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Changing Jobs, Changing Roles

Changing Jobs, Changing Roles

By Max Schubert, guest columnist

I was one of two technical leads on a software development team at my previous employer that grew from 2 engineers to 14 over the course of 6 years. We had a manager who gave us a lot of autonomy, coached me very well, and who excelled at being both social glue and guide for the team.

I contributed significantly to the code bases of large scale, highly visible projects. I led projects that failed and projects that succeeded. I was given leeway to do significant mentoring on my team and I was allowed to engage in other community-oriented activities like setting up monthly tech talks for our office, which had over 100 software and operations engineers. It was a great place to work.

Then – our manager left.

For the first time in my career, management seemed like a terrific next step. Why? I wanted to protect this great culture we had and help keep us a high performing, highly functional, highly collaborative team that worked hard and played hard.

A few months before our manager left, a recruiter for my current employer started conversations with me about this great local company looking for a software team architect / director.  I had not been interested when my manager was around, but with his departure and after much introspection and thought about taking this risk and discussions with the recruiter, a member of the board of directors at the new company, my wife, family, and friends about this change, I took the job.


Prep – I Need Mentors, Stat!

When I started as a developer in 1995, I thought I had to learn everything on my own as I was not intelligent enough nor experienced enough to have a mentor take interest in working with me (ironic, eh?). I decided with this current change I better ditch that old negative thinking and find at least one mentor / coach as this was a sink or swim opportunity and I wanted to succeed.

I asked 5 people whom I had either worked with or respected highly if they would be willing to coach me, including: my former manager, the person who hired me for my new job (a former CEO of a successful company and on the board of directors at my new employer), and several other leaders at my previous job. Out of the 5 people I asked, 2 agreed to mentor or coach me. Win!

During my first year at this position (I am now in my second year) I spoke regularly with the CEO and we developed a coaching relationship as well.

Mentors and coaches are a very important part of professional growth. It is tremendously beneficial to learn from people who have more experience and knowledge than I do and their advice, objectivity, and the experiences they share with me help me continue to learn how to lead. They were an invaluable part of my success throughout my first year.


Splatted into the Wall by the Force of the Fire Hose

First year at a new company and in a new role. First project – leading the development and release of a web-based SAAS project that absolutely had to be to market in 7 months. No pressure (har har).

Every day I handled new-to-me leadership challenges by attempting to copy what I thought my previous manager and co-tech lead (who is very socially savvy) would have done. Every day I felt like a huge fake. I started receiving compliments on how well I was doing by my 2nd or 3rd month. I would acknowledge the compliments but it felt like I was not doing anything other than running from meeting to meeting and making decisions that left some portion of the people who I led upset as I drove changes I felt were important for the team and project to succeed and thrive. I also did very little hands on work and that left me feeling very uncomfortable about my value.

I felt like I was attempting to steer an oil tanker in the water by swimming next to it and pushing it with my hands.


Woah there Tiger, Watch Those Teeth

I drove changes. Many changes. Very quickly. I was blunt, direct, and not graceful nor accommodating. After a few months of driving some pretty major changes in direction for team flow, project architecture, and practices, I received important feedback from a member of my team, someone I had very good rapport with and had been mentoring throughout my time at my new job.

The team understood the changes I was making, they appreciated the importance of them, but they were feeling like I was pushing too much too quickly and not allowing them to have enough of a say or buy-in as we moved forward. This person also said they felt like my behavior towards them and the team was decreasing their trust in me and their desire to connect with me as a mentor and leader.

I was very grateful for this feedback and also felt crushed – I had thought I was making important changes and keeping a solid rapport with everyone. I was wrong.


Important lessons learned:

  • Change is hard and I was pushing quickly and negatively impacting the community I was trying to build
  • I had a lot to learn about social leadership and community building while pushing for change
  • I was not creating an environment that was empowering or safe for this team of terrific people I was leading


Listen, Share, Experiment, Measure, Repeat

I took this feedback seriously. After all, my initial desire to move to management was to create  and maintain the same kind of high performing team I had been a part of at my previous job.

I spoke to my mentors, I started reading more books and articles on leadership (including Marcus’s series of articles for new tech managers), I took a much more self-reflective approach when interacting with the teams I led. I apologized to my colleague, I apologized to my teams, and I promised them and myself that I would improve my approach. I started soliciting feedback regularly after meetings or conversations on how i was doing. I worked on my brain to mouth filter – a lot.


A Team Blooms – What Is My Part in it?

I corrected my approach and started working on having the team own and drive more of the changes I thought were important. I worked more on explaining what direction I thought was important and let them own more of figuring out how to get there. Team performance was solid and became even better. People started to feel more comfortable suggesting changes they thought would help the team and our first public release of this new service; we voted on them and adopted many of them. We started to feel more like the community I wanted to lead.

The mentoring I was doing regularly with the team was paying off as well – 1 hour per week per person on my team. Our architecture and code quality were improving dramatically, the team commitment to quality was strong, and I could see the team taking ownership of the broader vision and goals of this first project.

What was my part in this? I helped grow individual and team capacity and community and I provided a focused vision for where we wanted to be at the end of the year. I coached the team on how a strong community behaves and acts – including using my own failures as lessons with the team. I mentored every person on the team to help them grow their skills and develop a vision of where to grow their abilities as a professional.


Hitting Our Groove

It was not until the end of the first quarter of this year (March 2016) in this position that I started to see our team hitting its groove. Our retrospectives are awesome. Every two weeks, we have open and direct discussions about what we are going to improve on during our next two weeks, we commit to change by creating a list of action items, and we track how we are doing on those action items through the iteration and then start the next retrospective by measuring how we did with our promises to improve. The team has a solid understanding of what sustainable pace means and what practices and behaviors help us meet that goal.

We communicate effectively and I can easily list what each person’s unique abilities and contributions are that help make us successful.

We help each other. Mentoring is not a special thing on the team, they “just do it” when someone asks for help or is working in an area new to them.

We deliver and we are learning how to deliver more with the same number of people while maintaining a sustainable pace by regularly reflecting on and improving our team processes and practices.

We can prove that we are improving with metrics – we can measurably show improvements and trends and also see when we have issues or risks to discuss.


Still Learning – What’s Next?

I am continuing to learn how to be an effective leader. This year my challenges are focused around “lifting up” – being more involved and connected with my peers – the director team at my company, learning more about managing up, learning how the business works and understanding the financial side of the business while maintaining and continuing to grow the culture and quality of the software development organization.

About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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