Manager Skill: Short Attention Span Theater

Twitter Summary: In transitioning roles from engineer to manager, the hardest skill to learn to enjoy was “Short Attention Span Theater”

I loved being employed as a software development engineer.  Technologies and toolkits evolve so quickly that every time you think you have mastered one, there is something new to learn for the next project. Last year’s assumption that machines are too expensive evolves into next year’s plan that includes machines ten times as powerful as the ones you had before for the same price. Last decade’s assumption that disk space is too expensive evolves into this year’s plan that includes more disk space then you thought was possible and for barely any money.  If you’re a person like me that likes to learn, grow and change, it’s a good discipline in which to be employed.

This continuing education, the time spent planning and developing software requires focus that quickly puts engineers in the very desirable mental state of Flow (wikipedia). The experience of getting into a mental flow state is difficult to achieve, but but once there is very enjoyable. You can achieve it in any activity that requires skill and focus. In sports you hear about players getting “In the Zone.” In music you hear about musicians getting “Into the Groove.” As a software developer, my flow was 10pm to 2am when I wasn’t getting interrupted.

Transitioning from an engineer to a manger of engineers requires a change that is completely contradictory to “Flow” and what I affectionately call “Short Attention Span Theater.”  As a manager you are required to coordinate projects and people to be successful. Given the nature of communicating via email, one-on-one meetings, status reports, and conflict management, and the fact that these often happen in short bursts of time, there is no time to get into a “Flow” state. The skills that make a great engineer will not make a great manager.  What this translates to practically is that every time someone walks into your office you have only about 30 minutes to focus on the issues at hand so the person walking in gets the information they need to make themselves and their project successful.

“Short Attention Span Theater” really requires changing your engineering mental framework in order for you to be successful in a manager’s role. As a manger, it is necessary to take the short time you have with each of your team members and make it valuable. “Short” is the operative word since you are expected to provide the same focus on the team and the organization goals at the same time.  Any attempt to achieve “Flow” while being a manager will likely lead to personal or team frustration as it is difficult to both manage and develop software at the same time without some issue getting dropped.  If you embrace “Short Attention Span Theater” as the key to making a whole team of people successful, then although you won’t personally achieve “Flow” state, you will make it possible for a larger group of people to deliver a successful product.

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