Lars Bergstrom

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Conversations with your manager

11 Aug 2015

Attrition rates between 5–10% are not unusual in the tech sector. Indeed, anything outside them would be cause for introspection (are we firing good people? are we letting bad people stay?). But watching the often awkward departures from Mozilla has reminded me that there is a key conversation that many individual contributors fail to have with their managers, leading to confusion and disappointment. This conversation is: what is success?

Success for the project

Absolutely everyone on your team should be crystal-clear on what success for your project means. A great test for managers is to pay attention to how members of your team talk about the goal for the project, especially when there is no manager around.

I’ve been on Servo for two years now, and managed for a large part of that time. Throughout, I have emphasized that the goal is to be better than native apps, particularly on mobile and embedded platforms. Despite that, I’d still hear people focused on beating Chrome/Safari/Edge(nee IE). That is a fine aspiration, but only as a step along the path to the goal: beating native apps. Because once we beat native apps, both: a) the web wins and b) on platforms where we cannot ship, competitive pressure will force those browsers to be close to Servo’s performance, and the web wins again.

This misunderstanding is a failure on my part because it means that the team doesn’t understand our goals or the tradeoffs we will make as a project to meet those goals. And it’s something I see over and over with employees at Mozilla as a whole: its primary mission is to foster the Open Web. Not Open Source; not social movements of the day; not your personal movement - the Open Web.

These misunderstandings are dangerous because not only do they make employees demotivated through a lack of personal connection to the mission, but they also lead people to work incredibly hard on things tangentially related to the mission. Even where this work is good, it will not be rewarded with promotions, raises, or leadership attention — and may even ultimately lead to termination.

Success for the manager

First line management for a small team is an incredibly hard job. It’s basically the proving ground for the path towards “real” management. You have all of the responsibility to deliver results, with none of the budget or organizational authority to make things happen that you do at more senior levels. Plus, there’s typically an expectation that these managers keep one foot in the individual contributor space, further complicating the job.

And unfortunately, most individual contributors will report to a first-line manager. So your job here is to understand: what does success mean for this manager? How are they being judged by their manager? Because, your ability to help them meet that goal has a huge influence on their success and leverage and ultimately your own success. While your manager is there to help you in your growth and to provide support, a key sign of advancement beyond first few job grades (confusingly called “Senior” in the valley, which appears to actually mean “has been out of college for > 1 year”) is shifting from requesting support and relying on planning from your manager to independently owning your work and the relationships required for it to succeed.

Success for the individual

Every mature company has concrete job descriptions and career progressions. Where are you in that career progression? Most people are either growing within a level or attempting to reach the next level. An individual contributor should understand in very concrete terms what it means to either fulfill the criteria of that level or be promoted to the next level.

At very advanced stages of individual contributor growth, the individual may realize they no longer want to continue to grow. For example. I’ve seen people who don’t want to spend their time visiting partners, building strategy decks for vice presidents, or putting aside the most interesting work for the most important work. And that’s OK — but it should be an explicit decision by the individual in conversation with their manager, with the understanding that this unwillingness might mean that there’s a cap on eventual raises.

Note that I used the phrase, “very advanced.” Often, what human resources is willing to accept as a peak level is not very high. Expect more from yourself, and demand more from your organization (mentoring, education, ambitious goals, etc.).