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Embracing and Growing Into the Role of an Amazing Leader

Rob Hartsock

Sr. Engineering Manager at Abstract

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Problem

At the beginning of my career I was working as a programmer in a startup. We didn’t have an engineering manager, we didn’t have a product manager, we didn’t have any real structure at all. But this is the nature of most early-stage startups. However, we were growing at a pretty steady rate and needed somebody to provide the necessary structure and roadmaps needed for a prosperous organization. The CTO of the startup approached me and asked if I could take this role on for a couple of weeks until they hired somebody to come in and take over full-time. Not thinking much of it, I happily agreed. I fell into being an engineering manager by accident- out of necessity, even though I had no experience managing people.

Actions taken

I was extremely ill-prepared to take on the position of engineering manager. My head was in coding, not on developing product roadmaps and managing people’s growth. This lack of experience and knowledge was evident. The first couple of weeks were horrible as I constantly face-planted, most likely doing permanent damage to the product and to the team. Yet, I wasn’t taken out of the role. Instead, two weeks turned into a couple of months which turned into a year. By the end of that first year I ended up becoming the engineering manager, assuming the changes in title and salary that came along with it.

It wasn’t until that year came to an end that I decided I would embrace the role and figure out how I could be the best at it. To begin, I recognized that I had to step away from the code due to the fact that I was too busy managing people. I separated myself from my past role as a programmer and embodied the position of engineering manager. I began working with engineers helping them solve problems at a higher level, talking about overall architecture and the impact of our technology. What I discovered was that I liked doing this more than being in the code. It was an odd epiphany for me, something I wouldn’t have thought of for myself before- choosing to work with engineers over the opportunity to actually be an engineer. There was an immediate gratification that came with being a programmer but from the perspective of being a manager I could see the long-term effects and delayed rewards the position would produce. 

The second step I took was to genuinely learn how to be a leader, and to do it well. Around that time switched companies and joined another startup as an engineering manager. My boss invested in my career choice by putting me through training and people management courses. These courses were great at explaining the basics, for example how to listen and having one-on-ones, but that’s it. It was basic no-brainer type of stuff. There was a lot of vanilla advice. It wasn’t until I attended a developer conference that I got to meet a retired submarine commander who spoke at development and leadership conferences. I met with him, attended several more of his conferences, listened to his keynotes, and had additional communication with him. His style of approaching matters revolved around intent-based leadership. In its simplest form this means as a leader you are not supposed to be the one at the top making all the decisions. Rather, you should be pushing leadership down through the team giving the team autonomy to make decisions, as they are the ones who are closest to the problems, challenges, and information needed to make those decisions. This approach was really eye-opening to me. To push the leadership down and not be the one sitting at the top. It is the approach that I now carry with me through all of my leadership positions. 

Lessons learned

  • If I could go back to the beginning, to those first few weeks or months when I fell into the role of engineering manager, I would tell myself to take the position seriously. At the time I didn’t take it seriously. I wasn’t really managing the team nor helping them. I wasn’t listening or focused or paying attention to what they needed. I was just a really crappy manager. And it showed. We started falling behind because I was still too busy trying to code. So if I could go back, I would step it up from the start.
  • On the flip side, though, I’m glad I can’t go back and do it differently because it was a great learning experience. It was valuable time where I could fall on my face, fail, be terrible, and learn from that. It’s okay to be bad at your job, as long as you learn from it and work hard to become better. The only way to get better is to suck at first, fail and then figure out how to improve yourself.
  • Being an amazing leader isn’t about sitting at the top, giving orders and permission to everyone. That’s just someone pretending to be a leader. Being an amazing leader is empowering your team to make decisions and become leaders in their own right.
  • What I have learned throughout my years as a people manager is that the biggest measure of success is to get my team to the point where they don’t need me anymore. The day that my team stopped coming to me and asking questions, asking permission, and asking for my input and my opinion is the day that I know they have reached that point. I have created a team of leaders and they no longer need me. That’s when I feel like I have been successful in my role.
  • Getting your team to the point where they don’t need you anymore isn’t exactly talking yourself out of a job. Well, it sort of is. But instead, think of it as an opportunity for you to look at your own career ladder and assess if that’s the role you want to be in forever. Perhaps there are other things that you want to do. If so, get your team to that point so that you can move on and strive for something else along your career ladder.

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Rob Hartsock

Sr. Engineering Manager at Abstract


Leadership DevelopmentEngineering ManagementCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionIndividual Contributor RolesStaff EngineerPrincipal EngineerTech LeadLeadership RolesEngineering Manager

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