My Management Philosophy

I moved into management in January 2017. Etsy (like other large tech companies) has two career paths: IC (individual contributor) or management. Currently I’m the Engineering Manager for the Accessibility Team, the vision of which is to build an Etsy where people with disabilities thrive. The topic of accessibility is deserving of its own blog post at a later date.

Getting back to management, the obvious question: why?

I have various angles and answers to this question, but I think the most fundamental and honest answer is that I think it appeals to my strengths. I had a glimpse of a lot of management responsibilities in 2016 – defining roadmaps, instilling process, selling work up and down, mentoring – and I enjoyed it. I like grappling with and finding a way through uncertainty, particularly when it goes beyond purely technical constraints. Choosing which technical framework to use to build a thing is hard, but it’s an entirely different problem to determine if building that thing is a good idea in the first place. What are the externalities of that decision? How will it not only affect its users, but also the people who build it?

It’s not that I have a distaste or lack of belief in my ability to execute on technical work – the thrill of learning new technologies and shipping code is something I still and will likely always love. Nor am I shutting that door completely. But for now I like the challenge of my new role and I’m interested to see how the experience hones my leadership skills.

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One of my goals for this year was to define my management philosophy. Superficially I know that sounds premature; what the hell do I know after 3 months? But this philosophy isn’t a function of my three months of management experience, it’s a function of being managed and working in teams during my career to date.

My motivation for writing a document like this is transparency and accountability. None of this stuff is groundbreaking or novel, but if you’re on my team you deserve to know, explicitly, what I expect from you and what you can expect from me. I think there’s value in that clarity.

On management generally

  • A team is only as good/productive as its ICs. Effective management is about putting those ICs in a place to be their best selves — adding (or removing) processes, identifying opportunities for growth and exposure, and creating, communicating, maintaining and validating a strategic vision around the team’s work.
  • Effective management cannot make a team of ineffective ICs produce high quality work. But a team of highly effective ICs will be capped, both in the velocity and quality, by ineffective management.

On being your manager

  • My goal is to empower you to be your best self, keep the team strategically on track, help you reach career-related goals and handle higher level logistical details (meetings, JIRA, etc) that keep you productive and fulfilled.
  • I’m not interested in micromanagement. I believe in a culture of discipline; meaning, we are disciplined and mature professionals that can be held accountable to delivering tasks without granular and overbearing oversight. I find micromanagement as exhausting as you do.

On our work as a team

  • I believe in transparency/integrity among teams. Google spent years and millions of dollars trying to uncover what made their most productive teams successful. TL;DR: it was being real/genuine with each other.
  • I believe in “smells.” When does a process or project or task seem “off”? If something smells, please tell me. That’s your taste/experience/instinct talking, and that’s why we hire you, invest in you, and value your contribution.
  • I believe in focus. We’ll always be juggling multiple tasks at a time, but we must be diligent in identifying and shipping our highest priorities. This is why exercises like goal-setting and VMSOs (Vision Mission Strategy Objectives) are important. I would much rather ship four things in six months than half-ship eight things in the same time frame. “Let’s full-ass a few things, rather than half-ass many things.”
  • I believe in accountability and ownership. Let’s be proud of what we produce. If something breaks and we own it, that’s our reputation. That’s our work. Being accountable means that it’s our responsibility to respond with empathy and action.
  • Let’s be in the arena.

On working with others

  • Let’s be marked by maturity in our work and interactions. My thoughts on this are best encapsulated by John Allspaw’s blog post (I freaking love this post): On Being a Senior Engineer
  • I believe in data-driven and transparent decision making. You may notice that something is a bad idea and want to comment on it; great! Your sense of smell is important. But explaining the rationale of your decision — including constraints, domain knowledge, long-term effects, etc. — is a much more meaningful and lasting means of convincing someone else of your viewpoint. It also opens a dialogue around the validity of your assumptions.
  • Pick your battles carefully. Stand up for what you believe in, but know that fighting battles you don’t care about will have diminishing returns on the battles you do. I love this blog post about picking your battles: The sliding scale of giving a fuck
  • Assume best intentions. All people and teams have external factors (roadmaps, deadlines, stresses, personal circumstances, etc.) that impact their priorities and decision making. Gathering appropriate context around those factors is the fastest and most enduring path to a meaningful solution. Sometimes you may not have access to the full scope of those factors. Studies show that it takes 5 positive interactions to overcome a single negative interaction (HBR article, PDF). Regardless, the old adage holds true: “be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.”
  • I don’t believe in “brutal honesty.” Brutality is never a virtue. Hard conversations are sometimes necessary, but tact is always necessary.
  • Inclusivity and equality in our team is an important value at Etsy and important to me. If I see you behaving in a way that is discriminating or disparaging of any particular group (e.g. gendered language, stereotypes, inequitable treatment), I will address it. You should feel comfortable to do the same for me and your peers.

On self-awareness

  • I believe in Daniel Pink’s ideas on our intrinsic motivators: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I encourage you to continually revisit how those three motivators intersect in your role and be proactive in identifying opportunities to expand them.
  • Everyone has bouts of imposter syndrome (myself included). Imposter syndrome is a struggle, but you would not have been hired if you were not capable of doing your job. I have no doubt in your abilities to perform the responsibilities of your role.
  • Burnout is real and its causes are not only limited to hours spent working. Take care of yourself and please tell me when you’re feeling overwhelmed or unhappy. I’d rather have you leave early/take a break/switch tasks than burn out. You are valued more than your job title. Our success as a team is a long game and burnout undermines that success.
    • Caveat: Sometimes we’ll need to really churn on work to meet stricter dates, but know that’s the exception rather than the norm. We’re not a culture of workaholics.
  • Sometimes work is boring, but a sign of maturity is pushing through the slog when you need to. Sometimes it’s busy work. Don’t forget who we empower, even by doing the little things. Getting the little things out of the way will enable you to work on the big things.
  • Be proactive about asking for help. If you need help or clarity you are always able and encouraged to ask for it, but asking for that guidance is on you. Do your best to understand the balance between powering through something and spinning your tires (and if you’re not sure of that balance, I can help). Remember that in the end you ultimately own having full context of, and delivering, your tasks.