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Technically Human

Coping with Isolation & Burnout as an Engineering Manager

David Kyle Choe
March 22, 2021

Technically Human - How to cope with isolation & a shrinking peer group as an engineering leader - Ft. Eric Gong, former VP of Engineering & Founder of Eric Gong & Co

David Choe: Hi everybody. Welcome to another episode of Technically Human and we're so happy to be here. I'm David Choe. I'm the co-founder of Staat and I'm here with my awesome regular guest, Eric Gong.

Eric Gong: Hello. Hi everybody. Hope all is well,

David Choe: yeah, we're just catching up a little bit before we started about, you know, everything going on with the shootings in Atlanta.

I mean, head's pretty close to home for me because I grew up in Atlanta. I was raised in Atlanta. My parents have a business in Atlanta, so, you know hope everyone's taking the right time to process and you know, get through, what's been a difficult year and Yeah, but we do have some pretty interesting topics this week for you.

And I, and I hope, and I think you guys will enjoy it because actually this topic came from a conversation or a thread I was having in lead dev. I'm sure a lot of y'all know what lead dev is. It's a wonderful community for engineering leaders and actually posted this question and it was, do y'all struggle with.

Quote, shrinking peer group. And really this idea of like, as you rise a corporate ladder, your own, I guess, community of folks starts to dwindle down. And you really kind of lose folks to talk with on a regular basis that aren't your direct reports. And so Eric and I really wanted to talk about that today and how, as a manager, you can, you know, realistically deal with your shrinking.

Peer group and you know, the effects that might have on you as a manager and how to go about you know, thinking about it, maybe preventing it from happening in the first place for new managers. So Eric would love for you to dive in and give us your thoughts on it.

Eric Gong: Yeah. I mean, I guess the hot take is leadership is lonely as hell.

It really, really is. And you know, when you're all right. So I went from IC I started as IC, got into management and I think like when you're IC, you have kind of this support structure peers, like, so for example, like when the company I'll just say. The company air quotes makes a stupid decision.

You'll all get to talk shit together and, you know, kind of like commiserate together when stuff happens. And I would say when you make that flip or you flip the switch in to management  The world kind of changes. Right? So for example that peer group does shrink, right? So you go from IC to manager and if you're, let's just say an engineering manager, you may have other engineering managers that you can commiserate with and talk trash about.

Bad corporate decisions that are being made. And then as you go higher, it just gets lonely and lonelier. Right? So as an engineering manager, you may have a few other engineering managers to talk to. As a director, you may have others to talk, to go higher and higher. It gets more and more lonely. So I would say you know, when I was a VP of engineering, sometimes it was really hard because and even as a VP of engineering, it's not, it's an exec role, but it's not.

It may not necessarily be at the exec table, so it's not a C-level role. So sometimes that could be really lonely as well. I feel like VP of engineering could be at a growing company. It could be one of the loneliest roles because you take the brunt of what your reports and the teams may, throw at you, and you take the brunt of what the C-suite will throw at you.

Right? So for example company makes some bad decision. Let's say about like bonuses and raises or some corporate policy engineers don't hold back, they'll destroy you. Right. And then at the, C-suite say like, Hey, we're not performing. Like, why isn't this deliver? Like, you don't have anyone to really talk to you and you're not going to talk shit about the C-suite to your team...

So you're in, I guess that's a very long way of kind of explaining why leadership can be lonely as hell. And I felt that lot. No, no.

David Choe: How did you, how did you. Go about dealing with that, you know, like, cause I mean, you can't just sit there in isolation, right? Like, is, are there ways that we're, you know, that you kind of went out and found some community or, you know, I have some suggestions here from the Slack group, but would love to hear from you.

Eric Gong: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I would love to hear it. I haven't been a part of lead dev, so I definitely will join now that you mentioned it. I think there was, I don't know. is cope a helpful word?.

All right. So this, this subject like kind of hits home because there's kind of like a old way of doing it and a new way of doing it. Right? So to like the old way of doing it as a manager, it's just like, whatever the corporate overlords say, you go and execute. And it's like, Oh, it's not me.

It's like the corporate overlords. Right. And I think that's like one way of coping. I think that's like working less and less these days. I think that kind of management and management style people are like, fuck this shit I'm out. Right. Because engineers, right? Like they could get a job anywhere. I think the way, one way that I coped with it is.

Actually be less of that old school type of manager where it's just like, all right, well, I'm just going to be very transparent. Right. And whatever I feel about like those decisions I'll actually share. So whatever I hear I'll share with my team as much as possible.

David Choe: Right. So that never came in, bit you in the butt?

Eric Gong: It bit me in the butt. So many times I actually I'd have a challenging relationship with my, my  superior. Oh, let's call them superiors for lack of a better word or my bosses. Right. So previously I've reported to you know like a SVP of engineering, a chief product officer, and when the company will make.

Bad decisions. I'll say, you know, they're got destroy it. Like the team's got to destroy us on this. Right, right. They've got to tell us we're morons.. Well, they might not use such a hard word, but like they'll destroy us. And so I'll go and tell them, but I'm just going to tell them the honest truth true that even, I think it's, it's pretty messed up.

Right. And I, well, I go and do that. Right. And it caused a lot of friction for me in terms of like with my bosses, because they're, they may be used to like, Oh, you know, like, you know, just do what the corporate overlords say. And that's what you do. Everything's top down. But for me, I'm, I'm, I'm a different kind of leader.

So if something's messed up, I'll just say it's messed up. If I think if I can be transparent about it, I'll, I'll be transparent about it. The reason why I was not fired. Right. Every three months is because the people that reported to me, they would jump in a fire pit for me anytime. I would just say jump and they'll do it because they know I always got their back.

Hmm. And I think with engineers, that's kind of like what they're looking for, right? Like, just be honest, just tell me what's up. Don't like hide behind stuff and we will support the hell out of you. And we had, we had good retention rates there and you know, the software dev delivery was always in my mind.

World-class and that's why my boss has never fired me, but it costs me to have a really bad relation, like. A tougher relationship than I expected do that.

David Choe: I mean, I think that's, I think that's really admirable. I, I would go as far as to say that probably most folks won't feel as comfortable doing that right.

Early on, especially if it's like your first time in a management role. How did, how do you, because I hear what you're saying. It's like a strategy is to Instead of isolating yourself and kind of forcing yourself to be, you know, almost like a speakerphone for some other corporate entity, just be transparent, be authentic.

And the team responds well to that. Right. But I think maybe for a lot of folks that'll be kind of uncomfortable or maybe a little daunting. Is there any other way that you were able to. You know, kind of maintain that camaraderie and therefore like a sense of team, but also maintain that, you know, I guess distance that's maybe sometimes required.

Eric Gong: Yeah. I don't know. I still don't know if I did the right thing by the way. I don't know how they will write leadership books in the future, but what I, what I do know is like, if I'm going just a microphone for a corporate and I don't believe what they're saying, like. I think you're dead as a leader.

Right. Like I was so I, so I'm very forward-looking right. So I just feel like if the company doesn't do the right thing, if they're doing something malicious I'm I'm out, first of all. So I never thought my employers really were like doing anything malicious, but like, it was just stuff that we didn't agree with.

So I do feel like. For me personally. And I don't know if it's actually like good advice or bad advice is like, I always felt my, the people that were working with me were more important than my income. Right. So for example, it's like, if you're stuck in a job and like, you just really, really needed that, that money, then you do whatever.

Like you do whatever a corporate overlords saying. Right. But for me, I felt like the relationships and the software delivery results was actually much more important than. What the core what my salary was paying or whatever, like corporate had in mind. Right. So I always felt like, Hey, if I was super transparent, I always called stuff out.

But every single two weeks, every quarter we delivered every project. Huge, no one covered take that away from me. So that was kind of like a. Career strategy that had, so even though let's say my bosses had a problem with me and they ended up firing me, at least I have the results to prove it. And the people on my team or be like, Oh yeah, this guy's the best guy that, you know, the best .

I don't know if I'm bringing us on a tangent.. Yeah. But

David Choe: no, no, that, that makes total sense. I would love for you to respond to this one comment. This, this one person in the thread said in response to my question. Yeah. It's definitely a real phenomenon. Since moving into management, I've learned that I have to actively maintain relationships and reach out more often to keep lines of feedback and mentorship open.

And this person said it's kind of akin to post-college university life. You lose the built in social frameworks and you learn how to forge your own. And then, you know, a lot of people were just talking about, yeah, it's like, it's a lot to do with your own level of intention and prioritization of this, but would love to hear, like, if you have any advice for any first-time managers that are like, kind of in that post-college post IC world for the first time.

Eric Gong: Yeah. And thank you for getting us back on track. Cause actually that was actually the second part of your question. So here's the beautiful thing, right? People want to help other people. Right. Yeah. So I'd say if you're a new manager the, the most important thing for you of your new manager is actually to have a great leader above you.

If you're here, here's some here's some non advice advice. If your leader above you sucks GTFO, get the fuck out and find a good leader because like there, there's the saying don't pick a job, pick a boss. And I think a lot of times, like if you're a manager, you're new director or even new VP of engineering, like I was all those, right.

Like having a boss that really supports you and want to grow is very important. So I think that's the first circle that you should look for if you don't have that. But you're like, Oh shit, like I'm stuck in this. And you know, like I need to grow and, you know, I'll, I'll just like, Learn my way through this kind of situation.

I think there are a lot of networks out there, right? Like go on LinkedIn, start posting stuff and asking for help post the things that you're struggling with. Right? Like, Oh, I had a report yell at me Damn, I'm struggling with, I'm trying to get feedback and it's not helping. So I think like tapping into your network is really important.

There are so many groups out there that you could join. There are really helpful. So you mentioned lead dev, but I'm in Rand leadership Slack, which I think that's a great community has like 16,000 people now. So it's a little big There's another Slack called engineering managers. There's so many Slack channels out there that you can join and get in the conversation and then find people who can, who you can relate to that want to help you and then start having conversations.

So I like to have a Calendly and reach and say like, okay, who else is an engineering leader that wants to network? Yeah, I want to just have conversations and you meet people that way and you just keep those conversations going. And eventually you will have this group that you can rely on.

And I think people are all different levels do that. So for example, a client of mine was saying like, Hey, I'm in the CTO group. And we just like CTO WhatsApp group and we message each other. So I think at, at every level you can find, find that those kinds of groups that help. Yeah. And, and to be clear, like I've been mentoring for years.

I literally have never said no to anyone. I don't know if this is bite me in the ass. Now, if anyone like everyone would just message me, but I'd say like, there are people out there that just want to help others. And there's been so many people that when I asked they want to, they want to help me like, so for example, the first guy on my podcast, actually, Ian, Jamie.

So shout out to Ian. Who's now building his own startup. He is a. Many times startup, CEO, and C CTO, and he helped me. So those people are out there. The groups are out there. You just got to reach out.

David Choe: Yeah. And I think that's a, that's, that's probably the hardest thing about all of this, is it because it really, it does just seem kind of obvious and intuitive.

Like if you have a problem reach out, but I think what's happening from like a, you know, more like a psychology perspective is you feel isolated within your company, so it makes you feel like you're isolated outside of it too. And I think that's like, the biggest thing is just breaking out of this like, idea that, you know, I really have nowhere to turn And I think you're right.

There's so many resources out there I'm in a lot of those groups that you talked about. I think people do talk very candidly about, you know, the things that are going on. And I think that those are the spaces that are really necessary. One thing that I found really helpful is I started a Slack group with Some of the folks from previous jobs and everyone's left that job since.

So it's just a bunch of folks that kind of left that job. And we kind of have we share, you know, are the things that we're struggling with in our various companies and having that kind of like broader spread of, you know experience. But with people you're familiar with, I would say is really important.

So, you know, maybe reaching out to folks that you used to work at work with that are at different companies. I think that could be a really, really key thing too. And that's something that, you know, folks in this LeadDev thread also mentioned. They also mentioned a company called Plato, which is kind of been on my radar for a little bit, but it's like a mentorship platform, I guess.

So that's, I think that's another kind of quick plug from a tool perspective that that might be helpful.

Eric Gong: Yeah. I mean, I, and I don't know if there's a rabbit hole, so stop me if it is, but I, I think that. Managers when they get lonely, right? So like there's no peers. I think what, what they get overwhelmed with is trying to take the brunt from their leadership and also their team and trying to do conflict resolution on every single thing.

Whereas they should think about creating a platform. Hm, right. How did they create a system or a process for conflict resolution? Right. They try to jump into every single situation and fix it. Right. So they might jump into something like two devs you know, having issues with each other or like how, you know, management upper management communicates with the team.

Whereas I think like, When you're able to create a platform, right. Or a process within where you work, the space that you work, you're able to let a conflict resolve itself. Hmm. Right. And I know we only have about five minutes left, but maybe we're touching on something a little too meta.

David Choe: No, I think that's great.

I mean, could you quickly touch on like what that might look like? Or what it looked like for you in the past?

Eric Gong: Yeah, I I'd say that. So I, so I'll give one a sample of it, right? So for example When devs, what, when there's conflict in the workplace, let's say like devs you know, like arguing with other devs or like how we might write code and put it in the code base.

It can feel like you're just the person who's coming in to like break up fights. Right. All the time, all day, every day I felt like, and that's why management. Sometimes is it's a role where you are a master at conflict resolution, and I'd say one thing that worked for us at scale is having engineering values to understand how well, how do we work?

How, what do we expect of each other? Right. And I felt like my job is to create a platform where the team knows what the North star is and they could figure it out. Right. So for example, like one from a tactical perspective my previous job, the number one thing is quality is paramount. Sure. Right?

So quality is paramount health tech software. So if someone does not have a disease, we can not show they have the have a disease. Otherwise we have a big problem. Right? So in any given situation, they know what the North star is well do we cut on quality before release? Or we say like, Hey, we should hold this back.

Well, quality is paramount. So they know what that North star is. Right. We had a, like a no asshole rule at our company. Right. So they know what the North star is. So that's kind of what I try to do a lot in my world is okay. Like this is just a, I'm here to create a platform. I'm not that I'm not someone with a magic wand that can make things better.

I'm here to create. Just a space where people can deliver software and be their best and how, how do I do that? Right. And when I came, when I was working through the management to team kind of conflicts, I kind of say like, okay, like any time there is a communication, I will give my feedback, but I will be.

Completely transparent. So I wasn't in kind of like the middle person. I wasn't taking their words and then like making it really pretty for people to hear. I would, I would, I would just be kind of like a filter. I'm just a platform. It's just like pass through to me.

David Choe: Yeah, no, that's really good. It's like, I think that's a great point.

It's like, what, what is the true source of the isolation? Is it just because such your title? There's no way you think it's to your point. Like the source of it is having to make a lot of these gray area decisions without a strong framework around it. So by creating these frameworks, you're able to make decisions faster and better.

So I think that's a really awesome tactical way that we can, you know, think about. How to make managers feel a little less isolated in their day to day. And I would love to hear from the listeners on how you guys are, you know, confronting this and how you guys cope with you know, you're shrinking peer circles.

So thank you, Eric. This has been really good, really. Thank you. My pleasure, David. Awesome. Well tune in again. We'll have another episode dropping. We have two episodes a week dropping. For the most part and yeah, I'd love to hear from you guys. All right. Take care. I'll take care day. Bye. Bye.

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