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Hello! What's your background and what do you do?

I’m currently an Engineering Manager for the Cloud team at Gatsby. I recently joined the team, having previously worked as an Engineering Manager at CircleCI.

Prior to transitioning to management, my focus was on front-end engineering. I was part of the front-end teams at remote startup Manifold.co, NYC-based Tablet Hotels, and a small consulting company.

My background is a bit unusual. I studied full-stack development at App Academy, a software engineering bootcamp in New York City. Before I started working in tech, I earned a BA in Classical Music Performance, and also spent five years working in the banking industry. I had a lot of different roles while working in banking, but my last (and most favorite) was a hybrid management role focused on branch operations and mentoring others.

How was your transition from software development to management like?

My transition to management was pretty organic in that I didn’t initially realize it was happening. When I joined Manifold as a frontend engineer, we had a very small team where folks had to wear a lot of different hats. The first thing I started to work on that wasn’t “just” writing code was developing an agile process for my team. I also took the lead on an effort to improve our front-end test coverage, which also involved creating a lot of new processes. Later on, I took on the role of “product engineer”, which required working with both design and product to scope out work for the team. I also spent time guiding my coworkers through breaking down work and sharing information. I’d also frequently give coaching and feedback to my teammates.

After many months of doing this kind of work, a friend of mine sent me a link to a job posting for a “team lead” at CircleCI. I couldn’t believe how accurately it described everything I was already doing, so I decided to apply. I was delighted when I successfully made it through their interview process. I quickly (within a month or two) transitioned to an EM role, where I was able to have a more-formalized reporting relationship with folks on my team, allowing me to better help them with their short and long term growth.

I’d say the transition happened slowly over the course of about a year, and then accelerated when I changed jobs. I felt pretty prepared for the work I was asked to do -- much of it, as I mentioned, involved things I’d already been doing for a long time.

As far as taking on direct reports, I think I felt as prepared as anyone could. I think that sort of thing is pretty much always a “hard” transition, since it’s difficult to have an informal reporting relationship that’s anything more than a mentor/mentee setup. I had spent a lot of time reading books, attending workshops and conferences, and being mentored by other managers, and all of that was very helpful. Having previous management experience in another industry was an important part of my success, as well.

What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it every day?

Over the course of my transition, I’ve spent less and less time writing code. I’d say this happened slowly, too, as I began to focus my attention on the team’s processes. In my hybrid role at Manifold, I’d say I spent around 75% of my time writing code early in the transition, then 50%, and then as little as 25%. When I was hired as a Team Lead at CircleCI, the expectation was that I’d code around 20% of the time, but when my role officially became that of an Engineering Manager, it was immediately obvious that my time for writing code was limited, and probably better spent elsewhere.

Now, my days consist of a host of different things. My current team is twelve people (soon to be 13!), and I have weekly 1:1s with every member of the team. This is time consuming but so valuable; we talk about everything from team growth, to individual growth, to how I can help unlock better and easier paths to getting work done. I participate in or lead meetings like retrospectives, planning sessions, and syncs with design and product in particular. I also have 1:1s with other managers; this is so important to feel connected and share what we are learning.

I find that as a manager, the most important thing I had to do was find a way to manage all the things I have happening at once. As an IC, the team Kanban board and a small personal to-do list was enough to keep me on track. Now, with many reports, several projects happening at once, and cross-team collaboration being just a few of the important things I need to hold context for, I’ve had to develop my own task management system (lightly based on the Getting Things Done methodology). I’ve integrated Trello with Slack so I can easily drop new tasks in (keeping things close to my workflow is, in my opinion, essential to making this process work), and I track which items I’m actively working on, need to prioritize soon, and what’s blocked and why. It might seem like a heavy process, but it really helps me combat that “I’m forgetting something” feeling.

As far as motivation, as much as I love (and miss) writing front-end code, I love what I do now even more. There’s a lot I could call out about my job that’s rewarding: finally finding alignment on a project, helping one of my reports through a difficult situation, seeing a new feature finally ship… these kinds of work involve a lot of small pieces that come together slowly. The best thing I’ve been able to witness is the process of a group of individuals becoming a real “team”, one where everyone truly cares about one another and shares a common goal -- there’s nothing more rewarding than that.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far? What did you do to overcome them?

There are so many challenges in management: prioritization, having difficult conversations, the list goes on…

However, I think the biggest challenge for me was, especially early on, accepting that my work often doesn’t have any “tangible” output. I can’t point to a PR or a feature that I’ve shipped. Often, my most important work is helping other people coordinate, or solving an interpersonal issue. Of course, occasionally I write a really useful document or give a great presentation, but accepting and understanding this new paradigm for how I look at my own work was definitely a challenge.

What has been the biggest surprise so far? Something you didn't expect?

The biggest surprise, especially in a formal management role, is how lonely it can be. When people report directly to you, you naturally develop a different kind of relationship with them (and I think this is important, and healthy!). For this reason, though, managers often naturally have less “friends” within an organization.

This really took me by surprise at first. Everyone needs a support system, so I think it’s especially important for managers to develop healthy relationships with other managers and leaders, both within their organizations, and externally.

What's the best advice you've received about being a manager?

It might sound simple or obvious, but I think the best advice I’ve been given is to never shy away from giving difficult feedback. I don’t think this ever stops feeling uncomfortable, even for the most experienced managers. However, when the feedback is actionable and constructive, it is absolutely essential to your team’s success. Good feedback makes everyone happier in the long run, even if it’s sometimes tough to hear “in the moment.”

What do you tell developers who are considering making the switch or new to the role?

I’d say it’s most important to consider that management is, in most cases, a separate and distinct career path. That’s not to say you can’t “go back” to working as an engineer - some of the most amazing engineers I’ve worked with have explored management at some point in their careers. However, there are some skills that every manager needs to focus on developing (like giving feedback, communicating context, coordinating between teams, and more), and those will very likely take all your attention and leave very little time for purely technical concerns. I think folks interested in management should take every opportunity they can to learn and practice these skills - it’s a great way to determine if a management role will be enjoyable and rewarding.

Final call to action! Where can we go to learn more about you?

Almost everything you’d want to know about me can be found on my personal site, https://nicole-tibaldi.me/.

I’m also on Twitter @nicoletibaldi, and I’m always happy to chat with folks to hear about their experiences, give advice, or share what I’ve learned in my career so far.

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