In a previous post, I talked about the most important advice I’d ever gotten.
Now, lest you think some people are really wise and just dispense good advice constantly, I’ll tell you about how the same individual also gave some terrible advice.† The advice can be distilled down to this:
If you are a manager and still doing individual work, you’re not doing your job as a manager.
This was established at the top, and percolated all the way down to managers who had one direct report. The advice is not universally wrong, but it leaves me with questions. I honestly don’t know if Gordon intended to mean that a Team Lead with one report was not expected to be able to execute individual contributor (IC) work at a high level. But that was the effect and BioWare was full of such leads.
Ambitious people mimic their superiors. This seems to be true even for the independently-minded ones. If we flaunt inferior IC skills as a status symbol of our rank, we should expect those ambitious people to actually revere technical incompetence. Lack of IC skill becomes important evidence that someone is ready for a promotion.
There’s an obvious conundrum here: you do end up doing less IC work as you take on more management responsibilities. Your IC skills will degrade. And managers not letting go of IC work is a problem.
But that is exactly why Gordon’s advice here is so terrible. It focuses on theater, and provides no grounding principle or value. Rather than helping people cope with the very real difficulties of moving into various levels of management, this mantra I heard so many times told them to ‘act the part’ of what he considered a successful manager.
In my opinion and experience, successful management will include more or less IC work depending on the individual and environment. Our advice should reflect that nuance, and I’ll try to write about my approach.
† This advice is going on 10 years old, and I don’t know if Gordon still gives it. But I still see similar things repeated occasionally. Thankfully, the state of the art is progressing, and better advice outnumbers the bad.