How to manage one to ones

Dear new developer,

Hopefully you’ll work in a place where you’ll have regular one to ones with your manager. I find these helpful for building a relationship and engaging with your manager and your reports (if any). I even did them with my co-founder when I founded a startup.

These meetings tend to be 30 minutes and on a regular cadence (weekly, biweekly or monthly, typically). If you are face to face, you can have them in the office, but going for a walk or to lunch is a great way to mix it up as well. If you are doing them over video chat due to being in different locations, it’s best to have a great internet connection, a quiet space and video turned on. There are nuances you pick up via someone’s face that you’ll miss if you only have their voice.

The purpose of these meetings is to keep communication lines open for both parties. It also helps both parties get to know each other as people. People generally react poorly to surprises and stress, but building the relationship and communication practices before any of these situations arrive (and they will) will help the team to navigate them.

It’s worth stating that as a new developer, you probably don’t have a lot of influence over many things. In fact, you might not even have a one to one. If you don’t, the first step is to ask for a regular meeting with your supervisor. You can start with a monthly 30 minute meeting, which shouldn’t be impossible to schedule. I’d frame this request in terms that are helpful for the company and your supervisor:

  • I want to understand where we are heading
  • I want to know how I can best help you and the company
  • The insights I gain will help me be more effective in helping the team

If you do have a one to one, you can use it to share knowledge and gain understanding. Here are some tips for making the most out of your one to ones as a new developer.

First, schedule (or ask for) regular meetings at a time that works for both of you. Be cognizant of each other’s schedule (does someone like to get up early or work late? Are you in the same time zone?). Scheduling these back to back can be helpful for a manager. And scheduling them outside of “in the zone” blocks of time can make sure that there’s time for other work to be done.

The fact that the meetings are regular is important. They don’t have to last the entire scheduled time, but the manager should never cancel them, and if they must be rescheduled, do that promptly. (This meeting is very important for you as a new developer, and the manager should treat it that way.) If your manager is stretched too thin or is for whatever reason not treating this like an important meeting, suggest decreasing the frequency.

Regular meetings establish the relationship. If the only time you are meeting with your manager is when there are issues, you need guidance on work to be done, or at your performance review, that relationship won’t have the time to grow.

As the employee, come to a one to one with your agenda. I use a google doc in reverse chronological order, with the current meeting at the top. If you can, share this with your manager. Over the week or weeks between your meetings, add items to this doc. This can include items such as:

  • How should I have handled situation XXX?
  • I’d like to learn more about NoSQL databases; what are the opportunities at this company?
  • I’m struggling with XXX, do you have any suggestions?
  • What are the challenges you see facing our team during project YYY?
  • I heard a rumor that we’re opening a London office; is there anything you can tell me about that?

In general, topics should be about professional challenges, discussions or opportunities. Some chitchat about what you each did over the weekend is good social lubricant, if you both feel that way. (I’ve struggled in the past with connecting to reports, but found that discussing their out of work interests can lead to good conversations and a stronger relationship.)

I like to record action items for myself and the other party right in this google doc (sometimes the action item may be as simple as “bring this up again in three months”). This means that when the next one to one comes around, I can see what we discussed last time and if there was any progress. This doc is also great for preparing for your performance review, sharing with a new supervisor, or even just to see what you’ve done or been concerned about over time.

Another thing that I’ve had to learn over the years is that one to ones are a great place for me as an employee to ask for what I want. It’s awkward for me, because I’m a people pleaser at work, but if I don’t ask for what I want or need from my supervisor, how will they know? Now that doesn’t mean you can ask for the moon, but if you see opportunities in adjacent areas to your current work, ask for them.

If you see technologies that you think would make everyone’s lives easier, ask if you can investigate them. If you see a conference or other educational opportunity, ask if there’s money for you to attend. I remember at my very first job, I was interested in learning about databases and database administration. I asked my supervisor about doing a three month internship in that group, and they let me do so. I learned a lot about the data driven mindset during that time.

What is said in a one to one should be kept private, unless sharing it is discussed and both parties agree. Keep the agenda doc between the two of you. I think this article, “The 1-on-1 Disclosure Framework”,  covers the levels of privacy very well.

Finally, it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a power differential in every one to one, based on the fact that the manager influences and/or controls the employee’s role, salary, and job. This meeting isn’t about being buddies or friends, but rather about building the person to person relationship that will allow both parties to thrive and help the company with its goals.

Sincerely,

Dan

Think deeply about engineering management

Dear new developer,

This post from Charity about the choices you face as an engineer, and the challenges of technical management, is wonderful. As a new developer, you’re probably a few years away from thinking about that (but perhaps not. If you join a startup rocketship, it’s possible you’ll be managing people in months). But you have to manage your own career, and moving into management is one of the main career paths for a developer. (I’d say the others include: starting a business, becoming a senior developer, or becoming a consultant.)

Charity talks about how management is an entirely new skillset, and how being a technical leader plus a manager is a great way to get amazing things done. She also covers the negatives of “climbing the ladder” to ever more senior leadership. Charity doesn’t mince words:

Your job [as a newly minted technical manager] is to leverage that technical expertise to grow your engineers into great senior engineers and tech leads themselves.  Your job is not to hog the glory and squat on the hard problems yourself, it’s to empower and challenge and guide your team.  Don’t suck up all the oxygen: you’ll stunt the growth of your team.

I mean, there’s a reason we don’t lure good people managers away from Starbucks to run engineering teams. It’s the intersection and juxtaposition of skill sets that gives engineering managers such outsize impact.

One warning: Your company may be great, but it doesn’t exist for your benefit.  You and only you can decide what your needs are and advocate for them.  Remember that next time your boss tries to guilt you into staying on as manager because you’re so badly needed, when you can feel your skills getting rusty and your effectiveness dwindling.  You owe it to yourself to figure out what makes you happy and build a portfolio of experiences that liberate you to do what you love.  Don’t sacrifice your happiness at the altar of any company.  There are always other companies.

I don’t tell you this now, new developer, because I want to scare you away from management. I’m an engineering manager right now and it’s a wonderful place to be. You have autonomy, you can help fix problems you see in your organization, and you get to recruit and help grow people into the best developers that they can be. But just be aware that when you get to a certain level, it’s a one way path away from some of the most fun parts of software development–building things, solving hard technical problems, and being a doer.

Please read the whole post from Charity: Engineering Management: The Pendulum Or The Ladder

Sincerely,

Dan

Help your manager help you by owning the one to one agenda

Dear new developer,

You need to realize that your manager is pulled between two goals (this assumes you have a good manager–if you don’t have a manager who wants to help you, find a new job).

1. Helping you.

2. Helping the company for which you work.

Unfortunately, the latter takes precedence. It’s more work (because it includes helping everyone else out) and higher priority.

So what can you do? Make your manager aware of how they can help you. This doesn’t need to be done in a demanding manner, but you need to make sure you are heard. So, for instance, mention that you are exploring or have been reading about a new technology like machine learning, and really want an opportunity to use the skills professionally. Realize that you might not get exactly what you want (if you are working for a webdev shop, you won’t get a chance to build compilers). But if you don’t ask, your manager won’t know your career interests.

I like one to ones for this purpose. These are regular meetings (once a week to once a month) for a short period of time (30 minutes to 60 minutes) where you control the agenda. It’s not a status report or a troubleshooting session. Instead, it’s where you can ask questions and inform your manager.

Things I’ve learned in one to ones (all at different jobs):

  • a colleague wanted to go to clown school
  • I was managing as I wanted to be managed, not as a report wanted to be managed
  • a colleague’s spouse had a long commute and that a move was imminent

All of these were helpful to me in assessing the health of a team, planning for change and understanding the person. These are really what a manager should be focusing on.

Next time you go to a one to one, think about what kind of questions you need to ask or what kind of conversations you need to have to make sure your manager can help you. Here’s a list of topics that might help jump start the conversation.

If you don’t have a one to one, set one up. If your manager is resistant, find out why, and see if there is something less formal, but still regular, that you can set up. Maybe you just need to calendar a regular reminder to yourself to stop by the manager’s office. If you don’t have regular lines of communication with your manager then when things get tough, you’ll have a hard time having conversations that will help both parties. The trust and ease that regular contact builds is key for defusing a tough situation, or at least de-escalating it.

Sincerely,

Dan