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BD #24 - Are You Cut Out for Management?

And why you shouldn't automatically give senior techies direct reports

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and things are really starting to motor at Hypercube Consulting - we’re in the early testing stages of our new MLOps-managed service and working with our first customers to iron out some wrinkles. If you’re an energy company seeking support with MLOps and data platforms, we should talk.

The wrong ladder

I presented at the MLOps Community Scotland meetup this week and had a great conversation with a senior techie asking about potentially becoming a manager. Like many capable people, after a few years of high achievement, this person found themselves at a crossroads:

  • Do they continue to try and advance their career as an individual contributor?

  • Or do they make the switch to the management track?

Not an easy question.

In many cases, the management track can be a faster route to more responsibility, compensation, opportunities, and the most senior leadership roles in an organisation. Be careful though, many climb “the ladder” much faster only to realise the view isn’t what they expected, and it was the wrong ladder all along.

For anyone looking at management solely to progress up the org chart as quickly as possible, I’d advise reaching out to as many sane managers as they can (rare in some organisations) to get the best view they can on what it is really like.

If you have other motivations or just aren’t sure, let me share some of the primary considerations from my experience and the second-hand experience I’ve learned from colleagues and customers over the years.

Why would you want to be a manager anyway?

First, the good bits.

For me, the most compelling reason to get into management is the impact you can drive. Even the best individual contributors have their limits and often need the right environment and support to reach their potential. Getting multiple talented people to collaborate effectively on the right work at the right time is no mean feat. Building and supporting that environment for success can be incredibly rewarding.

The personal relationships you develop have the potential to be some of the most rewarding for both you and the reports you serve. You have the opportunity to make someone’s working week more meaningful and more enjoyable for them. This is not always the case, many people don’t want to be best pals with their manager, and that’s fine. But it does happen - I’ve helped more than one person struggling with their mental health find more enjoyment and fulfilment from their work, and we’ve become great friends as well as colleagues.

There are other great things about management: getting the wider picture, seeing more of the business, shaping the direction of things, and collaborating with bright people, to name a few.

There’s plenty of rough stuff, though.

Some of those higher-level meetings can be the worst hours of your life. And I’m not just talking about the seemingly endless soul-draining carousel of weekly and monthly roundtables that should be emails. I mean the really tough meetings - layoffs, performance reviews, budget cuts, or the ones where cross-functional politics and animosity reach boiling point and it the tension is unbearable. As a manager, this is some of the worst stuff you’ll encounter and depending on the organisation, it can be more common than you think.

If you’re not comfortable having uncomfortable conversations - management isn’t for you. You absolutely can’t let people get away with poor behaviour because you’re not able to have the conversation.

What if that offensive “joke” did actually alienate someone? Or is it just a small sign of far worse behaviour that’s hidden from you as the manager?

What if the poor performance gets worse or spreads to other members of the team that see there’s no real recompense for slacking off?

As data professionals, we often get into our roles for the technology, but management really is a people game. We love looking at the numbers and the trends, but this can be hard when it’s down to individuals. You’re dealing with people’s careers and lives, their emotions and ideas, and even their self-worth for some career-focused individuals.

I’ve had to make people redundant due to budget cuts. I’ve had to call people out for sexist comments. I’ve had to chastise team members, leading to whole teams no longer treating me as a friend.

If you’re not ready for this, management can be a bumpy ride.

Final thoughts

I love being in management. But it’s hard. Don’t get into it for the wrong reasons.

All the best,
Adam

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