Ten Questions from a Brand-New Tech Manager
Answered by his future self one year later
In August 2020, I started a new role as a Data Science Manager within my then-current company, trivago N.V.. This was my first people-management position, and I was a bit apprehensive about this shift. I was talking with my co-worker Matthias Endler (https://endler.dev/) to get some advice, and he suggested that I keep a record of the questions I had as a new lead and turn it into an article later. The motivation behind this is of course that experienced managers forget what confused or worried them most when they started out, so I might have a special perspective here.
Now, with the benefit of over a year of management experience, I’ll try to answer the questions that my previous self posed. I’ll keep the questions in the same order that I wrote them down, with the assumption that the more relevant questions come first.
1. How will I negotiate salary hikes with my team?
In this case, we had a standard process across the organization for rating the performance of employees and determining what level raise they should get. This made it easier for me to have the conversation because a good deal of the decision was out of my hands. If this doesn’t exist in your organization, maybe you should talk to leadership about setting up something like this (at least using benchmark data to figure out what kind of raises should be offered).
2. Am I expected to actually follow all the software dependencies across departments during these meetings?
What I found is that I tend to focus on the things that are more relevant for my immediate tasks. If I have some spare energy, I might learn about the difficulties with the CI/CD framework the engineers are using or about how they ran out of IP addresses in their subnet in GCP. However, I found that I need to concentrate most of my attention on the problems relevant to my team, our specific permissions issues on our tables and the issues we’re having with getting GPUs allocated to run our vision models. Rather than get overloaded with information, I think it’s better to focus on what’s relevant to the current job and the information that’s important for your team.
3. I wonder how I can make my stories more entertaining so my talents will have more fun.
I don’t think I’ve gotten any more entertaining since I started becoming a manager, but I definitely worry about this less now. I think part of becoming a manager is getting comfortable with the manager persona and realizing that a lot of the interactions that I have with people will largely be determined by business requirements.
4. I feel like my onboarding is the calm before the storm, and I am going to have to do a lot more work soon
In my experience, work as a manager comes in waves. When all the projects are going smoothly, sometimes it feels as if there’s nothing to do outside of having regular catch-ups that just communicate everything is going fine.
But then a crisis happens (restructure, personnel leaving, change in business priorities, difficulties with a project), and then the manager has to jump in to provide both administrative and hands-on support.
5. Should I wear my headphones less in the office.
I sort of dodged this one via our remote work policies. It’s actually social that I’m wearing my airpods all the time so that I’m ready to jump on a spontaneous Zoom call! 😏 I don’t know if I would ever give up my headphones in an open office because of all the distractions, but I would make sure that my team members know they can tap me on the shoulder at any time if they want to discuss anything
6. How will my lead will determine if I’m doing a good job?
At trivago, we have a formal evaluation process that takes
- feedback from the manager’s team
- feedback from other leads that the lead works with
- the lead’s manager’s impressions
and combines these data points to form an evaluation. I think from my manager’s perspective, they mainly want to have informative interactions with me for my team members to be delivering their projects, but in the end the evaluation process is somewhat subjective.
7. How long will it be before I program again?
Since I manage five people, I have about 30% of my time that’s designated as focus work time, but in practice lot of this time is spent reviewing my team’s PRs. It’s rare that I get the chance to work on even a medium-sized task on my own, and odds are good that I will have to hand off the results of my analysis to a team member for it to be completed.
8 What’s the best way to structure my interview pipeline?
HR gave me some options here, and we adjusted this based on the needs for the role. Here I would suggest speaking with your peers in the organization ; and if you don’t have any within your function, check out some material on medium.com 😉
9) Whom should I eat lunch with?
During COVID, this question was sort of obviated by trivago’s remote work policy, but in general I think the most important people to socialize with are those with the same job function in the organization (for me, other Data Leaders) and those who I work closely with in a business context. When we are in the office, I try not to lunch about once a week together with my team, but I think any more often might get awkward because I’m their manager.
10 How am I supposed to deal with employee motivation?
For me, the solution was to build enough trust with my team members so that they would tell me what kinds of projects they would like to work on and then adjust our project portfolio accordingly. Critical tasks that no one on the team wanted to be responsible for (low technical complexity, medium business value data analysis tasks) were distributed in an equitable way among team members.