Last time I wrote on this subject, I covered only a third of the equation of the decision to become a manager. There were still some open questions, including figuring out what skills and talents I could bring to the management table, and how to deal with the vague “ugly stuff” that most technical contributors seem to fear hides behind the manager’s job title.
Let’s work backwards a bit, because that’s how it happened in my book. I’d always hated the idea of office politics, had always been an introvert, had never really liked “dealing with people.” I joked that I got into engineering because I understood computers, but not people.
Of course, if you’ve been in this field for any more than a couple years, you probably realize where this conversation is going. You can’t be an effective member of a team and work in isolation. If you want to influence the direction of a product, even if your interest is solely on influencing the technical direction of its implementation, you need to develop some interpersonal skills. More than that, you need to develop some political skills. For example:
Bob the director of engineering decides whether to buy the software you want, but never seems to spend the dollars until Kumar gives it a green light. Sarah and Kumar don’t get along well, but Sarah is the primary expert on the software you want Bob to buy.
Figuring out how to build enough internal support to get Bob to buy the software … that’s navigating office politics. That’s perception, influence, interpersonal skill, negotiating, and more. And if you think the only people who do this are managers, you are dead wrong.
As a technical contributor, I realized I was involved in these kinds of situations. I was neck deep in what I thought I hated, already. And to be honest, I didn’t like it. But I was operating in a place where I couldn’t survive without it. In other words, whether I was a manger or not, this skill was going to impact my effectiveness. I either had to be good at it, or find trustworthy proxies who could be good at it for me. Either way, I took it out of the equation. It had nothing to do with my decision to get into management. I was satisfied that it was going to be a factor in my career regardless of whether I chose to advance through the technical or management tracks.
What about the other “ugly stuff”? There’s a class of interaction I once heard described to me, rather disparagingly, as “nose-wiping.” I was a bit scared of that. How did I overcome my fear of nose-wiping? That’s a story for another day, and it involves an unusual guest star (yes, I know I’ve told part of that story before, on this very blog…).