Management Seat Time
Reflections on Management and Returning to Engineering
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a (r)evolution going on in the modern data stack. There’s a new way of working in data, where software engineering best practices are the way the data team gets work done. I recently left my role as the manager of a large team to join Aula Education as a Sr Analytics Engineer — primarily to get in on the technical fun.
Management and engineering are fundamentally different career tracks. Managing has been a great privilege and I’ll always be grateful to my former team and for the time we had together. This post is a reflection on my years in management and the lessons I learned from them. It’s all about seat time.
Before I became a manager, I applied for a manager role in my department and didn’t get it. The candidate who was selected already had management experience even though they had no experience in my department. I was a high performer in my individual contributor role and I felt disappointed and passed over.
A mentor who helped me understand the decision explained that what he called seat time mattered -- and the other candidate had it already. It’s hard to understand what seat time is when you’re young and ambitious and smart. It’s impossible to see the value in seat time when you don’t have it, which is even more frustrating.
For me, seat time has come to refer to the skills and experience required for management, which can only be picked up by doing the job. No amount of reading or thinking can give you seat time. It’s purely experiential.
Self-awareness and introspection are essential to benefitting from seat time. Mentors and a good boss can help you learn more quickly and avoid some mistakes. Time is an essential component of this kind of learning. You can’t shortcut the process.
You can read about these skills in management books— I’ve included some I like in the footnote.1
The thing is, reading about how to fire someone is different from doing it. It’s easy to read about the need for clear feedback and nod along, but hard not to soften feedback to someone you like at the moment you’re giving it. The impact of your decisions plays out over a longer timescale and it’s not always easy to see your own mistakes.
Seat time is sitting across the table from someone, listening to them describe a situation, and realizing you’ve seen this pattern before. You know how to navigate the situation — even or especially if it involves tricky interpersonal dynamics. When you come across a situation you haven’t seen before, it takes more time and energy to handle it than if you’ve seen variations of it several times.
It’s not that the emotional work of managing gets easier with seat time. You do get better at compartmentalizing and processing the emotional challenges of management.
In the last year and a half or so, I managed a 12 person team of direct and dotted line reports. One cool benefit of management seat time is seeing patterns play out. You see more than just your own work and gain a lot of perspective and understanding from seeing what’s going on with your reports. I learned two key lessons from my seat time, the first of which was …
Not Everyone Is You
That’s a good thing.
This is the seat time lesson I learned, re-learned, re-learned, and learned again in a new way. You can’t treat everyone like yourself, because not everyone on your team is like you! Most seat time lessons sound painfully obvious when you write them out like this.
It’s easy to slip into giving feedback based on what you would have done or thought about, forgetting that your team member does not have the same experiences and context that you do.
A closely related lesson is that you can’t treat everyone the same way. It seems like it would be fair or even right to do this, but it’s not. People have different needs depending on what they’re best at or struggling with, where they are in their career, where they’re trying to go, or what’s going on with them at a specific point in time.
You can’t praise people only in the way you want to be praised. I’m highly intrinsically motivated — if I know I did a good job, that can be enough for me. I had to intentionally understand and adapt to praise team members according to their needs and preferences. Some people need more regular and consistent positive feedback to do their best work.
Coaching and growing your team is one of the most important duties of a manager. I couldn’t coach effectively until I learned to tailor my approach to each individual and what they needed. I had to continuously improve my approach, and focus on a long term perspective.
People sometimes tell you what they need based on how they see themselves, which can be different from how they behave and respond. Listen to your people, but trust your own instincts too.
For example, a team member once told me that they welcomed and wanted direct feedback. A few months later, one of their projects got off track, so I gave them some direct feedback. Then things got worse. The team member shut down, became argumentative, and the project got further off track. What went wrong?
This person had told me what they needed based on how they saw themselves — which wasn’t what they really needed. I kept on giving direct feedback, which was making the situation worse, not better. I wish I had paid more attention to how this person was responding and adapted my approach sooner.
Sometimes managing can feel like balancing while walking a tightrope. You can’t get it right every time, or all the time. If you’re lucky, you have a good foundation of trust and understanding between you and your team members for when you don’t get it right.
This is why seat time is so important. My intuition for when to change my approach got better over time. I improved my ability to context-switch and treat each person as they needed to be treated at that moment. I got better at giving myself grace when I didn’t get it right.
It’s Not Just What You Do and What You Know
This second seat time lesson is one I’m not sure I would count as “learned” yet. Some part of me still wants to believe success is about getting sht done.2
One of your jobs as a manager is to build a network with other managers and teams to get things done. You must build relationships outside your team for your team to succeed. Management success is not about what you, personally, can do. It’s about what you can get done through and by others.
The book Being the Boss addresses this aspect of management, which is left out of a lot of other books about management. You can’t solve problems bigger than your team without a network of friends and allies within your company. It’s important to cultivate this network purposefully and intentionally.
Many people become managers because they Want to Change Things™️. It can be frustrating to realize that you can’t change as much as you thought you could. Having a good idea is not enough. Most problems in the organization exist because there is a structure keeping them in place or something is preventing the part of the company that’s causing the pain point from feeling the pain.
This is a part of managing I found particularly difficult in my last role. The organizational and cultural alignment for the changes I wanted to see just wasn’t there. The changes I wanted to see weren’t going to materialize.3
Benefitting from Other People’s Seat Time
If you are a manager you need advice on how to manage — you need someone you can call. Someone other than your boss, someone you trust, someone who will call you on your BS, and someone who has more experience than you do. A lot of my regrets my time as a manager come from situations where I should have asked for help and didn’t.
I’ve collected some mentor tips that
Hope is not a strategy, ma’am.
You can’t want it more than they do (on coaching direct reports).
Don’t waste emotion.
It’s not the best idea that wins, it’s the best relationship.
Listen. Ask Questions. Ask questions you know the answer to. Check opinions. Don’t assume.
Know your 1-2 key messages in any presentation.
There’s life outside of your company.
I heard this final bit of advice when I was in the process of leaving my management role for a technical role. I had been job searching and interviewing and I felt sure I was making the right decision.
Great leaders always have three things -- aptitude, vision, and passion. Vision means you’re excited, you’ve got a dream. It doesn’t matter if it’s right at first, just that you’ve got it. With passion, no one can light your passion for you and no one can put it out. If your passion’s out, it’s time to go.
I’ll always love helping people grow and develop. My passion for management had gone out and I dreamed of learning and applying new technologies. It was time to go.
Here’s are some management books I like or have learned from - True North, Radical Candor, Being the Boss, No Hard Feelings, Can’t Hurt Me, Peak Performance, The Making of a Manager, The Manager’s Path. I’d love suggestions for more to read in the comments!