One simple change made all the difference
How I learned to manage my time better as a new engineering manager
How it all got started
It was early January and I had just got back from my parental leave, when my skip manager pulled me aside and asked me if I was still interested to pursue a life in management. Where I was back then, in terms of technical growth I had two paths ahead, and for quite some time I was contemplating whether I should follow a technical path that leads to drawing boxes and arrows and hand-wavy discussions, or a completely different path that involved mostly talking to people.
My rationale for selecting the latter path and becoming an engineering manager was simple. I will be forced to learn new skills, and the longer I do this work my experience will become more valuable. All I had done different from my IC role was a few feature leading experiences and a short stunt leading an ops team a very long time ago (when dev hadn’t met ops yet). None of these experiences showed me the true scale of my new job, later I realized.
In our company we have a program called AMP (apprentice managers program) during which you get to learn about some very basic managerial stuff and internal procedures, and also get connected to a group of peers and mentors. After that you are pretty much on your own in the wild. You are learning how to pilot a plane while the plane is flying.
The first few months
If there is one thing I learned during the first few months, it is how I underestimated the importance of managing my time. There are all sorts of different things coming your way and there are many important things you need to deliver on. Your job as a manager is to make sure you spend time on important things while taking care of a steady stream of interruption. The moment you lose focus, you find yourself engaged in a trivial conversation for an hour about something that is not even important for your team, or digging deep in trenches trying to figure out how something works that was just brought up in the chat.
To have some context about the situation, this is how my team works: I share managing responsibilities with my manager. Four people report to me, but rest of the team reports directly to my manager. We are very likely to change this structure as our team grows, but it is an interesting structure for the time being. It has allowed me to work closely with him as an ally and rely on him to give me direct feedback and occasionally stop my mistakes.
Our team owns a lot of micro services, I mean a lot. Some are new but the majority come with their fair share of historical baggage and technical debt hanging around their neck. To make things more interesting, these services are powering a brand new extensibility platform for our ecosystem in the making.
Where my time goes
Back to managing my time: I need to spend time thinking about development and growth of my team, prioritize and plan the work that needs to be done, and make sure I can provide the right growth opportunity to my team by assigning the right task to the right person (this is my main source of satisfaction). I need to make sure my team works effectively and efficiently, i.e. we are solving the right problem and our technologies and rituals are up to date with our situation. I need to make sure my team members talk to each other and play well together, especially with everyone working remotely. I need to make sure my team can make progress and risks and blockers are handled carefully.
Now, add in the daily dose of random things coming your way, for example: that false alert we received twice this week that woke up on-call, a few security vulnerability tickets approaching their due date, a missed dependency and scope blow-up that threatens our ship date, set up new reporting on our service scale to make sure we don’t hit the downstream rate limit yet again, clarify the requirements of a feature another team requires your assistance for, etc.
It is extremely easy to spend all your day with the second set of tasks. Leading a feature lets you practice some skills that will be useful, but it doesn’t give you any feel for what it’s like to be a manager. It’s like teaching you how to pronounce words when later you are going to a debating competition. The main skill is not uttering words, although it’s the visible effect, but choosing your strategy and using logic to defeat your opponent is the main game.
When it comes to managing your day, you will notice a big change in your calendar. It is mostly full, with a lot of half-an-hour meetings. This is what some refer to as manager’s schedule, and you may be tempted to believe that you can do everything in 30-minute blocks. However, I found that I am much more effective if I can carve out 1–2 uninterrupted hours every day to focus.
One simple change
For some time, I had most of my meetings in the morning, hoping to get some focus time after lunch. The reality was though, by that time there were enough ongoing conversations and active fires that I would end up using the rest of the day to just stay on top of my work. As I approach my day cut-off time at 6pm, I would get anxious and stressed out because I hadn’t been able to spend time on the important stuff. I would eat into the family time and continue working after 6, or come back later during the night.
I saw a huge impact when I changed one thing. I cleared my morning hours as much as I could and scheduled my 1:1s around lunch time. When I start my work after a school drop-off at around 9am, I start with my list of tasks in Trello. I don’t open my mailbox and Slack until I have made some real progress on my top tasks and planned my day. I can use about 1-2 hours of focus time each day before it’s time for daily standup, 1:1s, and meetings for the rest of the day. As I make progress on my most important tasks, I can easily disconnect at 6pm or even before. I might have a few pages to read and comments to post, but I am more than happy to do that some time after dinner. As a bonus, I can occasionally use the morning hour to catch up on physical exercise which gives me even more energy to go through the day.
I also found some other random tips and tricks that helped. I changed the way I managed my tasks and adopted Stephen Covey’s matrix, and defined my tasks better. I eliminated a lot of note-keeping time by using a shared Confluence page for 1:1s and growth conversations. I would create meeting notes before the meeting and edit live during the meeting. I would watch town halls and presentations later on high speed. I would listen to books instead of reading, which has allowed me to finish at least a book each month only during my daily walks (replacing commute time). I would add things to a reading list instead of reading them when they pop in my mailbox. I will go into more details in some of these areas in the future posts.
Stay safe, enjoy the rest of 2020!