How to Overcome a Sense of Worthlessness
12 January, 2021
Many first-time managers are overwhelmed and have a hard time coping with the feeling of worthlessness. The self-worth of an engineer usually stems from the number of Jira tickets they closed or the number of lines of code they pushed into github. But as they climb up the ladder and become managers, their job goals change while their personal goals may not have evolved.
Not many companies train engineers to embrace their new roles as managers and set them up for success. Thus many managers are embroiled in this unresolved situation because they continue to measure themselves against KPIs of ICs (individual contributors) while their current manager-based KPIs are not giving them anything tangible.
As a manager, I would encourage my reports to dig deep into whether they really want to become managers at all. It is not for everyone and it is not the assumed next step. Or it shouldn’t be, at least.
Nowadays, two career paths are fairly standard across the industry, with a somewhat lesser understanding for “Engineer/Manager pendulum.” When I worked at Cisco Systems, I could see firsthand how they had a well-designed two-track career model for technical employees. They developed a strong IC track providing their ICs with an opportunity to become Cisco “fellows” and be able to climb up the ladder. The IC levels correlated with those in manager tracks, salaries would correspondingly increase and ICs would be able to continue building great things while working by themselves and in their teams. Before anything else, you should inform your reports of all the opportunities available, and if they want to pursue a tech track and become an architect or a fellow, they need to know that it is a respectful path to follow.
If your report is certain about becoming a manager, you will need to help them reset. It should be clear that their role would no longer be about solving the problems with the code but solving the problem with your team. Once you become a manager, you will only be successful once your team is successful. For many engineers, staying hands-on is inherently part of who they are and what they want to do. Having to do something other than coding feels like being a fish out of the water.
Many engineers by inertia seek to become managers because it is equated with promotion. But they don’t understand that being a manager also means dealing with people and not code and how these two are radically different. It requires a seismic mindset shift -- it stops being about them; and becomes about their team. Their new fulfillment goal should be “if my team wins, I win”.
Unlearning is an essential part of becoming a manager. Oftentimes, their growth is self-sabotaged by the old learnings that are holding them back. New managers have to free up mental space to receive new ways and get rid of residual thoughts of how they did things before. Eventually, a void will appear, but that would be a known unknown; they will know that something should take the place of past things, even if they don’t know yet what that is. Common sense would help them answer the questions; simply ask them what they think EMs (engineering managers) are compensated for.
People are intrinsically connected to their outputs -- how creative they are, how good at problem-solving they can be, how accurate or predictive they can be. Sometimes that is translated to lines of code or something very tangible that can be easily measured. When they become managers, they will move to the meta-realm that transcends the tangible engineering work. Their sense of self-worth should evolve; if their engineers are writing great code, they should feel worthy. They hire them, manage them, take speed bumps out of the way and their reports’ success should be directly attributed to them as managers. They are now not only responsible for, but as productive as the whole team is. The entire team’s output should be their measure of their productivity.
Before accepting a promotion to an engineering manager, ask for management training. Keep learning about management styles, processes, techniques as long as you manage people and teams. You will never learn all of it, so keep learning.
- Follow your gut. The brain often doesn’t understand why your gut is feeling the way it does. “Do I want to be a manager?” is an important question to ask yourself. It is not always easy to decipher what your gut is telling you. If your gut tells you, “You don’t want to become a manager,” at least ask yourself why.
- Providing training is an important part of helping someone transition to a new role and some companies do that well. But the key change happens as a transformation on a profoundly personal level and is less about skills but more about mindset.
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