Personal

Day one

I start my new job today, as a manager of engineers in a large software company.

I’m happy to be going back to work. It was nice in a way to have the last month off, unpaid as it was. I needed some serious downtime and I got it. But I felt unmoored. I like to work.

The job search was challenging for a number of reasons. First, in the last couple months of the year many companies just push off hiring to January. I heard it over and over: we could use someone like you during the first quarter of next year. Awesome, but I’ll be homeless by then.

Second, I began looking while I was still reeling from getting the sack. I was fired after a crazy difficult ten months under new executive leadership. I think I did an exceptional job leading the engineers through a chaotic time, and I had been praised for my work. To find myself no longer wanted was deeply confusing and upsetting.

Everyone asked why I was let go, and I struggled to tell the story. As the days stretched into weeks, I kept unpacking what happened and it changed how I told it. No two people heard the same story, though everything I said to everyone was true. Also, I was still angry and really wanted to say some things that, while true, put some people at my past company in an unflattering light. That never goes over well, so I avoided it. But that left gaps in my story, which led to questions I couldn’t answer well.

One way to Lucas Oil

Third, despite my successes I had a weak story to tell about being a leader of engineers. I just hadn’t been doing it long enough — only 16 months. I had been in QA (software testing) leadership for the previous 18 years.

I was fortunate to shift into engineering, as changes in my industry are leading to fewer QA leadership roles. And I was ready for new mountains to climb — I’d done everything I ever wanted to do in QA.

I have a great story to tell about delivering a very good quality “version 1.0” software product in a short time. It impressed everyone who heard it. But as people asked questions that would reveal my depth, I had to lean on my QA experience, which didn’t connect with them.

Fourth, my technical skills kept being a concern to interviewers. I’m far more technical than the average person, but I lack a deep understanding of the technologies my last few employers used. I am convinced that it’s a rare unicorn who can be deeply good both in technology and in leadership. Becoming the leader I am has required my full attention over the last 10 years and it meant letting my technical skills go stale. But I feel certain that the leader who had focused on technology would not have had the same success I did building leadership alignment on direction, and bringing my engineers through that startup’s “version 1.0” delivery as well as through the chaotic, difficult months that followed. 

Yet nearly everyone I spoke to had some level of concern — dare I call it bias? — that I’d need to be a committed technologist to be able to lead engineers. It’s bunk. Here’s a great article that explains how your VP (or Director) of Engineering is different from your Chief Architect or Chief Technology Officer. Search Google for “VP Engineering vs CTO” — you’ll find many similar articles. I’m a classic Director of Engineering, with strong people and process skills, and enough technical skills to get by.

Still, there’s no way to escape that I did not spend enough time in the technology at my last company. I took a JavaScript course online and read a book on functional programming so I could understand the approach and language the engineers were using. But I can’t draw you an architectural diagram of that application, can’t tell you much about how the application is configured on the server, and know little about the state of the codebase and what challenges lie ahead in it. I needed to know those things as Director of Engineering. There were just so many challenges I needed to solve at that company with straight-up leadership that I kept deferring getting into the tech. I will not make that mistake again.

This reminds me of 18 years ago when I pivoted from technical writing into QA. I’d been a technical writer for a long time, and I’d done all I cared to do in the field. I liked to joke that if I had to write open the File menu and choose Print one more time I was gonna go postal. The company I worked for offered me a QA role, leading a test-automation team and building a lab of testing hardware. I did that job for barely two years, during which time the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 happened. Software companies everywhere went into tailspins. The one where I worked went through waves of layoffs. I got caught in one of them.

After three months of unemployment I got picked up by a large health-insurance company. I was to be a QA engineer, testing software applications for them. My QA story was weak; I had not done it long enough. I think they liked that they could pick me up for cheap. I’m glad they did as it kept the wolves from the door. 

It was both a difficult place to work because of its top-down control culture, and an easy place to work because the expectations weren’t high. On that job I built solid experience as a tester, and then as a manager of testers. And then in the craziest thing that ever happened to me in my career, I was fired and un-fired from that company. Read that story here. I eventually left on my own, my QA cred well established. I had zero trouble getting jobs, and had great success building QA practices from scratch at several other software companies.

I hope I’m in a similar place in this job that begins today: about to build deeper experience and credibility as an engineering leader. I’m going to rest on my leadership skills as they are and switch back to learning technology. I will know how the product is architected, will understand what headwinds we face in the codebase, will know how it is deployed to and configured on the servers that run it, and will learn how to do at least basic things in the programming language they use (Java). I was able to do all of these things early in my career, and I know I can learn it all again in these modern technologies. That will set me up well for the rest of my career, wherever it leads.

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28 thoughts on “Day one

  1. One of the best dev team project managers I’ve ever met had a degree in English literature. Getting the best out of a team sometimes comes from coming at the problems from a different angle.

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  2. David says:

    Jim. Don’t forget to take your lunch break. Glad you shared your experience. Im self employed , been so for many years, but I still have to reinvent myself for new markets and industries. Lean on your human qualities they transfer to everything you do. Enjoy your day.

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  3. Best of luck today Jim, and in the coming weeks. You’ll be a great asset.

    I think workplaces both sides of the pond can relate to having overly technical people in management and leadership roles who have got there just because they’ve been there longer than anyone else.

    I can think of someone in my organisation (a local authority) who’s fantastic on the technical front almost to the point of being indispensable. But after a number of reshuffles over the years he’s taken on a growing team. He’s just not cut out to manage and lead, and doing so – especially things like one-to-ones, appraisals, team meetings etc – I know it causes him no end of stress. Square peg, round hole!

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  4. Ward a Fogelsanger says:

    Glad you are back to work. I was forced to retire from my airline piloting job in May due to government regulation… lasted 11 days til I started flying for a large company that has its own private airline to transport employees, no age limit here. Wasn’t ready to quit.

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