Engineering Managers: Don’t Forget the Individual Contributor’s High

I was having a conversation with one of my engineers, and they were pretty worked up. They felt frustrated about a hiccup in one of our processes resulting in a minor delay of finishing their feature.

I empathized with their plight and reassured the hiccup wouldn’t have any major effects. The team was still on schedule for their deliverables, their boss (me) understood why for the delay, and I knew it wasn’t the fault of the engineer. We also had a good plan in place to prevent the same issue in the future.

But boy, it still didn’t fix their frustration; they still couldn’t finish the feature.

To be honest, I felt a little frustrated. I had clearly explained there wouldn’t be any long term problems because of the situation. Why were they still making a big deal about it?

A while later I realized why, and it is something that is easy to forget as an engineering manager: the high of finishing something. If you’ve been an engineer, you know what I’m talking about. Taking a problem, breaking it down, pushing out a solution, and as you watch it work you mentally (and in the issue tracker) press “done.”

It’s an incredible feeling…

That feeling is why many individual contributors (ICs) struggle when they make the switch to engineering management. When transitioning to management, you need to derive your sense of satisfaction from other things. There are many blog posts that mention this.

What I realized is I had the opposite problem. I’ve now been in engineering management for years, and all of the things that give me satisfaction as a manager were good: we’re on schedule, it was a small hiccup, and we had a plan to fix it in the future.

However, for my awesome engineer, they were denied that high; that hit of dopamine from accomplishing something. Seeing from their viewpoint, their frustration was incredibly rational. As long as they were handling their frustration in a reasonable manner (which they were), it was okay to be frustrated.

As engineering managers, especially after doing it for a while, we can’t forget how powerful the sense of satisfaction of accomplishing something can be. Especially on a regular basis. Likely, we would have felt just like them in our IC engineering days.

After all, it’s a manager’s job to enable their individual contributors to accomplish things on a regular basis. We can be patient when they lament the occasionally delayed satisfaction they crave.

— Carmony

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