One of the classic failure modes of management is the empire-builder — the managers who measure their own status, rank or value by the number of teams and people “under” them.
Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to do this, but most of us secretly, sheepishly do it anyway to some extent. After all, it’s not untrue — the more teams and people that roll up to you, the wider your influence and the more impact you have on more people, by definition.
The other reason is, well, it’s what we’ve got. How else are we supposed to gauge our influence and impact, or our skill as a leader? We don’t really have any other language, metrics or metaphors readily available to us. 😖
Well… Here’s one:
✨Every achievement has a denominator✨
Organization size can be a liability
Let’s say you have 1,000 people in your org and you collectively achieve something remarkable. Good for you!
What if you achieved the same thing with 10,000 people, instead? What would that say about your leadership?
What if you achieved the same thing with 100 people?
Or even 10 people?
Lots of people take pride in their ability to manage large organizations. And with thousands of people in your org, you kinda better do something fucking great. But what if you instead took pride in your ability to deliver outsize results with a small denominator?
What if comp didn’t automatically bloat with the size of your org, but rather the impact of your work divided by the number of contributors — rewarding leaders for leaner teams, not larger ones?
Bigness itself is costly. There’s the cost of the engineers, managers, product and designers etc, of course. But the bigger it gets, the more coordination costs are incurred, which are the worst costs of all because they do not accrue to any user benefit — and often lead to lack of focus and product surface sprawl.
Constraints fuel creativity. Having “enough” engineers for a project is usually a terrible idea; you want to be constrained, you want to have to make hard decisions about where to spend your time and where to invest development cycles.
There are times when broad scope may be unavoidable, but at Honeycomb, we try to cultivate a healthy skepticism toward scope. More often than not, scope is the enemy. We would rather reward engineers who find clever ways to limit scope by decomposing problems in both time and size. We also want to reward engineers who work on the most important problems for the business, regardless of the size of the project. We don’t want to reward people for gaming out their work based on what will get them promoted.
The same is true for engineering managers, directors and VPs. We would rather reward them for getting things done with small, nimble teams, not for empire building and team sprawl. We want to reward them for working on the most important problems for the business, regardless of what size their teams are.
What was the denominator of the last big project you landed? Could you have done it with fewer people? How will you apply those learnings to the next big initiative?
Can we find more language and ways to talk about, or take pride in how efficiently we do big things? At the very least, perhaps we can start paying attention to the denominator of our achievements, and factor that into how we level and reward our leaders.
P.S. I did not invent this phrase, but I am unfortunately unable to credit the person I heard it from (a senior Googler). I simply think it’s brilliant, and so helpful.
My friend Molly has had an impressive career. She got a job as a software engineer after graduating from college, and after kicking ass for a year or so she was offered a promotion to management, which she accepted with relish. Molly was smart, driven, and fiercely ambitious, so she swiftly clambered up the ranks to hold director, VP, and other shiny leadership roles. It took two decades, an IPO and a vicious case of burnout before she allowed herself to admit how much she hatedher work, and how desperately she envied (guess who??) the software engineers she worked alongside. Turns out, all she ever really wanted to do was write code every day. And now, to her dismay, it felt too late.
Why did it take Molly so long to realize what made her happy? I personally blame the fucking hierarchy.
The Hierarchy Lie
The “Big Lie” of hierarchy is that your organizational structure is a vertical tree from the CEO on down, where higher up is always better.
Of course any new grad is going to feel that way, on the heels of 15-20 years spent going through school year by year, grade by grade, measuring success via good grades and teacher approval. The early years of professional life are a similar blend of hard work, leveling up and basic skills acquisition. (They got Molly hopped on the leveling treadmill before she even had a chance to become a real adult, in other words. 😍)
But by the time you are fully baked as a senior contributor, maybe 7-8 years in, your relationship to levels and ladders should undergo a dramatic shift. At some point you have to learn to tune in to your own inner compass. What draws you in to your work? What fuels your growth and success?
Being an adult means not measuring yourself entirely on other people’s definition of success. Personal growth might come in the guise of a big promotion, but it also might look like a new job, a different role, a swing to management or back, becoming well-known as a subject matter expert, mentoring others, running an affinity group, picking up new skill sets, starting a company, trying your hand at consulting, speaking at conferences, taking a sabbatical, having a family, working part time, etc. No one gets to define that but you.
You have a thirty- or forty-year adult life and career in front of you. What the hell are you going to do with all that time and space??
Your career is not one mad sprint to the finish line
Literally nobody’s career looks like a straight line, going up, up up and to the right, from intern to CEO (to a coffin).
One of the most exhausting things about working at Facebook was the way engineering levels felt like a hamster wheel, where every single quarter you were expected to go go go go go, do more do more, scrape up ever more of your mortal soul to pour in more than you could last quarter — and the quarter before that, and before that, in ever-escalating intensity.
It was fucking exhausting, yo. Life does not work that way. Shit gets hilly.
The strategy for a fulfilling, lifelong career in tech is not to up the ante every interval. Nor is it to amass more and more power over others until you explode. Instead:
Train yourself to love the feeling of constantly learning and pushing your boundaries. Feeling comfortable is the system blinking orange, and it should make you uneasy.
Follow your nose into work that lights you up in the morning, work you can’t stop thinking about. If you’re bored, do something else.
Say yes to opportunities!! Intensity is nothing to be afraid of. Instead of trying to cap your speed or your growth, learn to alternate it with recovery periods.
If you aren’t sure what to do, make the choice that preserves or expands future optionality. Remember: Most startups fail. Will you be okay with your choices if (& when) this one does too?
Why do people climb the ladder? “Because it’s there.” And when they don’t have any other animating goals, the ladder fills a vacuum.
But if you never make the leap from externally-motivated to intrinsically-motivated, this will eventually becomes a serious risk factor for your career. Without an inner compass (and a renewable source of joy), you will struggle to locate and connect with the work that gives your life meaning. You will risk burnout, apathy and a serious lack of fucks given..
The times I have come closest to burnout or flaming out have never been when I was working the hardest, but when I cared the least. Or when I felt the least needed.📈📉💔
A disturbing number of companies would rather feel in control than unclench and perform better
But hey! Lack of inner drive isn’t the ONLY thing that drives people to climb the ladder. Plenty of companies fuck this up too, all on their lonesome. Let’s talk about more of the ways that companies mess up the workplace! Like by disempowering the people doing the work and giving all the power to managers, thereby forcing anyone who wants a say in their own job become one.
The way we talk about work is riddled with hierarchical, authoritarian phrases: “She was my superior”, “My boss made me do it”, “I got promoted into management”, and so on.
There are plenty of industries where line workers are still disempowered cogs and power structures are hierarchical and absolute (like flipping burgers at McDonalds, or factory line work). There are even software companies still trying to make it work in command-and-control mode, to whom engineers are interchangeable monkeys that ship story points and close JIRA tasks.
But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that for industries that are fueled by creativity and innovation, command-and-control leadership is poison. It stifles innovation, it saps initiative, it siphons away creativity and motivation and caring.
Studies also show that the more visible someone’s power is, the less likely anyone is to give them honest feedback.
Companies that don’t learn this lesson are unlikely to win over the long run. Engineering is a deeply creative occupation, and authoritarian environments are toxic for creativity and people’s willingness to share information.
Hierarchy is just a data structure
The basic function of a hierarchy is to help us make sense of the world, simplify information, and make decisions. Hierarchy lets us break down enormous projects — like “let’s build a rocket!”, or “let’s invade the moon!” — into millions of bite size decisions and tasks, and this is how progress gets made.
A certain amount of authority is invested into the hierarchy model. If you are responsible for delivering a unit of work, the company needs to make sure you have enough resources and decision-making ability to do so. This is what we think of as the formal power structure , and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what makes the system work.
The problem starts when we stop thinking of hierarchy as a neutral data structure — a utilitarian device for organizing groups and making decisions — and start projecting all kinds of social status and dominance onto it.
A sensitivity to social dominance is wired deep, deep into our little monkey brains. It’s what tells us we deserve more power, leverage, pride, influence, and autonomy — and simply have more value — than those below us. It’s what tells us those above us are better, stronger and more deserving than we are, and that we owe them our respect and deference.
It also tells us “if you lose status, YOU MIGHT DIE” 😱😱😱 which is why we may react to a perceived loss of status with a sting that seems astonishingly extreme and overwrought, even to ourselves, yet somehow impossible to shrug off.
hierarchies tend to get mixed up with social dominance
In general, it is better to pursue roles and growth based on the affirmative (what it is you want to learn, grow or do more of) than the negative (what you want to avoid, evade or stop doing). Your motivation systems don’t kick in to gear when you are feeling “lack of pain” — the system doesn’t work that way. They kick in when you get interested.
And if you are sick of doing something or being treated a certain way, chances are everyone else will hate it, too. Who wants to work at a company where all the shit rolls downhill?
Hierarchies have stuck around for one very good reason: because they work. Hierarchies are simple, intuitive, and allow large numbers to collaborate with low cognitive overhead. Unfortunately, most hierarchies become entwined with status and dominance markers, which can bring enormous downsides. At their worst, they can suck the literal life out of work, reducing us all to glum little cogs obeying orders.
We aren’t getting rid of hierarchy anytime soon. But we can use culture and ritual to gently untangle them from dominance, and we can choose to interpret formal power as a service function instead of a dictatorship. This frees people up to choose their work based on what makes them feel fulfilled, instead of their perceived status. (Also helpful? Flatter pay bands. 😛)
Good managers do not dictate and demand, they nurture, develop, and inspire. The most important roles in the company aren’t held by managers; they are all the little leaf nodes busily building the product, supporting users, identifying markets, writing copy, etc. The people doing the work are why we exist as a company; all the rest is, with considerable due respect, overhead.
How to drain your hierarchy of social dominance
When it comes to hierarchy and team structure, there are the functional, organizational aspects (mostly good) and the social dominance parts (mostly bad). With that in mind, there are plenty of smaller things we can do as a team to remind people that we are equal colleagues, simply with different roles.
Be conscious of the language you use. Does it reinforce dominance and hierarchy? (Step one: stop calling management “a promotion”🥰)
De-emphasize trappings of power. The more you refer to someone’s formal power, the less likely anyone is to give them critical feedback or question them.
Push back against common but unhelpful practices, like “a manager should always make more money than the people who report to them.” Really? Why??
Are there opportunities for career advancement as an IC, or only as a manager? Everyone should have the ability to advance in their career.
Do your own dishes, everyone.
Practice visualizing the org chart upside down, where managers and execs support their teams from below rather than topping them from above. (I was going to write a whole post about this, then discovered other people have been doing that for the past decade. 🤣)
And then there is the big(ger) thing we can (and must!) do, in order to 1) make people go into management for the right reasons, 2) help senior IC roles remain attractive to highly skilled creative and technical contributors, and 3) encourage everybody to make career decisions based on curiosity, growth, and what’s best for the business, instead of turf and power grabs. Which is:
Practice transparency, from top to bottom
Share authority, decision-making and power
Technical contributors own technical decisions
Most people who go in to management don’t do it out of a burning desire to write performance reviews. They do it because they are fed the fuck up with being out of the loop, or not having a say in decisions over their own work. All they want is to be in the room where it happens, and management tends to be the only way you get an invite.
EVERY company says they believe in transparency, but hardly any of them are, by my count. Transparency doesn’t mean flooding people with every trivial detail, or freaking them out with constant fire drills. It does mean being actively forthcoming about important questions and matters which are happening or on the horizon…often before you are fully comfortable with it. Honestly, if you never feel any discomfort about your level of transparency, you probably aren’t transparent enough.
People do better work with more context! You’re equipping them with information to better understand the business problems and technical objectives, and thereby unleashing them and their creativity to help solve them. You’re also opening yourself up to questioning and sanity checks — which may feel uncomfortable, but 🌞sunlight is sanitizing🌞 — it is worth it.
Some practical tips for transparency
At Honeycomb, we present the full board deck after every board meeting in our all hands, and take questions. When we’re facing financial uncertainty, we say so, along with our working plan for dealing with it. We also do org-level updates in all hands, once per quarter per org. Each org presents a snapshot to the company of how they are doing, but we ask that no more than 2/3 of the presentation be about their successes and triumphs, and 1/3 of their material be about their failures and misses. Normalize talking about failure.
Being transparent isn’t about putting everyone on blast; it’s about cultivating a habit of awareness about what might be relevant to other people. It’s about building systems of feedback, updates and open questioning into your culture. This can be scary, so it’s also about training yourselves as a team to handle hard news without overreacting or shooting the messenger. If you always tell people what they want to hear, they’ll never trust you. You can’t trust someone’s ‘yes’ until you hear their ‘no’.
Transparency is always a balance between information and distraction, but I think these are healthy internal rules of thumb for management:
If anyone has further questions or wants to know more details than what was shared, they are free to ask any manager or exec, who will willingly answer more fully, up to the boundaries of privacy or legal reasons. As employees, they have a right to know about the business they are part of. A right — not a privilege, which can be revoked on a whim.
When making internal decisions about e.g. salary bands, individual exceptions to formal policy, etc, ask each other … if this decision were to leak, could we justify our reasoning with head held high? If you would feel ashamed, or if you really don’t want people to find out about it, it’s probably the wrong decision.
Some practical tips for distributing power
Power flows to managers by default, just like water flows downhill. Managers have to actively push back on this tendency by explicitly allocating powers and responsibilities to tech leads and engineers. Don’t hoard information, share context generously, and make sure you know when they would want to tap in to a discussion. Your job is not to “shield” them from the rest of the org; your job is to help them determine where they can add outsize value, and include them. Only if they trust you to loop them in will they feel free to go heads down and focus.
Wrap your senior ICs into planning and other leadership activities. Decisions about sociotechnical processes (code reviews, escalation points, SLI/SLOs, ownership etc) are usually better owned by staff+ engineers than anyone on the management track. Invite a couple of your seniormost engineers to join calibrations — they bring a valuable perspective to performance discussions that managers lack.
Demystify management. Blur the lines between people managers and engineers; delegate ownership and accountability for some important projects to ICs. Ask every engineer about their career interests, and if management is on the list, find opportunities for them to practice and improve at managerial skills — mentoring, interviewing, onboarding, etc.
Adults don’t like being told what to do
People do phenomenal work when they want to do it, when they are creatively and emotionally engaged at the level of optimum challenge, and when they know their work matters. That’s where you’ll find your state of flow. That is where you’ll do your best work, which is also the best way to get promoted and make durable advances in your career.
Not, ironically, by chasing levels and titles for their own sake. ☺️
People want to be challenged. They want you to ask them to step up and take responsibility for something hard. They want to be needed, and they want to have agency in the doing of it. Just like you do.
Oh yeah, back to Molly …
Molly, who I mentioned at the beginning, joined Honeycomb five years ago as a customer success exec. After realizing she wanted to go back to engineering, she switched to working our support desk to build up her technical chops while she practiced writing code on the side. She has now been working as a software engineer on the product team for over two years, and she is ✨rocking it.✨ It is NEVER too late. 🙌
p.s. Molly also says, “don’t waste time at bad companies, whether you’re climbing the ladder or not!” 🥂
 Formal power is only one kind of power, and in some ways it is the weakest, because it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the company and is only loaned out for you to wield on its behalf. (You don’t carry the innate ability to fire people along with you after you stop being an engineering manager, for example.) Formal powers are limited, enumerated, and functional. You don’t get to use them for any reason other than furthering the goals of the org, or else it is literally an abuse of power.
Formal power is fascinating in another way, too: which is that your formal power is seen as legitimate only if you ~basically always wield it in the ways everyone already expects you to. You can make a surprising call only so often; you can straight up overrule the wishes of your constituents extremely rarely. If you use your formal power to do things that people disagree with or don’t support, without taking the time to persuade them or create real consensus, you will squander your credibility and good faith unbelievably fast.
 I am not going to bother rustling up lots of links and citations, because I expect most of this falls into the voluminous category of “shit you already knew”. But if any of it sounds surprising to you, here are some classic reference works:
We have been interviewing and hiring a pile of engineering directors at Honeycomb lately. In so doing, I’ve had some fascinating conversations with engineering managers who have been trying unsuccessfully to make the leap to director.
Here is a roundup of some of the ideas and advice I shared with them, and the original twitter thread that spawned this post.
What is an engineering director?
Given all the title inflation and general inconsistency out there, it seems worth describing what I have in mind when I say or hear “Engineering Director.”
In a traditional org chart, an engineering manager usually manages about 5-8 engineers, an engineering director manages 2-5 engineering managers, and a VP of engineering manages the directors. (At big companies, you may see managers and directors reporting to other managers and directors, and/or you may find a bunch of ‘title padding’ roles like Senior Manager, Senior Director etc.)
In smaller companies, it’s common to have a “Head of Engineering” (this is an appropriately weaselly title that commands just the right amount of respect while leaving plenty of space to hire additional people below or above them). Or all of engineering might roll up to a director or VP or CTO. It varies a lot.
When it comes to the work a director is expected to do, though, there’s a fair bit of consistency: we expect managers to manage ICs, and directors to manage managers. Directors sit between the line managers and the strategic leadership roles. (More on this later.)
So if you’re an engineering manager, and you want to try being a director, the first thing you’ll want to understand is this: it is generally better to get there by being promoted than by getting offered a director title at a different company.
How to level up
Lots of engineers get tapped by their management to become managers, but not many become directors without a conversation and some intentional growth first. This means that for many of you, trying to become a director may be the first time you have ever consciously solicited a role outside the interview process. This can bring up feelings of awkwardness, even shamefulness or inappropriateness. You’ll just have to push through those.
If you ever want a job in upper leadership, you are going to have to learn how to shamelessly state your career goals. We want people in senior leadership who want to be there and are honing their skills in anticipation of an opportunity. Not “oops, I accidentally a VP.”
It is better to get promoted than hired up a level
There are a few reasons for this. It’s usually easier to get promoted than to get hired straight into a job you’ve never held before (at a org with high standards), and it also tends to be more sustainable/more likely to succeed if you get promoted in as well. Being a director is NOT just being a super-duper manager, it’s a different role and function entirely.
A lot of your ability to be successful as a director (or any kind of manager) comes from knowing the landscape, the product and the people, and having good relationships internally. When you are internally promoted, you already know the company and the people, so you get a leg up towards being successful. Whereas if you’ve just joined the company and are trying to learn the tech, the people, the relationships, and how the company works all at once, on top of trying to perform a new role for the first time.. well, that is a lot to take on at once.
There are exceptions, sure! Oodles of them. But I would frankly look sideways at a place that wanted to hire me as a director if I haven’t been one, or hadn’t at leastmanaged managers before. It’s at least a yellow flag. It tells me they are probably either a) very desperate or b) very sloppy with handing out titles.
If you want a promotion…
The obvious first step involves asking your manager, “what is the skill gap for me between the job I am doing right now and a director role?” Unlike in the movies, promotions don’t usually get surprise-dropped on people’s heads; people are usually cultivated for them. Registering your interest makes it more likely they will consider you, or help you develop skills in that direction as time moves on.
If you have a good manager who believes in you, and the opportunities exist at your company, that might even be all you have to do.(!)
And if so, lucky you. But as for the remaining ~80-90% of us (ha!) … well, we’ll need a bit more hustle.
Take inventory of your opportunities
Lots of companies aren’t large enough to need directors, or growing fast enough to create new opportunities. This can actually be the most challenging part of the equation, because there are generally a lot more managers who want to be directors than there are available openings.
If you do need to find a new job to reach your career goals, I would target fast-growing companies with at least 100 engineers. If you’re evaluating prospective employers based on your chance of advancement, consider the following::
Ask about their policies on internal vs external hires. Do they give preference to existing employees? How do they decide when to recruit vs grow from within?
Ask about the last time that someone was promoted into a similar role.
Tell the recruiter and hiring manager about your career goals. Don’t be shy. “My next career goal is to gain some experience managing managers” is fine. (That shouldn’t be the only reason you’re interested, of course.)
There are no sure bets. But you can do a lot to put yourself in the right place at the right time, signal your interest, and be prepared for the opportunity when it strikes.
a director is not a ‘super-senior manager’
A director is not just a manager on steroids: it is an entirely different job. It helps to have been a good manager before becoming a director, because many management skills will translate, but others will be entirely new to you. Expect this.
How being a good director is different from being a good manager
Let’s look at some of the ways that being a good engineering manager is different than being a good director.
You can be a great EM, beloved by your team, without giving much thought to managing out or up. Directors cannot. If anything, it’s the opposite. You may get away with not coddling your EMs, but you must pull your weight for your peers and upper management.
You can have a bit of a reputation for being stubborn or difficult as an EM, and that can be just fine. But having such a rep will probably sabotage your attempt at being promoted to director.
You can be a powerful technical EM who sometimes jumps in to train engineers, be on call, or course correct technical and architectural decisions. This can even burnish your value and reputation as an EM. But this would all be a solid knock against you as a director.
Managers can get away with being opinionated and attached to technology, to some extent, while directors absolutely must balance lots of different stakeholders to achieve healthy business outcomes.
This difference of perspective is why managers will sometimes sniff about directors having sold out, or being “all about politics.”
(Blaming something on “politics” is usually a way of accidentally confessing that you don’t actually understand the constraints someone is operating under, IMO.)
A director’s job is running the business
Here’s the key fact: ✨directors run the business✨.
Managers should be focused on high-performing engineering teams. VPs should be focused on strategy and the longer term. Directors are the execution machines that knit technology with business objectives. (I like this piece, although the lede is a little buried. Key graf:)
Directors run the business. They are accountable for results. You can’t be bopping in and writing or reviewing code, or tossing off technical opinions. That’s not your job anymore.
Managing managers is a whole new skill set
The distance between managing engineers and managing managers is nearly as vast as the gulf between being an engineer and being a manager.
But it’s sneakier, because you don’t feel out of your depth as much as you did when you became a manager. 😁
As a manager, each of us instinctively draws on our own unique blend of strength and charisma — whatever it is that makes people look up to you and willing to accept your influence. Most of us can’t explain how we do it, because we run on instinct.
But as a director, you have to figure it out. Because you need to be able to debug it when the magic breaks down. You need to help your managers influence and lead using *their* unique strengths. What works for you won’t work for them. You have to learn how to unpack different leadership styles and support them in the way they need.
If you’re working towards a director role:
There are lots of areas where you can improve your director skills and increase your chances of being viewed as director material without any help whatsoever from your manager.
You ✨can not✨ be a blocker
Directors run the business … so you CANNOT be seen as a blocker. People must come to you of their own accord to get shit done and break through the blockers.
If they are going to other people for advice on how to break through YOU, you are not a good candidate for director. Figure out how to fix this before you do anything else.
Demonstrate impact beyond your team(s)
Another way to make yourself an attractive prospect for director is to work on systemic problems, driving impact at the org or company level. You could:
work to substantially increase the diversity of your teams or your candidate pipeline, and offer to work with recruiting and other managers to help them do the same (becoming BFFs with recruiting is often a canny move)
drive some cross-platform initiative to consolidate dozens of snowflake deploy processes and significantly reduce CI/CD build/deploy times, set an internal SLO for artifact build times, or successfully champion auto-deployment
champion an internal tools team with a mandate to increase developer productivity, and quantify the hell out of it
lead a revamp of the new hire onboarding process. Or add training and structure to the interview process and set an SLO of responding to every candidate within one week
I dunno — it all depends on what’s broken at your company. 🙃 Identify something causing widespread pain and frustration at the organizational level and fix it.
Managing ‘up’ is not a ‘nice-to-have’…
If there’s a problem, make sure you are the one to bring it to your manager (and swiftly), along with “Here is the context, here’s where I went wrong, and this is what I’m planning to do about it.” No surprises.
At this point in your career, you should have mastered the art of not being a giant pain in the ass to your manager. Nobody wants a high-maintenance director. Do you reliably make problems go away, or do they boomerang back five times worse after you “fix” them?
…Neither is managing ‘out’
Managing “out” is important too. (Not “managing out”, which means terminating people from the company, but managing “out” as in horizontally, meaning your relationship with your peers.)
What do your peers think of you? Do you invest in those relationships? Do they see you as an ally and a source of wise counsel, or a source of chaos, gossip and instability, or a competitor with turf to protect? If you’re the manager that other managers seek out for a peer check, you might be a good candidate for director.
psst.. People are watching you
One of the most uncomfortable things to internalize if you climb the ladder is how much people will make snap judgments about you based on the tiniest fragments of information about you, and how those judgments may forever color the way they think of you or interact with you.
First impressions might be made by ten minutes together on the same zoom call…a few overheard fragments of people talking about you…even the expressions on your face as they pass you in the hallway. People will extrapolate a lot from a very little, and changing their impression of you later is hard work.
(Yes it’s frustrating, but you can’t really get upset about it, because you and I do it too. It’s part of being human. )
Because of that, you really do have to guard against being too cranky, too tired, or out of spoons. People WILL take it personally. It WILL come back to hurt you.
Remember, you don’t hear most feedback. If you visibly disagree with someone, assume 10x as many silently agree with them. If one person gives you a piece of hard feedback, assume 10x as many will never tell you. Be grateful. The more power you are perceived to have, the less feedback you will ever hear.
You can infer a surprising amount about how good a director candidate may be at their job, simply by listening closely to how they talk about their colleagues. Do they complain about being misunderstood or mistreated, do they minimize the difficulty or quality of others’ work, do they humblebrag, or do they take full responsibility for outcomes? And does their empathy fully extend to their peers in other departments, like sales and marketing?
Does it sound like they enjoy their work, and look forward to beginning it every day? Does it sound like they are all in the same little tugboat, all pulling in the same direction, or is there a baseline disconnect and lack of trust?
Be approachable, be a drama dampener, project warmth. Control your calendar and carve out regular focus time. Guard your energy — never run your engine under 30%, and always leave something in the tank.
There are a lot more great responses and advice in the replies to my thread, btw. Go check them out if you’re interested.. and if you have something to say, contribute!.☺️
 Occasionally, it may work out to your benefit to jump into a new, higher title at a new company. This can happen when someone is already well qualified for the higher role, but is finding it difficult to get promoted (possibly due to insufficient opportunity or systemic biases). Just be aware that the job you were hired into is likely to be one where the titles are meaningless and/or the roles are chaotic. You may want to stay just long enough to get the title, then bounce to a healthier org.
There are two anxieties I hear people express above all the rest.
The first one is something I hear over and over again, particularly from first-time managers as they contemplate the possibility of leaving management and returning to IC (individual contributor) work as an engineer:
“What if I never get another shot at people management?” “Maybe this is the only chance I’ll ever get … and I’m about to give it up??” “Am I going to regret this?”
“Will I ever get another shot at management?”
People decide to go back to engineering for lots of reasons. Maybe they’re burned out, or they work someplace with a poisonous management culture, or they’re having a kid and want to return to a role that feels more comfortable for a while. Or maybe they’ve been managing teams for a few years now, and have decided it’s time to go back to the well and refresh their technical skills in the interest of their long-term employability.
Regardless, these are not typically people who disliked being a manager. Rather they tend to be engineers who really enjoyed people management, and find it bittersweet to give up. Maybe they will miss the strategic elements and roadmap work, but they’re excited to clear their calendar and spend time in flow again, or they will miss having 1x1s but can’t wait to have time to mentor people. Whatever. They want to manage teams again someday, and worry they won’t get another chance.
Their anxiety is understandable! Lots of people feel like they waited a long time to be tapped for management, or like they were passed over again and again. Our cultural scripts about management definitely contribute to this sense of scarcity and diminution of agency (i.e. that management is a promotion, it is bestowed on you by your “superiors” as a reward for your performance, and it is pushy or improper to openly seek the role for yourself).
This anxiety is also, in my experience, ridiculously misplaced. ☺️
Once a manager, marked for life as a manager
You may have struggled to get your first opportunity to manage a team. But it’s a whole different story once you’ve done the job. Now you have the skills and the experience, and people can smellit on you.
I’m not joking. If you’re a good manager it’s actually nearly impossible to hide that you have the skills, because of the way it infuses your work and everything that you do as an IC. You get better at prioritization, more attuned to the needs of the business, and restless about work that doesn’t materially move the business forward. You get better at asking questions about why things need to be done and at communicating with stakeholders. You get better at motivating the people you work with, understanding their motivations and your own, and mediating conflicts or putting a damper on drama between peers. People come to you for advice and may seem to just do what you say, or go where you point.
Senior engineers with management experience are worth their weight in gold. They are valuable contributors and influential teammates. It’s a palpable shift! And every experienced manager in their vicinity will sense it.
So yes, you will be tapped for management again. And again and again and again. You are more likely to spend the rest of your career fending off management “opportunities” with a baseball bat than you are to wither away, pining for another shot.
There is a chronic shortage of good engineering managers, just like there is a chronic shortage of good, empathetic managers in every line of work. The challenge you will face from now on will not be about getting the chance to manage a team, but about being intentional and firm in carving out the time you need to recover and recharge your skills as an engineer.
“Am I too rusty to go back to engineering?”
The second anxiety is in some ways a mirror of the first:
“Can I still perform as an engineer?” “Will anyone hire me for an engineering role?” “Has it been too long, am I too rusty, will I be able to pull my weight?”
This is a more materially valid concern than the first one, in my opinion. Your engineering skills do wither and erode as time goes on. It will take longer and longer to refresh your skills the longer you go without using them. Management skills don’t decay in the same way that technical ones do, nor do they go out of date every few years as languages, frameworks and technologies tend to do.
If you aren’t interested in climbing the ladder and becoming a director or VP — or rather, if you aren’t actively, successfully climbing the ladder — you should have a strategy for keeping your hands-on skills sharp, because your ability to be a strong line manager is grounded in your own engineering skills.
Never, ever accept a managerial role until you are already solidly senior as an engineer. To me this means at least seven years or more writing and shipping code; definitely, absolutely no less than five. It may feel like a compliment when someone offers you the job of manager — hell, take the compliment 🙃 — but they are not doing you any favors when it comes to your career or your ability to be effective.
When you accept your first manager job, I think you should make a commitment to yourself to stick it out for two years. That’s how long it takes to rewire your instincts and synapses, to learn enough that you can tell whether you’re doing a good job or not.
After two or three years of management, it’s still pretty easy to go back to engineering. After five years, it gets progressively harder. But it can be done. And it should be worth it to your employer to invest in keeping you while you refresh your skills over the six months or whatever it may take. Insist on it, if you must. It’s better to refresh your skills while employed, on a system and codebase you’re familiar with, than to find yourself struggling to brush up enough to pass a coding interview.
Engineering fluency == job security
There is one more reason to refresh your engineering skills from time to time, one I don’t often see mentioned, and that is job security and optionality.
The higher you go up the ladder, the more money you will get paid…but the fewer jobs there be, and the fewer still that match your profile.
As a senior software engineer, there are fifteen bajillion job openings for you. Everyone wants to hire you. You can get a new job in a matter of days, no matter how picky you want to be about location, flexibility, technologies, product types, whatever. You’ve reached Peak Hire.
If you are looking for management roles, there will be an order of magnitude fewer opportunities (and more idiosyncratic hiring criteria), but still plenty for the most part. But for every step up the ladder you go, the opportunities drop by another order of magnitude, and the scrutiny becomes much more intense and particular. If you’re looking for VP roles, it may take months to find a place you want to work at, and then they might not choose you. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Maintaining your technical chops is a stellar way to hedge against uncertainties and maintain your optionality.
Holy macaroni batman, I was not expecting that post to ignite a shitstorm. It felt like a pretty straightforward observation: you were hired to do a job, you should do your best to do that job.
Interestingly, the response was almost universally positive for the first 8 hours or so. But then the tide began to turn as the 🔥hot takes🔥 began rolling in (oh god 🙈) and then began pingponging off each other, competing for and amplifying each other’s outrage. 😕
When something touches a nerve like this, it swiftly becomes less about your actual words and more of a public event, or maybe a Teachable Moment. (🤮) Everybody has to weigh in with their commentary, and while it’s not super fun to be on the receiving end, I have mostly learned to distinguish the general pile-on from the few engaging in bad faith. I just keep telling myself that public discourse is how we create shared consensus and shift the Overton window and industry norms. So that’s all fair game, it’s done in good faith and it’s the price of change. I can take a few days of shitty twitter mentions for the team, lol.
The one comment that did worm under my skin was a woman who said she believed my post would give an abusive former boss ammo to use against people like her in the future. And that, more than all the hatertomatoade, is why I wrote this epic followup.
Two responses i’d like to foreground
First, I’d like to link to something Terra said about the importance of ERGs for marginalized workers, especially during times of duress.
So this is great if you exist in a position of privilege where you can view something like an Employee Resource Group (ERG) as extracurricular. As a trans person, the viability and strength of an ERG that speaks to our needs is critical to my employment. (1/x) 🧵 https://t.co/9sG0FrGN6i
— 👻 Terra Fied 🎃 Adult Human Femur 🦴 (@RainofTerra) March 7, 2021
Thanks Terra, I stand corrected — I can totally see how that work counts as part of one’s core job, and managers should understand this and define it as such.
I still don’t think it means you promote someone purely on the basis of that work; I don’t see how you can promote someone up an engineering ladder until they can fulfill the technical requirements of the next level. It could certainly mean expanding the core requirements of your role to include your ERG labor, though perhaps not replacing the technical work entirely (over the long term).
This goes both ways, fwiw. Nobody should be promoted without doing their fair share of the emotional labor and glue work it takes to keep the company going. A successful career in sociotechnical systems means leveling up your social repertoire as well as your technical skills. Your job descriptions and levels must reflect this, spelling out both the social and the technical requirements at each level.
🔥🔥🔥Tip of the Day🔥🔥🔥
If you want to know what your company REALLY cares about, take a management gig for a while and listen closely to the debates over whether or not to promote someone to the post-senior levels, and why or why not. You are LITERALLY witnessing as your organization decides, over and over, what it values the most, what it wants to reward, whose footsteps they want you to follow in, and where to spend its scarcest, most inelastic resource: staff and principal engineering titles. Fascinating shit.
Secondly, please go and read Shelby’s excellent thread, written from the perspective of someone who has been “Susan” for a number of reasons.
having been a Susan in a couple different roles:
sometimes it's that my priorities as a sharp-end practitioner differed from what leadership thought was important, and they didn't listen to my feedback 1/
These situations are complicated, and managers should always, always try to listen and understand the subtleties of each unique situation before coming to some mutual understanding with their team member about what the core responsibilities of the job are. Jobs are living documents, and it doesn’t hurt to revisit them and clarify from time to time. <3
Objection: “Nobody has Just One Job”
Completely true. I was trying to be funny by referring to the “You had one job!” meme. I apologize. Yes, everybody has a basket of responsibilities. I DO think that a well-written job description and clarification on the priorities of the job is a good thing, and will go a long way towards helping you figure out how to spend your time and how to not get burned out.
Also: am I prone to hyperbole? Yes ma’am, sweeping statements are LITERALLY ALL I DO. (Sorry ☺️)
FTR, I don’t think your core responsibilities should be overwhelming, and there should be plenty of time in your normal 40 hour work week to devote to so-called electives and extracurriculars. I’ve said many times that I don’t believe anyone has more than four hours a day of real, focused, challenging engineering labor in them. So maybe 15-20 hours/week of moving the business forward in your areas of ownership?
Most of us have about ✨four hours✨a day of intense cognitive labor, the kind where you are learning or creating something new.
You can spend more hours than that "working", meaning emails, meetings, docs, etc — some of which may be important, but still less taxing. https://t.co/IEPwE7VQ4F
Everyone should have cycles free for participating in the “squishy” parts of work. It’s an important part of taking a group of random individuals and connecting them with meaning and a sense of mission. That isn’t HR’s job, or the managers or execs’ jobs, that is everyone’s job, the more the better. Everyone should have flexibility, autonomy, and variety in their schedule, and should feel supported in using work hours to support their peers. Nothing I am saying contradicts any of that. But sometimes something’s gotta give, and usually your core responsbilities are not what you want to sacrifice.
Objection: “Interviewing isn’t optional”
Sure. But you weren’t hired to interview. It’s just part of the basket of secondary responsibilities that come along with being a member of the team. If you’re an engineer, you likely weren’t hired to write blog posts or mentor folks — unless you were! were you?? — which makes them similarly in the bucket marked “valuable, but secondary”.
We aren’t talking about “steady state”, we’re talking about what to do when you aren’t able to fulfill the core functions of your job. This should be a temporary state of emergency, not the status quo. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s totally normal to ask to be excused from the interviewing rotation for a quarter or so, or any of your other secondary responsibilities.
Objection: “How dare you not promote someone who is getting good peer reviews”
I said she was getting some compliments and rave reviews. If you’re getting compliments from HR, marketing, and other people sprinkled across the company, but you aren’t delivering for your own team; if you’re holding back core initiatives for your closest peers, then you aren’t doing your work in the right order.
I’ve seen this happen when an engineer’s public persona becomes more important to them than their actual work. When they get hooked on the public adulation of giving talks and writing posts and going to conferences, meanwhile their output at work drops off a cliff. This isn’t fair to your coworkers. Maybe you don’t want to do this job anymore, maybe you want a job where your core responsibilities are writing and speaking. I don’t know. All I know is that if I’m the manager of that team, my responsibility and loyalty is to the well-functioning of that team, so we need to have a conversation and clarify what’s happening.
Again, all I am saying is that your commitments to your immediate team come first. Not following through affects way more than just you.
Objection: “You are hating on / devaluing glue work”
I really wish I had thought to link to Tanya Reilly’s invaluable material on glue work in my original post, but I didn’t connect those dots, sadly. Yes, it can be hard for engineering managers to recognize or reward glue work, and yes, glue work is an invaluable form of technical leadership. I don’t have a lot to say about this other than I completely agree, and it is not what I am talking about.
Objection: “All these extra-curriculars should count towards promotions”
Well, yes! Duh! I am all for promoting people not based on raw individual coding output, but on overall impact. People who perform a lot of glue work are invaluable to any high functioning team, and people who run internal ERGs, do lots of DEI work, etc — that SHOULD factor into promotions. In my original post I said that sadly, when someone isn’t performing the key parts of their job, you don’t get credit for these wonderful positives — they are not enough on their own (unless of course you have an understanding with your manager that your core responsibilities have changed), and can even be evidence of time mismanagement or an inability to prioritize.
I cannot honestly understand why this is controversial. If you were hired as a database engineer, and you spent the year doing mostly DEI work, how does it make sense to promote you to the next level as a database engineer? That’s not setting you up for success at the next level at ALL. If this was agreed upon by you and your manager, I can see giving you glowing reviews for the period of time spent on DEI work, as long as your dbeng responsibilities were gracefully handed off to someone else (and not just dropped), but not promoting you for it.
However, if you ARE competently performing your core responsibilities as a database engineer, and are performing them at the next level, then all your additional work for the company — on DEI, ERGs, mentoring, interviewing, etc — adds up to a MASSIVELY compelling body of work, and a powerful argument for promotion. It certainly ought to be enough to push you over the edge if you are on the bubble for the next level..
Objection: “You hate DEI work and demean those who do it”
It does not make me anti-DEI work to point out that you were hired to do a certain job, first and foremost. If you want your first-and-foremost job to be DEI work, that’s great! Go get that job! If you want your first-and-foremost job to be engineering, but then not do that job, I … guess I just fail to see how this is a logically defensible position.
As someone else put it: “Your One Job is the cake, the rest is the icing”.//TODO citation You can often negotiate a job that has a LOT of icing — but you should negotiate, no surprises. DEI work is absolutely valuable to companies, because having a diverse workforce is a competitive advantage and increasingly a hiring advantage. But that work isn’t typically budgeted under engineering, it comes from G&A
I can also understand why you might want to keep the (unfortunately higher) engineering salary and the (unfortunately higher) social status you have with an engineering role, even if engineering no longer feeds your soul the way doing diversity work does. I know people in this situation, and it’s tricky. 😕 There is no single right or wrong answer, just a question of whether you can find an employer who is willing to pay for that configuration. But I should think clarity and straightforwardness is more important than ever when your heart’s desire is unconventional.
Objection: “You’re letting managers off the hook. This is entirely a management failure.”
You might be right. This is often a consequence of negligent, unclear, or biased management. But not always. I’ve also seen it happen — close up — with engaged, empathetic, highly skilled managers who were good at setting structure and boundaries, deeply encouraging, gave tons of chances and great constant feedback, tried every which way to make it work … and the employee just wasn’t interested. They volunteered for every social committee and followed every butterfly that fluttered by. They just weren’t into the work.
YES, managers should be keeping close tabs on their reports and giving constant feedback. YES, it’s on the manager to make sure the role is clearly defined.
YES, managers should be clear with employees on what the promotion path is, and YES, no review should ever be a surprise.
YES, if people all over the org are heaping requests or responsibilities on the Susans of the world, it can be difficult to prioritize and it is not fair to expect them to juggle those requests, the manager should help to shelter them from it. Yes yes yes. We are all on the same page.
But I am writing this post, not to managers, but to engineers, people like me, who are confused about why they aren’t getting promoted and others are. I am writing this post because good managers are in scarce supply, and I don’t want your career to be on hold until you happen to get a good one. I am trying to provide a peek behind the curtain into something that frustrates managers and holds a lot of people back, so that you can take matters into your own hand and try to fix it. If your manager hasn’t been clear with you on what your core job is, they suck and I’m sorry.
Is any of this your fault? Maybe, maybe not. But it is something you have some control over. You can at least open the conversation and ask for some clarity.
You shouldn’t HAVE to do their job for them. But why let a shitty manager hurt your career any more than you must?.
Objection: “This is a gendered thing. ‘Steven’ would have been promoted for this, while ‘Susan’ gets scolded.”
A surprising number of people thought I was writing this as advice specifically to and for women, and got mad about that. Nope, sorry. It was not a gendered thing at all. I’ve seen this happen pretty much equally with men and women. I had planned on writing three or four anecdotes, using multiple fake names and genders, but the first one turned out long so I stopped.
Confession: I put zero thought into constructing a realistic or plausible list of activities “Susan” has at work. This came back to bite me. A LOT of people were doing a super close read of the situation (e.g. “She’s on three ERGs, so she must be a queer woman of color, which means she’s probably the most senior person at the company along all three dimensions of marginalization…”) — which, AUGH — this isn’t real, y’all —
✨This is Not A Real Situation✨.
— it was MADE UP! Totally! I just listed off the first several things that came to mind that people do at work that aren’t things they specifically got hired to do. That’s it.
I rather regret this. I should have put more time and thought into constructing a scenario that was less easy to nitpick. But I didn’t want anyone to see themselves in it, so I didn’t want it to be too recognizable or realistic. I just wanted a placeholder for “Person who does lots of great stuff at work”, and that’s how you got Susan.
TLDR — yep, Susan probably has a tougher go of this than Steven. I would argue that Steven generally wouldn’t be promoted either if he wasn’t adequately performing his core responsibilities, but who knows. This isn’t a real person or scenario. Women and nonbinary folks have it tougher than men. Your point? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Objection: “Why do you hate collaboration” and “This doesn’t apply to me because my job isn’t just writing code”
I never meant to imply that your “One Job” was only work you could do heads down on your own. Lots of people’s jobs involve a ton of force multiplying, mentorship, reviewing, writing proposals… typical glue work. If you have a manager that thinks you are only doing your One Job when you are heads down writing code with your headphones on, that’s a Really Bad Manager.
The more senior your role is, the more your One Job involves less “write feature X” and more “use your judgment to help fine tune our sociotechnical systems”. This is natural and good.
It is also MORE of an argument for making sure you are in alignment with others in your org about what is the most important thing for your time and energy to be spent on, not less of one. Communication and persuasion are what upper levels are all about, right?
Objection: // Placeholder
I reserve the right to add to this list of objections after I go catch up on twitter, lol.
Finally, I want to call out a perceptive comment by @codefolio, where he said this:
You're describing a trust exercise with your manager. Many, many people have had managers who are not worthy of that trust exercise.
This speaks to something I should probably be more explicit about, which is that my writing and my advice generally assumesyou are operating in ahigh-trust environment. That’s the kind of environment I have been tremendously fortunate to operate in for most of my career — an environment where people are flawed but compassionate, skilled, and doing their best for each other, with comparatively low levels of assholery, sociopaths, and other bad actors. If your situation is very unlike mine, I can understand why my advice could seem blinkered, naive, and even harmful. Please use your own judgment.
I only write because I want the best for you — even those of you who very openly and vocally despise me (and yes, there are quite a few of you. Start a club or something). 🥰
All said and done, about 95% of the people who replied said that my post was helpful and clarifying for them, about 3% had very interesting critical takes that I got something valuable from, and only 2% were hurling rotten tomatoes and reading and interpreting my words in ways that felt wildly detached from reality. I try to remember that, when I get discouraged and feel like the whole world hates me and wants me to shut up. 🍅🍅🍅
I am not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s alright. 💜 My advice is not relevant or helpful to anyone, and that’s okay too. Hopefully I have cleared up enough of the misunderstandings that anyone who is reading my words in good faith now has a clear picture of what I was trying to say. And hopefully it’s helpful to some of you.
PSA: I will be your rubber ducky advice buddy🐥❤️🐣
I have posted this on twitter a few times, but if you are struggling with a career conundrum, sociotechnical growing pains, or management issue, I am generally happy to hop on a phone call over the weekend and talk through it with you. I have benefited SO much from the time and energy of others in the tech industry, it’s nice to give back. (I like giving advice and I think VERY highly of my own opinions, so this also counts as fun for me 😂)
I 💜 talking to women and enbies and queers.🌈 (I love talking to guys too, but if my calendar starts filling up I will rate-limit y’all first to leave space at the front of the line.) If you are a white dude who hasn’t been following me on twitter for at least a year, this offer is not for you, sorry. If you’re a marginalized person in tech, otoh, I don’t care if you use that hellsite^W^Wtwitter or not. And if you hate my blog, you are not gonna like me any better live & unfiltered. 😬
Things I am generally well-equipped to discuss include startups, observability, databases, leveling and promotion issues, management, the pendulum, senior and staff levels, new manager issues, team dynamics, startup executive teams, and some complex workplace situations.
Things I am not equipped to help with include how to improve diversity at your company, how to get women to want to work for you, or why only men are applying for your jobs online. I cannot be your personal DEI coach or guide to women in the workplace (there are great consultants out there doing the lord’s work, and you should give them all your money). I can’t find you a new job, help newbies find their first job (sorry 😕), give advice on raising venture money or tell you how to found a company (answer: never found a company, it’s the literal worst). In general I am not very well equipped to discuss early career issues, but if you’re an URM and you’re desperate i’ll give it a shot. I am not a therapist. And if you’re going to ask should you quit your job, I will save you a phone call: yes.
I’ve been at my current job for three years, and I am suddenly, accidentally, the most senior engineer on the team. I spend my days handling things like bootcamps, mentoring, architecture, and helping other engineers carve off meaningful work. This has taken a huge toll on the kind of work I want to do as an IC. I still enjoy writing and shipping features, and I am not a manager, but now I feel like I spend my days conducting meetings, interviewing, and unblocking others constantly instead of writing code myself.
What should I do? How can I deal with this situation in an effective manner? How can I keep from getting burned out on zoom? How can I reclaim more of my time to write code for myself, without sacrificing my influence? Should I get a new job? I have thought about going out and getting a new job, but I really like having a say at a high level. Here I get looped into all of the most important decisions and meetings. If I get a new job, how can I avoid starting over at the bottom of the heap and just taking assignments from other people? P.S., this is my first job.
Get a new job.
Yes, you will reset your seniority and have to earn it all over again. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and your ego will be cranky over it. Yes, you will be at the bottom of the heap and take assignments from other people for a while. Yes, you should do it anyway.
What you are experiencing now is the alluring comfort of premature seniority. You’re the smartest kid in the room, you know every corner of the system inside and out, you win every argument and anticipate every objection and you are part of every decision and you feel so deeply, pleasingly needed by the people around you.
It’s a trap.
Get the fuck out of there.
There is a world of distance between being expert in this system and being an actual expert in your chosen craft. The second is seniority; the first is merely .. familiarity
Deep down I think you know this, and feel a gnawing insecurity over your position; why else would you have emailed me? You were right. Treasure that uneasy feeling in your gut, that discomfort in the face of supreme comfortable-ness. It will lead you to a long and prosperous career as an engineer if you learn to trust it.
Think of every job like an escalator — a 50-foot high escalator that takes about two years to ride to the top. But once you’ve summited, you stall out. You can either stay and wander on that floor, or you can step to the left and pick another escalator and ride it up another 50 feet. And another.
In my mind, someone becomes a real senior engineer after they’ve done this about three times. 2-3 teams, stacks, languages, and roles, over a 5-8 year period, and then they’re solidly baked. There are insights you can derive from having seen problems solved in a few different ways that you can’t with only a single point of reference.
You don’t become a senior engineer at the 50-foot ascent, no matter how thoroughly you know the landscape. You become a senior engineer somewhere well over 100 feet, with a couple of lane changes under your belt.
The act of learning a new language and/or stack is itself an important skill. Experiencing how different orgs ship code in vastly different ways is how you internalize that there’s no one blessed path, only different sets of tradeoffs, and how you learn to reason about those tradeoffs.
And it is good for us to start over with beginner eyes. It’s humbling, it’s clarifying, it’s a cleanse for the soul. If you get too attached to feeling senior, to feeling necessary, you will undervalue the virtues of fresh eyes and questioning, of influence without authority. It is good for you to practice uncertainty and influencing others without the cheat codes of deep familiarity.
Nobody wants to work with seniors who clutch their authority with a white knuckled grip. We want to work with those who wear it lightly, who remember what it was like in our shoes.
Ultimately, this is a strong argument for building our teams behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance concerning our own place in the pecking order. Starting fresh yourself will help you build teams where it is not miserable to be a beginner, where beginners’ contributions are recognized, where even beginners do not simply “take orders”, as you said. Because literally nobody wants that, including the beginners you are working with on your teams today.
After you have gotten a new job or two, and proven to yourself that you can level up again and master new stacks and technologies, that fretful inner voice questioning whether you deserve the respect you receive or not will calm down. You will have proven to yourself that your success wasn’t just a one-off, that you can be dropped into any situation, learn the local ropes and succeed. You will be a senior engineer.
There are few engineering topics that provoke as much heated commentary as oncall. Everybody has a strong opinion. So let me say straight up that there are few if any absolutes when it comes to doing this well; context is everything. What’s appropriate for a startup may not suit a larger team. Rules are made to be broken.
That said, I do have some feelings on the matter. Especially when it comes to the compact between engineering and management. Which is simply this:
It is engineering’s responsibility to be on call and own their code. It is management’s responsibility to make sure that on call does not suck. This is a handshake, it goes both ways, and if you do not hold up your end they should quit and leave you.
As for engineers who write code for 24×7 highly available services, it is a core part of their job is to support those services in production. (There are plenty of software jobs that do not involve building highly available services, for those who are offended by this.) Tossing it off to ops after tests pass is nothing but a thinly veiled form of engineering classism, and you can’t build high-performing systems by breaking up your feedback loops this way.
Someone needs to be responsible for your services in the off-hours. This cannot be an afterthought; it should play a prominent role in your hiring, team structure, and compensation decisions from the very start. These are decisions that define who you are and what you value as a team.
Some advice on how to organize your on call efforts, in no particular order.
It is easier to keep yourself from falling into an operational pit of doom than it is to claw your way out of one. Make good operational hygiene a priority from the start. Value good, clean, high-level abstractions that allow you to delegate large swaths of your infrastructure and operational burden to third parties who can do it better than you — serverless, AWS, *aaS, etc. Don’t fall into the trap of disrespecting operations engineering labor, it’s the only thing that can save you.
Invest in good release and deploy tooling. Make this part of your engineering roadmap, not something you find in the couch cushions. Get code into production within minutes after merging, and watch how many of your nightmares melt away or never happen.
Invest in good instrumentation and observability. Impress upon your engineers that their job is not done when tests pass; it is not done until they have watched users using their code in production. Promote an ownership mentality over the full software life cycle. This is how dev.to did it.
Construct your feedback loops thoughtfully. Try to alert the person who made the broken change directly. Never send an alert to someone who isn’t fully equipped and empowered to fix it.
When an engineer is on call, they are not responsible for normal project work — period. That time is sacred and devoted to fixing things, building tooling, and creating guard-rails to protect people from themselves. If nothing is on fire, the engineer can take the opportunity to fix whatever has been annoying them. Allow for plenty of agency and following one’s curiosity, wherever it may lead, and it will be a special treat.
Closely track how often your team gets alerted. Take ANY out-of-hours-alert seriously, and prioritize the work to fix it. Night time pages are heart attacks, not diabetes.
Consider joining the on call rotation yourself! If nothing else, generously pinch hit and be an eager and enthusiastic backup on the regular.
Reliability work and technical debt are not secondary to product work. Budget them into your roadmap, right alongside your features and fixes. Don’t plan so tightly that you have no flex for the unexpected. Don’t be afraid to push back on product and don’t neglect to sell it to your own bosses. People’s lives are in your hands; this is what you get paid to do.
Consider making after-hours on call fully-elective. Why not? What is keeping you from it? Fix those things. This is how Intercom did it.
Depending on your stage and available resources, consider compensating for it.This doesn’t have to be cash, it could be a Friday off the week after every on call rotation. The more established and funded a company you are, the more likely you should do this in order to surface the right incentives up the org chart.
Once you’ve dug yourself out of firefighting mode, invest in SLOs (Service Level Objectives). SLOs and observability are the mature way to get out of reactive mode and plan your engineering work based on tradeoffs and user impact.
I believe it is thoroughly possible to construct an on call rotation that is 100% opt-in, a badge of pride and accomplishment, something that brings meaning and mastery to people’s engineering roles and ties them emotionally to their users. I believe that being on call is something that you can genuinely look forward to.
But every single company is a unique complex sociotechnical snowflake. Flipping the script on whether on call is a burden or a blessing will require a unique solution, crafted to meet your specific needs and drawing on your specific history. It will require tinkering. It will take maintenance.
Above all: ✨RAISE YOUR STANDARDS✨ for what you expect from yourselves. Your greatest enemy is how easily you accept the status quo, and then make up excuses for why it is necessarily this way. You can do better. I know you can.
treat every alarm like a heart attack. _fix_ the motherfucker.
i do not care if this causes product development to screech to a halt. amortize it over a slightly longer period of time and it will more than pay for itself. https://t.co/JSck2u86ff
There is lots and lots of prior art out there when it comes to making on call work for you, and you should research it deeply. Watch some talks, read some pieces, talk to some people. But then you’ll have to strike out on your own and try something. Cargo-culting someone else’s solution is always the wrong answer.
Any asshole can write some code; owning and tending complex systems for the long run is the hard part. How you choose to shoulder this burden will be a deep reflection of your values and who you are as a team.
And if your on call experience is mandatory and severely life-impacting, and if you don’t take this dead seriously and fix it ASAP? I hope your team will leave you, and go find a place that truly values their time and sleep.
I keep talking to engineers who are frustrated that they aren’t leveling up faster, aren’t reaching senior levels as quickly as other people they know, feel stuck and don’t know how to get to the next level, etc. And I’ve begun to notice a common blind spot around leveling —
✨ not every opportunity exists ✨
✨ at every company ✨
✨ at every time.✨
Sure, if you’re a junior engineer, you should be able to level up to intermediate pretty much anywhere. But it gets progressively trickier after that. Even the path from intermediate to senior can depend on a number of situational variables:
Is there oxygen?
How many other senior engineers do you work with? how many other intermediate engineers around your level? All of these people will be pulling from the same bin of work, looking for promo-worthy, solidly-senior projects.
Does your ladder explicitly call for mentorship or leading small teams of lower-leveled engineers? Are there enough of those folks to go around?
Have you sufficiently wrapped up your last project well enough to move on? Was it actually completed in a way that demonstrated clear mastery and readiness for bigger and harder work, ordid you leave a mess behind you? That may limit people’s appetite to take a risk on you with mission-critical projects.
What are the biggest needs of the business right now? Any process that generates projects ought to begin with this question before proceeding on to carve out a chunk that fits your promo desires, not the other way around. 🙃
Do you happen to work in a niche or specialty area of engineering, particularly one crammed with super-senior, world-famous highly leveled people? This can be fantastic when it comes to your ability to soak up knowledge from the world’s best, but it may simultaneously delay your ability to level up.
In short, is there oxygen at the next level? Does the company need more of the type of engineer you want to be, vs more of the type of engineer you are now? If they need more people pounding out code and fewer architects, they’re unlikely to want to promote you to a role that involves mostly architecture..
Literally no company can possibly make use of a top-heavy eng org stuffed with senior+ engineers, if all of them are expected to demonstrate company-wide impact or global impact every review period. There’s only so much high-level work to go around for every fifty engineers writing code and features and executing on those systems.
There is only so much oxygen at each level.
Of course, this is all assuming that your company takes leveling seriously. Most … really … don’t.
It’s tough. It’s tough to hold your ground when a valued engineer is complaining and dropping hints they may leave if they don’t get that promotion soon. It’s much easier to give in, make an exception, argue for rounding up.
This may sound good, but it is not ultimately in your best interests as that engineer. Seriously. </3
There is sooo much title inflation in this industry already. People are given the title “senior engineer” in just 3-5 years, need I say more??
If you let a little inflation into your system by making exceptions, it causes more trouble than it’s worth. Always. The only leverage you have when people try to get you to make exceptions is if you can honestly say, “no exceptions.” Give in just once, and your moral authority evaporates.
I would urge you not to make most, if any, career decisions based on levels or titles that are offered you. But I do understand how frustrating and infuriating it can be to be in a situation that is clearly unfair (usually because a manager got pressured into making an exception… tsk tsk), or if you don’t understand how to move your career forward.
So, here are a few strategic tips for leveling up.
Generalists level up faster than specialists.
When evaluating roles, choose ones where your specialty is part of their mission, or at least key to its execution. It has a far lower likelihood of getting outsourced, deprioritized, lacking investment in, or just forgotten about if what you do is core to what they do.
Always ask to see the job ladder when interviewing. If they hedge or fumble, don’t take that job.
Talk to your manager about the job ladder. Talk to your skip level about levels too! Managers love this shit. They can talk on and on and on about levels, long past your exhaustion point. It can be annoying, but it’s actually a sign of a good manager who cares and thinks about the edge cases in processes, and their impacts on people and teams.
That said, don’t take the ladder as a checklist to memorize or thing to be pored over and obsessed over. It’s an incomplete attempt at both shaping and reflecting relative impact. Focus on impact.
Is it easier to level up as a manager than as an engineer? Sorta-kinda, I guess so? There are at least two real phenomena at play here.
There are simply more roles to go around in the management track. You need like, what, 1-2 E7/E8 (or principal, or architect?) level engineers per 100-500 engineers, but several managers/directors/etc
Manager effectiveness is grounded in their relationships. It takes managers longer to have impact after they start a new role, but their potential impact grows and grows as their tenure gets longer. So yes, there’s a bit more of an escalator effect if you stay on the manager track at a company for several years. There is no similar escalator on the eng side; you have to be truly exceptional or truly lucky.
But it really depends on the organization.
It is much easier to level up quickly at fast-growing companies. When there is far more work than workers, and everyone is getting dropped in the deep end to sink or swim, you level up fast. Don’t underestimate what a stressful and awful experience this can be, though.
Many engineers get stuck on the bubble getting to senior because they are impatient and want a map. They just want someone to *tell them what to do*. Which is the very opposite of what a senior engineer does. 🙃 Develop your judgment around what needs to be done, and do it.
Your relationship with your manager matters. So does your ability to communicate about the work you are doing, its difficulty, its unexpected challenges and triumphs, etc. This is called “managing up”, and it is an actual skill which I am *terrible* at. So are most of you. 😉
TLDR, if leveling matters to you (and it should matter to everyone, to some extent!), then look curiously and critically around for opportunities, and seek to maximize them. Want to become an E6/E7? Probably don’t join a startup that doesn’t have any very high-level work to do, or already has more than enough people functioning at those levels and many more nipping their heels looking for the same opportunity.
This sort of thing is very obvious to us with the manager track (if you want to go from M->Dir, don’t join a startup that already HAS directors and managers who want to level up), but seems less obvious with engineering.
Most reasonable, non-desperate companies with options won’t hire you directly into the next level up which you haven’t done before, on either the manager or the engineer track. (Yellow flag if they do.)
But it is perfectly reasonable to express your career objectives in the interview, and make sure you’re on the same wavelength and seeing the same opportunities. Do you want to become a manager or a tech lead in a few months? Say so.
If it doesn’t exist now, do they think this opportunity may soon open up? Can they see a path forward for you there, if all goes well? Would they be interested in helping you get there? How many people may already be eyeing that same path? Is there enough opportunity for more than one? On what timeframe? Who will decide who gets the role, and how?
Engineers tend to find these conversations uncomfortable, and so they tend to avoid them because they don’t want to make the hiring manager uncomfortable by being pushy.
Relax. Managers don’t find this uncomfortable at all, it’s their bread and butter. (And even fi they do find it uncomfortable, tough beans.. it’s their job.) Ask away. ☺️
Misc notes on leveling.
P.S. Engineers seem to have a very sparse mental model of how leveling works, so here are a few more notes on how levels work at Honeycomb, which is adapted from conventions at Facebook/Google.
Each level after senior engineer (E5 for us) gets approx an order of magnitude harder to achieve, and an order of magnitude fewer engineers hold that title.
E5 is considered a “terminal level”, which sounds scary, but just means “you do not have to advance beyond this level.” If you never get promoted again, you won’t get fired either.
Whereas if you do not advance from E3-> E4 within 2 years, and E4->E5 within 3 years, you are automatically put on a performance improvement plan (at Facebook, I mean, not Honeycomb).
We (Honeycomb) hire into E5 as our highest level to start at, both because a) our interview process is not designed to let us parse differences between senior vs super-senior or super-duper senior, and b) we figure nobody is really able to come in the door with >E5 impact for the first 6 months anyway. So we can level them up quickly after they join and we get a feel for their work.
(I originally titled this article “Julian Dunn and the Case of the Bad Manager”, lol)
God, YES. This is something that has been on my queue of “topics to write about” for so long, and I haven’t because it’s just too big (and sometimes I tell myself, optimistically, it’s just too obvious?).
Julian’s point is that the reason so many bad managers persist is because it’s perceived as a promotion. Which means going back to engineering after managing is, ipso facto, a demotion. Which is really fucking hard to swallow. For anyone.
“If management isn’t a promotion, then returning to hands-on work isn’t a demotion, either. Right?”
There are a few separate points here which are worth unfurling separately.
Management is widely seen as a promotion
Management really does grant you some formal powers over your peers, which contributes to perceived hierarchy
Humans are hierarchical mammals, exquisitely sensitive to any loss of status — we hates it
But this is a cultural choice, not destiny. And we can change it.
Management is seen as a promotion
The notion that management is a promotion is deeply ingrained into our culture. It’s in language, pop culture, business books, any and all sources of career advice. If you became a manager and told your mom about it, she probably congratulated you and told you how proud she was. If you go out on a job interview, you’re expected to reach for the same rung or a higher one — or eyebrows will raise.
That’s a lot of cultural baggage to lean against. But I believe this is an idea whose time has come.
Any technical company should work hard to center and celebrate the work being done to build the product and make customers happy. Management is overhead, to be brutally frank about it, and we should not design organizations that would lead any rational, ambitious person to aspire to be overhead, should we?
The surest path to acclaim and glory (and promotions and raises) should be found through contributing. Not managing. Not being overhead.
… Because it mostly is a promotion, honestly
It is absolutely true that when you become a manager, you acquire new powers. As a tool of the org, you are granted certain powers to act on behalf of the organization, in exchange for being held accountable for certain outcomes.
These explicit powers often include hiring and firing decisions, access to privileged information, and making and meeting budgets.
But most of your powers aren’t formal at all. Most of your power comes from people listening more closely to what you say, giving your opinions more weight, and (consciously or subconsciously) just trying to please you, because they know you hold some influence over their career outcomes. It comes from the fact that so much information flows through managers. And finally, it comes from relationships — the strength of your personal relationships and mutual trust with other people throughout the org.
So how is this not a promotion? Well, it is a promotion at most companies, to be perfectly honest. But it does not have to be a promotion, if you acknowledge that these privileges and powers are accepted only by sacrificing other privileges and powers, and if you structurally allocate power to other roles. For example, you should acquire managerial powers only at the expense of technical decision-making powers.
I believe that the healthiest companies are ones where managerial powers are limited, enumerated, and minimal, with robust powers explicitly reserved for technical ICs. (much like the Constitution provides for Congress and the States, respectively.)
But it shouldn’t be. “Management” is a support role
Tech is a creative industry. Hierarchical leadership is a relic, a holdover from the days of manual labor. Hierarchy kills creativity, which leads to worse business outcomes.
Bad managers are a huge problem in tech. Just like Julian says, the wrong people are doing the job, for the wrong reasons, because they can’t to take the hit to the ego (and paycheck) of the demotion. This leads to unhappy teams and ultimately loss of talent.
I firmly believe that the engineer-manager pendulum is the way to build great technical leaders. The great line managers are never more than a few years removed from hands on work themselves, the great tech leads have always done a stint or two as a people manager. The promotion myth therefore both starves us of powerful technical leadership.and leaves us saddled with unhappy managers who have dwindling relevant skills, year after year.
The ladder is a trap. There are an order of magnitude fewer jobs for each rung you ascend. Meanwhile, the higher you climb the farther removed you are from the work most find meaningful (building things, making customers happy). The perception that you are a failure if you do anything but climb higher therefore traps a great many people in a cycle of intense anxiety and unhappiness.
Management is only one of many forms leadership can take. Yes, you have formal powers delegated to you on behalf of the org, but formal authority is the weakest form of power, and you should resort to using it rarely. Good leaders lead by influence and persuasion, weak leaders with “because I said so.”
Most engineers become managers to cope with org fuckery
Many people (like me!) become managers because they want access to the powers it gives them. As I argued in my last article, this is usually because they are frustrated with some organizational fuckery and it seems the only plausible way to fix or work around said fuckery is by becoming a manager.
Earlier this year I was having a 1×1 with one of our engineers, Martin Holman, who has been a manager before and had expressed interest in doing it again. So, I asked him, was he still interested?
He thought for a moment, and replied, “You know, I thought I wanted to be a manager again, I really did. But I think what I actually wanted was a seat at the table — to know what was going on, to have a say in what work I do. But I don’t feel out of the loop here. So it turns out I don’t feel any need to become a manager.”
Not only did that warm my heart, it answered a question I didn’t know I had. I think they would be a good manager, and should they change their mind again in the future, I will completely support them changing their mind again (minds change! it’s what they do!) — but I hope it is never because they feel that technical contributors are left out of the loop, or don’t have a say in what they do.
That’s what I’d call organizational fuckery.
A roadmap for changing your company culture
If “management is not a promotion” is a cultural value you would like to embrace at your company, here are some concrete actions you should take.
Make sure the pay bands for engineers and managers are equal, or even pay engineers more than managers of the same rank. (Slack does this, or used to.)
Have IC (individual contributor) levels for engineers that track management levels, all the way up to VP.
Look for ways to give high-level ICs information and opportunities for company impact that are on par with their people-manager counterparts.
Technical contributors should own and be accountable for technical strategy and decision-making, not managers.
Demystify management. Break it down into its constituent skills (giving feedback, running meetings, planning and budgeting, mentoring, running programs) and encourage everyone to develop those leadership skills.
Offer any management roles that may open up to internal transfers before considering external candidates.
Offer training and support for first-time managers who are undergoing that first career change. Offer engineers the same leadership coaching opportunities as managers.
Explicitly encourage managers to swing back to IC roles after two or three years. Support them through a generous grace period while refreshing their technical skills.
Watch your language. Loaded terms are everywhere, whether hierarchical (referring to people as being “above” others), or authoritarian (talking about bosses, managers). While it’s impossible to strip it from our vocabulary, it’s worth being thoughtful in how you represent reality, and using neutral phrases like “I support two teams” whenever possible.
Be explicit; repeat yourself. Say over and over that management is not a promotion, it is a change of career. Say it internally and externally, in your interview processes and recruiting messages. Educate your recruiting staff too (and be stern about it).
This isn’t a thing you can do once and be done with it; it’s an ongoing effort you must commit to. Managers tend to accrue power over time, like a gravitational force. In order to counterbalance this drift, managers need to consciously push power out to others. They must use their role as “information router” to inform and empower people to own decisions, instead of hoarding it for themselves.
Exactly, that’s my point… it won’t pass the “recruiter screen” because of antiquated perceptions around career progression being a monotonous increase up the manager -> director -> sr. director -> VP ladder
“Management is not a promotion” is my favorite bat signal
“Management is not a promotion, it’s a change of career.” I say this over and over again, even though it’s more aspirational than accurate.
Yet I say it anyway, because it’s a bat signal. It’s how the people I want to work with can find their way to me. And it repels the people I don’t want to work with just as efficiently.
When we recently posted our first-ever job req for an engineering manager, I included this under the list of optional skills:
You have worked as an engineering director or higher before, and decided to return to line management. Why? Because we value people who don’t blindly climb hierarchies just because they’re there. We value people who know themselves and what they find fulfilling in work and in life, and who can handle the hit to the ego that it takes to move “down” in pursuit of that fulfillment. Also, it would be interesting to talk about how you have solved org problems at other companies.
I cannot tell you how many amazing candidates zeroed in on that paragraph and came running. People who had been VPs before, been CTO, been director. People who were not only interested in becoming a line manager again, but were hungry to go back, to be closer to the people doing the work.
Something I heard them say again and again was, “People look at me like I’m crazy for wanting this,” “I have never had anyone see this as a strength.”
These were candidates who were acutely attuned to power dynamics, had exceptional self-knowledge, and who had seen and done so much to make organizations successful at multiple levels. What a set of superpowers!
Humans HAAAAAATE losing status.
We hate it. We hate it so bad. Even when we tell ourselves it’s what we wanted, even when we know it’s best for us, even when all the stars align. Something inside of us kicks and screams and feels excruciatingly attuned to the ripple effects of any status loss for a long time.
Like all such powerful irrational feelings, it’s evolution’s fault. Once upon a time it helped us survive and procreate. Now it’s just a nuisance, something to be worked around and minimized.
Where someone sits on the org chart should not determine that person’s ability to drive change, nor should their preference for tech problems or people problems. We need to see the work that engineers, managers, directors, VPs, and CxOs do as equally valuable and equally capable of prestige. We need to flip the org chart upside down, and treat “management” roles like the support systems they should be.
The work done by a database engineer is different from the work done by a VP marketing, or a director of database engineering. It is not inherently better or worse, easier or harder, more or less deserving of praise and admiration. It is simply different.
And we will have the best chance finding the work that brings the most meaning and joy to our lives if we can drain the hierarchical residue out of our perception of these roles, by flattening pay structures, equalizing power dynamics, and making sure everyone has the tools they need to do their job with as little hierarchical bullshit as possible.
 Martin said I could tell this story and use his name. I actually try to avoid talking about people, conversations, or anecdotes from Honeycomb as a more or less blanket rule, because I don’t want people to be perpetually on edge wondering if I am talking about them. (So if you’re wondering if I’m talking about you: I’m not. Unless I asked first.)
 Raise your hand if you’ve worked at a company where a DB engineer had a far greater impact on the bottom line some quarters than any of the VPs did. ✋
My company has recently begun pushing for us to build and staff out what I can only describe as “command centers”. They’re picturing graphs, dashboards…people sitting around watching their monitors all day just to find out which apps or teams are having issues. With your experience in monitoring and observability, and your opinions on teams supporting their own applications…do you think this sounds like a bad idea? What are things to watch out for, or some ways this might all go sideways?
Jesus motherfucking Christ on a stick. Is it 1995 where you work? That’s the only way I can try and read this plan like it makes sense.
It’s a giant waste of money and no, it won’t work. This path leads into a death spiral where alarms are going off constantly (yet somehow never actually catching the real problems), people getting burned out, and anyone competent will either a) leave or b) refuse to be on call. Sideways enough for you yet?
Snark aside, there are two foundational flaws with this plan.
1) watching graphs is pointless. You can automate that shit, remember? ✨Computers!✨ Furthermore, this whole monitoring-based approach will only ever help you find the known unknowns, the problems you already know to look for. But most of your actual problems will be unknown unknowns, the ones you don’t know about yet.
2) those people watching the graphs… When something goes wrong, what exactly can they do about it? The answer, unfortunately, is “not much”. The only people who can swiftly diagnose and fix complex systems issues are the people who build and maintain those systems, and those people are busy building and maintaining, not watching graphs.
That extra human layer is worse than useless; it is actively harmful. By insulating developers from the consequences of their actions, you are concealing from them the information they need to understand the consequences of their actions. You are interfering with the most basic of feedback loops and causing it to malfunction.
The best time to find a bug is as soon as possible after writing it, while it’s all fresh in your head. If you let it fester for days, weeks, or months, it will be exponentially more challenging to find and solve. And the best people to find those bugs are the people who wrote them
Helpful? Hope so. Good luck. And if they implement this anyway — leave. You deserve to work for a company that won’t waste your fucking time.