An Ops Manager’s Actual Job

Quite a few people I’ve hired over the years have told me that they’ve never had a manager who focused on their career progression, held regular 1:1s, help them set goals, etc. Isn’t that what a People Manager is supposed to do? I’d like to think that every manager would dearly love to concentrate a large portion of their time to those responsibilities. Otherwise, why would they accept the role?  Thing is, it’s been my experience that managers wear many different hats and most people, including myself,  just can’t keep on top of it all. 1:1 meetings with direct reports can “always be rescheduled”, whereas other project deadlines, site outages and escalations from senior management typically can’t. So for all the individual contributors out  there, here’s what your manager deals with on a daily basis. Don’t take this as whining or complaining, or that I think that IC’s have less to tackle. It just is what it is. And I’m by no means offering solutions to all of this- in some cases I know what works for me and what I’ve seen work for others. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about it. 🙂

Project Management: It’s been my personal experience that regardless of whether your organization has PMs, the majority of an IT managers’ job is still project management. This includes managing ticket queues, assigning resources, creating project plans, following up on action items owned by themselves or others, and communicating status of all of the above upward/outward. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve rarely fired on all cylinders on all of these tasks- something has always had to slip. Usually it’s the communication upward/outward for me. I’d rather deliver on stuff than sit and talk about delivering on it. True, that hasn’t helped my career over the years.  I’d just rather make sure the team is on track than worry about whether senior management has a status update every week.

Technical Lead: in many cases, this is indeed true- especially in smaller companies. I prefer to delegate this responsibility to a senior engineer. It can be a growth opportunity for them and it allows me to focus on my own strengths. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a technical leader. But I’ve often seen an IT Manager who is a nerd or a geek concentrate so heavily on the technical front that 1) they don’t allow their senior engineers to influence or lead in the technical realm (this is why the engineer was hired/promoted/touted in the first place) and 2) shelve the people management portion of their role, which feeds right back into #1.

Process Management: IMO, this should dovetail into people management. The more streamlined the processes are (incoming/outgoing work, tooling to accommodate requests, etc), the happier your employees, generally. This doesn’t mean leading the effort to create a large-scale Change Management process or completely changing the way you deploy software. It could be as simple as defining how work enters and exits your team, how you prioritize your projectes, or how your team interacts with the rest of the organization. These all make your team’s and your organization’s lives easier. And they’re not what I want my technical engineers thinking about, usually. I’ll canvass for input so that the solution makes sense for everyone, but I typically hire engineers to, well, engineer.

Sales and customer service: Managers have to represent their teams and their organizations across a wide array of groups. In operations, this typically amounts to defending your team (the companies I’ve been a part of have either seen operations as the red-headed step child whose job it is to pick up after the company’s brilliant software engineers or, at best, the team is a sunk cost). Your site had 4 9’s of availability last month? Awesome- why wasn’t it 5 9’s? There are ways to counteract this mentality. The aforementioned ‘communication upward/outward’ can include a section of accomplishments by the team. You can meet with your more vocal critics, include them in project meetings and ensure that their voices are heard. Team and site metrics also help sell your efforts, but that’s a different discussion (I could talk about metrics all day).

Setting and adhering to direction/vision: A team will usually flounder if there’s no clear direction or vision. IMO, setting the direction is the simple part; it’s allowing the team to adhere to the plan that’s the most difficult, especially in the interrupt-driven world of operations. Regular prioritization meetings that include tying projects into the overall direction of the team and organization help here. Sometimes these need to be as frequent as daily, depending on the amount and type of requests coming into the team. Publishing your road map to your customers is a great way to not only build a partnership with them, but to set the expectation both to them and your team about what the priorities are. Uttering the sentence “that isn’t included in our priorities list yet, but let’s build it into our plan” will kick off the proper conversation and help set the proper expectations. Having the flexibility within the organization to shift resources where appropriate also helps, of course. Just make sure you’re not frustrating your engineers by constantly shifting priorities for every fire that comes along. (ie, choose your battles)

Hiring and Performance Management: To be honest, I see all of the points above as part & parcel of managing team performance. But where does that leave individual performance management? Goal setting, course corrections and performance evaluations all take up a lot of time, but it’s kind of why I’m a people manager. And I find that I struggle just like everyone else to ensure that it’s doesn’t all fall by the wayside when stuff hits the fan. My 1:1s with team members are my favourite meetings of the week, and I believe that they should be the most important thing on my calendar. Adhering to that can be a struggle, so there are a couple of things that really help me. First off, I encourage my directs to own their career and their 1:1s. They know what they want out of their position better than anyone else- it’s my job to make sure I hear that and remove road blocks so they can actually realize their goals. Secondly, I realize that I have to build trust with each person by delegating responsibility and letting them make some mistakes in order to grow. I realize I have to let them earn the next level of responsibility and ensure that they understand what it takes to earn it. That latter part is easier said than done for me, and it’s something I work on every day. Lastly, I’m totally not above admitting when I’ve screwed up. I expect it from my team, and I find it very hypocritical (and very depressing) when managers point fingers and don’t accept their own foibles. I want my team to call me out when I screw up & then help me figure out how to make things better. Giving them the leeway to do so gives them more ownership in solutions & the health of the team and it gives me more insight into how each of them thinks and feels. Win-win-win.

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