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Managing up and down for individual contributors

This is an abridged version of Sonia Parandekar's piece, originally published on December 28, 2020, through LinkedIn.

In software engineering, we often talk about how critical it is for managers to be hands-on—to stay relevant technically. But it's equally important for individual contributors (ICs) to learn the basics of managing people, especially as they grow professionally.

In this article, we explore a few techniques for ICs to employ when learning to manage their managers, junior teammates, and those peers not on your immediate team.


Why does managing up matter? One underlying benefit of choosing the technical/IC track is that ICs aren't required to deal with people/management responsibilities.  But managing up is crucial because these techniques can help multiply your impact; they're a toolkit for nurturing the ecosystem around you, not just within engineering but across design, product, and other disciplines.


Managing your manager

But isn't your manager's job to manage? Of course, but as your career progresses—it's essential to shift your mindset—to think of that dynamic as a partnership. Consider your organization's approach to levels: you may be a peer to your manager or even a level higher; the company then expects you to have a similar degree of impact as them.

Don’t wait for your manager

Waiting for your manager or other leadership to recognize opportunities can cost you or your team future wins. Don’t ever wait to bring up:

  • An area of concern for your team(s) like reliability, feature delivery, or code quality
  • A team opportunity, like evangelizing the team’s work or adopting a new tool/framework/platform or new product idea.

Like the ones noted above, opportunities typically show up on an IC’s radar before leveling up to management, if they appear at all. So please don’t assume they already know what you know— very often, they may not.  Think of your product as an iceberg, where you’re operating below water while they’re surface-level. The importance of over-communicating with your manager then seems obvious, right? For many areas, the right timing can be everything. Proactively discussing opportunities with your manager and brainstorming together on solutions & next steps can have huge upsides for your team and effectively cement your partnership.

Build trust

We usually think of trust as something managers need to consider; does their team trust them? But for a manager to be effective, they also need the ability to trust and rely on their team members. As your career progresses, consider how building trust is your responsibility and how it's a direct by-product of your actions. 

The following behaviours contribute to building trust, both as a manager and as an IC:

  • Giving in-the-moment candid feedback 
  • Consistently following through commitments/discussions
  • Providing transparent insight into your work and actions 
  • Proactive listening 
  • Clear and direct communication
  • Inclusivity 
  • Decisive decision making

Understand their world

During 1:1s, always take some time to do a pulse check with your manager; what's top of mind for them? What are they concerned/excited about? What's on their roadmap? Topics like these might seem a bit unnatural at first, but they'll become more comfortable for you and your manager to discuss over time. These discussions can often provide insights for you better to understand the "Why" behind their decisions. They might also spark exciting ideas for spikes or other opportunities for yourself or others. And going back to the iceberg analogy, think of these conversations as opportunities to understand the complete picture—the mid to long-term view. 

Be a partner

As your responsibilities evolve, shift your perspective by looking to your manager—not as someone responsible for your career growth—but as an equal partner in your career growth. It's key to remember that your manager can help create new opportunities or contribute to your growth plan. Multipliers: How the best managers make everyone smarter gives great insights into how effective managers operate. It can help you better understand your manager as well as discover the multiplier in you.

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Managing your peers

Our peripheral team peers are the cohort we spend the least amount of time with, whether as a manager or IC. However, the 80-20 rule applies, and being deliberate about how you spend your time with peers can significantly impact your team and your career.

Sharing best practices

  • A strong connection with your peers can highlight alternative perspectives on the challenges their team(s) face while also surfacing fresh approaches to solving them. 
  • Those relationships can also help identify what’s going well within your team and a platform to share those best practices. When those opportunities are available, always seek to understand their priorities and challenges and then suggest solutions that have worked well for your team.

These aspects are critical for making your team more performant, effective and contributing to long-term impact within your team and across other teams.

Honing your influencing skills

Your ability to influence different people or groups will vary based on your relationship with them. For example, your impact on your peers is different than the one you hold over your direct team, as your manager has a  vested interest in making you successful. Additionally, your team members know you closely—they may rely on you for decisions within the team, they also spend a lot of time with you. Naturally, you'll find it easier to influence them.

Because of the limited shared time with your peers, your impact is less substantial. And the same is true for their impact on you. It's worthwhile to plan your 1:1 and group interactions with your peers. Some of it will happen naturally, for example, a platform your team is adopting. Other opportunities can be based on common interests such as security, programming languages, or frameworks. Others may be around org-wide initiatives such as interviewing, mentoring, etc. Actively seek out opportunities that interest you, find individuals you respect & can learn from, and vice versa, and regularly catch up with them. You may need to step out of your comfort zone a bit, don't hesitate to take that first step. Trust me, there will be no looking back.

COVID-19 has redefined how so many people are working.  And as a result, it's likely the number of people working in-office five days a week will continue to shrink. To acclimate to these changes, ICs and managers will need to make the extra effort of building rapport with peers, and at the same time, with fully remote levels—everyone is just a Zoom call away. Keep these aspects in mind as you plan your week and month.

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Managing your juniors

Career growth often leads to more mentoring junior team members and taking on new responsibilities. Here are a few tips to help you along in that journey:

  • It's important to realize that your focus needs to shift from proving how impactful you are to highlighting your team and their impact. While your manager is accountable, you may take on responsibility for driving various technical aspects of the team, like code quality, monitoring, and reliability. Think of yourself as a leader and take these responsibilities seriously.
  • Delegate to the team around you. To ensure everyone is growing and learning, it's essential to focus on doing work that suits you best while passing off other responsibilities to those team members who excel where you don't. Work with architects on your team to identify similar opportunities for yourself and keep your manager in the loop so that they can accelerate and support you.

Set a high bar

Nothing is as inspiring as a job well done. Whatever you're working on, do it in a way that sets a benchmark. Mastering the craft is a crucial motivator for software developers and technologists in general.

By setting a high bar and leading by example, you can play an influential role in your team’s journey to becoming a self-motivated, highly performant team. Wherever possible, be sure to measure your work—a data-driven approach will keep you honest and transparent with your team.

It's easy to find ourselves in situations where there isn't enough time or resources, and as a result, we make compromises. When this happens, be sure to document the tech debt you're accumulating, share context around the "Why" with your team, and make a future-plan for addressing it. 

Don’t shy away from feedback

Giving candid feedback, be it for building confidence or improving a team member's effectiveness, is hard. But providing the same kind of feedback for your manager can also be a different kind of challenge. Build your muscle for regularly providing feedback and seeking feedback for yourself. S-B-I (situation-behavior-impact) is a great framework for giving and receiving real and actionable feedback. If you receive poor quality feedback, which is just opinions, respectfully ask the feedback giver to rephrase it as S-B-I.

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