💁🏻‍♀️ Dear Marie

My manager changed his tune. Now what?

August 28, 2019

Dear Marie,

About a year ago, I was hired for the job of my dreams. I didn’t want to screw up the opportunity of a lifetime, so I was very up front about what kind of work I wanted to do, my open source work, and my speaking career. I was thrilled to find out that they not only thought it was great, they agreed to support it and asked me to work for them! The job offer also meant financial independence for the first time in my career.

In the past few months, I have been concerned- my manager seems to have changed his tune. I need to produce more lines of code. I need to hand off my open source community work. Suddenly, the type of engineer I am became not good enough.

I am used to keeping a paper trail, so I examined it to see if I was somehow producing less, but this is not the case. I have thought about not mentioning my open source work anymore, but this would mean more invisible work, and I don’t want to do that. I also thought about asking more precisely what should improve, but that seems like it will encourage micro-management and the kind of narrow focus that eventually leads to failure.

I’m super bummed out. My productivity got me recruited and hired in the first place, and now it’s not good enough. Any advice? What should I do?



Hey there,

Congratulations on landing a good job and having financial independence at the same time! I’m sorry to hear it’s not working out the way you were hoping, and can see why you’re frustrated.

You use a lot of language in this letter about not being “good enough” for your manager anymore. I encourage you to reframe this conflict in your mind. This is not about value judgments of good or bad, but about the kind of role your manager is offering and whether you are interested in remaining in that role.

It sounds like the role as you understand it now has shifted from the role you intended to accept. It’s possible that you and your manager might be able to come to an agreement about moving it back in the direction you care about. But that also might not happen. Companies and managers get to change their minds about the work they want to hire and the way they want it to be completed. But you also get to change your mind about whether or not you want to do that work in that way.

Overall, it sounds like there are a lot of mismatched expectations between you and your manager, and it’s not immediately clear from your letter what assumptions you’ve both been working under.

Here a few different scenarios that I can envision playing out:

  • You and your manager set clear expectations about how much time you would spend on community work and how the company would benefit. Something has changed since then, and your manager has decided to reprioritize how you spend your time in your role.
  • When you joined the company, your manager expressed general support for your community work but didn’t realize how much time you intended to spend on it. They have now decided to give you clearer feedback on their expectations for how you spend your time in your role.
  • Your manager expressed support for your open source work, but their primary concern is your regular responsibilities. Even though you haven’t decreased in productivity since you started, you also haven’t increased to the level they expected you to be producing at this point.
  • Or something else entirely!

Your first step is to gather information about what expectations your manager has for you, share the expectations you have about your role, and then use that information to decide your next step.

Is your manager explicitly telling you that you need to write more lines of code? Or are they giving you more general feedback about needing to get more done at work? Have they used specific examples of deadlines you missed or projects that didn’t go as well as they expected?

When you say that “I need to hand off my open source community work,” is that something your manager is explicitly instructing you to do? Is it open source work that you’re doing on behalf of the company (e.g. “while working for the company, I wrote a library1 and we open-sourced it under the company name and I am the primary maintainer”) or is it existing responsibilities that you’ve been doing as part of company time?

As you note, your manager can’t really tell you what to do in your free time. But it sounds like you also want to be able to handle some of your community tasks during the work day and not have a second shift of open source work at home, which I completely respect!

The big pieces of information you probably need to gather are:

  • What has changed since our first conversation about this work? Is this a permanent change, or a short-term shift?
  • Is there any room for me to continue doing community work as part of my role? If so, what would my manager need to see?

You say you don’t want to ask for more details on what your manager wants to see improve, as “that seems like it will encourage micro-management and the kind of narrow focus that eventually leads to failure.” I want to push back on that sentiment a bit.

Getting specific feedback from your manager is incredibly important to improving your performance. If you don’t know why your manager is pushing for change, you might focus on the wrong thing. If you have a generally competent manager, asking them for more details about their feedback is not going to push them into micro-managing.

Let’s say they bring up a specific feature that ended up being delivered a month late. If the two of you can talk through what happened, it’s possible that they’ll realize that the issues weren’t caused by the amount of time you spent on the project, but on things outside your control—and ideally, realize that asking you to scale back your community contributions isn’t actually the solution.

But, it’s also possible that you’ll realize that they have valid concerns—for example, “we found this high priority bug in testing but you didn’t start working on it until a day later because you were preparing a conference talk for next month.” That scenario might not mean you have to stop community work altogether, but it would lead to a really important conversation about prioritization.

You need to have an open and specific conversation with your manager about their expectations for you in this role—what they think this job entails, the level they expect you to perform those duties, and the ways in which they want to see you improve. But you also get to communicate your expectations for the role too!

Here are some questions to help you think about your expectations and preferences:

  • You say that this is the job of your dreams. Is that still true? What made it so enticing in the first place? Was it because of the work itself, or the possibility to have financial independence while still contributing to open source?

    If the work itself was a big draw, are you still enjoying it? Do you generally get along with your coworkers? Are you satisfied or motivated or challenged by your daily tasks?

  • If your job included no time for open source contributions, would you still be interested in staying? If you ended up only having time for conference speaking or community involvement after hours and on your own personal budget, would that be sustainable for you?

  • How important is it to maintain the level of financial stability you’ve reached? Would you be able to take a job that paid less and also took fewer hours, so you had more time to spend on your community involvement? Would you be open to other kinds of work, or working for yourself, if that meant you had more freedom to spend your time how you want it?

Once you have an idea of what you want from this specific role and what’s important to you, talk to your manager about that.

Alison Green of the Ask a Manager blog has a lot of really excellent advice on how to have difficult conversations at work2. I’m highly influenced by the specific phrases and scripts she provides, which make it clear what is important to you without making threats or escalating tension.

Channeling my best Alison Green, here’s one possible script for you:

One of the reasons I accepted this job was that you agreed to support for open source work and speaking career. Within the last few months, you’ve been asking me to spend less time on my open source work, which is a really important part of my job satisfaction. What’s changed? Is that a permanent shift?

It might help to prepare some specific guidelines around the time you can spend on open source work. Your manager might not feel comfortable with a carte blanche for you to spend time at your discretion, but might be okay with agreeing to a specific limit (like 10% of the work week, or Friday mornings).

Ultimately, it is possible that your manager is no longer willing for you to do any open source work on company time. If that’s the case, it is a total bummer, like you say. And that’s when you’re going to have to really seriously think about whether you want to stay in this role or not.

I am not an expert, but it seems that roles in consulting or products whose target audience are other developers may have more support for open source work as part of the job. A role such as developer advocate, which has its own set of distinct and important skillsets, might be an interesting direction for you to look.

But remember: companies will never pay you to do community work out of the goodness of their hearts. They are going to want to see specific results (such as brand recognition, recruiting, sales, or more) and your support for the work may be contingent or guided by that. They may want to have say over what projects you work on and how you engage if you are serving as their ambassador. They may change their mind or reprioritize, and change your role.

Your absolute dream job that fits every single item on your wishlist might still be out there. But you might need to make some hard decisions in order to take or stay in a pretty decent job or even good job that mostly satisfies. Think about what matters most to you right now. Consider the trade-offs you’re making. And come back to that decision after some time and ask if your priorities are still the same.

I wish you the best of luck in making the most of your current role, and I do hope that you find a place—in your current role or elsewhere—that gives you ample support for doing the hard work of open source software. 💖

Best,
Marie


  1. This also raises the question of whether you own the rights to all your open source work.

    As far as I understand it, when you work full-time for a company all the work you produce as part of your role belongs to the company. And there may be some contention about stuff you do in your free time, especially if you produced it using company resouces (like a laptop) or based on ideas you had at work.

    This might be a good opportunity for you to talk to some other open source maintainers or contributors you’re familiar with and see how they protect the projects they work on, if you haven’t already.

  2. Some particularly relevant conversations include:

    I also absolutely love Alison’s podcast on What your tone should sound like in tricky work conversations (transcript), which is really helpful for hearing the way you can communicate a difficult message in a non-confrontational, polite way.


Marie Chatfield

Written by Marie Chatfield, an amateur aspiring advice columnist, certified Emoji Enthusiast™, and purveyor of fine tweets.

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