Transitioning from Engineering to Management – Part 3 “Now and Beyond”

I am no longer a manager. I moved back to being an individual contributor for Amazon Web Services. A Senior Technical Account Manager in the Enterprise Support organisation working with customers across Scotland, the UK and the World. It’s been over three years since I posted the first blog post in this series and at the time I had anticipated the third post being more focused on developing as a leader and the challenges of staying in front of technical developments whilst also being a good manager. Instead I took an opportunity to work for AWS a leader in cloud computing and an organisation I’ve hoped to work at for a long time.

So this post is going to be about my decision making process to move from management at a small/medium sized business punching above its weight to individual contributor at one of the biggest tech companies in the world. The decision was not terribly difficult in the end.

It is fair to say that my time at brightsolid was formative. I joined the organisation as an IT Engineer working on internal IT services and providing support to staff at the company. At the time this was around 300 people across several sites. By the time I decided to move on from brightsolid I had been a Systems Engineer, Service Desk Manager, and latterly working as Head of Technology developing the Hybrid Cloud vision of the product team as well as a number of other transformative initiatives for a company that had divested and was now around 50 employees but focused on a specific set of service offerings as an MSP in Scotland. I learned a lot over the years, about technology, about leadership, about the nature of commercial relationships and about business in general. Not all of it was comfortable or easy to learn, and some of it was associated with behaviours and attributes of leaders that were not fit to be in the positions they were in. Learning how not to do things, I guess, is sometimes as important as learning how to do them well.

Given the above it would have been easy for me to stay where I was familiar and comfortable and feel like I’m delivering something more impactful to a smaller business than AWS. But as you’ll perhaps remember from the first post in this series, I always try to push myself out of my comfort zone and move my career forward. By the end, I felt I had outgrown brightsolid. And so despite the fact I felt deeply passionate about brightsolid and the work I was doing there, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn from the amazing smart folks that work for AWS.

Jumping in to a role at AWS is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, the phrase “sipping from the firehose” came up a lot in my initial onboarding and it’s not wrong. You have to learn a lot and quickly. But you’re not alone, you have a lot of people in the same position or have been in the same position and are happy to help. I’ve loved every day of the past 18 months at AWS and can’t wait to see where I can take this.

The conclusion to this series is short, the message of this post is simply this, be sure you know when you have outgrown your role and your place of work, find new opportunities to push yourself and grab them with both hands.

Transitioning from Engineering to Management – Part 2 “Learnings”

This is part two of the three-part series reflecting on my decision to move away from direct engineering into management. You can find part one here.

Part 2.

In the more than two years since taking on the role of Service Desk Manager, I have learned a lot about myself. My style of management and who I want to be as a leader, as well as gaining a deep insight into the world of the customers I worked with. It’s been a journey with ups and downs but overall has been a hugely positive experience.

I want to share some of the most important things I’ve learned in that time, the things that have shaped decisions I’ve made and how I conduct myself at work. This is a list, I’m sorry about that.

1. Bring Solutions

Starting out on the Service  Desk there were various challenges, gripes and issues that were coming at me from senior management, from the team itself and from the other teams within the business. This was a bit overwhelming and it is easy to get sucked into the moaning and complaining about the problems, then instead of solving the problems, you perpetuate them. Always endeavouring to see the problem at hand objectively allows you to come up with solutions rather than perpetuating the problem. It’s almost always exclusively better to bring a solution to your team or colleagues in other teams than it is to perpetuate. Even if ultimately your solution is wrong or doesn’t get implemented you’re trying to make things better and people will respect that.

It’s not easy though, especially if you care about your work. You get emotionally invested and it can be hard to remove that emotion once it’s there. The thing that works for me in these cases is to attempt to gain an objective viewpoint from someone else. It doesn’t always work but it does more often than not.

2. It’s not always a technology problem

As an engineer, I was always naturally inclined toward finding technology solutions to problems. While I could academically agree that not all problems can be solved by technology it took until I was leading a team and working on higher level business problems that this became reality to me. A truly successful business is composed of three elements. People, Process and Technology. In that order. 

This is not a grand revelation, I’m sure most people know that. But it’s easy to forget and even easier to get the order wrong. You absolutely have to have the right people around you, governed by the right processes or the technology is waste of time. You can have the best tool in the world but if your processes are inefficient and clunky then the tool can’t stop that from being true. If the people you have are ineffective then if you have the best tool in the world with the best processes it still doesn’t stop the ineffectiveness. Always start with people and process, then worry about the technology. 

3. Aptitude and Attitude

Speaking of people, the way to find the best people is not to focus on what they already know, focus on their potential to learn and their desire to learn. This is not a new lesson to me but one that was crystalised during my time as the Service Desk Manager and beyond. If the person before you has the aptitude to learn what you need them to learn and the attitude that shows they want to learn then there’s little that will stop them from developing into what you need them to be.

In the MSP business, and in IT in general, you are never going to be an expert in everything. there’s too much to know. Instead, you need to be an expert in thinking on your feet, researching problems to resolution and learning as you go. 

4. Listen!

This one seems obvious. In my experience, though it’s one of the skills a leader needs the most and yet many leaders I’ve worked with have been very bad at it. I don’t just mean using your ears either, I mean actively listening to what other people have to say, taking it in, ensuring you have an accurate understanding of what they have to say and then integrate that feedback into any decisions you need to make.

It’s not always easy to listen like that, it’s tiring, and takes time. But it is assured to produce the best outcomes. People feel engaged and valued, whether their say has made it into a final decision or not because they will feel heard. 

5. If you ask for feedback, do something with it!

Following on from listening, if you send out a company survey or ask a team for feedback via any mechanism, you absolutely must do something with the responses. 

People will stop giving feedback to you if you don’t ever act on what you’re being told. You don’t ever want people to stop giving feedback. You don’t always have to do the things being asked in feedback but it’s important to respond to the feedback with rationale as to why that is the case. 

6. Say what you mean, mean what you say!

Now this one is stolen directly from my Insights profile. I lead with Blue (factual, data driven) and Red (directorial, stubborn) energies and this struck a huge chord with me when I read my profile for the first time.

I cannot abide people saying one thing to you then acting completely differently to how they had stated. I get that people don’t always control this, I get that they don’t always mean to stray from what they said and so I can forgive it. But if you routinely say things that you don’t mean or say things without conviction then we are going to disagree at some point. 

For me it’s about being reputable amongst my colleagues, it’s about them knowing that if I say something will be done it will be done. It’s about being trustworthy.

7. The Art of Compromise

As a leader, a great deal of what you do is actually about finding the middle ground between two opposing views, alternative solutions or whatever. Sometimes it’s harder than others to find that middle ground but it’s something that you must be able to do. See things from the other side, identify the compromise and get buy-in on that basis.

More often than not you don’t have to compromise your view or solution that much to find the compromise as there’s typically an overlap, simply because the chances are you are working towards a common goal.

Conclusion

I put a lot of time considering what sort of leader I want to be versus what sort of leader I am. Leading is something you should never just assume you are good at, it’s something you need to work on, a lot.

Transitioning from Engineering to Management – Part 1 “The Decision”

As I’ve recently changed role within the past two months I have decided to articulate my reflections on a decision I made over 2 years ago regarding the transition away from direct engineering roles, this is part one in a 3 part series discussing my decision to make the move, the things I’ve learned along the way and what it has ultimately led me to.

Part 1.

In the summer of 2015, I’d made the decision to start the transition from IT engineering roles that I had been in for ten years previous to more leadership focused roles.

As a stereotypical logical technical person, I spent a long time thinking about the pros and cons of doing this. Here are a few that I came up with during that process:

Pros

  • Opportunity to lead and develop others in their careers
  • Opportunity to develop myself as a leader
  • New challenges and diversification of skills
  • Opportunity to contribute at a higher level to the business
  • Raising my profile within the business

Cons

  • Time available for technical work will be significantly reduced
  • The number of meetings will be significantly increased
  • Perceptions may be that I’m “past it”

It’s worth noting that these lists are not exhaustive as I’m reflecting upon this I am recalling what I considered at the time and in discussions with friends and family and so no tangible list like this ever existed while I was making the decision is does roughly reflect the pros and cons I had considered.

In the end, I decided that the pros outweighed the cons by a significant margin and so in November 2015 I officially took on the role of Service Desk Manager at brightsolid. This list of pros and cons were not the only deciding factors. I had been in the engineering role I was in for just over 3 years at that point which is a personal limit for when I start to feel like I’m stagnating career-wise.

I feel a pretty strong affinity for the phrase that Pop used to say to Luke Cage. “Always Forward. Forward, Always.” This pretty much sums up how I like to progress my career if it’s a step backwards or sideways it doesn’t feel like forward so taking the leap into leadership satisfied this need.

I need to feel that I am being challenged as that’s ultimately what leads to progression. If you’re never out of your comfort zone you’re not learning and not improving.

Making a decision like this is something that most engineers will face in their careers in IT. To stay an engineer usually means to become an expert or consultant in a specific field, to move to management and leadership usually means to let go of a lot of the hands-on engineering. Ultimately it’s a very personal choice and will always come down to each individual’s personal values.

To satisfy my own personal value, to push myself forward, it was really an easy decision. Hopefully when it comes time for you to decide it will be equally as easy but if not then maybe this article will help in some way.