Bummed I missed CalibrateSF

I missed CalibrateSF, a software engineering leadership conference, last September. Their thing is “You’re a great engineer. Become a great leader. A conference for new engineering leaders hosted by seasoned engineering leaders.” With those sixteen words, they nailed something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year.

Luckily, CalibrateSF videos are available online so I’m attending on my own terms during the holiday doldrums. Rob Slifka, one of the co-organizers, opened the conference. He’s the Engineering Veep at Sharethrough.

In his talk, Slifka nailed two big anxieties I ran head first into when I first started managing. For example, he explores the sudden transition from engineer to manager. While lots has been said about the difference between management and engineering (see, e.g.Eliot Horwitz, Steven Cerri, kellanMarcus Blankenship, Ship It Good), Slifka drilled a point I haven’t seen put out so clearly anywhere else. That is, on “the Friday before the Monday” when you start as a new software engineering manager you had a backlog of work to do. You knew what was coming next and the expectations were pretty clear.

But on your first Monday as a new engineering manager you discover there’s no backlog, no source of “truth” for your work. Nobody tells you what you need to be working on. Nobody tells you (even if many have opinions) how to solve problems. Indeed, it’s not really clear what the problems are. And feedback for solutions or decisions you implement may not come for weeks, months, even years; put differently, your days of getting that nice little green light that your unit tests passed are over.

Second, he nailed something else I haven’t read much about: the effect of agile on new managers. Theoretically, in agile, managers don’t get to tell people what to do anymore (I say theoretically because on my cynical, tired days I feel like all agile did was create a lot of confusion for everyone, especially me as a manager). By contrast, everyone in my family assumes that managers tell people what to do, but the agile process is supposed to tell people what to do now. So what do I do for a living again?

Slifka hints at it, but I think the answer is quite a lot — and quite a lot more than managers used to do. Stay tuned for my next post on the topic.

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