Managers who start the downfall

I understand that this is a “hot take”, and not necessarily something the author believes in. I wrote before about the role of a manager, here and here. So I would like to contrast that tweet with my own experience.

I joined Vital as a manager - in a 4 people team. The title at this size is symbolic and I worked as an IC - roughly 98% of my time. I am now managing 5 engineers and my work has now gravitated towards other tasks besides producing code. At this size, I know that if I spend a full day coding other parts of the company will suffer. Just to name a few: customer support, hiring, project management, documentation, meetings with customers and 1:1s. I want to free engineers as much as possible from doing these things, so they can focus on the technical parts.

The author implies that a company should just have engineers producing great code and keep managers at bay. What I have noticed for the last 5 years - across 4 different companies - is that even brilliant engineers often miss the forest for the trees. But not just technically brilliant engineers, even highly focused product engineers, often derail from what was originally planned. It’s not uncommon to have 100% alignment on what needs to happen and a couple of days later the engineer is working on some tangent. It’s not that what they are doing doesn’t bring value - it certainly does! But it’s no longer what we set up to do. These deviations compound rapidly and it’s often a telling sign when people start to get a feeling that nothing gets done. I recall myself going down these rabbit holes: getting that animation just right, refactoring some code because it’s no longer DRY. And ultimately spending hours on something that has uncertain value. The most flagrant situation was spending 2 weeks on getting a feed scrolling at close to 60FPS on an iPhone 6. How much value did that bring? Little compared to other things we had planned.

Part of my role is precisely that: making sure a team is working on the right thing at the right time. People that work with me know that - it’s been written here for half a decade. The balancing act, as a manager, is making sure that people are effective and working towards business needs, while having the freedom to explore new things. It’s tough, but possible.