Leading is mostly about helping people out

This article is part of our Stories of Tech Leadership series where we explore challenges, thoughts, and struggles of courageous leaders in technology.

Leading is mostly about helping people out

Łukasz Krzyżański

Software Engineer @ Rhosys

I’ve thought about becoming a leader at some point. Not sure if I’d do well at that role, or if it’s even something for me, but it would be cool to try it at least.

To me, leading is mostly about helping people out, setting them up for a brighter future. It’s also about creating a good environment, nice place to work. I’m not sure if I would be good at this, because it’s a completely separate skillset from the things I’m doing as a developer - I’ll never know until I try. I’ve read all those horror stories of great engineers turned awful managers, so I guess there’s also a danger that could happen to me.

There was this one manager I worked with before that sort of fell into that category. There were a lot of problems there.

He was responsible for deciding what work the team should be doing, for focusing the team, but sometimes it was almost impossible to get the information from him. And I mean information you needed to actually proceed with work. What was even worse, he didn’t have great skills in terms of motivating people and that kind of stuff.

We had an open space office, and I remember at one point one of our colleagues messed something up or whatever. The manager came in and started to berate the colleague in front of everyone. It felt really uncomfortable to listen to that, it wasn’t something I wanted to be a witness to. I guess I was supposed to feel like my colleague was a loser who screwed up, but it made me feel bad towards the manager. In a way, it felt like some sort of power play - I want to show off I’m in charge here, you are the underlings and I can shout at you if I want to! I don’t really tolerate that kind of thing well. Why not take your criticism into a one-on-one or something, instead of doing it in front of everyone?

At that same company, once we had somewhat of a crunch period - really intense work to meet the deadline. Whenever that manager would come into the room, he was like “We’re not going to make it! You’re not working hard enough!” At the start, it was slightly motivating, but by the end of that period, every time I heard the guy approach, I would just internally grunt. It was just an unnecessary distraction. You know, I had a lot of stuff to do, and here’s a whip cracking - do it faster, do it better, whatever.

It’s especially bad if your “screwup” is at least partially the result of your manager’s actions, but that detail is never mentioned and you get to feel all the blame, so to speak. Yes, I pushed bad code, but you approved it! Yes, we may have only 2 weeks to do this work and we’re late, but you never involved us in a discussion on how long it should take, so why are we made to suffer for it?

Another situation, that was really weird, was when during one of our projects we had a pretty serious bug - one of the features wasn’t working, and the customer was very unhappy. The manager announced that from now on we’ll have a “no screwup” bonus scheme. Every month that you don’t screw up, you’d get a bonus to your pay. So that month, I was fortunate to not have been working on that problematic feature, and I got my bonus. Many other team members didn’t. It was publicly announced - this and that person got the bonus, these other people didn’t because they messed up. I think it was just for show, or I guess it was a form of punishment maybe? What was even worse, was that this wasn’t continued - it was the only time it happened. My manager made it sound like this was a new policy or something, but it never happened again and he just forgot about it. I don’t think this is the way to go at all. It felt like management just showing us all they have the power to do things like that, and not having the interest of their people in mind. Very childish thing, from my perspective.

When a manager is acting just for show, berating people publicly, not keeping his words or stuff like that, to me it’s like saying “I have a strong position, and I’ll make my own position even stronger, screw everyone else.” That seems like politicking a bit too much for my taste. I want to feel like I matter, like I’m integral to the team, and I’m not just a peon who does whatever he’s told.

When I just started working at that company, it was for all the nice people and friendly atmosphere. That’s also how the job was advertised for me - small team with not much hierarchy, almost like a bunch of friends doing stuff together. And it was like that for a while, to a degree at least. We had some cool people working with us. But then weird things like above started happening, and while I was lucky enough to rarely be on the receiving end, the overall atmosphere wasn’t that great anymore. People started leaving and I was like “why am I even working here still?” All that eventually pushed me away from that company, made me search for another job and move on.

Two things are really important for me: working with people who are at least agreeable, and the right kind of work atmosphere. That friendly atmosphere is what’s motivating for me, that’s what keeps me in places. I would skip a better paid offer if I have a suspicion that the work environment or people aren’t great there.

I think, to be a good leader or manager, to get to that friendly atmosphere in your team, you need to understand the mood and the people you work with. You need to know how to approach each and every one of them. You should also get your people’s feedback on how things are going or what they think, get their input on deadlines and features - include them in decisions, at least indirectly. Oh, and also learn from other leaders, research stuff on how to approach these kinds of things.

If you’re a bad manager, people may completely ignore you. If you create a bad atmosphere, people will leave for companies that are more friendly, I think.

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