The maker/manager transition phase

Written on 19th November, 2012
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Paul Graham has a fantastic article on the topic of scheduling work as a maker and as a manager, which I’ve drawn insights from and I know many others have too. Here’s a key part of it:

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

The great piece is focused around two sets of distinct people in a startup: makers (typically coders) and managers (those with lots of meetings). The interesting thing I’ve found is that as a startup founder you often have to transition from a maker to a manager, and there will also be a period of time when you need to be both at once. I wanted to share my experience of dealing with the transition from maker to manager.

The maker focus

In the early days, being comfortable in a “maker” schedule, for example cranking out lots of code or content fast, is essential. Of course, there is an element of “manager” activities whether it’s getting press or doing customer development, but a large portion of the work around building a great product and gaining traction is “maker” work by nature.

The key question to ask, is, is 1 hour of my time better spent “making” or “managing”? In the first few months, you’re likely just a couple of guys, and you can’t move faster by delegating than by just getting stuck in and doing it yourself. For almost the first year of Buffer, I’d say Leo and I were mostly in “maker” schedules, where we would chat briefly for a small portion of the day, then just get on with our tasks.

I think as founders we all want to be visionary and do more than just write code, but to get to that stage we have to learn to thrive in the maker schedule and get the product off the ground.

The maker/manager split

I learned the hard way that you don’t just switch completely from being a maker to a manager. Additionally, the transition phase between the two is probably one of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a startup founder. There’s no way around it, you have to juggle being a maker and a manager for at least a few months, so you better figure out how to do that. Here’s how it worked for me:

The transition happened after the team had grown to 5 people. I suddenly realised that if I didn’t have a clear idea about what it is best for others to work on, then they would be much less effective. We realised having lists for people was efficient. I made the mistake of dropping coding completely, as I felt like it was no longer an important thing for me to do. I then took some time to think, and realised I needed to spend a number of months being both a maker and a manager. It’s a difficult phase.

Earlier this year, we realised how powerful mobile will be for Buffer, but the team was small and we had no spare resources for Android development. So I decided that I would learn Android from scratch, and at least get the app off the ground and learn what we needed from someone who would eventually lead our Android development. So, for 2-3 months, I spent 50% of my time coding Java, and 50% doing manager tasks.

For some weeks, I spent every morning coding, and every afternoon doing manager activities. This worked well, but often my maker time would overflow as I didn’t feel I’d achieved enough. I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with Eden Shochat about this, and he instantly recommended instead of half days, I do full days. I found this much better, and I also noticed that Ben Kamens does the same.

The manager focus

During the time I spent in the maker/manager split, I came across one of the most powerful concepts I’ve discovered as a first-time CEO: to “fire thyself”. It came from an awesome article by Joe Kraus:

If you’re a founding CEO, I believe that you are doing your company a disservice if you don’t fire yourself from your skill position. Your goal, crazy as it sounds, is to free up 50% of your time by constantly firing yourself from whatever skill position you’re playing.

Over the next month, I searched for a great engineer to take over Android development, and I was lucky to find Sunil. I gradually let Sunil take over and dropped my maker/manager split to 25% Android development, and eventually dropped it completely.

One of the hardest things as a developer transitioning into a manager role has been to get a feeling of progress without writing code. Progress is usually clear with code, and harder with manager activities. However, when you get towards 10 people in your team, coming back to the question from earlier is interesting: is 1 hour of my time better spent on “making” or “managing”? As a founder you’re in the best position to guide people and help them be super productive. That becomes your role. For me, I’m spending a lot of time finding great people to join Buffer, and also making adjustments all the time within the team.

As for coding, I still do a little. I help with development of our browser extensions, since that is the part of our codebase which has the least engineering resources, and is still very important for Buffer. Of course, I’m in the midst of firing myself from that, too. If you’re a JavaScript engineer in the bay area, I’d love to hear from you.

Have you found yourself torn between being a maker and a manager? Are you still coding when you should be building a company and awesome culture? I’d love to hear your experiences on this topic.

Photo credit: Paul Goyette