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Lead Time Chats, Episode 5: Gergely Orosz

Gergely Orosz speaks to Jean Hsu for Lead Time Chats

March 24, 2021

Note: Lead Time was recorded to be watched and listened to in video format. We recommend you watch the video if you’re able to. Our transcripts are automatically generated using transcription software and include limited human review so they may contain some errors.

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Jean Hsu: Hi welcome, Gergely. Thanks for joining us for lead time chats.

Gergely Orosz: Great to be here.

Jean: So we want to dive right into the topic. The topic is really this decision that I think a lot of engineers face at some point in their career and just do I want to be a manager? Should I go into management? So maybe we can just start off with hearing a little bit about how that was for you.

Gergely: Yeah, for me, it was a few different steps. First was when I worked at Skype, we introduced scrum. We had this big thing and people became scrum masters. I became a scrum master and at first I was like, huh, being a scrum master, like I just want to code, Man, why can I not just code and I spent two weeks being a scrum master and I felt, wow, I'm helping the team.

Like the team, actually, our velocity increased and I was doing all these non-coding tasks and the whole team seemed to do better. And I was like, hold on: what I did was that really useful? And that was the, I think that was a start of me thinking, huh there's something here. And people, we always rotate as being the scrum master every two weeks or every month or so for a year, it was as long project.

And I ended up being scrum master more frequently cause I enjoyed that. Some people hated it by the way, they didn't want to do it, but I was like, I really liked helping the team get better. So that was kinda step one.

Jean: Just the insight of non-coding stuff can be useful and help the team.

Gergely: Yeah. But I was still at the point where I like, I don't want to be a manager. I just want to be an engineer. Like it's being a manager. It's lame. I think part of it was, I definitely didn't really have good managers. I didn't really look up to them. In fact, at that time, like I thought I liked my managers. Also, promotion time came up and they gave me feedback that I totally didn't  expect. They were telling me I'm doing great and then I got like an average review or something like that. So then the way I became a manager, almost like accidentally, is I joined a startup. I joined Skyscanner. They recruited me as a first hire for an acqui-hire. They bought a tiny company with two people and I was the first employee and they said they're going to leave us alone for a year. And then my new manager who was a younger guy than me and probably less experienced he told me like, all right, Gergely, we need you to build a mobile app. So I started building mobile app and that's something that I was like, they were like, can you go faster? I'm like, I'm going really fast already. They're like you should hire a team. And I was like, okay. They're like, so we looked at each other okay. And they're like, yeah, hire a team.  I was like, I don't know how to hire a team.


And then my manager told me that the startup guy was like, you know, I'll tell you a secret. Two years ago, I didn't know how to start a company, but I did it. I know you can do it. So I became this accidental manager, no training, no support. I hired three people. I probably, I did a lot of mistakes. So my first mistake was I was on a call with a person and I got really enthusiastic and I really liked this person that I told them you know what, we're going to go to the next step.

We'll go to the next interview. And I hung up and I started to reflect on my notes and I realized this person is a no-go. And I asked my manager what should I do? I told this guy we're going to go to the next step, but we shouldn't, it's a waste of time. And he told me like, look like management is sometimes about listening to your gut. I did all these rookie mistakes. So that was my  second step. I became an accidental manager. I think I was not a really good manager. I tried to be, but I'd never had the kind of even thought time to think about these things. And finally, when I joined Uber, I actually joined from this position, which I like to think it was a tech lead position.

As a senior engineer, I actually wanted to be a tech lead at Uber, but they said we don't have those openings, just senior. I was like, fine. It's Uber. This was in 2016 one. Uber could do nothing wrong. And in, in six months time, I found myself doing managerial duties because I've done it before.  I told my manager, look, I'm doing the job as a manager already. I want to become a manager. If there's an opportunity.  He was overloaded, he had 30 reports. So, that's how I became a manager and the great thing about Uber, why I'm super, super thankful for, they didn't let me be a manager just like that.

I have to go through an apprentice program.  I had a mentor. I had proper training for the first time. We talked with a peer group of about one-on-ones. It wasn't just me reading blogs. So that's my short story on management. It's not everyone is as lucky enough. I think that apprentice   program made a huge difference.

Uber did this apprentice program, funny enough, because they knew that they were full of just bad managers because they were first time managers, I think 50 or 60% of managers that were at Uber at the time were first-timers.

Jean: Yeah, I think that's a pretty common journey, either for companies or for individuals to have this  accidental manager and make a ton of mistakes, then we'd be like, okay we really need to set some structure and some training in place.  I want to go back to one thing you said, which is that you came into it thinking like management is lame.  Where does that come from?

Gergely: I never really looked up to my managers. I never understood.

So here's the thing, none of my managers up to that point were transparent about what being a manager is.  This is something I changed later. I actually had a lot of people who reported to me or multiple people go into management, knowing what to expect. I didn't know what management was. All I saw is I have this like once a year feedback. I had a manager at Microsoft who there was this guy on the team who was just really hostile to other people. He was yelling with someone and I complained to him about him and I know other people complained about him as well and my manager said, leave it with me. Nothing happened. And to me, this was management. It was like you know, he's probably getting paid more than I do, but I don't look up to this person. I don't want to be this person. I think the biggest mistake my managers did, I think the biggest disease managers do, they don't talk about what they do,  how they help the team, what their goals are. I didn't know.  I knew what software engineering was. I knew I had a lot to grow there and I was like, I just wanna be a software engineer.

Jean: So having those managers that you didn't look up to how did that impact how you led or aspire to be a manager when you became one?

Gergely: This is really interesting because Skype was a good example on this. When I became a scrum master,  I started to think maybe this management thing, maybe one day, I kinda might. And I started to observe my manager. So I actually, I did start to ask, Hey, what are you doing? I'm a scrum master, but  what are you doing? What is our dynamic?  As part of this, I started a notes pad as well.

The first time I didn't get promoted, even though I never asked for it, but  it hurt because my colleague who was honestly selfish person a little bit. He was really loud. He got promoted because he asked for it. I started to make note of the things that I hated about my managers. I wrote there. I had a manager who  had a manager who seemed to care. I like to call this person a "I don't care manager." Every time I asked feedback, he said, you're doing great; I support what you do. You're amazing. When it came to performance review time, it was like, yeah your performance was middle of the 60%. At Microsoft, we had this ladder from one to five. I got a three. I had to ask him, but you told me I'm doing great and he didn't have any answers.  I realized he just didn't care. He just went with the flow. So this was one thing I didn't want to do. And then I had a manager later who was the opposite.

He really cared. He micromanage me to an absolute extent. There were some nights where I was kept awake, I was told to leave this project. I thought I was doing good, but I told my manager there is a small chance we're going to be late by two days, but I've got it under control. He took it away from me. He stepped in, he was like, oh, I'm stepping in.  I had this list of the things I hated about my managers.

Jean: What else was on that list?

Gergely: The two biggest ones were micromanaging. Not letting an abusive team member roam on the team and not firing him. He should have been fired. This person. This was back in before, you know, some of the, there was no me too. There was no any of this. It just felt wrong. This person was abusive. And eventually  a later manager did get rid of him or, you know, but that, that was one of the things.

And this, not talking about performance. So I left both of my teams because my managers never talked about my career. And I only realized after the performance review that I really would have wanted to have a chance at promotion, but I never talked about it. So these were the top three. I got some things that I also liked. One of my managers who was a micromanager, he was really strong technically, and he had a really high bar on the team. I liked that. I loved being part of the team in that sense. So it's interesting because a lot of my managers, they were not black and white by the way and all of them were good people but there were things that I didn't like about them and the things that I liked about them. When I became manager, I had this list already and I vowed that I'm not going to do the things that I was really pissed off about.

Jean: So that kind of helped guide what kind of manager you wanted  to become?

Gergely: My managerial style I think the biggest influences, I just wanted to avoid the things that I either I got  upset about, or I saw people around me got upset about over the years.  I think honestly, like just this thing, the fact, I think I did an okay job with that, but because of this.

I probably was already the top 20% of managers because I knew what I did, what I see every day. I, when I became manager, I had this list and I looked at it and I asked for feedback and I wanted to make sure, and I checked in. I told them that if you ever feel I'm micromanaging, you tell me, please, I don't want to do that.

I don't want to be that person. Or if you feel, I don't care about your career, tell me because that's on me. Like I should be caring. You know, I'm sorry in advance, but I might forget about it.

Jean: That's huge that you're asking those people that you're managing to bring  them into the process of helping you grow as a manager. So here are all the things I don't want to do. Give me feedback immediately. I would love for you to give me that feedback if you do feel like I'm doing any of these things. What about for people on your teams? You've managed , you've been a manager. You've managed a lot of people and I presume a lot of them are also facing this decision of do I want to go into management. How do you help them think through that? What are some advice or tips that you give them?

Gergely: I typically have  a two step strategy first. I want to scare them away from it. I really think you should only go into management if you are up for the challenge and if you're up for an uphill battle, if you're okay with doing more work for less money.

One thing that Uber did really well, and I think a lot of companies should follow, when I became a manager, a lot of people assume that as a manager, you get more money. You get more information, more prestige, more power right . As a manager, you will always have a power dynamic like it or not because you have a say in the performance review. At Uber my salary did not change. My bonus went down because we were on the same level.  Again, I think , you work at organizations that have levels, but some don't. My bonus targets stayed the same, but I was now compared against managers.  As a senior engineer, I was top of the band. I would have been promoted to the next level pretty quickly, probably.  As a manager, I was more of a bottom of the band. So technically I left money on the table, but I really liked that this was the case because it made me reflect, do I want to stretch myself and do what felt like a lot of extra work for this?

I have people who later went into this and they had the same conversation with them and I told them like, you should answer this and if the answer is yes, you can go back and there's no shame in it. But I really think people like the best managers are people who would do it for the same amount of money and it's not because of the money.

Jean: ] The structural setup that it's not the default next promotion, or you actually need to want it and make that change and take the pay cut  cause you're moving laterally. You're moving from the technical side to the people side.

Gergely: Also people engineers on my team,  some people were making more than me. They had higher bonuses. I helped promote people to a level above me and I saw their salaries as well. But I think if you reconcile this, you should probably not be a manager cause I was actually happy. I pushed for those people to get it because I think they deserve it. They were better engineers than I ever was and I was really happy for them. They of course didn't know so some of them even complained when they got the thing, but that's part of it. I think it's a really interesting challenge.  So first I would scare people away because are you committed? Are you ready to give this a proper go? I think you should go into management if you're ready to give it a year, at least. You can't go into it thinking, I'll see in six months. You need to commit once they are there. The right reasons to go into management are either to learn more, to stretch yourself, to think, look for your long-term career. The wrong reasons are "I want more power. I want to have my voice heard. I want more money." You're going to burn out. It's not going to really last and you're not going to be a good manager.

Jean:  So you're saying that you want to make sure people want it, but that's paired with something you said earlier, which is that on your team, you really share what management is, what you're doing so that people have visibility into what your job is as a manager and they point to that and say, I want to do that.

Gergely: Yeah, and I would point out also the things that I do, the limitations that I had, for example, when it came to pay rises or promotions or performance, I made it clear what my input was. For example, I did not control salaries . I had an input where I tried to represent people fairly, but there was a year where everyone on my team got 10% pay rise because centrally it came and I told people, this is not for me. This is central. It could have been zero. I didn't have control over promotions. We had a promotion committee. So I told people clearly that I'm going to tell them if I support them and if I don't support them, I'll tell them where the gap is but we're there.  There was a person on my team who did not get promoted. I think he should have gotten promoted. There was some mistake in the process, some structural hiccup. I couldn't tell this person obviously, but I went all the way to the head of the promotions committee at Uber and he also admitted it, but he couldn't reverse it and I was in this weird situation where I needed own a decision where there was nothing to own. The feedback was I'm sorry we messed up the process, but we cannot fix it because we cannot have exceptions.  It was a really awkward time because, as a manager, the difficult thing is you cannot say, oh, the company does this. You are the company; you represent it. So there's challenges there but once I scare people and they're still interested then I also start to support them.  One of the things that I did for a new manager that I wish I would have had, I actually put together, with them, but a lot of it was mine,  a checklist of things to do, which people say don't do a checklist, but for new managers, it is a great checklist. I looked at our manager competencies, and I added some stuff that I think managers should also do. For example, build trust with your team.  I did activities. For example, I want you to know personal facts about every single person on your team and I'm going to ask you about it.

Next one was, I want you to lead by example on something specific and they had to tell me what it is.  I did activities where I didn't tell them what to do, but I told them what I expected the output to be.  At some point I'll probably shared this list cause I still have it. I meant to share the feedback from this person was that they felt it helped immensely because they finally had a bit of a gauge.

As a new manager, you don't really know how good or bad you're doing. I didn't know it for two years, actually. I didn't know if I was a terrible manager or a good manager until we add  some anonymous  feedback and the feedback was that I was a better manager, but you know , you always have room to improve. So I did that and actually  new managers started to use this checklist and customizing it. So I think that really helped.

By the way, one of the things  that's on my mind: most managers step into management with zero support and it's a tragedy. This is why we have managers who burn out. This is  why they give up.  I was lucky. My manager had 30 reports and when I became manager, he told me I could manage this team that I'm on, or this other team that has higher business impact. I told them I wanted the higher business impact cause I'm a go getter.  He then came back to me and said, Gergely, I think you should manage the current team. This is the most stable team. It's got a roadmap. You're set up for success.  On that team, I'm not sure you will be set up for success.  He took over managing that team, cleaning up a mess there that in the end, it was really difficult to clean up, but this stayed with me and when  it was my turn to help a manager on the team,  I did the same thing. I gave this person the most stable team with little to no problematic people. It's usually the opposite. Usually  the new managers are on the worst team. So there's so many things that are just common sense and empathy that if you have a manager who does it. I think I became a better manager because I had a manager who cared.  He did more work.  For my old manager, for me to become manager, he put a lot of extra work and didn't have to do it, but it was the right thing to do.

Jean: I feel like the transition into management is already so bumpy. You're already struggling with I'm not coding. I don't know if I'm doing a good job so what I love about the checklist is they're very doable things. They replace the, like the feedback of oh I merged five PRs today. It's no, I checked off this thing. I asked this person about, you know, their family and now I can go back to Gergely and say, I did it.  So I love that   you're creating some tasks that are actually modeling good management but you're helping smooth that transition.

I guess just to end, what's one thing that you think most people don't take into consideration when they think about whether or not they want to be a manager?

Gergely: I'll say two things. One of them, the loneliness. Suddenly when you become a manager, you lose all your peers. You can not talk about the important stuff, the performance, the uncertainty, the fact that you don't know what you're doing and if you're lucky, you'll have a new team. If you have managers around you, they will be your first team. They're going to be people who you can trust. Yeah, a lot of managers will not have this.  When I became manager at Uber, there was my manager and me and another manager. There were three of us. The only person I could really share stuff with was my manager, but he was super busy and I felt lame complaining about all these things. By the time people on my team became managers, we had a group of seven or eight people and it was really helpful, but I didn't realize how difficult it will be, especially when you're promoted from a team that you know.  The relationship changes because, again, the most important stuff you cannot share.

When I became a manager of someone on my team, I learned about their compensation issues that have been struggling for a while. Another person had a personal issue that I didn't know about, and these were all confidential and suddenly it felt I had this burden. I talked about this with my wife, for example. I later had a mentor who I could talk with so that was the first thing.

The second thing, which might be specific to, to me, and to big companies, but I think most people think when you become a manager, you become  like a boss, like you're one level up and you can tell people what to do. This is not necessarily in a bad way, but you think that you'll have more decisions. What most people don't realize it's not management. It will be middle management. You will step up one layer, but now you'll have to balance. The team thinks you're in charge and you're going to sort things out, but you'll have things coming from above and from the side and it's like a sandwich so you will find yourself having a lot less freedom than you think and a lot more frustration and a lot more balancing. There were times where my team thought I was doing a poor job managing. I was doing an excellent job, but I have to protect stuff from above that I couldn't talk about. So overall I  really like  management. I hope I'm not scaring people away.  People who have the opportunity to go into manage, I think you should, especially if you're doubting if you're cut out for it because as long as you're committed to giving it a year, you're going to learn a lot, even if it doesn't work out especially when you have good support.  The learning is about people and there's a parallel with more senior engineering like staff and then principal, which is the hardest thing, the people and the dynamics around people.

Jean: Yeah. I really resonated with the loneliness. When I was at Medium, I really struggled with that when I became a manager. Even socially, oh, if I invite this one person to this event, do I have to invite everyone? Or not wanting to befriend people in a too familiar social context because we switched managers all the time so like I could end up managing them and then be in this awkward situation. That's something that I felt like I had to navigate as well.

Gergely: How did you get into management by the way. What was your transition into this? Briefly?

Jean: Yeah, It was at Medium. I joined as a mid-level engineer. We didn't have levels when I joined and then, maybe a few years in, we started having this group lead role which is more of a coach mentor advocate role. It was very much it was like everyone can choose their own group lead and so that's how I started in the management route, but also led me to coaching, which I did for several years, because it's like, you know, I may have, I may be a group lead for six people. Two of them are on the team. I'm on two of them are on some other team. Two of them are somewhere else in the organization so people come to me with problems and I can't just be like, oh yes, that makes sense, let me go talk to the PM and we'll fix that. I have to talk to them, help them clarify the problem and then send them off with some ideas that they came up with. I'm like, I don't see the results. I'll hear  from them in a week and see how it went so that was  my introduction to coaching, which we can talk about some other time.

Gergely: Yeah.

Jean: Yeah. Cool. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Gergely: It was a pleasure.

Jean: Yeah. All right, we'll see you next time.

Gergely: Talk later.

Lead Time Chats, Episode 5: Gergely Orosz
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