Hello from the other side of a trip to London, XOXO ‘18, two weddings, and…a failed attempt at stepping off the gas. This entry doesn’t come with an accompanying post—I’m mustering the headspace to write long form again—instead, a reflection on an opportunity I decided not to take.
I hinted at a lateral move into engineering management in “Honorable Mentions.” It’s time to talk about it and my decision, for the time being, to remain an individual contributor.
In a one-on-one this summer with my (now former) manager, Paul Bouzakis, we discussed my trajectory at Peloton. The two paths forward were to remain technical, moving towards a lead, or to step into management. Paul was spread thin with 20+ direct reports and needed the help. He decided the best approach was to provide a safe space to experiment with management and a reminder that I’d be met with open arms, if I decided to return to engineering. I would start with two “soft” reports, i.e. they’d report to Paul on paper, but to me in practice.
A cohort of Orbital Studios, a few books read, two dozen one-on-one’s, and roughly the same volume of internal doubt later, it was…exhausting.
I can’t thank Paul enough for that safety net.
The quarter shook out essays-worth of learnings and I won’t cover all of them. Still, I wanted to write through two factors that weighed on me the most: value arcs and emotional energy.
I didn’t realize how much I leaned on the tight feedback loop of engineering. Working at the level of technical abstractions lets me write code, compile/run it, and, boom, feedback. The social abstractions involved in management move glacially in comparison. It’s easy to rationally recognize the value of the silent orchestration—gardening careers, building teams, and evolving processes—that managers perform. Yet, I found myself ending each week running from meeting to meeting, feeling as if I got no “Real Work” (heavy air quotes) done.
The results of my efforts during the experiment might not have surfaced until sprints later, if at all. I dug up a journal entry where I sat with this:
I’m noticing the lack of visible output of management is simultaneously frustrating and oddly rewarding. The impact of my efforts no longer last on the order of days and weeks. Instead, I need to think on yearly timescales and affect change that hopefully outlasts my tenure.
The lengthened arc of my work was fulfilling. Though, it was difficult to stop thinking about work. There is never really an end to building a team and careers—I struggled to turn off my work mind with these longer-living efforts idling in the background.
One attempt to shorten the arc, which helped as I stepped out of our team’s sprints, was to create a sort of personal sprint. I’d plot out strides I could take towards helping the team and make them in two-week windows. This added momentum to meeting-blurred days—which is work in and of itself, but less tangibly felt.
I’m a broken record when it comes to emotional energy—and, frankly, I didn’t even have the energy to talk about not having energy during the past quarter. I went from spending my days with headphones on and an empty Google Calendar to a Tetris Calendar and spending the majority of my time on team/process concerns. Thinking about people for almost eight hours a day left me drained to even respond to the people—friends, loved ones, and family—in my life.
It got to the point where my iMessage responses became a stream of “sorry for late reply!” cries for help (and hugs).
Subtle signs of emotionally bottoming out showed up throughout the experiment. I was in a tricky spot. Do I listen to my gut a few weeks in and admit this isn’t for me? Or, do I stick it out and see if I could return to ending workdays with gas in the tank? If I stuck with management, I probably would have burned out. That’s tough for me to admit, since Peloton currently has a vacuum in engineering management and it felt like an opportunity untaken. However, putting our team “first” means putting myself in a position where I can tend towards endurance. Staying on the technical track for years (and maybe trying again, later) is better than filling a temporary void, only to burn out from exhaustion.
I still care deeply about the people side. Thankfully, the next rung on Peloton’s individual contributor ladder—technical lead—involves that side in lower dosages (mentorship, team coordination, etc.) without uneasiness of having folks’ careers in my hands. This quarter was the first example of an opportunity (typically coated as a “promotion,” when it’s really a sidestep) in my career that I didn’t take. It took me months…and the writing of this entry to realize that’s Okay.
If anything, trialing engineering management has been a peek behind the curtain of the orchestration my former managers performed. I wish I thanked them more often. To help realize the other end of their “value arc,” I hope they stumble upon this note:
Your efforts in managing the teams I’ve been on let me focus on my craft without the distraction of, well, everything else. A trailing indicator of great management is looking back, sprint over sprint, and seeing sources of friction and concern being addressed. You all certainly hit that mark. Thank you for betting on me, gardening my career, and providing a safe space to explore more than just engineering. The industry needs more folks like yourselves.
With an even deeper respect,