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So you're a manager now

Management is a whole second job and skill set. It is time consuming, tricky work that involves human dynamics and ambiguity. My goal is to give you a map to what being a manager really means and learn from my experience going from 0 to 19 direct reports.

Ethan Levy, Blogger

August 29, 2013

7 Min Read

You're good at your job. You're a leader within your discipline and your job title may or may not say it. You're one of the more senior members on the team. And one day you are told that you are in charge of other people. These people are probably your friends. You play games with them during lunch and go grab drinks after work on Fridays. Now you're their boss.

Back before I went indie to work on Enhanced Wars, I was a producer of the Dragon Age Legends game team. Near the outset of the project, as his already heroic work load continued to grow, my boss started handing off some people management to different members of the studio. By the time the game team hit its peak at 25 members, I was the direct manager of 19 of them. Learning to manage people was a trial by fire, and I made many mistakes along the way.

Management is a whole second job and skill set. It is time consuming, tricky work that involves human dynamics and ambiguity. If you are the type of person who is very comfortable putting on headphones and coding, animating or working on spreadsheets all day then these soft skills may or may not come naturally to you. My goal is to give you something of a map to what being a manager really means.

At the basic level there are the simple mechanics. Approving PTO, signing time cards, filling out annual reviews forms. But the heart of being a manager is that you are responsible for your employee's career and personal growth. It is your responsibility to help your employee shine, to give her opportunities to pursue her long term goals, to be her champion. And also to chastise her if she is slacking off, to tell her when she is falling down and help her get back up again. Being a manager is not easy. It is not fun. But it can be incredibly fulfilling. And if you dedicate yourself to your management responsibilities, it will make you better at your mainline job.

Career growth

By and large game developers and creative people in general are motivated by a desire for mastery, recognition and personal growth. Your rockstar programmer is very, very good at her job and she gets bored easily. If she is not learning and growing on your game team, then there are plenty of other companies who would be happy to give her the chance to try new things. Same for your workhorse technical artist and your brash young designer filled with potential. The realities of shipping a game are that there will always be grunt work that someone has to do. But it is your job to discover what will light the fire within your employees and give them those opportunities.

The basic unit of management is the one-on-one meeting. These slightly awkward and easily skippable encounters are part therapy session, part confession, part shooting bull. It is your job to be prepared to lead your one-on-ones the same way you are prepared when it's time to launch a new build of your game. When you show up unprepared with no agenda, it sends a clear message to your employee that you are not investing in her.

Have a set agenda for your one-on-ones. Make sure that you are regularly talking about not only what is happening this week or this month, but your employee's long term goals. Be open and honest with your employee; if you are working on mobile games and she wants to eventually do engine programming on AAA console games, it is better to know that up front and help her achieve that dream. It may hurt to lose a key team member in the short term, but in the long run it will be worth the investment. Not only will you be able to prepare for your employee's departure and be ahead of the curve on finding her replacement, your other employees will trust you more knowing that you support and value your employee's long term needs.

Make sure you are regularly setting goals together. Personal reflection should not be an annual ritual limited only to those times when you are evaluating bonuses, promotions and raises. Every one-on-one should include evaluating goals in progress, checking in to see if long term goals have shifted and looking for opportunities to try new things. Setting up some basic forms for yourself and literally tracking your employee's progress may seem like a lot of overhead, especially when you have your own work to do, but is key to being a good manager. Using a one-on-one to complain about executive management's latest blunders is like eating potato chips. It is easy, convenient and may feel good at the time, but it accomplishes nothing. In the long run is harmful to your health.

Correcting behavior

One of the most difficult parts of managing, at least for me, is giving negative feedback. Personality wise, I do not like to rock the boat. But if your employee is not doing her job properly or misbehaving, you are doing her a disservice by not sharing it with her in an unequivocal manner.

If you are unhappy with an employee's performance, you must tell her so. Not in email. Not in a chat message. Not by passively aggressively bad mouthing her behind her back. It is your responsibility as a manager to tell her face-to-face. And not in her next one-on-one or quarterly review. The longer you let things fester the worse problems will become. You must tell her to her face specifically what she is doing wrong, how she needs to correct her behavior and what the consequences will be if she does not. And you must listen to her side of the story.

It makes me sweat just to think about it.

Confrontation, especially face-to-face confrontation, can be very uncomfortable. I am not suggesting that you need to be aggressive, just truthful. If your employee is watching too much TV at work, not delivering her sprint goals, distracting other team members or not reaching the necessary quality bar, you need to tell her so. With your voice. And you need to make it clear that there are consequences. 

Even terminating an employee can be a good thing in the long run. If you have been speaking to your employee for months about underperformance, you have followed the right HR processes and given her a chance to correct her action, perhaps termination is the only way to make the scope of the problem clear. Perhaps it will give your employee the wake up call she needs to change her behavior at her next job.

It took me a long time to be comfortable with direct confrontation. But it has been an invaluable skill for all three members of the Enhanced Wars team, especially since we are in different cities. If one team member is displeased with another, we open up a Google Hangout immediately to talk about it. Issues are resolved quickly, anger is vented, no one's feelings are hurt and we all move on with our sprint tasks. If you let anger fester it will become a rot that destroys your game from the inside. 

Clear and direct communication should be positive too. If your employee does something awesome, then tell her so. A simple thank you for staying late and doing an excellent job on the end of level UI can go a long way. Your employee needs to know that you are aware of what she does, and that you appreciate it when she does something great.

When I went indie to work on Enhanced Wars, I thought that leaving people management behind and focusing on developing a game would be a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. And it was. But I also miss it. I go out of my way to mentor younger developers I have worked with in the past. I love it when someone asks me to write a letter of recommendation or lists me for a background check on a new job. Managing is tough work, but it is also extremely fulfilling when done right.

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