I’ve written before how my job has helped teach me some valuable lessons that applied to parenting. The technology I interact with on a daily basis, the processes and frameworks we use, and the lessons I’ve learned managing a team have all inspired me to apply these to how I’m raising my kids. I’ve brought home A/B testing, machine learning, and agile practices to help learn and become a better dad. My team has taught me lessons as simple as patience and weighing decisions, as well as challenging my assumptions and making me think harder about decisions. The other day though, I realized that much of what I’ve learned at home was actually helping me at work too.
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Managing a team in software development is challenging. My responsibilities are to keep my team happy and productive, improve experiences for our customers, and interface with other teams. As a core team that builds APIs for just about every other team, I have many stakeholders with different motivations and priorities that have to be balanced. I also assist where possible on architecting our systems and guiding the team. The main reason I switched to managing from developing was to coach and develop talented engineers and I get to do that daily now. Lastly, I work on setting the strategic direction for the team and implementing this vision through the work we do, always focused on the user first. This work has uniquely developed skills that have helped me in raising my twins, but I’ve also gotten better at these duties from what I’ve learned at home.
These are the 10 most important lessons I’ve learned about being a good software development manager from my boys.
Anticipate problems before they happen
When my babies get cranky, it happens in an instant. These happy children can start screaming like a switch was flipped when they get hungry, tired, bored, or overstimulated. Successful parents anticipate their children’s needs and act immediately when they see the first signs of a problem. I learned to rush children to bed at the first eye rubbing or yawn, switch toys at the first whimper, and have a bottle ready a while before the baby gets hungry. At work, I now plan much further ahead to anticipate and cut off problems before they happen. Before, I might let warning signs of an issue like the outcome of a meeting or an email go by hoping things would work out. As a parent and manager, I quickly learned hope is not a plan, and that I needed to take the wheel in charting the outcomes I want to see.
Sometimes you have to let them cry it out
When my kids get hungry, tired, bored, or overstimulated, they get cranky and take it out on me. Sometimes coworkers do this as well without realizing it. If I am lucky, I can calm them down and appease them by listening or providing direction. Sometimes though, I have to just let them carry on and get it out of their system. Otherwise, I’m just encouraging the bad behavior and will never sleep again. Other times I just have to plop a dinosaur in front of them.
Sleep is more important than you realize
Sleep has a tremendous number of benefits mentally, physically, and emotionally. With adequate rest, children learn faster, exhibit fewer emotional issues, and behave better. The same holds true for work. Getting adequate rest leads to improved performance and better relationship building and management. Well rested adults make better decisions and handle stress better. When I began focussing on getting adequate sleep at the beginning of the year, after the boys started sleeping through the night more often of course, I noticed a dramatic improvement in my decision-making ability and ability to handle stress. Unfortunately, most adults don’t get enough sleep. It’s time to change that.
Finished is better than started
With kids, you don’t get any points for starting things but not finishing them. I quickly learned that multitasking can be the enemy of getting things done. I found it is best to focus on the highest priority and get that done first before moving to other, less important or urgent tasks. For managers, time management is perhaps the most important skill I needed to master to be effective. Four years later and I’m still working on it. Countless meetings, planning sessions, interviews, and other discussions quickly fill my calendar, so knowing how to manage my time is critical. I have learned to say no when I need to and only take on what I know can be finished. Getting things done and out to users is the most valuable thing a manager can do for the business.
Priorities, priorities, priorities
Due to a lack of time, parents have to make difficult decisions about how to balance time and get things done. Do I want to get the dishes done? I have to schedule it between meals. If I’m running behind on time, I have to skip that coffee or now have iced coffee. I often find myself planning five chores ahead and the sequence. I feed the dog, then brush my teeth while the shower heats up, then do the dishes since the water is warm, then let the dog out since he’s had time to digest. Deciding what to focus on due to short-term and long-term needs is the essence of prioritization. Managers must also balance more demands than there will ever be time for. Deciding on priorities for the team to ensure some value gets built and delivered ensures success. I spend more of my time now focusing on measuring impact and planning further ahead to identify priorities and similarly sequence objectives.
When your calendar looks like mine, with back to back meetings all day, you need to make time for breaks for yourself. As a parent, I need to similarly prioritize time for myself periodically. Using the help of friends and family, I am to get a night or two out a month for myself and wife. During the day, I use nap time to get chores and other important tasks done, but also get a few moments of respite in for myself. Sometimes it’s just Twitter, others it might be a quick chapter of a book, and sometimes it’s a quick sit outside if the weather is nice with the baby monitor. If you don’t slow down and take a break every now and again, life will pass you by.
You can go your own way
A lesson I learned early in parenthood was that everyone has advice, but I didn’t need to heed it all. Friends and family, especially family will have tons of opinions and know best about how to solve every problem. That doesn’t mean any of it will be the way you want to do things though. It also doesn’t mean it will actually work for your child just because it did for them. I now chart my own course. Managers need to take a similar approach. Good managers are open and receptive to feedback and advice and incorporate these into the way they operate and plan for the future, but also know when to ignore it. I realized making everyone happy is not always the right goal for managers, and often times, hard decisions need to be made for the team. Make your own plans and do things your way, it’s probably what got you where you are.
Communicate widely and often
Look, you’re busy right? One minute the kids are playing happily in their bouncer and floor mat and the next they somehow found a cheerio in their pants that they are trying to feed to the dog. Parenting is hectic. You probably don’t have time to give updates to every family member and random acquaintance about everything they are doing, I know I don’t. This is why Christmas cards were invented. Distributed communication can be a huge time saver. It’s part of why I started blogging. Sharing the same news to many people via social networks, email, or blogs has saved me a ton of repeated effort and time. I found that managers can utilize this technique to save time at work too. I use email and wikis to document updates and communications and keep everyone in the loop without having to duplicate or repeat effort. Over-communicating is also a valuable skill to keep stakeholders involved and ensure everyone is aligned on priorities and the work that is being done.
Think and plan big, but deliver fast, frequently, and adjust
It’s good to set lofty goals or stretch goals. I like to set the bar high as I often find it is the best way to make sure I make progress on the goal. For parents, you need to have a roadmap of what you want to accomplish and when. It needs to be realistic and achievable too. You should have an idea of how long you want kids to sleep at certain ages, developmental milestones, and feeding schedules and food types. The best way to achieve these goals is to break them down into smaller sub-tasks, each with value and achievable in a shorter time frame. This way you can check in on the progress at each milestone and change plans as needed. You’ll also be able to see if the outcome is as desired and know if you prioritized the right thing. Strong managers take a similar approach to setting high goals with executing on smaller pieces that derive individual business value. After each iteration, the results can be measured and the goal can be adjusted or re-prioritized as needed. I found that using this planning and iterative approach allows for quick delivery of business value while maximizing flexibility too.
Encourage growth and development
Parents of successful children develop a growth mindset in their children from an early age by encouraging actions and results over skills and talents that are fixed. These parents encourage decision-making and independence over a fixed action in order to reach an objective. Because of this, I now try to give positive feedback but also try to not be afraid to give negative feedback when needed. If this feedback is given at the time of the behavior, not after, it reinforces the feedback better. Good managers treat learning opportunities in exactly the same way. I look to provide opportunities for success. I also look for challenges that will stretch team members so that they can grow, develop, learn, and sometimes fail. I strive to provide immediate feedback when the context is fresh in team members’ minds and is most effective. Even when team members fail, I aim to encourage their actions and growth, especially the parts of it that I do see as positive. I also give feedback and guidance on the parts that were not successful or should be changed.
I knew that becoming a parent would change my life, especially at home, but I didn’t expect how it would change my approach to work. I believe it has made me a stronger leader in these ten ways among others that I have taken from parenting. Parenting requires constantly learning and changing as the goalposts are always moving. So does managing a team, especially one as awesome as mine where there are always interesting challenges and areas to drive improvement. Neither a parent or a manager’s work is ever done, but I feel these lessons I learn along the way have helped me drive that constant improvement.
How has your parenting approach or lessons learned from parenting affected your work-life? Have I missed any big lessons that has helped you in both areas? Let me know in the comments below.