How becoming a parent and a manager at the same time made me better at both
The year 2018 brought me two major life events. At the time, they seemed unrelated, but with some perspective, I realized they led me down two related, parallel paths. The first was after six years of being an individual contributor, 2.5 of which were at Compass, I had decided to become an Engineering Manager. The other was the birth of my first child about six months later.
Apart from the obvious changes to my routine and responsibilities, these two transitions brought with them significant changes to my identity and how I view the world. I’ve read (well, listened to) books on both subjects, and watched my team grow alongside my kid. And what I learned from this experience is that being a parent and a manager is a lot more similar than you’d think.
Empathy is Key
Parenting is terrifying. You’re handed a human being, a person with their whole life ahead of them, sans any manual or rule book. Sure, there’s no shortage of parenting advice, everyone has an opinion on how to raise kids and swears they have the right answer. Me? I like data. And data shows that kids will be most successful if they learn early on to manage their feelings. Feelings are powerful and difficult, both for the person experiencing them and for the person at the receiving end.
One interesting piece of advice I’ve learned: the first step to managing your kid’s feelings is to acknowledge them. Be understanding. Show empathy. When they’re screaming because someone took away their toy, tell them, “I understand, this is making you angry. You liked that toy and you feel like it’s not fair someone else took it.” This simple act of validation teaches them how to process their emotions, and put them to words. This is not only effective in making them feel safe, and heard, it’s also helpful in teaching them how to interact with others. The next time they see you get angry, they’ll be able to say, “you’re angry, like I was when someone took away my toy.” That’s an invaluable tool in life.
That same tool is priceless at work, especially when you’re managing. Your direct reports are humans, they have feelings and lives and experience a range of emotions, and a large part of their lives are spent at work. It’s your job to manage their feelings along with their workload. You need to care about them and have an interest in their wellbeing. You need to understand their emotional experience. If a member of your team is for instance not performing the way you’d expect, give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to understand the circumstances, the emotional journey they’re going through, before jumping to conclusions. They might be struggling with personal problems and need a project that better fits their life. They might have difficulties collaborating with certain people, or need help identifying shortcomings that block them from being productive.
When you empathize with your reports, you can find ways to perform better, to find joy in work, to be your best selves. Just like kids need someone to hear them out and help them verbalize and process their journey, your direct reports are counting on you to lead them the same way.
They have to learn the hard way
One major thing managers struggle with is delegation, especially growing out of a developer into a manager. I went from writing apps to tech-leading their development, to managing those who would take them over. And being the combination of control freak and know-it-all that I am, it’s hard for me to let go. More often than not, you think it would just be easier to do something yourself instead of explaining. It would be quicker, and you’ll do a better job anyway, the right way. Right?
It took me an embarrassing amount of time to see how wrong that is, and honestly, I still struggle with it. But my baby helped. When Raphael turned six months old and was spending more time on his belly, he started trying to launch himself towards toys. To the naked eye, it doesn’t seem like much, but to a parent it’s the olympics. This is it: your kid is learning to crawl. But there’s one crucial element — you have to resist giving them the toy. They will squirm and yell and cry and look at you like you’ve betrayed them. And it would be so easy to reach out and put the toy a little closer. The problem is you would be giving them what they want, but not what they need.
People need to be challenged. Challenges lead to growth. Even more than that, growth is not possible without challenge, without friction. And it never stops either. They’ll learn to crawl, sit, stand, walk. Each new skill builds on top of the other, and your job is to cultivate the right environment, present the opportunities and cheer from the sidelines. Sure it would be easier for you to fix that bug that’s in production right now. You know what the problem is, you know what code change is needed, you probably even know which file it’s in. But you won’t benefit from fixing it. You know who will? That new employee you hired a month ago. This is a golden opportunity for them not only to understand the product better, and make you less of a bottleneck, it will help them feel accomplished. They might even surprise you and think of better solutions you wouldn’t have dreamed of. Teach them to fish.
The most productive people you know aren’t necessarily faster than you, or smarter. They just got really really good at prioritizing. Time management is a skill you can never really master, only hope to improve on over time. And time management becomes infinitely more complex — and that much more paramount — when you take on significant responsibilities, such as management, or raising children.
When I was on maternity leave, my baby would only nap for 20–30 minutes at a time, and would demand to be held the rest of the time. During those precious breaks I had to decide: do I shower? Do I eat? Do I tidy up? Or god forbid take a nap myself? Every day was an exercise in recognizing what really mattered; in understanding my baby’s needs and my own, and making tough calls. So sometimes there would be piles of dishes in the sink. Sometimes I would eat a frozen meal instead of something healthy. Life is full of things you think are important, until you have to let them go and realize they’re only as important as you make them out to be.
At work, you’ll be faced with constant incoming requests. And meetings. And endless todo lists and follow up action items and pain points you’d like to address and decisions you need to make. There will never be enough time in the day, so you let reality dictate what’s important, and you learn to let go of things that matter less (or better yet, delegate!). I’ve learned to shatter my idealized version of what I want to accomplish and settle for not blocking anything from being done. And it’s a continuous process (hello, week-overdue code review, I see you’re keeping the stale email draft and unread tech spec company). One quick tip I can give to those struggling is to go over the upcoming meetings you have the next day, and start by preparing specifically for them. Your calendar is just as good a todo list as anything else.
Just like writing code, or embarking on a new project, everything is a lot less frightening when breaking it down into smaller pieces. One thing I’m forever grateful for is that my decision to become an engineer taught me to view everything as an algorithm. Taking a huge, seemingly insurmountable problem and dissecting it into surmountable bitesize bits — that’s a skill that you can apply everywhere and on anything. In this respect, it was work that taught me something about being a parent.
The way we practice software development, what I teach my team to do, is how I find my way through helping my child grow: define the problem, find the first step, outline the rest of the steps, write a spec, break it down to tickets, and get to work. For example, when he was ready to start eating real food, I was freaking out. How do I make sure he’s not picky? That he’s getting all of the nutrition that he needs? That we identify food sensitivities? That he learns to eat independently without choking? It’s all pretty daunting. But if you focus on one step at a time, it’s easy. Start with one food at a time, with pre-set intervals to rule out allergies. Make a schedule. Choose a time to introduce new textures. Focus on learning how to chew for a few weeks. Then on finger foods for a few weeks. You set the tone, you call the shots, just do it at a pace you think you can manage, one baby step at a time.
Obviously, it’s not as easy as that, and babies don’t behave as expectedly as software (wouldn’t that be something). As a parent, being able to introduce predictability brings comfort to both you and your children. I try to apply an agile approach to everything I do at home. Thankfully, my husband is an engineer too, so I foresee a future of scrum boards and standups in our family (good luck, kids. Bet you’ll have a lot to say in our 1:1s).
Me-time is important
The last life lesson I’ve learned throughout my first year as a momager is, no matter how many other people depend on you and how many balls you have in the air, your most important relationship is always with yourself. And just like all relationships, it requires time.
When you’re managing, your schedule fills up as if it’s placed under a never ending stream of meetings. And when you’re a mom, well, you’re never off duty. You want to be present with your kids, see them grow, hear them laugh, teach them, take care of them. But in all of that, there’s a person with a limited tank of attention, guidance, wisdom, and patience, and that tank (unlike the stream of meetings) does not replenish itself miraculously. In order to refill the tank, and be a good manager/parent, you need to recharge with some alone time.
At work, this could mean blocking off time to follow up on meetings, 1:1 action items, to plan ahead, or even just to answer people’s questions. When I was still breastfeeding, I had to block off two hours a day to pump in the office, and though I tried to make the most of that time and work during it, it’s hard concentrating when you’re being, well, drained. Now that I’m finished with that (thank the lord), I decided to leave that time blocked off in order to be more present with my team. I’ve noticed they respond positively to having me around — we can bounce ideas off each other, they’re more forthcoming with blockers, and all in all we feel closer.
At home, I’m fortunate enough to have a wonderful nanny that watches my kid during the day, and an engaged husband who encourages me to dedicate one night a week, rain or shine, to a hobby (amateur choir full of lovely people that I hold dear). Having something that’s mine and has nothing to do with being a mom, wife, or employee has been indispensable for my well-being and sanity.
The decision to become a manager, and to become a parent, can’t be taken lightly and won’t necessarily fit everyone. But I hope those who do choose these paths find them as satisfying and fulfilling as I do, and find this note helpful in embarking on the journey.