The Engineer/Manager Pendulum

Lately I’ve been doing some career counseling for people off Twitter (long story). The central drama for many people goes something like this:

“I’m a senior engineer, but I’m thinking about being a manager. I really like engineering, but I feel like I’m just solving the same problems over and over and it seems like the real problems are people problems. I have to be a manager to get promoted. I hope it isn’t terrible, once I make the switch. I hear it’s terrible.”

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. There’s a lot but let’s start with: Fuck the whole idea that only managers get career progression. And fuckkkk the idea you have to choose a “lane” and grow old there.  I completely reject this kind of slotting.

“Your advice is bad and you should feel bad”:

The best frontline eng managers in the world are the ones that are never more than 2-3 years removed from hands-on work, full time down in the trenches. The best individual contributors are the ones who have done time in management.

unicorns-are-jerksAnd the best technical leaders in the world are often the ones who do both. Back and forth.  Like a pendulum.

I’ve done this a few times myself now; start out as an early or first infra engineering hire, build the stack, then build the team, then manage the team, then … leave and start it all over again. I get antsy, I get restless. I start to feel like I know what I’m doing (… a telltale sign something’s wrong).

It’s a good cycle for people who like early stage companies, or have ADD. But I don’t see people talking about it as a career path. So I’m here to advocate for it, as an intentional and awesome way of life.

(h/t to @sarahmei who was tweetstorming this up at the EXACT SAME TIME as i was writing this.  Yes Virginia, internet feminists ARE linked by a mystical hive brain.)

On being a manager (of technical projects)

Promoting managers from within means you get those razor sharp skills from the people who just built the thing. That gives them credibility, while they struggle with their newly achieved incompetence in a different role.

helpfulcat

That’s one of the only ways you can achieve the temporary glory of a hybrid manager+tech lead. This is an unstable combination, because your engineering skills and context-sharpness are decaying the longer you do it.

You can only really improve at one of these things at a time: engineering or management.  And if you’re a manager, your job is to get better at management.  Don’t try to cling to your former glory.

Management is highly interruptive, and great engineering — where you’re learning things — requires blocking out interruptions. You can’t do these two opposite things at once.  As a manager, it is your job to be available for your team, to be interrupted. It is your job to choose to hand off the challenging assignments, so that your engineers can get better at engineering.

On being a tech lead (of people):

Conversely: the best tech leads in the world are always the ones who done time in management. This is not because they’re always the best programmers or debuggers; it’s because they know how to get shit done, which means they know how to communicate and manage other people.

A tech lead is a manager … but their first priority is achieving the task at hand, not grooming and minding the humans who work on it.

They still need the full manager toolset.  They’ll need to know how to rally people and teams and motivate them, or how to triage and restart a stalled project that everybody dreads. They still need to connect the dots between business objectives and technical objectives, and break down big objectives rainbow-swooshinto components. They need to be able to size up a junior engineer’s ability and craft a meaningful assignment, one that pushes their boundaries without crushing them … then do the same for another twenty contributors. This is management work, from the slightly shifted perspective of “Get Thing X Done” not “care for these people”.

So these tech leads usually spend more time in meetings than building things, and they will bitch about it but do it anyway, because writing code is not the best use of their time.  Tech is the easy part, herding humans is the harder part.

Senior engineers who have both these toolsets are the kind of tech leads you can build an org around, or a company around. They get shit done. And they are rare.

Almost all of them have spent considerable time in management.

The Pendulum

We don’t talk about this nearly enough: the immense breadth and strength that accrues to engineers who make a practice of going back and forth.

Being an IC is like reverse-engineering how a company works with very little Rainbow_dash_12_by_xpesifeindx-d5giyirinformation. A lot of things seem ridiculous, or pointless or inefficient from the perspective of a leaf node. .

Being a manager teaches you how the business works.  It also teaches you how people work. You will learn to have uncomfortable conversations. You will learn how to still get good work out of people who are irritated, or resentful, or who hate your guts.  You will learn how to resolve conflicts, dear god will you ever learn to resolve conflicts.  (Actually you’ll learn to YEARN for conflicts because straightforward conflict is usually better than all the other options.) You’ll go home exhausted every day and unable to articulate anything you actually did.  But you did stuff.rainbow-clouds

You’ll miss the dopamine hit of fixing something or solving something.  You’ll miss it desperately.

One last thing about management. There’s a myth that makes it really hard for people to stop managing, even when it makes them and everyone around them miserable.  And that’s the idea that management is a promotion.

Management is NOT a promotion.

Seriously, fuck that so hard. It is SUCH an insidious myth, and it leads to so many people managing even though they hate managing and have no business managing, and also starves the senior eng pool of the great mentors and elder wizards we need.

Management is not a promotion, management is a change of profession. And you will be bad at it for a long time after you start doing it.  If you don’t think you’re bad at it, you aren’t doing your job.

Managing because it feeds your ego is a terrific way to be sure that your engineers get to report to someone miserable and resentful, someone who should really be writing code

charity-gofmt
my feelings on having to only manager OR engineer for the rest of my life

or finding something else that brings them joy.

 

There’s nothing worse than reporting to someone forced into managing.  Please don’t be one of the reasons people burn out hard on tech.

It isn’t a promotion, so you don’t have any status to give up. Do it as long as it makes you happy, and the people around you happy. Then stop. Go back to building things. Wait til you get that itch again.

Then do it all over again. ❤

The Engineer/Manager Pendulum

DevOps vs SRE: delayed coverage of the dumbest war

Last week was the West Coast Velocity conference.  I had a terrific time — I think it’s the
best Velocity I’ve been to yet.  I also slipped in quite late, the evening before last, to catch Gareth’s session on DevOps vs SRE.

had to catch it, because Gareth Rushgrove (of DevOps Weekly glory) was taunting @lusis and me about it on the Internet.

rainbowdropletAnd it was worth it!   Holy crap, this was such a fun barnburner of a talk, with Gareth schizophrenically arguing both for and against the key premise of the talk, which was about “Google Infrastructure for Everyone Else (GIFEE)” and whether SRE is a) the highest, noblest goal that we should all aspire towards, or b) mostly irrelevant to anyone outside the Google confines.

Which Gareth won?  Check out the slides and judge for yourself.  🙃

 

At some point in his talk, though, Gareth tossed out something like “Charity probably already has a blog post on this drafted up somewhere.”  And I suddenly remembered “Fuck!  I DO!”  it’s been sitting in my Drafts for months god dammit.

So this is actually a thing I dashed off back in April, after CraftConf.  Somebody asked me for my opinion on the internet — always a dangerous proposition — and I went off on a bit of a rant about the differences and similarities between DevOps and SRE, as philosophies and practices.
colorful-rainbow

Time passed and I forgot about it, and then decided it was too stale.  I mean who really wants to read a rehash of someone’s tweetstorm from two months ago?

Well Gareth, apparently.

Anyway: enjoy.


SRE vs DevOps: TWO PHILOSOPHIES ENTER, BOTH ARE PHENOMENALLY SUCCESSFUL AND MUTUALLY DUBIOUS OF ONE ANOTHER


 

So in case you haven’t noticed, Google recently published a book about Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems.  It contains some really terrific wisdom on how to scale both systems and orgs.  It contains chapters written by dear friends of mine.  It’s a great book, and you should buy it and read it!

Rainbow-Umbrella-Z-5_5It also has some really fucking obnoxious blurbs.  Things like about how “ONLY GOOGLE COULD HAVE DONE THIS”, and an whiff of snobbery throughout the book as though they actually believe this (which is far worse if true).

You can’t really blame the poor blurb’ers, but you can certainly look askance at a massive systems engineering org when it seems as though they’ve never heard of DevOps, or considered how it relates to SRE practices, and may even be completely unaware of what the rest of the industry has been up to for the past 10-plus years.  It’s just a little weird.

So here, for the record, is what I said about it.

 

Google is a great company with lots of terrific engineers, but you can only say they are THE

sre
The Google SRE Bible

BEST at what they do if you’re defining what they do tautologically, i.e. “they are the best at making Google run.”  Etsyans are THE BEST at running Etsy, Chefs are THE BEST at building Chef, because … that’s what they do with their lives.

Context is everything here.  People who are THE BEST at Googling often flail and flame out in early startups, and vice versa.  People who are THE BEST at early-stage startup engineering are rarely as happy or impactful at large, lumbering, more bureaucratic companies like Google.  People who can operate equally well and be equally happy at startups and behemoths are fairly rare.

And large companies tend to get snobby and forget this.  They stop hiring for uniquerainbow-swirl strengths and start hiring for lack of weaknesses or “Excellence in Whiteboard Coding Techniques,” and congratulate themselves alot about being The Best.  This becomes harmful when it translates into to less innovation, abysmal diversity numbers, and a slow but inexorable drift into dinosaurdom.

Everybody thinks their problems are hard, but to a seasoned engineer, most startup problems are not technically all that hard.  They’re tedious, and they are infinite, but anyone can figure this shit out.  The hard stuff is the rest of it: feverish pace, the need to reevaluate and reprioritize and reorient constantly, the total responsibility, the terror and uncertainty of trying to find product/market fit and perform ten jobs at once and personally deliver to your promises to your customers.

rainbow-cloud-dropletAt a large company, most of the hardest problems are bureaucratic.  You have to come to terms with being a very tiny cog in a very large wheel where the org has a huge vested interest in literally making you as replicable and replaceable as possible.  The pace is excruciatingly slow if you’re used to a startup.  The autonony is … well, did I mention the politics?  If you want autonomy, you have to master the politics.

 

Everyone.  Operational excellence is everyone’s job.  Dude, if you have a candidate come in and they’re a jerk to your office manager or your cleaning person, don’t fucking hire that person because having jerks on  your team is an operational risk (not to mention, you know, like moral issues and stuff).

But the more engineering-focused your role is, the more direct your impact will be on operational outcomes.

As a software engineer, developing strong ops chops makes you powerful.  It makes you better at debugging and instrumentation, building resiliency and observability into your own systems and interdependent systems, and building systems that other people can come along and understand and maintain long after you’re gone.rainbow-shade

As an operations engineer, those skills are already your bread and butter.  You can increase your power in other ways, like by leveling up at software engineering skills like test coverage and automation, or DBA stuff like query optimization and storage engine internals, or by helping the other teams around you level up on their skills (communication and persuasion are chronically underrecognized as core operations engineering skills).

This doesn’t mean that everyone can or should be able to do everything.  (I can’t even SAYrainbow-dot-ball the words “full stack engineer” without rolling my eyes.)  Generalists are awesome!  But past a certain inflection point, specialization is the only way an org can scale.

It’s the only way you make room for those engineering archetypes who only want to dive deep, or who really really love refactoring, or who will save the world then disappear for weeks.  Those engineers can be incredibly valuable as part of a team … but they are most valuable in a large org where you have enough generalists to keep the oars rowing along in the meantime.

So, back to Google.  They’ve done, ahem, rather  well for themselves.  Made shitbuckets of money, pushed the boundaries of tech, service hardly ever goes down.  They have operational demands that most of us never have seen and never will, and their engineers are definitely to be applauded for doing a lot of hard technical and cultural labor to get there.

So why did this SRE book ruffle a few feathers?

Mostly because it comes off a little tone deaf in places.  I’m not personally pissed off by
the google SRE book, actually, just a little bemused at how legitimately unaware they seem to be about … anything else that the industry has been doing over the past 10 years, in terms of cultural transformation, turning sysadmins into better engineers, sharing on-call rotations, developing processes around empathy and cross-functionality, engineering best practices, etc.

devops
DevOps for the rest of us

If you try and just apply Google SRE principles to your own org according to their prescriptive model, you’re gonna be in for a really, really bad time.

However, it happens that Jen Davis and Katherine Daniels just published a book called Effective DevOps, which covers a lot of the same ground with a much more varied and inclusive approach.  And one of the things they return to over and over again is the power of context, and how one-size-fits-all solutions simply don’t exist, just like unisex OSFA t-shirts are a dirty fucking lie.

Google insularity is … a thing.  On the one hand it’s great that they’re opening up a bit!rainbow-umbrella-clipart-1 On the other hand it’s a little bit like when somebody barges onto a mailing list and starts spouting without skimming any of the archives.  And don’t even get me started on what happens when you hire long, longterm ex-Googlers back into to the real world.

So, so many of us have had this experience of hiring ex-Googlers who automatically assume that the way Google does a thing is CORRECT, not just contextually appropriate.   Not just right for Google, but right for everyone, always.  Which is just obviously untrue.  But the reassimilation process can be quite long and exhausting when the Kool-Aid is so strong.

Because yeah, this is a conversation and a transformation that the industry has been having for a long time now.  Compared with the SRE manifesto, the DevOps philosophy is much more crowd-sourced, more flexible, and adaptable to organizations of all stages of developments, with all different requirements and key business differentiators, because it’s benefited from loud, mouthy contributors who aren’t all working in the same bubble all along.

And it’s like Google isn’t even aware this was happening, which is weird.

Orrrrrr, maybe I’m just a wee bit annoyed that I’ve been drawn into this position rainbow-dot-ballof having to defend “DevOps”, after many excellent years spent being grumpy about the word and the 10000010101 ways it is used and abused.

(Tell me again about your “DevOps Engineering Team”, I dare you.)

P.S. I highly encourage you to go read the epic hours-long rant by @matthiasr that kicked off the whole thing.  some of which I definitely endorse and some of which not, but I think we could go drink whiskey and yell about this for a week or two easy breezy  ❤

Anyway what the fuck do I know, I’ve never worked in the Google lair, so maybe I am just under-equipped to grasp the true glory, majesty and superiority of their achievements over us all.

Or maybe they should go read Katherine and Jen’s book and interact with the “UnGoogled” once in a while.  ☺️

colorful-rainbow

 

DevOps vs SRE: delayed coverage of the dumbest war

WTF is operations? #serverless

I just got back from the very first ever @serverlessconf in NYC.  I have a soft spot for well-curated single-track conferences, and the organizers did an incredible job.  Major kudos to @iamstan and team for pulling together such a high-caliber mix of attendees as well as presenters.

I’m really honored that they asked me to speak.  And I had a lot of fun delivering my talk!  But in all honesty, I turned it down a few times — and then agreed, and then backed out, and then agreed again at the very last moment.  I just had this feeling like the attendees weren’t going to want to hear what I was gonna say, or like we weren’t gonna be speaking the same language.

Rainbow_dash_12_by_xpesifeindx-d5giyirWhich … turned out to be mmmmostly untrue.  To the organizers’ credit, when I expressed this concern to them, they vigorously argued that they wanted me to talk *because* they wanted a heavy dose of real talk in the mix along with all the airy fairy tales of magic and success.

 

So #serverless is the new cloud or whatever

Hi, I’m grouchy and I work with operations and data and backend stuff.  I spent 3.5 years helping Parse grow from a handful of apps to over a million.  Literally building serverless before it was cool TYVM.

So when I see kids saying “the future is serverless!” and “#NoOps!” I’m like okay, that’s cute.  I’ve lived the other side of this fairytale.  I’ve seen what happens when application developers think they don’t have to care about the skills associated with operations engineering.  When they forget that no matter how pretty the abstractions are, you’re still dealing with dusty old concepts like “persistent state” and “queries” and “unavailability” and so forth, or when they literally just think they can throw money at a service to make it go faster because that’s totally how services work.

I’m going to split this up into two posts.  I’ll write up a recap of my talk in a sec, but first let’s get some things straight.  Like words.  Like operations.

What is operations?

Let’s talk about what “operations” actually means, in the year 2016, assuming a reasonably high-functioning engineering environment.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.29.09 PM

At a macro level, operational excellence is not a role, it’s an emergent property.  It is how you get shit done.

Operations is the sum of all of the skills, knowledge and values that your company has built up around the practice of shipping and maintaining quality systems and software.  It’s your implicit values as well as your explicit values, habits, tribal knowledge, reward systems.  Everybody from tech support to product people to CEO participates in your operational outcomes, even though some roles are obviously more specialized than others.

Saying you have an ops team who is solely responsible for reliability is about as silly as saying that “HR defines and owns our company culture!”  No.  Managers and HR professionals may have particular skills and responsibilities, but culture is an emergent property and everyone contributes (and it only takes a couple bad actors to spoil the bushel).

Thinking about operational quality in terms of “a thing some other team is responsible for” is just generally not associated with great outcomes.  It leads to software engineers who are less proficient or connected to their outcomes, ops teams who get burned out, and an overall lower quality of software and services that get shipped to customers.

These are the specialized skill sets that I associate with really good operations engineers.  Do these look optional to you?

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.41.21 PM

It depends on your mission, but usually these are not particularly optional.  If you have customers, you need to care about these things.  Whether you have a dedicated ops team or not.  And you need to care about the tax it imposes on your humans too, especially when it comes to the cognitive overhead of complex systems.

So this is my definition of operations.  It doesn’t have to be your definition.  But I think it is a valuable framework for helping us reason about shipping quality software and healthy teams.  Especially given the often invisible nature of operations labor when it’s done really well.  It’s so much easier to notice and reward shipping shiny features than “something didn’t break”.

The inglorious past

Don’t get me wrong — I understand why “operations” has fallen out of favor in a lot of crowds.  I get why Google came up with “SRE” to draw a line between what they needed and what the average “sysadmin” was doing 10+ years ago.

Ops culture has a number of well-known and well-documented pathologies: hero/martyr complexes, risk aversion, burnout, etc.  I understand why this is offputting and we need to fix it.

Also, historically speaking, ops has attracted a greater proportion of nontraditional oddballs who just love debugging and building things — fewer Stanford CS PhDs, more tinkerers and liberal arts majors and college dropouts (hi).  And so they got paid less, and had less engineering discipline, and burned themselves out doing too much ad hoc labor.Rainbow_Dash_3.png

But — this is no longer our overwhelming reality, and it is certainly not the reality we are hurtling towards.  Thanks to the SRE movement, and the parallel and even more powerful & diverse open source DevOps movement, operations engineers are … engineers.  Who specialize in infrastructure.  And there’s more value than ever in empathy and fluid skill sets, in engineers who are capable of moving between disciplines and translating between specialties.  This is where the “full-stack developer” buzzword comes from.  It’s annoying, but reflects a real craving for generalist skill sets.

The BOFH stereotype is dead.  Some of the most creative cultural and technical changes in the technical landscape are being driven by the teams most identified with operations and developer tooling.  The best software engineers I know are the ones who consistently value the impact and lifecycle of the code they ship, and value deployment and instrumentation and observability.  In other words, they rock at ops stuff.

The Glorious Future

And so I think it’s time to bring back “operations” as a term of pride.  As a thing that is valued, and rewarded.  As a thing that every single person in an org understands as being critical to success.  Every organization has unique operational needs, and figuring out what they are and delivering on them takes a lot of creativity and ingenuity on both the cultural and technical front.

“Operations” comes with baggage, no doubt.  But I just don’t think that distance and denial are aRainbow_Dash_in_flightn effective approach for making something better, let alone trash talking and devaluing the skill sets that you need to deliver quality services.

You don’t make operational outcomes magically better by renaming the team “DevOps” or “SRE” or anything else.  You make it better by naming it and claiming it for what it is, and helping everyone understand how their role relates to your operational objectives.

And now that I have written this blog post I can stop arguing with people who want to talk about “DevOps Engineers” and whether “#NoOps” is a thing and maybe I can even stop trolling them back about the nascent “#NoDevs” movement.  (Haha just kidding, that one is too much fun.)

Part 2: Operations in a #Serverless World

 

WTF is operations? #serverless

How to survive an acquisition

Last week Facebook announced that they will be shutting down Parse.

 

I have so, so many feelings.  But this isn’t about my feelings now.  This is about what I wish I had known when we got acquired.

When they told us we were getting acquired, it felt like a wrecking ball to the gut.  Nothing against Facebook, it just wasn’t what I signed up for.  Big company, bureaucracy, 3-4 hour daily commute, and goddammit Parse was my *baby*.  What the fuck was this big company going to do to my baby?

Here’s the first thing I wish I had known: this is normal.  Trauma is the norm.  Acquisitions are *always* massively disruptive and upsetting, even the good ones.

This was all compounded by the jarring disconnect between internal and external perceptions of the acquisition.  The surreality of being written up in the press and having everyone act like this was the greatest thing that ever happened to us, versus the shock and dismay and confusion that many of us were actually experiencing.

Here are a few more things I wish I had understood.

You don’t own your product anymore.  Your product is now “strategic alignment”.  Look at yourself in the mirror and repeat that five times every morning.

Your customers are not your customers anymore.  Your customer is now your corporate overlord.  You can resist this and try to serve your old customers first, but it will wear your engineering team out and eventually drive you mad.

Cultures will clash.  Yours will lose.  You *must* learn the tribal and hierarchal games of the new org if you want to succeed.  They don’t make sense to you, and you didn’t choose into them, but you must learn them anyway if you want to succeed.

Assume good intent.  Aggressively assume good intent.  If a big company buys up your tiny startup, lots of people are going to condescend to you and assume they know how to solve your own problems better than you do.  In retrospect, I realize that a lot of tiny acquired startups *don’t* know what the fuck they’re doing and so the behemoth just gets used to assuming that everyone is like that.  Just grit your teeth and take it.

And if you honestly can’t see yourself ever embracing the new parent company, whether for cultural or ethical or technical reasons, you should leave sooner rather than later.  (UNLESS it’s for the golden handcuffs in which case for god’s sake try to emotionally disengage and do not be a people manager.)

One of Facebook’s internal slogans is something like “always do what’s best for Facebook”.  I never gave a shit about Facebook’s mission; I cared about Parse’s.  I remain incredibly proud of everything we accomplished for Parse, MongoDB, and RocksDB.  If only our strategic alignments had, well, aligned.

 

How to survive an acquisition