The quality of your work matters much less than who your manager is. I’ve had an “exceeded expectations” rating and been laid off shortly thereafter - twice.
To prevent this from happening again, I’ve developed a framework to categorize my manager so that I can maximize the return on my job (and not lose my health insurance unexpectedly).
Types of Managers
A few years back, I sat at a Del Frisco’s ready to grill my potential future manager and colleagues. I asked, “How much of the revenue of this company is attributable to the team?” They said, “Half, although that pie was shrinking.”
But things were going to turn around. They had these big ideas to launch an Affiliates program - something that was responsible for 10% of Amazon’s revenue, but at this company. They had their eyes on growing the pie.
And they wanted me to be a core contributor to it.
As someone who was ready to go the extra mile for hypergrowth, this resonated heavily with me. I had a track record of doing what I said. I knew it was going to be a good fit.
And I was correct.
Even though that Affiliates program never became what we had hoped, I used that good will to pitch a “HIPAA Compliant Cloud” on my 3rd day of the new job after we were acquired fully by the parent company - a HealthTech.
Luckily I had the same manager who knew the value of growing the pie. He facilitated every deep dive I needed to take to bring the “HIPAA Compliant Cloud” over the finish line.
That went from merely an idea to fully functional in 5 months. And it was the cornerstone of me going from a staff engineer to a principal engineer in just 14 months. I’ve only had a manager like this 2x in a career of 10+ managers.
With most managers, this can take half a career to achieve.
Almost a decade ago, I had a job where if you modified the right file, it took 45 minutes MINIMUM to compile your program.
As someone who intuitively understood that tightening up iteration loops was the key to progress, this didn’t sit with me well. However, I did not have the experience, knowledge, or skill to re-do that build system.
Neither did, it seemed, anyone else (manager or IC) at the company.
As a result, year after year, things really didn’t change. We’d make incremental improvements to the product and high-five each other. We’d also make baby steps in our career.
But we were going nowhere fast.
After 3 years, I had increased my pay by 15% and still had the same title. It felt like a place where dreams go to die. I was right.
Years after I had left that place, I had coworkers reaching out to me on LinkedIn.
Apparently the management had changed and they weren’t even giving out raises anymore. But they hadn’t kept up with any new tech and every change they made to their code took over an hour to validate. They couldn’t find better jobs. They were trapped.
It’s funny, the riskiest part of being risk averse is actually becoming obsolete.
This is the most common type of manager I’ve had. 6x in my career I’ve had a manager like this. The best way to optimize your relationship here is to know when you’re systematically falling behind the industry and excusing yourself.
Don’t get me wrong - it’s fine in the intermediate term.
Just don’t get too comfy.
This manager can grow your career ½ the speed of HR’s minimum guidelines, at best.
One time I had a manager who thought lines of code (LOC) on Github was the ultimate measure of an engineer. The first week he became my manager I had a vacation planned.
When I came back, this manager noted that my average LOC had declined. I reminded him I was on vacation, but for some reason he didn’t believe me. This was 3 weeks after getting an “exceed expectations” rating.
I was laid off 2 weeks later.
This type of manager barely manages the group with no clear idea on how to add value to the group and they cannot see value when presented with it.
You’ll know you have a Power Trip Manager if they rarely comprehend the conversations or solutions you pitch. They may start nitpicking on your work in ways that don’t matter to the final deliverable.
They respond best to you when you’re kissing their ass because ultimately they became a manager not to lead, but to feed their ego.
This manager can grow your career only if you are ready to kiss ass. The projects you deliver won’t meaningfully affect the size of the pie. The two times I got laid off even with an “exceeds expectation rating” - this was the type of manager I had.
Fit is finicky
The type of manager that will fit best for you will depend heavily on your own goals.
So if you find a good fit and you're growing in your career, keep squeezing that juicy situation.
It could give you in a few years what other engineers might need a whole career to accomplish.