December 4th, 2016
When I was purely an individual contributor, the results of my work were very real. I shipped products, fixed bugs, improved performance, moved numbers, and made stuff. It was great! As an engineering manager, my contributions are harder to quantify. Instead of writing code, I sit in meetings and talk to people. I gather information, make decisions, remove blockers, and align teams around common goals. My teams have shipped some incredible products, but I haven’t written a line of code towards doing so. In fact, given the disproportionate weight of my opinion and my lack of technical context, it’s best if I don’t participate. I believe that my impact as a manager in leveling up my team and making sure they’re working on what’s most important is greater than if I were contributing on my own, but it’s hard to measure.
For someone who is used to the satisfaction of completing tasks, transitioning to a role in which accomplishments are measured over a long time horizon can be tough. I spend my time in meetings, constantly context-switching. By the end of some days, I’m tired and don’t feel like I’ve done anything. Intellectually, I know that I’m making progress, but it doesn’t always feel that way.
What’s worked well for me is to balance the longer-term, ambiguous projects at work with short-term, tangible tasks at home. There wasn’t food, so I bought food. Boom, I accomplished something. There wasn’t dinner, so I cooked dinner. I accomplished something else! The kitchen was dirty, so I cleaned it. Tasks complete all around!
Cooking is relaxing for me, but it’s easy to get into a creative rut. I make a mean what’s-in-the-fridge chili, but I want to branch out, try new recipes, and master new techniques. I don’t always have a lot of time to shop for and prepare food, so I try to frontload the creative component and keep a list of recipes to try. Shopping for the ingredients in advance forces me to cook them within a reasonable amount of time. And yes, most people shop in advance, but we’re spoiled and live a block from the supermarket.
When people talk about work-life balance, it’s often in the context of how much time is spent at work, at home, or on vacation. Just as important for me is balancing the nature of my activities at work and outside of work, and I’m glad that I’ve realized that. If you’ve struggled with burnout or frustration at work, hopefully this framing is useful for you! Even if it’s not, come on over and I’ll make a pot of something tasty.