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Lessons Learned on the Path to Managing with Amy Phillips and Aaron Randall

Episode 15

In this episode, we’re talking to Amy Phillips and Aaron Randall (CTO of Songkick)  about the path from programmer to manager. How did they get there, what did they learn, and what can you learn from their experiences?



Show Notes

  • What lessons were learned in the early phases of their careers?
  • How do you change when the industry changes?
  • The importance of having difficult conversations
  • You can’t know all the answers
  • Finding balance
  • On peers, managers, and building a support network
  • Promoting transparency, and open communication
  • Prioritization and letting things go



Announcer: Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast where we help great coders become skilled leaders, and build happy high performing software teams.

Marcus: All right. Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast. I’m Marcus and today I am so excited to have Amy Phillips and Aaron Randall with me today, and we are going to talk about the lessons we learned the hard way when we went from becoming a programmer to a manager. Welcome to the show.

Amy: Thank you.

Aaron & Amy: Thanks so much

Marcus: So tell us a little bit about yourself. Let’s start with you Amy. What did you do before you were a manager?

Amy: Well, I started out many years ago as a tester, I spent many years testing a number of different companies. Progressed, eventually, to leading test teams, and managing testers, and then moving more into agile roles and team coaching. That sort of led me into a wider management role. So these days I’m an engineering manager, managing developers, helping teams deliver, meet their goals. But yeah, it’s sort of along the way, moved from testers to developers and ops engineers, and so people with lots of different skills and backgrounds and levels as well, which has been interesting.

Marcus: Oh, I can’t wait to hear more about that. Aaron, tell us about yourself.

Aaron: Yeah, sure. So my route into my role now, which is the CTO of Songkick, was starting as a software developer. So I worked at a number of smaller companies and startups before Songkick. And then when I got to Songkick and I’ve been there for about seven years now as the company’s grown, sort of grew with it, moving into a tech lead role, then engineering management roles and so on. Moving more and more, shifted my focus to the people side of technology. So yeah, found myself where I am today, which is really this in section of the people in tech, running a technology team.

Marcus: Wonderful. So it sounds like both of you started as individual contributors. I guess that’s how most of us start. Given that you, that we’re going to talk about lessons we learned the hard way, I’ll just open it up. What is a lesson you learned, maybe the hard way, early on in your career?

Amy: That’s a great question. So it’s been really interesting for us because we actually were individual contributors together. That’s how we met, on a team, working together at Songkick. So Aaron was a developer, I was a tester, and then over the years we’ve watched each other grow and helps each other grow, hopefully, into management. So I think we’ve got loads of lessons we’ve both struggled with, and seen each other struggling with. For me, I would say the hardest thing has been about building up the ability I guess, and confidence to have the difficult conversations.

I think that’s something that’s really uniquely management. You may do it with your peers, maybe you do it with your own manager. But when you start managing other people, it just becomes so much more important. So I think that’s probably been the thing which for me, starting out maybe in the early days, not doing enough role playing, and practicing before going into the conversation. Or sometimes maybe leaving it too late to have that conversation, has probably been the biggest one I’ve been working on over the years.

Aaron: Yeah, 100% for me as well. Actually, by the way, Amy’s definitely see me make way more mistakes than I’ve seen her. Just to clarify.

Amy: That’s not true.

Aaron: It was a lot of fun working together, but yeah. Difficult conversations, it’s 100% the one that really jumps out to me. my tendency, very early on in my tech-leading career I guess, was just to avoid them entirely because it’s so much easier to avoid them, not have the difficult conversation and hope that people still like you, and they don’t want to hear the feedback, the constructive feedback you need to give them. Me and Amy were actually talking before this podcast call, and I think it’s really clear. I have so many examples from the last few years of where I’ve delayed those conversations or not had them, and it’s always been worse for me and the person involved as well. If I just bit the bullet, and had that constructive feedback conversation, everyone would’ve been better off. Time and time again, we’ve proven that by doing it eventually. So, yeah. Fun.

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Marcus: I see this a lot too, We leave these conversations for too long, and then they don’t go as well as we’d hoped. They maybe don’t even produce the results we’re hoping. So tell us a story of, well we always love … Everybody loves a train wreck. Tell us a story of when things didn’t go well.

Aaron: I think it’s easier to talk about from the perspective of Songkick and other startups that I’ve been in, these worlds, they change so often. The nature is they change so frequently, they have to, to try and stay alive, and work out what the business is becoming. But it means that the technology you’re working with changes. The projects you’re working on changes so often, and you find people that have joined your company expecting one thing, like say focusing on mobile development, and you look up a couple of months after they started, and the mobile work’s not there anymore, because we’ve pivoted and shifted to focus on something else.

Again, my tendency back in the day was to try and please that person in any other way possible, and find other extracurricular ways of keeping them engaged at the company. Really it prolongs the pain where the person’s unhappy, because we’re not offering what need to be fulfilled at work. And I’m just trying to keep a person happy, and actually if we just sat down earlier and had the conversations, and said, “Look, the landscape has changed, and to be really honest about, is there stuff we can do here to change things here for you? Or is this it?” That would have just saved a lot of pain. So yeah, I’ve had quite a few of those over the years I think.

Amy: Yeah, I had quite a successful version of that a few years ago actually, which was interesting because it would very much have been the same sort of setup. It was very similar. Technology was changing, somebody had been left behind, wasn’t necessarily incredibly excited by what the future was looking like. Actually, I’m now at the stage where I’ve been through it so many times, I was like, “We’re having this conversation.” This person definitely didn’t want the conversation. I was like, “We’re having the conversation,” and actually it was amazing how just being so honest quite early on and saying, “This doesn’t have to be the right job for you. It’s fine not to work here forever, and how we help you develop in your career, or find somewhere else that you’re excited by.” And actually that person, for them, it also honest and in their face that it was clearly a shock for them, but they didn’t want to leave.

So we ended up having a really great conversation about how they could learn the skills they needed, and they developed their skills and got training and they’re still working that. They’re still very happy. So I think sometimes having particularly the conversations about the, “Do you need to leave? Do you want to leave?” Can feel like you shouldn’t have those conversations, because you want to keep your team together. You don’t want anyone to leave that, that’s a major problem. But sometimes you have to just be really upfront I think, and ask people, “Are you leaving? Do you need to leave?” And see where it leads you.

Marcus: Do you think the first time you have those kinds of conversations is generally the hardest? Do they get easier?

Amy: So I really feel like I want to say yes, to give everyone reassurance. I think you get better at them, but I think they’re always hard, because I think what you can’t control is how the other person’s going to react. So that’s what makes it hard. It’s the, you can do all your preparation. Definitely, they get easier in terms of knowing what to say and how to say it, and how to make the conversation useful. But they don’t necessarily always get easier, because sometimes people have very emotional reactions. I guess that’s the other problem, it’s what makes these conversations so difficult, is they’re emotional, and people get upset or angry, or lots of different things. So being able to handled that can still be hard.

Marcus: I was just going to say firing a robot’s pretty easy [crosstalk 00:08:45].

Aaron:  I was going to say, I think the bit that does get easier, I completely agree with Amy, it’s always emotional, and it’s often difficult. I think the bit that gets easier is that, you are getting to the answer, the solution I think is best for that person quicker, which I definitely over the years learn is a good upside I think, to just going for and have that conversation.

Amy: So I think the other thing, which often if people are in a stuck position, and you’re as a manager, struggling and feeling like, oh I need to help them. It’s fairly rare that the other person, the person it’s affecting, hasn’t also felt that way. So I think sometimes, although it feels like, oh, I have to broach this horrible, difficult subject, sometimes it can be a relief for everybody because like, “Oh, finally we’re talking about this thing that’s been sitting there for so many weeks.”

Marcus: The elephant in the room, I guess we sometimes use that phrase. I also really like the idea you brought up of just being treating people like adults. I don’t need to be desperate in any sort of really needy way that we can’t even talk about you leaving, because that would end my world. That’s not true. I’m going to go on. You’re going to go on. We’re all grownups, and the reality is that I get the sense that you come at it from a, I don’t want to trick you into staying. I want you to be here, but this is the current situation. Amy, you’re right. It was a really nice way of ending it, that they said, “Oh, I think I’d like to stay and do this other thing.” That choice driven from their own insides to motivate them, feels very different than having a manager who says, “Just wait. We’ll get more work that you love. Just hang on. I know it’s no fun right now, but I promise it will be different in the future.”

Amy: Yeah, that’s right. I think I always approached these things with a sort of a, I’m here to help people with their careers. That means sometimes they’re not the right person for the company, or the company is not the right company for the person, or something needs to change. But that doesn’t mean that as their manager, they can’t talk to me. I would actually much rather they came to me and said, “I hate my job. I hate everything to do with my job, help.” That would be ideal because then you could have that conversation. But I think often it feels like you can’t tell your manager that. It’s not an acceptable thing to admit, that you’re struggling or unhappy or something like that. But that just makes it so much harder to help people.

Marcus: Have you found ways to make it safe for people to talk to you about the things that we’re not supposed to say, like, “I’m not really enjoying this?”

Amy: Well, I think for me I’ve always, I sort of do it in my quite early on in managing people, try and just be quite up front with them. Actually, I’m there to help them. I view my job more as helping them with their careers, which means helping them develop skills or finding the right work, and it doesn’t have to be in this company. It’s fine if you realize those opportunities don’t lie here, we can help you. So I just think I always try and get it in there quite early on, particularly if they’re really happy and upbeat, which is a great time to get that foundation laid, when they’re like, “Of course I’m not leaving, why would I leave? I love it here.” You’re like, “Great.” But then you’ve sort of set that expectation up that those are the sorts of conversations you can have.

Aaron: Yeah, I think there’s lot as well, you were talking in the blog post that demonstrating the right behaviors. I think a lot of this, if you’re hoping that they can be open and honest and vulnerable with you, is to do that back as well. I think that’s a really hard thing. I learned this really slowly in my transition to manager. It’s the fact that you can be vulnerable as a manager as well, and not always know the answers, when people are stuck and unhappy in their career. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what the steps are that are going to make them happy again. But you can say, acknowledge there’s something wrong. Say, “I’m stuck, let’s work together and work this out. I’m going to do everything I can to help you,” and be vulnerable yourself.

I’ve definitely seen that work really nicely for us. I think it’s particularly difficult when you start off as a manager, because you want to know all the answers. You want to look really confident and prove your worth as a new manager. Like, “Oh, I deserve this, I can do this.” It’s like when you step up into a tech ??? for the first time, you feel like you should know all the tech answers, and be the best developer in the team. That just isn’t the case, and it’s okay to be human. So yeah, being vulnerable is a pretty handy tool that I now as a more seasoned manager, lean on often, probably too much.

Marcus: Okay. Well I had a question, but now I want to come back to what you just said. How could one be too much, too vulnerable, Aaron? Because I definitely agree with everything you said, but what’s it mean to be-

Aaron: Oh, I don’t know. I think mostly I’m playing. I think there is a balance to strike. Even now if I say, “I don’t know the answer,” all the time to my engineering management group, I think at some point they’re going to begin the question whether I’m the right person for the job. Yeah, no. I think being vulnerable plenty is fine. But yeah.

Marcus: I definitely had that fear, and I’ve had that same thing where at first I never wanted to admit I didn’t know. In fact, I used to have a little sign in my office that said, “Answers in 10 seconds or they’re free.” And I would make up an answer just so that I had one. Well at least now you have an answer, because clearly answers are my job and questions are your job, Mr. Programmer. And that really didn’t turn out for me very well, because then everyone stood outside my door and got bad decisions made all day long. Rather than empowering the team in any way. I don’t actually know, Aaron, I’m just going to push back for a minute on you. I don’t know whether if you became a, don’t know-er type of manager. And I heard that phrase by the way, from the Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson.

She talks about these managers and leaders who just always say, “I don’t know, how do we find out?” And the person frames it as, become a don’t know-er. I don’t know whether that would erode trust in your team, because I think that’s what you’re kind of saying, right? Like maybe they would think, why am I here? The book seems to say that maybe it would actually build confidence that it was their job to know, and that managing and leading was not all about knowing.

Aaron: Yeah, for sure. And I think that in theory I’m much into the whole coaching aspect of leading. I think that’s probably more of what I hope what I try and do these days. Which is that it’s not actually that I don’t know the answer necessarily. It’s just that I’ve got a group of … Particularly the engineering management group that I work with, they’re actually much smarter and more capable and talented than me, and I know I can coach the best answer out of them. So yeah, my version of don’t know is probably just lots of questions and coaching to help them build their confidence, and helping this team.

Amy: I think it’s down to tone as well as the questions. Because I think the don’t know manager ??? panicky, “I don’t know.” That’s not going to give you any confidence at all. Whereas the, or like the, “I don’t know, but let’s work out together,” or, “I don’t know, why don’t you go away, and you’re qualified to do this,” is probably the confidence building empowering thing, rather than the, “Let’s all panic, we have no idea where we’re going,” type of manager.

Marcus: Yeah. I think you’re right. In fact, another form of, I don’t know, came to mind and that’s the, I don’t know. And I don’t care. Yeah. That is not probably the right way to approach it, but saying, “I don’t know. You’re qualified. I don’t know. Let’s find out.” But saying, “I don’t know. I don’t care.” That’s probably not the right approach.

Amy: Yeah, that’s right.

Marcus: Okay. So we’ve talked about hard conversations, leaving them too long, maybe even a little bit practicing. I think Amy said a little practice kind of helps. What’s another lesson that you all had to learn the hard way as you went through this transition to be the amazing leaders you are today?

Amy: Well, I think for me it’s around the demonstrating rewarding right behaviors. So I think we sort of touched on this a little bit, but it’s really difficult. Especially, the first time I moved into management, I had been working on the team and I got promoted to manage the team. So one day I was, the peers with these people, we could all go for lunch, we can chat and gossip, and then suddenly the next day it was like, oh actually that’s not really appropriate anymore. You don’t really want your manager gossiping away over lunch. So suddenly I was like, oh, there’s this sort of behavioral side of management, it’s a whole other thing no one ever mentions really.

Then over the year realizing that it’s so tempting to promote the person that writes the most code, or solved this great problem and actually did do some really great stuff, but oh, but they’re behaving in really bad ways in lots of situations. So what message are you sending? I think unfortunately it’s one of those ones that you tend to discover more through getting it wrong. So particularly early on, I’ve definitely got much more aware as I’ve progressed through my management that, things that seem very small initially, if you don’t nip them in the bud quickly, they just, that’s it. You’ve lost all hope. So the person that’s always five minutes late to stand up.

Marcus: I know that person.

Amy: Yeah. I think there might be more than one of them. Promoting that person, of course they could be promoted, they could be doing brilliant, brilliant work. But the message you send is, it’s fine. That’s okay, long as you’re not suddenly surprised later when everybody else is a bit late to stand up. You’ve normalized that behavior, and you’ve said, “It’s absolutely fine.” So I think it’s being aware of what message you’re sending.

Marcus: Yeah. I’d also dawns on me that the person who’s always late to stand up by five minutes, at one point there was the first time they were late to stand up. It’s just looking backwards that it seems like it’s always. But the reality was is there was a first time, and what did we do or say when we saw that? I think that can be a pretty hard conversation going back to like nip it in the bud. But I think your bigger point Amy, is that people, what is the phrase I heard? It’s not what you teach, it’s what you tolerate.

Amy: That’s right.

Marcus: People really notice. So I think that’s a really profound idea. Of course you also touched on the idea that when you’re promoted up from the group, I had that same thing. It’s a little lonely. I feel like I kind of lost my team, my friends. So that was a hard transition for me.

Amy: Yeah, I think that’s really right. You take for granted when you’re on a team, that you have lots and lots of peers and of course the higher up you go actually the fewer people there are that are peers, the busier everybody is, and the more distant you are from them day to day. So yeah, that is actually the other really real big one. Actually, interesting that’s how Aaron and I have ended up writing this blog post and working on this stuff together. Because we no longer work together, and that’s a real shame. So we’ve created a whole side project just so that we have great excuses for going out and working together on things.

Marcus: Maybe this speaks to a larger theme, and I think Laura Hogan has an idea of, we should be creating peers of managers to support us. I think as she calls a your Voltron or something. I don’t know if you’ve heard that term.

Amy: That’s right, yes.

Marcus: I’m going to butcher this, but would you say that you’re one another’s Voltron somehow, where you’re in each other’s groups in that way?

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Aaron: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. So actually one of the things that, so obviously Amy and I have worked together for a long time, and then remained friends and see each other like every week. But one of the things that we did was start a tech leadership breakfast, which is basically just a small group of seven of us. It’s CTOs and answering managers from across London that we meet about once a month-ish to have breakfast, and basically have like a lean coffee and catch up. I think, Amy was talking about that loneliness that increases as your progress in your career. I think forcing yourself to find those peers outside of your company, and that you can share ideas with them, bounce ideas off of, it’s been so important for me. I know I’d be pulling my hair out if I didn’t have that group and Amy to talk to.

Amy: Yeah, definitely. I think like there are things that as you get more senior, you maybe don’t want to be sharing every day at work. Like, “I’m still stuck on this thing,” and everyone’s like, “Really, still?” Whereas if you’ve got friends and other people with different perspectives, it’s so valuable to have people like that you can talk to, and ask for help, and even just ask for support because it’s a tough job and it can be lonely. So just able to, “Let’s get coffee and just chat and chill out,” it’s really, really valuable.

Aaron: Yeah. And someone’s always solved the problem as well, you’re never really approaching a brand new problem. In some form someone else has experienced and gone through this, and they’ve learned the hard way for you. So yeah, the breakfast is pretty handy for that as well.

Marcus: I want to turn the topics and be selfish, and ask you about one of the things I really struggled with, when I went from being a programmer to a manager, and that was balancing two very different kinds of work. It seemed to me that engineering, and leading were totally different. Not only did I struggle with doing either of them well at first, but knowing how the balance should be, probably it was just me, I’ll admit. Was that a struggle for either of you?

Aaron: Yeah.

Amy: Yeah, definitely. And it definitely isn’t just you. I think if you’ve been to, or seen any of the talks from the lead developer conferences or Meetup things, it’s a very common topic is wow, how do you … Particularly I think if you’re in one of the roles where you’re doing some meeting based work, and some producing based work, and trying to balance those two, is very hard. So yeah, it’s incredibly hard.

Aaron: Yeah, and we talk about it actually in our blog post, about this adder versus multiplier style shift. It’s really jarring when you go, particularly as I did, as a developer and you get a sense of purpose and worth from the lines of code that you ship, and the bugs and the features, and so on. The bugs you fix, and the fixtures you ship. That’s this real direct adder effect. And then you shift to this, tech leading or engineering management, where it’s more admin and your impacts are measured through the team that you lead, and this kind of multiplier effect. It’s much less tangible to start with and you don’t have the same ways of measuring progress, and the things you’re doing. It’s through others and empowering, enabling others. Yeah. At first you think, oh, I’m doing nothing. I’m suddenly useless to this company, and you’re not. But you just have to find a new way to track what you’re doing, and how it’s helping push the business forward.

Amy: I think related to that actually for me is, sometimes you do end up working with an amazing team, and you feel really invisible because they’re amazing and you’re like, “Oh actually am I doing anything? I don’t think I’m doing anything.” Then you’re like, no, no, you sort of are. But you have to find new ways to actually … Because you’re not visibly doing anything. You’re probably not the person in the meetings saying the brilliant things. You’re not the person producing the code or talking to customers. But you are behind the scenes supporting everyone and helping them. So yeah, you do need to find a new way to shout about that stuff, and almost like claiming some responsibility because I think otherwise you can be a bit overlooked and people are like, “So yeah. What do you do?”

Aaron: I definitely have that now by the way. I frequently feel like I’m not required anymore. This engineering management team that I’ve got, as I said, it’s so much better than me. They don’t actually need me anymore.

Amy: Lies.

Aaron: I’m pretty sure it’s not true, but you do feel like, I think it’s easy to feel like an imposter. Yeah. I need Amy telling me that it’s all okay. Yeah. It’s a really natural feeling. Definitely just in case people are feeling it.

Marcus: Yeah. I wonder what would happen if we asked our teams, “What’s the most valuable thing I did this week?” If they would tell us something, might be really minor, it might be even something we were completely unaware of, that might help us see our own performance and our own value differently.

Amy: Yeah. I think that’s really, really great. Yeah. One of my previous jobs we had, it was really, really normalized that every time anybody did their own performance reviews or self assessments, there was bits in there about your manager. How’s your relationship with your manager, what’s been good? What do you need more of? So they became much more comfortable. It wasn’t frequent enough, but at least it set a good baseline for, “Hey, you are meant to have opinions on this stuff. It’s not just you have to tolerate and respect this person.” It’s also you need to work well with them and build a relationship. So yeah, have an opinion on, was it good, was it bad, could it be better? But yeah, I think it’s probably all that little things right. And actually it’s just doing enough little things that everything becomes like the big thing. So, yeah.

Marcus: Yeah. I also think sometimes, I bet both of you have certain unique to your position and your knowledge, abilities, authority, ability to move resources. You can do things your team can’t. Maybe your team needs you to do some of those things on their behalf, to create the environment where they can be most productive.

Amy: Yeah, I think that is definitely true. That’s one of the, probably the most visible, the big impact things you can do. Sometimes people don’t maybe present it as a … Sometimes they do, but it’s not that often where they go, “Please would you get me the money to have this tool?” And you can go, “Great. I have a really clear goal.” Often it will be more that they come and they say, “This thing is really hard,” and then you have to find ways to make it less hard, and they may not be obvious. So, “I’m finding the new team set up hard.” Or, “I’m finding the way that this new person who’s joined the team works is hard,” and they can be much more subtle I think.

But yeah, I think you’re right. As a manager you are quite uniquely positioned, not necessarily even solve it maybe, but create the environment where it can be solved. So you have the authority to pull these people together and be like, “Today we’re going to talk about the fact that this is a problem.” And everyone’s like, “Oh, we have to acknowledge that this is a problem?” But that’s kind of I think the manager thing in my view.

Marcus: Yeah.

Aaron: Definitely. I think there’s another bit as well. On the other side is, which I haven’t done one in the past, but I’m trying to do more of now, is actually making that stuff visible to the team. I think it’s quite easy for our work to be invisible. Talking about spending money, and tech vendor budgets and that kind of stuff, they’re the kind of things that we’re doing as leaders. But the team that doesn’t necessarily know about. I think maybe six months ago if ask people in my team, “What does Aaron do?” The people that I don’t work with directly, they’d be like, “Hmm. Maybe not sure.”

So I think I’ve learned relatively recently that I need to force myself to do the dev talks, the internal dev talks with the team and show them the things I’m working on. Even if it is stuff like how the budget works and how tech vendor posting works, that kind of stuff. Which I’ve done, and actually the team’s really interested in, because they get additional context. But you have to force yourself to show stuff, that you think maybe it’s not relevant or interesting, and show them that you’re a person doing actual work and yeah, make it a bit more visible to the group.

Marcus: It’s interesting. I’m imagining times when I withheld that kind of information, because I think I wrongly believed, well it’s not programming so they won’t care. It’s not like a new language or a new framework. So when you talk about budgeting, I think it’s easy to say, well why should the engineers be interested in that? But you have found that not to be true?

Aaron: Yeah, definitely. I was quite scared actually. I just forced myself, again feeling like I wasn’t making my work visible enough to the wider tech team. I forced myself to do this dev talk, and it was essentially talking through a spreadsheet, and talking through our P&L. Like how we’re spending money, what the tech side of that looks like. I thought, this is going to be a car crash. No one’s actually going to enjoy it, but at least I would have done it, just do it Aaron, give it a bash. Actually I remember I got loads of amazing questions at the end of the talk, and a bunch of people came up to me separately and were like, “Oh that’s really interesting. Really great to see what’s going on.” So yeah, I think don’t underestimate how much people care about the other stuff that keeps the business moving as well.

Amy: Yeah. And I think, I suppose that’s also sort of related to the fact that there will hopefully always be some people who maybe want to move to management. Or might if they knew a little bit more about it. So actually being able to share, obviously some days it’s like, I’m having one to one meetings with people all day. There’s not much more you can say, but sometimes it isn’t that. Sometimes it’s like, wow, we’ve got some strategy things or budgeting, or recruitment or something bigger that’s maybe still invisible to them, but it helps them. If they know what’s involved with this job, then maybe they’re more interested. So it’s good thing.

Marcus: Yeah, I like that. I want to go back to something Aaron said, one of these mathematical metaphors, the adder and the multiplier. Because I’ll be honest, I think in my early days of being a manager, I may have been a divider. Maybe I made things worse. Have you ever seen this happen or again, and maybe this is just the unique experience. If you’ve worked for me and you imagine this has happened, feel free to drop me a line and tell me about it. But yeah, I’m just curious. So do you see that some things managers can do, can actually decrease productivity, instead of adding or multiplying can actually divide?

Aaron: Yeah.

Amy: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely everything can, right. And I think divide can come in many forms. So I think I’ve seen it a lot over the years of managing different types of teams, that you need to be very careful with people who have different levels of experience, or different skillsets that you don’t … You can sort of assume you’re doing everybody a favor by going, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t all need to be in this meeting. We’ll only take these people.” Actually you’ve sort of assumed that they don’t want to be involved, and actually sometimes you’ve just excluded them. Even if all your intentions are fantastic, you still just excluded somebody from a meeting. So yeah, definitely become much more aware of inclusive language for example, even things like, “Guys,” is always my bugbear.

I know that in a lot of contexts it means … It’s a very kind of American style, “Hey everyone.” But it’s also not to a lot of people. So there’s the language but also, yeah, making it so that almost everything is optional. It doesn’t matter. “Oh, you’re the person that just joined the team a week ago. Of course you can come to this strategy meeting and have an opinion.”. You’re not excluding people based on what you assume that they would want you to sort of not bother them by.

Aaron: Yeah, definitely. I think like the other thing, the clear example to me is going back to the difficult conversations and avoiding them. I think where been the biggest sort of divider or subtractor for the team is where like I’ve essentially not done my job, I’ve not had those difficult conversations with people in a team, that actually they’re becoming toxic, and they’re ruining it for everyone else. That’s slowing the whole product team down, and you have a person that’s doing more damage than good, and it’s because I am not doing what I should be doing and actually going into that difficult conversation. So I’ve definitely seen that again, quite a few times, unfortunately.

Marcus: Yeah, as have I. Okay. We’ve got time for one more lesson learned the hard way. What would you like to talk about?

Amy: How about the prioritization? Because I think this is the one which particularly as you’re moving from like an individual contributor into a management, is it’s such a mindset change, and people unfortunately don’t tell you about it when you do the step, which makes it so much harder. But basically the stuff you are being rewarded for that probably led to your promotion, isn’t going to be the stuff you’ll be rewarded for in the future, and that can be so hard to get your head around.

Actually I’ve seen it quite a lot of people in lower levels in their careers. So making a switch from being a mid level developer to a senior is a similar thing. Where actually suddenly you’re not always just being measured on how much code you’re releasing, you’re expected to do all these other stuff. So I think that’s probably the one where it can be just so easy. So maybe you don’t realize or maybe just stay in the comfort zone of doing the little things you always did, and just ignoring all this other new hazy unclear stuff, that’s suddenly in your world that you may be not so confident about.

Aaron: Yeah, I think other part as well is that whole letting go of the stuff that you used to do, and you used to be judged on, got your sense of purpose and value from, is the letting go of it, but actually enabling your team to do it. So delegating basically, and actually being able to do that properly. And one thing is again, I think it was most clear when I transitioned into a tech lead was, I would delegate basically a checklist of work to do. It wasn’t delegating the actual problem that I wanted someone to solve. Because I was like, “Oh well I know to do this best, so you should just do it the way I would’ve done it. But I don’t have time to actually write the code anymore, so here’s the high level steps,” and that stuff is really difficult to unlearn the details, and be like, “Okay, I trust this teams to take the problem, and actually solve it, because I have to do other stuff that won’t happen otherwise.”

Marcus: Yeah. I think the feedback loops are so different. I’m imagining when I was a developer, it was hitting a button and seeing that it compiled, that was the feedback. “Oh look it compiled,” and Hello World came on and it was, you know, half a second delay or something. Then as I develop more, maybe the compilation loop got a little longer. But then when I became a manager, it seemed like all the feedback loops took weeks or months, or maybe they just went into a black hole. So therefore it was a totally different kind of satisfaction. Where at the beginning there was no satisfaction because it seemed like, does any of this even matter? How can we find out if we’re doing a good job? Like what’s our red green? That’s one of the TDD things, right? Is first you go red, then green. How do we know if we’re doing it well?

Amy: That’s a really, really great question. I think for me I always remind myself that people don’t have to talk to their manager, as much as we to think that we are quite in control, actually if you’ve ever had someone who won’t talk to you, it turned out there’s not very much you can do. There’s actually one more or less nothing you can do. You can go and complain to other people but they can’t force them into the meeting room with you. So for me, I kind of measure it on how willing is somebody to speak to me, and then how comfortable are they doing the difficult conversations from their side. How open are they and how honest do they seem to be? Then once you get to the point where they come to you with other troubles, then you know.

For me that’s my green. Oh, they trust me enough.They trust me to seek advice, or bounce ideas off about this thing when they’re not quite sure to go. So I think for green, green, green, is when years and years after you’ve managed them, you get that message and they go, “Help, I really need some help here.” And you’re like, “Okay great. I, I was doing a great job 10 years ago when this person was managed by me.” So it is quite a long feedback loop. But those are my measures.

Aaron: Yeah, 100% agree. I think yeah. The communication, people are actually talking to you, and I think like one of the things I’ve seen, and it doesn’t have to be the case, but people talk to you about other stuff as well. I know Patty McCord’s against this whole like, your workplace, the family thing. But I think there are aspects of that where people chat to you about the things happening in their personal life if they want to, and they begin to open up and you have a proper relationship, where they’re comfortable being again vulnerable with you and so on. I think that, I definitely feel I’ve built up a lot of those relationships where I work now, and people that are comfortable enough talking about that stuff. But also giving me feedback and telling me when I’m doing stuff that could be better. Yeah, it’s a proper working relationship that’s healthy as opposed to, as Amy said, people, people don’t want to have a one on one with you.

Amy: Yeah. Particularly if you ever managed anybody remote, that’s a whole other thing. Because actually if they just decline your meeting invite, you’re like, “Oh, oh, okay. There’s nothing I can do.” So actually those are the ones where you really suddenly realize actually, it is a real relationship, and they are trusting you when they turn up. So actually you need to show them that you are worthy of that trust.

Marcus: I think that’s a wonderful place to leave this. Amy and Aaron, thank you so much for joining me today and talking with me about the lessons that you learned the hard way. I certainly have learned a lot of those, and probably more. Where can people find you online and maybe interact with you?

Amy: A great place to start would be on our blog, which is And on there you’ll have links to us where you can find us on Twitter, and other places as well.

Marcus: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for both of you for being on the show today.

Announcer: Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcasts at, and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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