[00:03:41] Nicolas: I think you need to be a senior engineer. You might, I might be able also take trying it out as an intermediate. I'm not 100% sure though. So please don't quote me and we have an open handbook, so I'm sure that's in there. okay. Yeah, and otherwise you can try it out and go back and that's, that's the nice part.
So I wanted it, but I always wanted to be able to go back all the time and mm-hmm, being an acting interim manager gave me this opportunity to mm-hmm just go back if I want to,
[00:04:11] Michaela: .Yeah. I'm, I'm interested in this concept of, of trying something out, like how, oh yeah.
How is that communicated? Like if you are an engineer, a senior engineer and you want to be an engineering manager must there be a position that you can try it out? Yeah. Or not.
[00:04:25] Nicolas: Yeah. So for. For moving between different roles, like from an engineer to a designer, like this is harder to try it out.
Like you, you need to, you can't try it out. But management is something you can try out, especially in engineering function, you have to sew. There needs to be, of course the opportunity mm-hmm as a team grows, they need a new manager and, but maybe don't have one or like there's a reorg, you need to split teams.
Mm-hmm, something like that. And if you like talk with the manager, they can promote you to be an acting engineering manager for this time. It's also, I think, kept him to a specific date like three or six months mm-hmm . And after that, you can decide depending on the company, if there's a need for a management position.
Okay. As, as I stepped back to be an IC again fortunately one of my direct reports back then they stepped up step up and be an engineering manager, although they knew like they never want to become one. Okay. It's totally fine. But they wanted to have this experience and try it out. So it's perfect.
Perfect opportunity. Right.
[00:05:30] Michaela: So you're stepping back. They're looking, they don't have to immediately have one because another person. Act as an engineering manager, they can try it out. Or the baby is also talking here so they can try it out. And then when, while you're hiring, for example, internally or externally, and then you're stepping back when the other person is ready to. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. This is really interesting. So what happened in this time? Because first you had like this acting and you were thinking, it's fine.
You mm-hmm, went over to become an intermediate one and then even a full engineering manager. Yeah. And then you realized it's not what you want to do. How, how was this process? What were the task and why did you, you know, why did it change?
[00:06:21] Nicolas: Yeah, it In the beginning, there was so many things I had to learn.
So I was completely focusing on that. And after some time, like eight or nine months, like there's definitely enough things I could have learned, but I then was able to more focus on like, how am I as a manager? Like, what do I like about this job? I was able to. Step back once again and, and evaluate. And the first weeks were like super exciting and overwhelming.
And as I said, like, it's a different job. You jump between projects. You, you need to learn to delegate, be better communication. And what I noticed though, I'm like, one of this is one of the things, so. I'm more of an introvert. And I like, like, you can, I can sit on the screen for 10 hours and back one buck and fix it and I'm happy.
mm-hmm but as an, also as an engineer at GitLab, we maybe have like one to two hours of meetings per week. Which is amazing. It allows you like to have enough Aing time and like deeply focused. But as a manager, you mostly spent your time in meetings. So I had one of ones. I had eight direct reports.
So I was in meetings for 10 to 14 hours. And this sounds maybe in like, not many hours for other managers, but for me, it was a lot as an introvert. Mm-hmm so. This drained me, I was sometimes it was Wednesday and I was already drained for this whole week cause of, of these meetings. And so, that was definitely the one factor for me.
And another one is this emotional burden actually like I wouldn't, I burden is maybe the wrong word here, but it costs more emotional. Time for myself small things happen, like a direct report tells you something and you somehow have to this emotional part that you want to deal with, or you also have maybe interviewing someone and reject the candidate, like reject the candidate mm-hmm and this was hard for me.
And so it cost it ,cost me emotional energy all the day long. And I'm. I'm just not the right person for this. It seems. And one of the things I talked to another back then, interim manager. She, she's amazing. And so we talked with each other and she was telling me like, yeah, one-on-ones are the best things of my day.
And I get so energized by that. And I was there after my third day of one on ones and said, like, I can't anymore. I can't do this. Tell worrying me so much energy. Although I like talking with people and like all of them, it's just harder for me. So I saw, okay, maybe I'm not the right person for this job.
They are definitely the right person, but I'm not because I don't get energized by it. It costs me more energy than I get from it.
[00:09:02] Michaela: Yeah. I think it's really important to, to feel your own energy level. Right. Not being, you know, so. And taken away by what I'm supposed to do, or, you know, people are supposed to be get, you know, a manager role and, you know, it's an next step up in your career and yeah.
And then you're overlooking that you're actually not feeling really good about it. Right. I think this is really is a, it's probably a. A problem that a lot of people have or a mistake that a lot of people do, right. That they feel like, oh, this is so important. And you know, I have this nice title and, you know, shiny and maybe, I don't know, maybe more, more salary if you are a manager, right?
[00:09:43] Nicolas: Yeah, exactly. And I, after stepping back, I, I really noticed, I, I don't care too much about the title anymore. I mean, I also would say that at GitLab, the title is not, not so super important. Mm-hmm we, you can influence and change things, even though like you maybe an a junior or intermediate engineer, it doesn't really matter, like as long, like what the content matters a lot.
And so that, that was no advantage there in, in that sense. Mm-hmm and I then step back on those thinking, do I want to become a staff engineer? You know, and my answer was initially, well, If I get to it, maybe, but it's not what I need to have. I don't need staff title now. I'm just happy to work on something that I care about and that's it.
That, that's my goal, actually. It's not the title itself. So I learned this as well after, after stepping back. Yeah. Yeah. And I think it's
[00:10:39] Michaela: it. It's very natural. When I was at university, I also always dreamt of this, you know, career and going up the corporate ladder and all these titles and, you know, it, it, some, it seemed as something that we should strive for.
Like also the the marks that we get in school, right? You want the one, or, you know, an A in, in another country and so on, right. Another B and so on . And so it also seemed for me that this is important. And over the time I realized, actually it's not that important. Right. It's important if you are energized by what you're doing.
Yeah. If you feel good and then you're getting also better at it, right. Because if it's taking your energy, you can spend a lot of energy mm-hmm , but because you're not getting it back, you know, it's, it's not, you know, it's not self it's not sustainable. Let's put it that way. That's
[00:11:27] Nicolas: absolutely. I it's, it's mostly about energy management, not about time management or something.
And I, I then also was thinking, what is the actual career progression? So I already didn't enjoy, like being a manager too much. Like what would be the next step maybe? Senior senior manager or director. And I didn't see myself at all in this position. I like it's, it's even more stressed. I, I don't know how directors and any, everyone like even managers do it, like how they can deal with it.
I, as I said, like, I'm the wrong person for this job! Although like, I. At least to, to save myself a bit, like I got good feedback. People seem to like me as a manager and I hopefully did great work at least based on the feedback, but I also didn't enjoy it. And then as I saw also, you can do good work, but it doesn't matter really.
It, it matters like how you feel and yeah, so. Looking back at the engineering progression as a, as an IC. Okay. Maybe I could go to staff, maybe there's something above there, but I don't care too much on one side. But on the other side, if I would be able to go get there, it's fine. Like IC, this is still an individual contributor role.
It's a different job. So I saw like, okay, career progression wise, I educate to, to go this letter instead of.
[00:12:41] Michaela: Yeah. Yeah. And I think I, what you were saying about it, doesn't, it doesn't matter so much how good you are at what you're doing, but it's also important how you feel right. Mm-hmm I was working in a nursing home when I was still back in school during the, the summer break and.
I believe that I was really, really nice to the people and I did a really good job there. But it was just breaking me. I was sad every day. I, it was emotionally so draining. And I probably was one of the nicest nurses there. Right. Yeah. And, and maybe did the best job, but I couldn't, I, I wasn't able to do it.
And I always got. I always got sick, really, really sick, like high fever. So like the bunny telling me, you know, you can't go in there anymore. It's like, it's too depressing. And too. Yeah. And so, yeah, as you're saying, it doesn't mean that if you're not doing your manager job, that you are not good at it, it just means that it wasn't the right thing for you.
Yeah. In, in that time. And I think that it can maybe change also over time. If it's due to external factors, maybe, right. Maybe you're not right now, not in the right place to do something. Right. And it absolutely could be not only a manager or individual contributor role, but something else maybe. Right.
But you have to travel, right. Let's say traveling is part of your job then sometimes it could be that this is. The right thing for you to do. I enjoy traveling a lot. Mm-hmm , you know, couple of years back and right now, you know, I, at one point I was also sick of little bit of traveling, like being in these photo rooms alone and then there comes a new time and you think like now traveling could be, you know, something that I enjoy again.
[00:14:20] Nicolas: Absolutely. Yeah.
[00:14:21] Michaela: I also want to come back to something that you were talking about, and this is first, I was so occupied with learning, you know, this new skills and what I have to do. And so on. I think this is also extremely valuable that it's not from day one, that you know something, but you have to grow into that role.
And then you were saying, I took a step back. I think this is so important. Right. So how, how was that exactly for you?
[00:14:45] Nicolas: It, it took vacation to, to get to this step, actually. Yeah, in the, the beginning, I am so grateful for the team. I, I started in this team. I knew nothing about the geneology anything.
And I just observed, I asked them like I, in the first, and the second week I made a three pH long questionnaire for the team like, Hey, how is this actually working? And it was actually nice because this is the initial effect you have, you have no idea. And I'm, I like being naive. I like being asking these naive questions because I later, like half a year later saw, oh, my questions were leading to something where we maybe should work on.
Yeah. Mm-hmm . Yeah. So after half a year or something, and I took a longer break, like a two week vacation, and then I saw this immediate, like stress relief. And I was then like clearly seeing also with my partner. Okay. I'm feeling much, much better and happier now that I'm away, but from the stress and.
I maybe I should rethink, but at this point I was still thinking, but that's what I always wanted. Like last 10 years, I was always okay. I go for management at some point and breaking this mindset was, was tough for me. But I also saw it made me much more happier now and relieved after stepping back, and back then when I went for the promotion, I still saw.
I have this impact. Like I can help others. I can see them grow. I can help the team to be, to work better maybe, hopefully. And I saw like, okay, while I'm suffering somehow as, as I'm stressed, I also see like how much more impact that can have and how the nice parts of the roles are. And so I was still going for it because yeah, I liked it.
[00:16:27] Michaela: what I'm also interested in is how did the others, you know, feel about it? I can imagine, like, so what I understood is that it's not your team that you stepped up, right? Like it's your team and now you're becoming a manager. And so it's your direct colleagues that now you are a superior of sort of yeah.
But you went to another team, but still, how did you ex how. How did you experience that? Being a new manager, having to learn all of that and then, you know, interacting with the other people
[00:16:56] Nicolas: mm-hmm yeah, I, I made it clear from the beginning that I'm not the expert, I'm learning this role as I'm going.
So please give me feedback. And I had some people who gave me honest feedback, and I really appreciate that. And I'll also work with her product manager quite close, and she gave me like we had weekly one-on-ones she gave me feedback on what I should maybe do different because she has experience working with other managers.
So I was always pretty key. Like I'm learning. Please give me feedback. I'm sorry if I missed something I trust try to be better every day. This and I never felt being superior or anything that that was always for me, like I'm here to serve the team. Mm-hmm like, whatever we try to do, I will help you.
That was my. My perspective on how, how, like I see management, like you provide context, you help them, like you try to make everything more efficient. Like you help people when they are stuck. And yeah, that's, that's how I saw this role.
[00:17:51] Michaela: That's really nice framing. I liked it a lot. Did you feel that you have to be somehow evolve also, you know, from, from even higher up management to the team that you're shielding them a little bit from, you know, something that could distract them or, you know, from something that.
[00:18:07] Nicolas: I expected it that this is part of the mens shop mm-hmm and maybe it is I didn't perceive this as, at all team a lot. Like we had great product management who had a clear direction. And like, so it was totally clear what we want to do. There was nothing I could, I should defend the team on like that, that barely happened.
So. That was most nice to see, like as part of the culture, I guess then.
[00:18:34] Michaela: Yeah. Cool. So what about GitLab itself? Is there some training that you go through when you're doing that? Or, you know, you just read on the internet, some blogs about how management works and then you do your job or
[00:18:46] Nicolas: yeah. A mix actually in that case, because with everything, everything at get, everything is documented.
Like most of the things are documented. And when you are starting at GitLab, you have this huge onboarding issue where you go through all the tasks, you like create accounts, like you read up on how to work with GitLab. And it's pretty much the same as a manager. Like you have this huge onboarding issue where they provide you with resources, like maybe read this blog posts about like how to manage, maybe read this.
And I think after five or six months, we also had initiative to for new managers and actually existing managers as well, like to become a better manager. Like we have this had this group every week, we had one hour meeting of like, learning about like management and different traits for manager, like how you are as a manager, how you coach someone.
And we have had the small groups, we had resources. And so. There was a lot of support in that regard from a resource perspective. And like, I also had a meeting, a one-on-one with two managers every week who were in the same position going from acting to entering to actual manager. So we were talking about how they perceive the role right now.
And it's, it's so nice to you see other perspectives. Everyone has different issues that have to deal with. And so you see other. Management chops at, at get level. It's it's so nice to see you can exchange like, Hey, I had this issue. How did you deal with this? For example, I tried to communicate better to the team.
And then one of the other managers, managers told me like, yeah, he creates an issue every week to inform the team about all the updates they should know about. I was thinking, this is genius. So this is coming from another department and I implemented it in, in my team back then, and it helped the team so much.
They really appreciated it. So they were clear, like if they read this issue, they know everything they should know and all the context for this week. And this is like this small things that you pick up by talking to the others and. Gain more experience of this was, this was really nice. Yeah.
[00:20:46] Michaela: But so this is more crowd knowledge, right?
So that you have to pick up yourself and, and look around. I wonder if there is something like for engineering, very often organizations have some consistency, right? They say, oh, we use. GitLab. And we use a CI/CD pipeline and we use, you know, this Paul checker and this linter, and, and then somehow this becomes similar across the organization, not in every organization, obviously, but But, you know, even, you know, you go there and these are the steps and these are the processes that we are doing stuff.
Mm-hmm is that similar for managers? Is there something like that says, oh, you should have one, one on one with each of your reports.
[00:21:29] Nicolas: Oh yeah. For something as, as you can imagine with. With everything being documented, mostly at GitLab in the handbook, you find everything there, like how, how often you should have one on ones with your mentors, like how the one-on-ones should be structured.
What are the good questions you should ask? How you, then we have. Tools to like maybe have, have all the metrics for a team, then we have OK. Tooling of course, and like how to write OKRs and how to form them. And so yes, everything there is like very well defined and documented. Like there's.
But it helps you a lot as a new manager, I was not knowing like, what should I do? And there's like a clear guidance. Like, this is how we want you to work. Or like, it's more like a, this is how we think we should work. Of course you can change things. I barely use the format that we have, cuz I like the different format in the 101 document.
I, yeah, so you can of course speak things, but there's definitely a guideline for, for how to, how to perform things
[00:22:26] Michaela: Okay. Cool. So another question that I had for you, you were talking about eight direct reports and this is a lot, I mean, I hear of engineering managers in the first year and they have one direct report or like two direct reports. So it feels like understandably you're very drained with eight direct in, you know, like I would even say with eight direct.
Reports. This is like the max of a team mm-hmm size. Like then you should be the manager of a manager already or something like this. Was that there from the beginning, like this, or is that normal that you know, managers have so many direct reports.
[00:23:03] Nicolas: I, I would need to look up the numbers but. It's definitely on the higher end mm-hmm
And I also had to, to hire 2, 3, 3 engineers actually during my time. So people moved teams of course. And so you need to rehire and it's. I was thinking at beginning, like all our eight engineers immediately to, to manage on the other side. Let's pretend I would've had three or four engineers.
Mm-hmm this gives you unfortunately, exactly enough time. Like maybe three, four hours per week more where you're thinking, oh, maybe I should code. And this is definitely what you should not do as a manager, as a new one. I stopped coding immediately after I started. And. If I would've just had like three, four reports, even though it's overwhelming and you shouldn't have time to code you, maybe think you have mm-hmm
So I was actually happy with full blown, a full team already with eight engineers. I couldn't even think of coding. So this helped me like to be in the role completely at 100% immediately.
[00:24:04] Michaela: And did you miss it? The coding.
[00:24:06] Nicolas: Yes that that's. And I I've written this in my blog post, so one of our common friends, right.
I, I talked to him like 10 years ago and he asked me like, what do you want to do? And I said, yeah, I want to be a manager. And he just laugh at me and said like, nah, you, you like programming too much. You will, you realize that at some point. And it's so nice to create things. And yeah, he was right, Martin.
[00:24:26] Michaela: Exactly. Yeah. And, and I think you have to realize that at one point, I, for example, I really like things start things and then see that it's, it's becoming something, right. Like we can't touch it obviously. Right. But it feels like we can touch it. We can strive it probably right around, click it with the mouse or something.
And as a manager, I think it's more of a More of a task. It never ends. Right. So it's, it's, it's, you know, there's a problem. Then you solve it maybe half because it's not always solvable, you know, and going on and so on.
[00:25:01] Nicolas: Right. Exactly. And, and you need to be so careful to not get through details. So when you're at a meeting and there's a problem, As an engineer, you just jump on it, like, say this is the solution I think we have.
Yeah. And as an engineering manager, you hold yourself yourself back to the very end, let everyone talk and don't propose anything that could team lead to think like, oh, this is how we need to do it. Cuz you. Although, like, I didn't feel like I I'm in this manager position and I had the feeling like my word counts now much, much more.
And if I said like, say we should do it that way, maybe it's just an opinion, but stated as fact that we should do it. And yeah, as an engineer, it's easier. You just Talk, and you spin off ideas with others. And as a manager, you should be careful about doing this and this. And, and essentially you're not the one doing the work.
If I say, ah, just rec refactor the service, there could be so many edge cases. I, I will not think about because I'm not the one in the code and who knows everything about.
[00:26:01] Michaela: Yeah. And so how did you feel about people having problems and coming to you? Did they even come to you with their problems and telling you like this and that.
[00:26:11] Nicolas: Yeah. Absolutely. So I enjoyed this the most, every time, same someone came in 1 0 1 and said, I'm stuck on this. Or I'm I'm I'm yeah. Depend doesn't matter like how they are stuck, even if it's just personally with how they work mm-hmm or if it's a technical problem. I love being, there's this phrase of being a rubber duck.
I love this. I just ask questions because I'm so naive often to things. And so I ask right questions, questions, apparently. So this was the favorite part of my job, talking with the engineers through technical issues, seeing them grow and that this was absolutely the favorite part of my job.
[00:26:47] Michaela: Yeah. Yeah.
Okay. And where are some issues where you felt like. Absolutely overwhelming. You were talking a little bit about hiring and then making the decision not to hire somebody. Yeah. So what are other difficult decisions that you had experienced as a manager for situations?
[00:27:04] Nicolas: So, one thing this is part of our management training.
One of the first things was you are not their therapist. And people come with problems to you to tell you about problems. And I ideally I do this as well. Like I tell my manager, Hey, I'm not effective to speak in this case because it's so hot in Austria right now. But maybe about something personal I'm I'm struggling with and as a manager I do not recommend going into, into deaf hear.
Like, you should hear them, you should tell them like, Hey, I understand you. And it's totally okay, but I'm not the right person to, to talk through this. Right. We fortunately have services at, at GitLab that can help, like we have modern health, for example where you have coaching sessions and therapist sessions.
They came to provide it, or my immediate resolution was always please take time off. As we have unlimited PTO it's it was an easy solution to step back, step back, maybe. and yeah, this was definitely the, the, the emotional part that was hard on me. And as you mentioned, rejecting someone, a candidate, I was in the same position as they are when I interviewed at GitLab or other companies and I got rejected of course, and it feels so hard on, on one side and the other side's just.
No, I'm sorry. We will not go forward. Move forward with you. But on the other side, there's a, maybe a world that breaks up at some to some degree and yeah. This, this is tough for me.
[00:28:26] Michaela: Yeah. I can also imagine like if you're. Telling no to somebody from external. It's challenging, but I can also imagine that in your team, let's say somebody has a problem and they have a problem for longer time and you see that it's really impacting their work and mm-hmm, , it's impacting their work long term.
Then you probably also have to act. Right.
[00:28:45] Nicolas: That's, that's the thing that I didn't like about this job in the end. I have such a hard time when there's someone struggling and. You need to act, but when it's the right time, like right, you, you it's, and I never wanted to do this have to, to do this decision.
And yeah, that's, that's why I am fortunate to back again and not need to do this.
[00:29:10] Michaela: It must be so hard, right? Like, because. as, as you said, when is the right time? Now you say, oh, take one week off. And then, you know, you still see that the performance is not, you know, that good and absolutely are distracted.
And then at one point you have to do something, but what are you going to do? Yeah.
[00:29:27] Nicolas: Yeah, I see this with myself and like when I'm not feeling well and the tele manager case, of course, some point like after a few weeks, or maybe if it takes longer and I'm not productive because of some personal issue, I, it must be so hard for them.
Like how do they evaluate me then? Like, Just, and it doesn't look good on like what I'm producing, like how do, when do they make the cut and that's, that's a tough thing. And that's why, what I never want to, to decide on. Yeah.
[00:29:55] Michaela: Yeah. So I have a, a tricky question for you now that you have seen both sides, right?
Mm-hmm should we be honest about struggling or should we hide? Because there's like, you could go and say, oh, I'm really struggling. You know, maybe I have headaches still from, let's say COVID or something. Mm-hmm do you still have this headache? Right. And should you, should you tell it, or, you know, I, I think like after three weeks I would be very resistant to still say I'm still having headaches.
Like there comes this point where you think, should I, should I still say it?
[00:30:26] Nicolas: I maybe I'm to influence like how I mean gets, get has this transparency value mm-hmm that is very deep in our culture and in our values, actually. So I'm also on the team. Be honest all the time. And in this case always be honest with your manager.
And this is a lesson that I also learned. So. Your manager doesn't know every, everything like they can't mind to read you. Yeah. And so they need to know. And when I tell 'em, Hey, I'm struggling a bit with some personal issues, it will resolve in a few weeks or, or whatever. They know like when, for example, look at data and see, oh, someone is not delivering or someone is not performing, you know?
Oh, there has a reason to this. It's. You need to figure out is it will or skill and mm-hmm if it's actually will and skill still there, but it's just impossible right now. You, you can understand it. And yeah, it's so much more important to, to just tell them like, Hey, that's going up. I know about it. Because otherwise how, as a manager, let's see, you see a decrease in decrease in performance.
Mm-hmm , it's also a half conversation to do, right? Yeah. So. if you come up with, Hey, you're not performing well after two months you you're telling someone and then you have this maybe even awkward conversation where someone tells you, well, I'm not doing well and feeling well. And it would've been much, much better to know upfront.
Yeah. And I was super lucky. So I had the feeling, I had the safe space with all my direct reports and they were able to tell me everything. And this was invaluable.
[00:31:56] Michaela: Yeah. So. One thing I, that comes to my mind when, when we are talking about this is also evaluating other people. Right. I feel that mm-hmm , this is not always easy, especially if we are talking about large numbers.
Right. So when I was working with PhDs, for example, at Microsoft, and we had this very close one on one relationship, right. I didn't have like more than two PhDs to mm-hmm , you know, to supervise and to work with, then it was extremely easy to say, well, you know, this is the performance of the person and it wasn't even like an abstract.
It was, we were working together. Right. Mm-hmm . And so there wasn't really an evaluation. It was more like you know, maybe there's some, you know, skills that they could improve or you help them a little bit in this direct, or, but on the other hand, when I was teaching at university, we have a class of, let's say, 50.
It's so difficult to even, you know, you know, there are a couple of people, again, I think that this is human mind, right? So let's say again, 5, 8, 10 people that you know, and then you, you feel, you are very confident about knowing their skills and you know, where they are. and then there are these 40 others that, you know, I felt like it's an educated guess and you really had to have some well, some instruments like tests mm-hmm to, to judge, you know, their skills or their bills and so on.
So how was that for you with these eight direct reports? I think eight is, you know, large enough that it's already hard maybe to evaluate and to think, you know, am I correct here with my assessment or,
[00:33:27] Nicolas: yeah, I think eight's still possible. But. With eight people it's still possible. But what I noticed though is when I was in IC, I thought, oh, every merge request I'm, I'm working on like my manager will look over that or every issue mm-hmm
And after one week in the role I noticed like, it's absolutely not possible to, to do this. I glimpsed at a few merge requests sometimes, especially when we talked about some, someone being blocked, but the sense here. A manager doesn't like, he's they see outcomes. Mm-hmm but not like daily work. And this makes it actually hard.
Like for example, there's an engineer, senior engineer, very great at what they're doing. And the output is rather maybe low as on a metric level. Like maybe not enough code that gets shipped, but they are helping everyone, the team and make everyone the team better. This is where it strikes with like metrics and you don't see this initially, like, yeah, I didn't see that they have had a call the whole afternoon with someone else and helping them mm-hmm so that's sometimes quite good.
And to do also tell your manager, like, Hey, you had this call, like, and you help someone. Cause its Hard to notice otherwise. And so this helped, but otherwise I, I say, I agree. It's it's, it comes to a degree of eight people that you don't see everything it's harder to evaluate everyone. Yeah.
[00:34:50] Michaela: YEah. And I think, and also some people are better at promoting themselves.
Right. Let's saying, oh, you know, I have this person and I did actually this and I shipped over there and look at this wonderful call I made mm-hmm and another person maybe did even more. But they don't. So for example, for me in an organization, it's always really hard. Like I forget about, you know, writing an email saying, oh, you know, this wonderful thing that I did over here.
Mm-hmm I'm, I'm just doing it. And so I feel that as a manager, this must be also really hard to feel like you're fairly evaluating everybody on the team and so on.
[00:35:23] Nicolas: I mean, that's where at least the peer reviews come in, so we have peer reviews and. You get the 360 feedback from others. And when you then read these feedbacks, you at least notice like, oh, someone telling the other engineer, Hey, thanks for helping me so often.
And then you see this, so 360 feedbacks are very valuable for this case. Yeah.
[00:35:42] Michaela: Yeah. You like them as a manager, you like them, did you like? Yeah, I like them. As an engineer, as an individual contributor, you like them
[00:35:49] Nicolas: an individual contributor. I had a harder time to evaluate my peers. Mm-hmm that?
That's the issue. So you want to be nice to someone, but you also want to help them to grow. So there's a trade off and I think they're anonymous. They're definitely anonymous at GitLab. So , I think you only know who evaluated you evaluated you as a manager, but not who is appeared that who evaluate evaluated you mm-hmm yeah, at least at least there's that.
[00:36:16] Michaela: So I think. What we can sum up here is that it's actually a great experience being a engineering manager for some time, because probably now look at things in a much more different way. You understand, you know, the, the problems that engineering managers have. You can also understand how you can help them, maybe see your potential or you know, what you're doing, your impact and also maybe.
Have a better understanding of KPIs that I, I don't think that a lot of engineers like them, or, you know, this, this reviews that we have, that you understand why this instrument is actually valuable for a person that sits in a quite different role and has quite different tasks. Right.
[00:36:57] Nicolas: Absolutely. I, I now have a much, much better feeling what an engineering venture does and like what they do and how it impacts me.
So when we talk about KPIs, I know these are not here to blame me or when I need to do status, I plates on something. It's not about me telling like, oh, I'm late on, on something. Or I didn't deliver in time. It's about just knowing and there's barely any emotional part of on, on this. this helped me a lot.
I, I, I'm such a better communicator now. Because I just tell like, Hey, that's just the state. That's the status? I believe it will be shipped next. Everyone was happy and super happy with that. And I was always feeling, oh no, I let them down because it's not ready today. I, I will delay my status update until it's ready.
And this doesn't never the good, the best decision, because it's much, much better to have transparency and more information. So yeah, it, I love this pendulum, like the swing. There's a good blog post about this pendulum of going from IC to manager and back, and maybe even dementia again. Because you see this different context and learn so much.
[00:38:03] Michaela: Is that from charity you major? I think right from honey pot.
[00:38:06] Nicolas: I'm need to check up we this yeah.
[00:38:09] Michaela: Cool.
Cool. So thank you so much, Nicholas, for sharing everything. I found it super interesting and inspiring. And yeah, I will link the blog post that we talked about your blog post that you wrote about this experience as well.
And everything else that's important in the show notes.
[00:38:26] Nicolas: Yeah, thank thank you a lot, Michaela. It was exciting to be here. Thanks for having me. Yeah, it was my pleasure. Appreciate it. Okay.
[00:38:32] Michaela: Thank you. Have a good day. Bye-bye
[00:38:34] Nicolas: thank you. Goodbye.
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