The Making of a Manager, a short review

The Making of a Manager, a short review

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A few months ago, as the prospect of replacing my individual contributor (IC) hat with that of an engineering manager started to become real, I did what anyone who knows me would expect me to do: I dug up management books from my to-read list, and asked friends for recommendations of what to read first. Opinions varied, but Julie Zhuo’s The Making of a Manager kept popping up as a practical one to start with. Unlike most other books I was considering, Zhuo’s was praised for aiming her suggestions at first-time managers, instead of addressing high level executives and experienced managers. Further, I knew Zhuo would bring the perspective of a young leader in a Silicon Valley software company, not an old school industrial blue chip. It seemed aligned with what I was looking for in a management book, so after hearing about it from several people, I followed their advice and picked it up.

Individuals can build amazing things on our own, but we can be more ambitious and can achieve more when working in teams. Things happen because people make them happen, but most remarkable things happen because we build on top of each other’s work in creative ways. In Zhuo’s view, this is the crux of management. A manager’s job is to get better outcomes for a given set of resources. By finding and removing bottlenecks, greasing wheels, and acting as a part-time therapist, a manager can get ICs working more efficiently, together.

Throughout the book, Zhuo discusses routine day to day aspects of management: running meetings, setting roadmaps, giving actionable feedback, growing the team, etc. Ultimately, most of the topics she brings up tie back to the same challenge: People. Running a team is hard because people are complex. At times we don’t understand ourselves, and even when we do we might not understand how the roles we fill fit in a broader context. Managing a team is about building a shared vision that serves both individual and common goals. A good manager strives for alignment across time-scales (What needs to happen by next week? How about by the end of the year?) and across subjects (What is the organizational goal? What are each individual’s career goals? How does a given project fit in that context?). A good manager defines processes to gather knowledge from their team, and makes decisions based on that information, pulling levers to line up goals as much as possible. A well-managed team has a deep understanding of what success looks like, and how each of its members’ personal stories fits in the broader organization’s objectives.

A manager’s day to day small decisions add up to a bigger whole, setting the team’s expectations and shaping individual experiences of the company and its culture. The Making of a Manager is packed with specific questions managers should ask and actions they should take when common problems arise. It provides a useful lens to evaluate and course correct one’s decisions as a manager. Zhuo does a good job of guiding new managers to improve on awkward 1-1 conversations, and to avoid aimless meetings, for example. Beyond that, she demonstrates how one can translate feedback into solid actionable next steps, and showcases how a manager’s role can be multiplicative instead of additive, helping the team deliver on it’s commitments.

While at times the tone felt fluffy, and many of the examples too cherry-picked, the underlying ideas presented by Zhuo are valuable. Her approach to management is not revolutionary, but the book serves as a pragmatic guide for someone transitioning from the IC track to the M path. As I embark on the management adventure, I’ll try to take her advice and have a growth mindset, keeping an eye out for coordination problems, and focusing on what matters most - the people I’ll be working with.

PS, for context, after years working on analytics and data engineering problems in Siri Search, I’m now leading a broader effort as the Engineering Manager of the Siri Metrics Platform team at Apple. If this sounds interesting, and you want to learn more, please reach out. Yes, we’re hiring.

Photo: Financial District, San Francisco, California, by me. Previously posted on SF Cityscapes.

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