How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Management

By Ben Kelly

When I was a child, I had my heart set on being an officer in the Royal Australian Navy. I read books on naval history, I went to see ships whenever they were docked in Melbourne where I grew up. I talked to sailors about what navy life was like. I had my life mapped out. That map was shredded irrevocably when I realised I had a massive problem with authority. It must have been hilarious for anyone that knew me. It would have been obvious to everyone except me, apparently.

I disliked intensely being told what to do (I still do) and in pretty much every job I had I equated much of management with micromanagement. When I started working, the idea of being bossed around by someone that knew less about my job than I did was repugnant to me. I wanted to be in a position where that wasn’t going to happen.

Laser focus or tunnel vision?

Phrases like ‘If you’re not the lead dog, then the view never changes’ and other such calls to climb the corporate ziggurat helped consolidate the rather narrow view of corporate life I fashioned for myself. It seemed like the only way to not get bossed around was to be the guy at the top of the tree, so that’s what I set my sights on. In hindsight, it was a naive viewpoint and yet that was my perspective for a long time. Maybe this pathology is particular to me, but indulge me in case I’m not alone here.

I worked my guts out. Did whatever I could to shine as a tester. People noticed. I could ignore the getting bossed around stuff because I had a goal and nothing was going to stop me getting there. Then I made it. Got my promotion. Became a manager. All the long hours and effort would finally be worth it. Right? Everything would improve. I was joining a select group that was happy to tell their directs what to do, but was somehow collegial with one another and I’d have the clout to change things I didn’t like.

To my dismay, this was not at all the case. I was still being directed to do stuff by my manager – maybe more so because I was in the transition from a technical individual contributor to a leader of people. It seemed like I couldn’t go five minutes without my manager letting me know about something I wasn’t doing right.

After a particularly bad day at the office, I went home and vented to my better half. She was surprised. I was sometimes snarky but this was the first time I’d really lost it. I ranted enthusiastically about how I couldn’t do anything right in the eyes of my boss and compared him to similar bosses I’d had before. Nothing seemed good enough. Why were people in management such tossers? Was it a prerequisite for the job?

My Epiphany (It’s all about me)

‘Are all managers like that?’ she asked. My answer contained lots of words that remain unfit to print in this medium, but the question had been asked and apparently, my subconscious went to work on it. After a while, my self-righteous fury dissipated somewhat and I was able to think about what it was about these managers that made them suck so much. What did they have in common? Were they power mad? Maybe one or two, but not all of them. Most seemed to want to do the right thing by the company. Was it that they were company stooges then? Whether they were or weren’t was irrelevant to me feeling bossed about. What then?

Then I had somewhat of an epiphany. It hit me hard. I can still remember it. It was dizzying, like something in my head getting rewired. All of these managers had one thing in common.

Me.

Could that really be it? Surely not. Okay, what if it wasn’t me in this situation. Suppose I substituted someone else into my interactions with my managers. Would their actions still seem unreasonable? As difficult as it was, I had to admit that they actually seemed pretty reasonable. Rather than seeing my managers’ comments as pointing out my shortcomings, I could see the same comments as showing me where I had opportunities to learn, to improve. If I chose to see their motivation as doing their best for the company and perhaps even for me, it became clear my umbrage at ‘being bossed around’ was less about how my manager felt about me, and more how I felt about myself. This realisation profoundly changed my outlook. It was like years of tension drained away in moments.

There’s always someone else (It’s not all about me)

The thing is, everyone reports to someone. If you’re gunning for that promotion so that no one will be telling you what to do anymore, then you might be setting yourself up for frustration. Each person is answerable to someone else for their actions. Managers to execs, execs to the board, the board to shareholders and so on. It doesn’t matter where you fit into the great wheel of industry, someone is always going to be interested in what you’re doing and it’s generally not so they can give you a hard time about it.

The person you report to has things they are trying to achieve. The person they report to has certain expectations of them because they’re trying to do the same. There are budgets to balance, targets and goals to shoot for and any number of trade-offs that have to be made in order to make progress. What your manager is asking of you will have a significant relationship to what they’re trying to achieve.

Even if you have no desire to be in a leadership position yourself, understanding the responsibilities of a leader can help you relate to and to influence your lead (and potentially beyond). When you’re aware of not only what they want, but why they want it, you can focus on what is important. Rather than asking ‘Why is my boss always telling me what to do?’, take yourself out of the equation for a moment. Try asking ‘What are they trying to accomplish with this request?’, and ‘How can I add the most value right now?’. If you understand the motivation behind a request and you feel you have a more useful alternative, you can have a discussion about the value of your actions rather than a disagreement over the validity of the request.

Further Reading:
Becoming a Technical Leader – Gerald M. Weinberg
The Mission, The Men and Me – Pete Blaber

About The Author

Ben Kelly is a software testing politician working at eBay in London. If his career in testing was a human, it would be eligible to have a driving licence (but not to buy alcohol which, let’s face it is probably for the best). Over the past few years, he has led both development and testing teams at eBay and currently runs the Software Heuristic Investigation Exploration and Local expertise Division (or S.H.I.E.L.D. if you like). Prior to that, he has worked in a number of industries (internet statistics, e-commerce, insurance, e-learning) and a number of countries (Australia, Japan and the UK). Ben is a board member of the International Society for Software Testing (ISST), a regular speaker at conferences worldwide and sporadically blogs at testjutsu.com.