Letter to a new technical manager

Hi _______,

First of all, congratulations! Taking responsibility for a new team is a big step, and the most public form of praise that you can get. There’s nothing that says “great job” quite like having large amounts of administrative tasks dumped on your plate. :)

Second, I wanted to write a quick note with some advice on how you might come up to speed. You’ve no doubt heard lots of things about the team – as part of water cooler conversations, from the old manager, or from your boss. But the best way to get an idea of what’s going on is to sit down with each of the stakeholders individually, and listen. Don’t offer opinions, don’t tell them what someone else said, don’t ask for confirmation of suspicions – just listen.

Go to your business partners – these are your customers – and find out if they like your product. Are we doing the right thing? Are we communicating well? What would you change? Are we fulfilling your needs? How can we do better? Of course they’ll want more, faster, at higher quality – but what’s the biggest pain point? What are their top goals? How is the team helping or failing to meet them? Do they have any specific comments on team members, positive or negative?

Go to the team – what are their biggest complaints? How does the landscape look from their perspective? How organized are they? Is there a well-defined prioritized list of tasks? Is there a way for tasks to “jump the queue” (and is this a good thing, or does it need to get shut down)? Does the team respect their business partners, or do they continuously put them down? Is the team doing important work? How’s their morale? You’ll have to go over all the active projects, figure out where they’re at in their respective schedules, and figure out which ones are in trouble.

The key thing is not to interrupt. Don’t be supportive or judgmental. You’re looking for a common thread, something that ties together the team’s narrative with that of their business counterparts, and it’s all too easy to corrupt the information by pushing your own point of view or agenda. The two groups may disagree violently, but it’s unusual for them to disagree on what they’re disagreeing about.

Having these conversations helps set the tone going forward. You want people to feel comfortable talking to you about problems. You may or may not believe what you’re told, or trust that the speakers are unbiased. But it’s a good process for figuring out where people stand, to understand their issues, and to be viewed as someone who will listen.

Once you’ve gathered this information, write it up in an email and send it to your boss. This serves several important purposes. First, it will force you to analyze what you’ve learned. You’ll write it down, try to organize it, and ultimately draw some conclusions. Having something on paper is different from having it in your head – you can try out different hypotheses, fit the pieces together differently, and see if it holds together. Second, it will help you remember what you learned. Third, it will communicate to your boss that you’re on top of the situation, and give her confidence that things are being taken care of.

That’s it! First steps. Soon, there’ll be other things to do (setting goals, communicating expectations, project management, etc. etc.), but at the beginning, your primary goal is understanding.

Good luck!

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