Revisiting Management

I recently hopped to a new company a few months ago and am now an individual contributor. And while I’m glad I no longer have to manage people for the time being, I know it will be something I revisit down the road, at either the behest of the company I now work for or my own renewed desire, or perhaps both. I also continue to reflect on how well I managed my teams over the last few years, which is what has prompted recent reflection as well as this blog post.

In 2018 I became a manager for the first time. My boss at the time — who also happened to be our team’s architect, my mentor and now my friend — sent me to Dallas for the Manager Tools Effective Manager and Effective Communicator conferences. It took place over two days, and I learned a lot about how to approach leading and managing a team. Mark Horstman broke down a lot of the myths of management I had inadvertently steeped over time, and expanded upon a lot of the intuitive lessons I had learned but not yet grounded in rationale or experience. His talk at USI gives a good taste of what it was like to not just listen to him, but work with him on management and communication.

In the talk he goes over the four behaviors that matter, and the tools his company developed to enact those behaviors. I’ve listed them below, with the latter in parentheses.

  1. Know Your People (One on Ones)
  2. Talk About Performance (Feedback)
  3. Ask For More (Coaching)
  4. Push Work Down (Delegation)

I’ll be honest — I haven’t thought about these in this way since Mark first taught them to me. And for better or for worse, a lot of those behaviors were enacted by the org structure we had at the time. Here’s how my boss fared with these behaviors with me as his direct:

  1. He was excellent about doing 1:1s with me and getting to know me. He did them consistently and knew about my interests outside of work as well as how well I was doing with schooling.
  2. 1:1s help facilitate this, as did his involvement in our sprint retros. He also filled out and discussed quarterly reviews with me. Each of these feedback loops (weekly, bi-weekly, quarterly) helped me learn from my mistakes.
  3. This didn’t happen often, but I would seek out coaching during 1:1s and I remember when I had to have a talk with one of my directs and he challenged me to take that on while stepping outside my comfort zone.
  4. Work was naturally pushed down because he was involved with planning our sprints.

At the end of 2018 I got a new boss — a remote boss, an overworked boss, a boss with no prior history working together. During that time I didn’t reflect on these behaviors, but looking back I notice something scary:

  1. He was not consistent with 1:1s every week. It took over a month to get them started, and he only started after I kept pushing it. He also frequently canceled 1:1s if he had a meeting with me at some other time during that week, figuring that was a valid substitution. (Narrator: it was not.)
  2. Outside of spotty 1:1s, he was not involved with our sprint and therefore had little context for our sprint retros. We had quarterly reviews that were based on a list of accomplishments he had each of us write up and send to him. Then these would be hastily written up and discussed before they were due to HR.
  3. This sometimes happened, but instructions were vague and expectations were never set.
  4. Work was only pushed down when someone was breathing down his neck. And it never aligned with what our team was doing or with what product wanted, so getting it into a sprint was a mess.

Going back to Mark’s talk, Mark spells out the two most important responsibilities of a manager: results and retention. The first boss did both of these things; the second boss did neither. Which brings me to my next reflection: how well I did as a manager. Without going into another breakdown of the four behaviors, for each of my directs — relationships are with people, not teams! — I can tell you that I was focused so much on retention that I papered over a lot of the bad that my own boss was doing to make my job impossible.

Retention was most important in my eyes because we were bleeding a lot of people in 2018 (both those let go and those looking for greener pastures) and HR wasn’t doing a damn thing to help us hire good candidates. Mark even mentions it — hiring the wrong person is worse than hiring no one at all. But we as a company weren’t trying to do more with less, we were doing less with less with the expectation of more. It was devastating.

Towards the end of my time at that company, I started to focus more on results when I realized that retention of my people wasn’t enough to combat the lack of retention in the rest of the company. That first boss I mentioned — the one who did everything right — was eventually stretched thin and chose to leave, along with most of the other architects in the company. And I soon learned that other teams were bleeding people as well. We got a new CEO halfway through 2019 but by then we had lost a lot of blood and it was going to take time to close the wound and begin to heal. And that’s when I decided to leave.

I don’t really have a happy ending or anything here. I’m still working through the details and reflecting on where I was and where I am now. I should probably get my copy of The Effective Manager back and maybe even purchase a copy of The Effective Hiring Manager.

I also know it’s two in the morning, so I’m not going to make good decisions right now, especially purchasing decisions. And I’m not currently a manager — I should be focusing on being an effective IC. Which probably means getting better sleep, eating healthier, making sense of my Todoist tasks and sticking to a budget. 🙂


2020 achievement unlocked — I filed a claim for my most recent therapy session.

A few things made this possible. One was just having a better job — not only do I have energy I didn’t have before, but I have benefits that cover therapy. I actually forgot about this when I went back to check on old claims with my old insurance, and why I opted for an HSA in the first place. Also helped that the site for my new healthcare is a lot easier to use than my old one.

Is this what it feels like when your employer takes care of you? Is this the fabled workplace of yesteryear that my parents’ generation used to depend on?

I was trying to figure out if I should go back to therapy. If I do, I want to have a plan in place. Something to work on. I haven’t been in a position before where therapy was something that I could regularly have — I mostly just saved up money for when I really needed it, such as going through rough relationships or enduring shitty jobs.

My partner and I are learning what it’s like to work at companies that care in substantive ways. Sometimes that reaction is surprising — I was stressed out this weekend after our company party and when I talked to my mom about it, she suggested I was feeling guilty and I initially balked at that insinuation. Now that I have calmed down a bit, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched. Either way, she suggested I go back to therapy to talk about it and this might be a good starting topic.

Upgrading PHP

WordPress now has a health check you can run against your site to make sure it has all the latest bells and whistles. You can find it under Tools > Site Health — this is new to me, but I haven’t used WordPress in years.

My health check had some straightforward items — including to remove themes I wasn’t using. But there were two that I knew I would have to get my hands dirty for — upgrading PHP to at least 7.3, and installing the PHP extension imagick. I had to bumble around the Internet to figure out all the steps, so I figured I’d detail my findings here to make sure I understood what I did.

Installing PHP

I decided to go straight to PHP 7.4 since it’s the latest and this WordPress blog doesn’t have a lot of customization. On my host DigitalOcean, Ubuntu 18.04 comes with PHP 7.2 by default. So first thing was to SSH into the box and start getting the relevant packages.

$ apt-get install software-properties-common
$ add-apt-repository ppa:ondrej/php
$ apt-get update
$ apt-get install php7.4

The software-properties-common was already installed, but I’m pretty sure it enabled me to add the Personal Package Archive (PPA) on the next line. It looks like Ondřej Surý maintains the PPA for PHP — seems odd, but I saw multiple sources cite this repo so I went ahead with it. Then I ran a standard apt-get update and installed PHP 7.4 next.

For a sanity check, I ran php --version and was surprised it was on 7.4! But alas, this wasn’t enough for WordPress to start using it. So next I had to figure out how to get off of PHP 7.2.

Loading PHP Via Apache

This part was cool b/c I learned more about how Apache works! In the /etc/apache2/mods-available directory are a list of available mods for Apache to use, including php7.2.load and the newly installed php7.4.load. My gut told me I had to enable PHP 7.4 and disable 7.2, so that’s exactly what I did.

$ a2dismod php7.2
$ a2enmod php7.4
$ systemctl restart apache2

Loading Remaining WordPress Libraries

There was a DigitalOcean tutorial that suggested I install the following commonly-used WordPress PHP extensions.

$ apt-get install php-curl php-gd php-mbstring php-xml php-xmlrpc php-soap php-intl php-zip

Of course that wasn’t enough. After making Apache configurations above and restarting, I was told I needed to install the MySql extension.

$ apt-get install php-mysql

This worked! Now that I had WordPress running on 7.4, I went ahead with the remaining imagick extension.

$ apt-get install php-imagick

That’s it!