How to be a manager developers love

A few ideas I had over the years working as a developer and developers' manager.

Give meaning to the work they do

No white-collar professional wants to do repetitive tasks day in day out. Say, your business model doesn't allow for much variety of dev tasks, there's still a way to keep your developers happy.

Here are a few ideas on what you can tell your dev:

  1. Tell them what is the task at hand about. Tell them that the task will help the end user work faster, better. Tell them how many people will be impacted. Tell them how much work hours will be saved. Tell them the user stories; they make the task meaningful.
  2. After telling them the user stories, ask them if they see alternative solutions, ideas. Just listen to them, don't shut down the ideas because they seem unrealistic.

Give them autonomy

No white-collar professional wants to only do the bidding of the manager. People have improvement ideas, field workers see many more problems than you as a manager do. Good professionals want to have some level of autonomy, they want to be valued not only for their direct responsibilities but also for other ideas.

Here are a few ideas on how you can let your dev feel appreciated:

  1. "I've noticed you do similar tasks over and over. I understand that sucks. So I thought, what if you took some time off your current tasks and come up with ways you can automate some repetitive tasks. I'll be online, let me know if there's something I can help you with."
  2. "Do you have any ideas on how we can optimise the tasks you do? I trust you have much expertise, so I thought you may have valuable insights. Write down your ideas and plan out a simple plan for how you would implement your ideas. When you're ready, let's sit down later and discuss them."

Give them means to do their best work

It is true, that not every hire knows what they want to do and do it well. I think, it's my responsibility as a manager to help those people rehabilitate or find their calling, even if it means they will move on from your team or the company. For all others (professionals who know what they want to do and to do it well), don't be stingy and give them all tools and means to do their work the best they can.

A few ideas:

  1. Ask the devs if there are any tools they need to be bought in addition or instead of the current ones so they could do their work better. Stay within rational budgets.
  2. Ask if they have noticed they might be lacking some knowledge or practice to do their work better. Make sure it doesn't sound like a veiled dig at their performance. If they had, ask if they want money to take some courses or allotted time to learn at work.
  3. Ask if there are any processes, cultural things that hinder their performance. If they ask to work from home because they can't stomach the company culture, set it in motion. If they ask for a change in processes, set it in motion and make them one of the advisors.

Pay them well

Everyone wants to get paid fairly. Definition of fair is very subjective. To some, it depends on how they perceive themselves compared to other players in the market, and their pay to the pay of same level professionals in the market, to some it is about their feeling of self-worth. Either way, it's not your place to tell them what they want is not right. If the budgets allow and the asked pay seems reasonable in the market, give them the money. If it doesn't, give them the money and strike a clear time-bound deal in terms of their performance for the money. Be careful, though. They might not be able to take the blow of conditional pay. Be ready to say goodbye to them.

It's never about Xboxes and foosball tables

Companies posing Xboxes, foosball tables, ping-pong tables, Spotify subscriptions and such as the perks why people should come work for them just aren't getting it.

Your employees ask for those things because they want to escape the work even if just for 15 minutes, to have some time to take their mind off the work, to tune out the noise, the drama, to have some control over their workday and try to perform the best they want.

You know what I read between the lines when such perks are listed in a job ad?

  • We want to care about employees, but don't know how/want to do the job to actually improve the well being, and we feel guilty so we shower employees with superficial stuff because we feel kinda guilty
  • We think we can attract youth if we show them they have the option to play at work, even though the workload is so high and is barely regulated they don't have much time to waste time on those
  • We only care about money and work hours and buy stuff people ask for
  • Big companies seem to have those, maybe we should try that too, maybe people will come
  • Yeah, we know the office is loud and workspaces are uncomfortable but don't give a rat's ass about doing anything about that. But we can buy you a pair of okay headphones and a Spotify subscription
  • The HR/marketing team doesn't believe in the same things the bosses believe, so they just list the very few positives they can find in working at the company

Looking for the meaning

The mainstream media seems to proliferate the message that the generation just entering the workforce is very finicky and only seeks meaningful work. This idea doesn't sit well with me.

What if we made the work meaningful? What if, we, managers actually started managing the talent? Ground-breaking, I know.

What brings meaning at work to people. Off the top of my head:

  • Money
  • Helping people/animals/nature
  • Solving problems/challenging their mental capacity
  • Building social structures
  • Creating knowledge/things

Money is a fleeting motivator. In the times of great depression and after it, money may have bee the best motivator, but in the 2010s life's pretty different. Money, like any quantitative metric, tends to make workers seek faster and easier ways to do the same work they did before and make more money. Then thirst gets bigger and they ask for more money. And more. And more. I agree, in many blue-collar professions this approach works. In white-collar circles motivating people to do their job better so they would be paid more, can easily backfire.

Noble and egotistic motives is where it's all at. I think.

Epidemic of half-assed management

In all my employment history I have noticed that many managers in charge of teams of various sizes tend to make and deliver their decisions half-assedly. By that I mean, they make the first decision that seems viable and enforce it on their team. Which often plummets lower ranks into confusion and resentment.

As I have come to see, the manager's work consists of two parts: managing resources and managing people. Resource allocation is pretty easy, we're extensively taught to do that in the universities. Managing people is a bit complicated.

What they teach at uni, the Maslow's pyramid of needs and more modern alternatives is not wrong and ultimately a good tool, except in the vast number of cases it doesn't work. What is often not stressed, is that these systems apply to self-actualised people and that many professionals aren't.

So what happens when a manager thoughtlessly applies a tool that is meant to be applied with utmost consideration and humanity? Egos get bruised, resentment towards management is created, personality conflicts start brewing, eventually, people leave.

Can the needed humanity be learnt? Can the epidemy be treated? I hope so. Are some managers not suited to manage other professionals, but just resources or lower-sitting managers? Seems like a cop out, but definitely the easiest solution in the time of crisis.

It's lonely up top

One of my first managers told me once that managers can never be friends with their team. At the time, it seemed overly dramatic to me, a novice to the corporate world. How could you not be a friend of everyone? As I gained more experience and had management opportunities, I understand the words better now.

Just as you become a manager, in the eyes of your team you suddenly become a gatekeeper to the success of their career. Especially if you are pencilled in into their contract as the direct superior. Now you are the hand that feeds. This switch in perception happens naturally. It may vary across cultures, and depends on the previous relationship between you and the newly subordinate.

Now your team will filter what and how they tell you. Complaints come to sound like suggestions, dissatisfaction as things-nice-to-have, you are excluded from some conversations, most of the information is veiled. More often than not, this happens without malicious intent. Feels isolating, doesn't?

This transition period makes or breaks the manager. Will you lean into the discomfort? Will you try to remain friends with the team? Thing is, you can only choose one. Should you choose first, you will pave an easier road to success as a manager. Should you chase the old belonging, suddenly the power dynamic shifts and it becomes so much harder to coerce your team into performing the way you need them to.

The burden (or blessing, depends on how you view it) of decision-making is now on you. If you used to make cooperative decisions as a team, now you wield the power. Doing the whole 'I am one of you: let's discuss and decide together' routine barely ever works. If anything, it just shifts the power balance and weakens you in the eyes of the team.

The worst part, you can't ask your team to help figure out the whole being a manger thing.

It is lonely up top.

P. S., 'not being friends' doesn't mean losing humanity and being an asshole. Managers must be human and friendly to an extent.

P. P. S., all of this also applies to managers without a previous relationship with the team.

P. P. P. S., yes, this is very similar to leadership, but leadership doesn't imply you will have to make the ends meet and stay within budgets.

Am I a successful developer?

What makes a developer a successful developer? I often wonder that, since I don’t have a solid opinion about my skills. Am I as good as my employer says I am? Something tells me this mindset is not very robust or healthy. So am I as good as I say I am? That’s a straight road to developing the Narcissus complex. Am I the as good as my code? Am I as good as few bugs I make? Am I as good as how sharp my focus is? Am I as good as a ’team player’ I am? Am I as good as fast I react to people asking me for stuff?

I believe the answer is a big NO. I am as good a developer as the quality of my output, which is the sum of all those things mentioned before. A developer is as good as the whole value (tangible and not) they believe and actually create for the employer.

Take a vacation

You need a vacation. Don't deny it. You want it. You know you need it. Do yourself a favour.

Your projects, work, and responsibilities can wait. You know what can't wait? Your health, your sanity, people around you. And you can't do your projects, work, responsibilities when you are sick and exhausted.

There is no shame in treating yourself, despite managers making you feel otherwise.