First Impressions from a First Time Manager

Welcome to episode 223 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we discuss John’s initial observations of the first 8-9 weeks as a first time sales engineering manager.

Original Recording Date: 05-04-2023

Topics – Episode Context, A Manager’s Onboarding, Overhead for Meetings, Attachment to the Team, One Step Removed, Tactical Differences, Closing Thoughts

1:11 – Episode Context

  • In Episode 220 we talked about John losing his job as part of the Google Cloud reduction in force in early 2023.
  • In Episode 221, John shared the story of deciding what his next move would be and getting hired as a Sales Engineering Manager at Nutanix.
  • In Episode 222 we took a deeper look into John’s interview process and how he approached conversations with people at different organizational levels.
  • This week John will share his impressions of being a first time manager. It’s like an audio log of the first several weeks on the job that he can go back and reference / reflect upon later.
  • As of this recording John is in the middle of week 9 as a sales engineering manager at Nutanix. John says it’s been a whirlwind, very exciting, and filled with a lot of information.

2:14 – A Manager’s Onboarding

  • Onboarding as a manager was essentially no different than onboarding as an individual contributor.
  • Nutanix had a first day / first week schedule for John with training.
    • John was in the sales engineering training with a number of individual contributor sales engineers. This consisted of learning about the Nutanix software stack and gaining hands on experience in tinkering with the technology inside lab environments.
    • Previous to this John understood the products conceptually but had not been able to use them. John could, as a first time user, see that product teams had worked really hard on making the technology easy to use.
  • John said there was also a pilot of a new multi-week manager program that started around week 5.
    • Members of the program meet once per week with homework in between sessions. There is a great deal of coaching on the job of being a manager and how it is different than being a technical lead, for example.
      • John confirmed he’s been doing the homework, so don’t worry, listeners.
    • John said there was a conversation in this class that mimicked almost exactly the one about an operating manual for the self from Episode 217 with guest Kristen Carder.
      • The tool shared in John’s classes was very similar to the tool shared in the above episode. The idea is to share what you’re good at, how you communicate effectively, when you run into challenges, etc. John and his classmates were encouraged to fill it out and share it with their teams. Then, he encouraged them to have team members do that for themselves.
    • John is still in the middle of going through this program with a cohort of other first time managers. It is a remote program today. John hopes those going through the program can come together as a community to support one another moving forward. This seems to be with other employees in the US only at this time.
  • John’s onboarding has not been extremely different from that of an individual contributor joining a technology company. One in a similar situation would onboard, learn the company’s products, and then meet teammates.
    • An extra step for managers specifically is meeting the team that reports to you. John says all of this got jammed into the first week of his employment.
    • Managerial onboarding started a little bit later.
  • A first observation in the onboarding process was good support in teaching John the kinds of things he would need for his role.
    • All of it could not be jammed into the first week (with the exception of manager training as we mentioned), but John had access to the resources nonetheless and continues to learn about new tools via the manager training program.
  • John had not met his team during the hiring process (not normally something that happens to have a potential manager meet team members during the interview process) and only met them during his onboarding. In his personal experience, John does not recall meeting a potential new manager before they got the job.

7:39 – Overhead for Meetings

  • John’s second observation is the overhead of having a lot of meetings.
  • John started out with 30 minute 1-1 meetings with his direct reports and has had to extend them to 45 minutes. This required some additional calendar management.
    • John has 9 direct reports. At 45 minutes each, that is 6.75 hours total.
  • John also has a weekly meeting with his team of direct reports.
  • John is covering 2 different sales managers and attends their weekly team meetings with the extended sales teams (salespeople, field marketing, channel sales managers, etc.).
  • John’s direct manager has a meeting every other week. And there is also a sales leadership meeting John attends plus forecast calls each week.
  • John also has a 1-1 with his boss each week.
  • This totals to about 20 hours or more of meetings in a week.
  • John also has 1-1 meetings with each of the sales directors with which he partners.
  • There are people who offered to mentor John, and he has not put weekly 30 minute meetings with them on his calendar just yet but feels he should. These are experienced managers (not necessarily in the same time zone) whose calendars are also quite full much like John’s has become.
  • The time John spends in meetings makes it challenging to spend time on the outputs and deliverables for which he is responsible (as a result of being in the meetings described earlier) while also learning new things. This was not something John anticipated.
    • John feels this will get better with time. He may become more skilled at 1-1 meetings and be able to fit those into 30 minutes instead of 45, for example.

11:41 – Attachment to the Team

  • John had a very quick ramp up to an emotional investment in the success of the team and the individuals on the team.
    • As a manager of these people he expected to be invested in their success, expecting it to be true intellectually but not realizing / anticipating how quickly he would become emotionally invested in their successes as individuals and as a team.
    • John says he needs to own the team culture or at least act as the guardian and director of it.
    • The individuals on the team contribute to execution of the culture just as much as John if not moreso because there are more of them.
    • It’s the individual relationships that normally 9 weeks into getting to know someone John might not have expected to be as attached to the success and career of team members as he’s become to this point. Their success has become extremely important to John.
    • John has a strong sense of purpose about all this. His primary job function is the success of the individuals and the success of the team.
    • John isn’t sure if he’s embarrassed or shocked by the fast emotional attachment but feels a little vulnerable saying it out loud.
      • The team members are extremely competent, hard working people who have a difficult and ambiguous task to do. It can be both infuriating and thrilling to be in the sales engineer role. John wants his team to do really well and know that he as the manager has their backs (which will take time to prove to them).
      • "Anybody can say words. It’s the actions to back that up that matters." – John White on having his team members’ backs
  • It will be interesting to see how this evolves over time and how it affects John over time.

15:37 – One Step Removed

  • The next observation was the reality of being one step removed from the business of helping to sell product.
    • John’s job as a sales engineer was already one step removed from the actual sales process. He wasn’t negotiating discounts, pricing tiers for products the company sold, or understanding the way a company procures products. John was focused at the technical level (technical validation).
    • It was already technical validation of solutions, making solutions, building technical relationships.
  • Now, instead of doing the work he was doing as a sales engineer, John is helping a team of people who are doing the work that is sales engineering.
    • It is rare that John will be called in to build or maintain a relationship as described earlier. Intellectually, John knew this would happen, but the experience of it happening is different than he expected.
    • John misses the very specific kind of interaction you have with customers as a sales engineer. And John has a new set of customers which are his reports (and to some degree the upstream sales organization).
    • John still attends events and gets to meet customers, but his team owns the relationship with the customer while he takes a back seat. John’s team members know what customers need from him as the manager and they know their customer’s needs much better than John would. They direct how they want him to interact with customers and help him understand what the customer needs to hear / understand from someone at his level.
      • John feels it should be rare that he is the most important one in a meeting with a customer. It’s important for him to have as much context as possible from the team who owns the relationship with the customer.
  • John isn’t just covering a single territory / set of customers like he was as a sales engineer. The customer base he covers is spread across two sales regions and many team members.
    • There is no one customer he will be close with immediately. In these situations John is one step removed and is there to maybe own a relationship for a time and hand it back to the team he supports who formally owns the relationship with the customer.
    • "It’s an interesting thing to know that is going to happy and a different thing to experience it." – John White, on being one step removed from customer interaction
    • Nick says this is The Matrix effect and that no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it (or in John’s case experience it) for yourself much like being a parent.
    • John thinks back to what Don Jones said about not knowing if today was a good day for a while as a manager because your success is dependent upon others. This was advice shared in Episode 137 and Episode 138 on a manager’s measure of success.
      • Don said it, and now John is living it, which is a different experience than John has had previously.

21:36 – Tactical Differences

  • John is responsible for owning a team meeting agenda. That means having productive and meaningful meetings which add value to people’s week and encourage fruitful discussion, something that isn’t just another meeting people have to attend.
    • Being able to run an effective meeting is a skill, and the process of owning it is different than just showing up and wondering what you will talk about. You need a plan and some effort before the meeting to make it effective.
  • Performance reviews began recently. John had written performance reviews in the past but feels it is an entirely different thing to have a team’s performance reviews be your responsibility. It’s pretty daunting to have this responsibility.
    • Going into the process John did not know the criteria by which his team was being evaluated. There should be some sort of objective criteria in any process that indicate someone is doing well at their job. John knew what the job his people did was, of course, but not the criteria.
    • John knew the Google methodology to explain performance of individuals to leadership but had to go and research the Nutanix methodology for evaluating sales engineers.
    • This process was a journey, and it took time for John to find out the proper criteria. It probably happened a week or so before this recording.
      • Nick suggests it would also be good to know how these criteria map to different job levels. John says you would need to know what each of the criteria look like at a particular level (sales engineer, senior sales engineer, staff sales engineer, etc.).
      • If someone wanted to be promoted and knew the criteria at each level they could show how they are currently performing skills desired at the next level for their job role.
    • John says the difficulty finding the criteria may have been due to the process changing a little bit.
    • John trained on the evaluation criteria and is working to incorporate the criteria into 1-1 sessions once per month to enable discussions about skills for promotion with team members. For those who are not looking to chase a promotion right now, it’s an open discussion on ways John can help.
    • John reiterates that some people may need to tread water for a while, and that’s ok. Maybe your life situation dictates that training on new products and serving your customers is all you can do right now. This is where John was when his daughter was born last year, so he understands.
    • Finding out where each person is (i.e. getting a baseline), documenting it for a shared understanding, and then consistently checking in with each person can help both John and his employees decide on next actions. If someone wants to get promoted to the next level John can then help that person create an actionable plan.
    • Nick is happy to hear John is having career conversations with his team members and would encourage listeners to go back and revisit Episode 45 on career conversations with your manager. John says he’s not sure if this process of career conversations was formalized before but added these as something he does with his team immediately after getting into the role.
  • John has also had a person resign and move to a different company. It turned out to be a really good thing for the person in question, but it put John into hiring mode.
    • Though this was unexpected, John was fully supportive of the person’s career and asked what he could do to help.
    • It is part of the job for John to hire people. He needed to start a cycle of getting approval to hire someone, recruit for the position, do interviews (initial screening interviews, informational interviews, and the formal interview process).
    • There was a little pressure to hire someone quickly because the company was about to pass a financial quarter boundary. When you pass a financial quarter boundary usually budgets are re-examined, and it can create more difficulty than if an offer has already been extended.
    • It was about a 30 day gap between when John received approval to hire someone and they wanted all open positions to have an offer sent. John could not meet that boundary in this case. But overall the situation added some pressure John had not anticipated.
    • The process of hiring when John knows he is the one responsible for the output and performance of the person is a little different from being emotionally separate from their performance if the person is hired.
      • At Google John did a lot of interviews for prospective sales engineers (or customer engineers at Google). He was evaluating them on whether they could do the job at a specific seniority level, but he remained professionally detached in a way.
      • That scenario was different than hiring someone who reports to you (as the case would be now), whose progress you oversee, and the decision around which you as the manager are ultimately responsible for if things do not work out. It could be devastating for an individual to join a company and find out later it was not a good fit.
    • Nick asked John how much control over hiring process steps managers have.
      • John says usually there is a template for the process given, and the manager could then say they may want to bypass a specific step because the role or the people involved don’t justify having it.
    • John feels the hiring process can be a bit slow. He did way more informational interviews than he thought. Check out Episode 169 with guest Mike Wood in which he details what informationals with Microsoft were like.
      • The sales engineering role is a role people don’t know about often times. They may see the word engineer or systems engineer and be a little confused on what the job actually is / what the role does. Reading the job description is different from having someone tell you what you’re responsible for and why the role exists.
      • John also spend time sharing the profile of the person he was looking for to fill the role – experience with the Nutanix products / something like them in the market or experience as a sales engineer.
      • Nick loves this and says John gave applicants the relatable experience requirements in the process! It doesn’t make sense to keep it a secret. Every sales engineer took their first job as a sales engineer at some point, and John tells us you want to be open to people who do not have experience as a sales engineer.
      • John says this is an interesting position to be in and remembers the people who first hired him and gave him a chance as a sales engineer (after he had worked in IT operations for a while). Now John has the opportunity to give someone a chance as a hiring manager to dive into sales engineering. The potential impact on someone’s life is daunting to John. John knows he would become emotionally invested in a person’s success after having been through the transition from IT operations to sales engineering himself.
    • John has learned that in this process he must rely on multiple points of view on potential candidates.
      • John cannot be the one evaluating people on everything but rather needs to put candidates through a process. This process can involve multiple people with different backgrounds and points of few who will ask different questions than John would, and it is needed before John can make a final hiring decision.

36:11 – Closing Thoughts

  • Should Nick become a manager some day?
    • Nick is currently undecided. But when John talked about tinkering around with technology it got Nick’s attention in a positive way.
    • Nick’s wife keep telling him he’s destined to be a manager someday. Should he go back to teaching math?
    • Nick says there is going to have to be an element of education in whatever he does. He also loves to learn and feels the teaching and learning feed one another.
      • John says it is supporting people in their learning journey. People are growing and have things they need to do to support the growth, and they need help from others to support that growth. That is a state we are all in in, and ideally we have a manager supporting us there.
  • John wants to get to a point where he defines the growth he should be looking for but isn’t sure yet. That’s all the more reason to invest in those mentoring sessions with peers! Feedback from the team has also been a big help for John.
    • Maybe we can check in periodically on John’s progress over time (perhaps every 6 months)?
    • John isn’t sure how long it will take for him to have a different opinion on things or how long it will take for him to be in a different place of growth cycle in his current position.
    • For those interested in checking back in on John’s progress, let us know via Tweet or in the episode comments how often you would like to do so! John is also open to mentorship if you’re willing.

Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.

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