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Transitioning From IC to Manager

Leadership
New Manager

21 July, 2021

Trey Tacon
Trey Tacon

Senior Director of Engineering at TeamSnap

Trey Tacon, Senior Director of Engineering at TeamSnap, encourages ambitious engineers to take a leap of faith in a world full of unknowns.

Problem

The first thing to be said about transitioning from an individual contributor to a manager is that it’s very difficult to do. You end up doing two jobs for a while. You’re still trying to perform the function that you did in your previous role because you know that you’re good at it. Suddenly, though, you’ve got all of these other new things to do, and you’re not sure if you’re going to be any good at them or not. It’s scary.

On top of that, when you feel like you’re not doing well, you fall back into failure mode. You jump right back into doing something that you know that you’re good at very quickly in response. It builds this unfortunate cycle where you’re left with less time to do the things that you really need to be working on. You’re afraid, you’re falling, and you try to grab ahold of something familiar. It is so hard to break free of this mindset.

Actions taken

It’s likely that you already possess the raw talent necessary to lead effectively, but you have no way of knowing this beforehand. A lot of companies have leadership training programs, but start-ups are a little bit different. Responsibility is handed out to people who appear to have an aptitude for management, often without that type of framework. You’re given a title and told to run with it. Figure things out. It can take some time to strike a balance.

One example involves a team of mine who was not hitting their goals. Part of that was my fault. I was still taking on tickets despite being promoted because I knew that I could take care of them quickly. As a manager, however, I don’t have time to go from technical problem to technical problem. I need to be focused on leading the team and other higher-level tasks. I was not used to playing this role.

Failure mode for you becomes a failure state for your team. It’s painful for everybody. When I learned this, that’s when I realized that first, before anything else, I needed to change. I started to take more notes. What am I doing without realizing it? You start seeing all of these things that are taking up a lot of your time without ever even showing up on your radar. You start finding all of these different ways to organize your time differently and leaving all of these things that you should not be doing in the past. Hand those lower-level tasks off.

I ended up having to step away from touching code entirely after a certain point. It hurt a lot at first. When my team needed technical support, instead of hopping in myself, I would instead suggest that they pair. For us, it was the beginning of this pairing culture that we had not had before. We had always been a remote company, so we spent a lot of time refining these pairing sessions. What was the best way to set each other up for success?

At the end of the day, you really have to just let go of all of your Legos. You have different Legos now. I still write little bits of code on occasion, but for the most part, my sights are set upon the horizon.

Lessons learned

  • You truly do learn by failing. I have failed so many times doing all of these things, but I learned how to do them after having those experiences. I am very transparent with my team about things like this. Things will not always be perfect, and that’s how we’re going to grow.
  • I spend a lot of time devising very detailed plans with people. I really prefer to provide them with some frame of reference for what they should be doing at any given time. It also gives them an opportunity to communicate with me about which parts of their plan they are not as interested in. I want to make sure that the people who I’m working with feel like they have agency in that conversation. It should not be a one-way street. This empathy will make them more successful; they feel invested in. What do you need to learn? Let’s do this together. Be a manager who cares.
  • When people feel safe, they are more likely to open up about where they are having trouble. It becomes like a therapy session. People just need a rubber duck to talk to. They just need to talk to somebody who’s there.
  • I’m a very growth-minded person. If you strive to be one percent better everyday, by the end of the year, you’ll be thirty-eight times better than when you started out. Incremental, sustainable growth is so important.

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