February 16, 2020

Management in an unfamiliar domain

When I joined iZettle as the Director of Risk Engineering, I had one major concern. Even though I have a technical background, it’s not nearly as strong as my reports’.

Therefore, I set out to answer these questions:

  • How can I coach someone who is far more technically skilled than I am?
  • How can I gain the team’s trust without familiarity in the domain?
  • How much energy should I spend on increasing my own technical expertise?

After talking to mentors who work at Very Cool Companies and who are more experienced, I’ve come away with these major learning points:

  1. If you are on the people manager track, you will be outgrown by your reports. It’s only a question of when. Don’t worry about that fact. A soccer coach doesn’t need to be as good as her players at sprinting.

  2. Instead — double down on the value that you do bring to the team. Dealing with stakeholders, communication, administration, alignment with company mission and goals, teaming, be a sounding board, ask questions, coach the engineers in their career development, offer them opportunities for growth, motivate them.

  3. Lacking the technical skills to give feedback on the code, build a framework for it. Peer review every six months seem to be the standard.

  4. Do invest in your own engineering abilities. Read technical books, take part in technical discussions, make intern level commits, follow Github PRs and comments, have active pet projects. Look at the technical stack and get a basic understanding of the frameworks the team uses. Invest at least 4 hours each week to this.

  5. Be honest & clear with the team what you can, and can’t, bring to the table.

These mentorship calls have been really helpful, and I try to act on the above bullets almost daily. I also bring up my lack of skill with my team in our 1-on-1s and ask them if there’s anything specific they’d like me to learn. Last week I understood the basics of Terraform, and this week it’s Docker and Fargate.

I still feel stupid as a mountain lizard when I try to contribute in some of the discussions we have in the team … but now I know that the point of me being there is not to better than them at their job. It’s to do the other shit and to do it really really good.

It’s not easy, but it’s h*cking fun.

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