Review: The Manager’s Path

I forget who mentioned The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change to me as an interesting book to pick up, but I do remember thinking that it sounded like the perfect guide to software engineering management. The author rose from an individual contributor (IC) to the CTO of a prominent startup—Rent the Runway—and recounts the lessons she learned along the way. And even if the reader isn’t looking to be managers themselves, she provides ample advice to ICs so they can better understand how their managers think and tips to work with them.

My best compliment about the book is that it mirrors a lot of my own experiences, thoughts, and philosophies around people management. The importance of 1-on-1s; the discrete skillset needed to be a successful manager of people; the techniques to grow teams and individuals all square with my evolution in thinking about the role through years of personal experience. It’s a pretty good instruction manual for senior engineers looking to become engineering managers, in a bookstore section that lacks good material covering day-to-day tactics and techniques of running a team of software developers.

On the negative side, Manager’s Path sticks with a narrow focus on software startups and the progression of engineering management, which limits the scope of its advice.  As I’ve worked and am working in these roles, her scenarios are completely relatable, but I have trouble pulling back from her specifics to see how the lessons apply more broadly. This is an important characteristic: some of the most powerful management books and articles I’ve read can espouse universal truths that transcend industry and sometimes even corporate eras. Classics like High Output Management, first-person accounts such as Creativity, Inc., and even long articles on tradeoffs in team management provide notes on the human condition that remain relevant and timeless. It’s up to me, the software engineering manager-cum-reader, to translate those situations into my working environment.

In comparison, much of the advice in The Manager’s Path feels anecdotal1, and the specifics seem like they will not age well. Stories based on current trends around agile processes, Kanban boards, and testing frameworks are in vogue in 2017, but the speed of software methodology iteration all but guarantees that these tools will be replaced within a decade. The other problem with relying on a singular anecdote—that of the author’s own experience of joining an early-stage startup and growing herself as the company grew—as the basis of advice is that it’s not a scenario that fully applies to most of its intended audience. Again, I still found most of the suggestions useful and in-line with what I’d do, but I would have preferred more validation across other managers and companies.

But this is just nitpicking. The Manager’s Path is a book that I’ll keep on my shelf, to lend out to prospective engineering managers who want either better instructions on how to do the job or just reassurance that they’re doing the right thing.

  1. Although the author combats this by pulling in short stories from other senior leaders in technology.

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