Being a Manager from Scratch

Jose Arzuaga

Staff Engineering Manager at GitHub



A manager from scratch is not necessarily a first-time manager, but rather someone who was tasked to manage a new team and who had to either change a company or department. Before I joined my last company, I was gradually climbing up the ladders, building relationships, and making myself known. By the time I became a director, I had got to know people on the team well, who trusted me a great deal.

Then I moved to this large company, where I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me. Suddenly, I felt like I was becoming a manager from scratch. I had to build relationships with all those new people, overcome the feeling of isolation and earn the team’s trust.

Actions taken

When I joined the company, the idea was that I would manage two teams. However, as soon as I arrived, my manager left. As a result, I was left to deal with the entire organization. That came up as a surprise, but I had to bite the bullet.

I inherited four interconnected teams, each responsible for their own domain within the same area. They performed well but were barely talking to each other. There was a lot of contention because they had different team values and perceived collaboration differently. It was seriously affecting their performance and accomplishment of team goals. I decided to reshuffle people on the team by mixing up people from different teams. I tried to sell the idea by convincing them that it was a great opportunity for them to learn new things and get to know other people. That went exceptionally well. People who never talked before started to engage themselves in in-depth conversations.

When things became more functional, I focused my effort on earning their trust. I decided to roll up my sleeves and show them I was there to help them out. It didn’t take much time for them to understand that I knew what I was doing, as I didn’t shy away from the regular IC work. It was an intentional choice that made me sacrifice some other things I should have worked on as a manager. I didn’t regret it for a bit because by getting closer to my team and helping them with their work, I showed my worth and gained their trust.

I understand that some people would disagree with my decision to act as a part-time contributor. But nothing can bond people more than working alongside. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing that, after all. Soon after I gained their trust, I was able to get back into my managers’ shoes instead of helping them with their work to help them with their careers. Most managers would choose to get the team better through one-on-ones which is a legitimate choice, but I wanted to walk the talk.

I also faced the entirely new landscape of stakeholders and learning who was responsible for what was anything but easy. I often felt I was on a running train, and I had to figure out which part of the train was broken and fix it at full speed. I had to learn who those people were, what their priorities and expectations were.

I mapped out people from other departments with whom I would have the most interaction and started to schedule meetings. It was quite challenging because I didn’t have a manager by my side to introduce me. So, I started sending cold emails and reaching out first to people within our organization -- product manager, UX designers, researchers, program managers, and only then other stakeholders. I would see from there in which direction that relationship would be evolving.

In addition, my onboarding was self-onboarding, with no one who could help me out. But that allowed me to expand on some skills and become more self-reliant. I also did my own digging into our knowledge space. I was reading everything I could find on the team, stakeholders, and individual team members. I collected available documentation on what the team was doing, who they were doing it for, what OKRs were set in the past, and why. In a nutshell, it was a longer and more strenuous way, but one worth the effort.

Lessons learned

  • Be prepared for situations when you will be on your own. When I joined the new company, I thought I would be onboarded by someone who will be working alongside helping me find my way around. I was hoping that either a manager or mentor would show me how things were done and introduce me to other stakeholders. While that may be the case, prepare for the situation in which I found myself -- to be left on your own.
  • Always have a plan. I know that many people would rather see what the situation is on the ground and then put up the plan. However, it may take weeks, if not months, to collect sufficient information to make a solid plan. Instead, come armed with any type of plan that you can make into action and reiterate as you gain new insights.
  • As a manager, my first and most important goal is to earn the trust of my reports. They need to know that I am there for them. I won’t necessarily be able to help them, but they need to know that I am there whenever they have a problem.

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Jose Arzuaga

Staff Engineering Manager at GitHub

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionIndividual Contributor Roles

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