A lowly engineer's guide to 1:1s

I’ll soon be reporting to someone new after a considerable amount of time with my current manager, which has led me to consider how I approach my 1:1s with managers, from the point of view of a relatively opinionated engineer. I can’t profess to be an expert. I have no tactics for “managing your manager”. But over the last four years, I think I’ve come to understand how I approach these catch-up sessions, and what I look to get out of them. Here’s some lessons I’ve learnt and things I try to keep in mind myself.

Assume they’re not paying close attention

Because, in the nicest way, they’re probably not. And that’s fine! I only have to worry about my own stuff (not strictly true, lord knows I spend enough time worrying about my mentees, but for the sake of argument), I’ve got plenty of time for that. My manager has about 19 more engineers like me to worry about, I’m lucky he knows my name and could pick me out of a police line up. Your manager may or may not be able to fix a problem, but they can’t try unless they know one exists, so always just tell them. Which leads into…

Be honest

Often easier said than done, to be fair. But this is crucial, especially if you’re not happy. If something’s wrong, a good manager is always going to want to fix it rather than let it get worse. Maybe at times I can push this too far or be more honest than is potentially beneficial for me, but there have definitely been occasions where being forthright about how wrong some things have been and how seriously I take those things has led to positive change and everyone being happier.

Complain, don’t vent

I’m aware I have a tendency towards negativity in 1:1s. It’s something I’ve been working on, but nonetheless it’s there. I do complain a lot - I have something of a righteous streak, and if something doesn’t seem right, or fair, or being done correctly, I’m going to bring it up. But as cynical and pessimistic an exterior as I may put up, I think I’m actually quite optimistic and naive. If I’m complaining, it’s because I still think it can be changed. And more importantly, I try to complain only when I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is and do what I can to fix it. Intern hiring not good enough? You better believe I’ll volunteer to take over. Another team holding something up? I’ll set up meetings and talk to whoever I need to. We need better equipment to do our jobs? I will document example after example after example in War And Peace length emails of why our current kit doesn’t cut it in order to make that case easier for him to argue. As my manager well knows.

Complaining about futile things is just venting for the sake of venting, and that’s for coworkers and the pub after work. Complaining about things that can be fixed but shirking any responsibility to do anything about it is just selfish. But if you know change is possible, and you’re willing to roll up your sleeves to make it happen, run with it.

Build a rapport

All of the above is only possible because I trust my manager, and I like to think he trusts me. I know that if I tell him something in confidence, it will stay that way. I’ve definitely at points staked my job (and meant it) on certain things, knowing that it wouldn’t come back to bite me. It’s also just nice knowing that we can chat about food and festival line ups and just shoot the breeze at the same time as talking about serious issues without that being difficult. If your relationship with your manager is implicitly antagonistic within an us-vs-them setting, issues become fights rather than discussions.

Bonus: find ways to experience it the other way around

I have regular 1:1s with about 4 mentees at this point, and even if that’s not quite the same relationship, it’s absolutely been an insight into how to behave on this side of the table. This is probably a post for another time, but the basic empathy that you’re still talking to another person and to be considerate of that is key. This is also something we do as part of the intern hiring process here - by getting the current interns to do phone screens and sit in on the interviews, we hope that the next time they’re on the receiving end of the interview, they can be a bit calmer knowing that it’s just someone like them on the other side.

Sam Healer

Sam Healer

Software engineer. Occasional musician. Erstwhile comedian. Cultural omnivore.

rss facebook twitter github gitlab youtube mail spotify lastfm instagram linkedin google google-plus pinterest medium vimeo stackoverflow reddit quora quora letterboxd bandcamp