In the Technology space there is an acute awareness that an Engineering Manager has been playing a dual role. The first being they are functioning as a technical lead of sorts for their team, in some cases acting as an individual contributor. The second role is that which comes to mind when one hears the team manager. Splitting time between being both a contributor to the code base and being a great people leader is, well challenging. This conflict has in the past lead to one or the other not being done very well, or even worse burn out. Companies are beginning to address this trend and seeking ways to improve the experience of Engineering Managers(EM). If you are seeking an EM role or are one currently and are looking for a healthier way to operate then this article is for you.
People Leader First
First as an Engineering Manager your role is to deliver an outstanding product and experience to consumers. This can only be done when a team is well-built and has a process(more about this later) that they can comfortably follow. To build a good team, a leader must focus on what is going to get the team in a good place to sustainably function as a well-oiled machine. A leader must take the time to intentionally grow and develop their team to the point where they are almost working themselves out of a role, then do it all over again with another team. A couple of areas to focus on here are a well-rounded performance management process, hiring and recruitment, and clear organizational objectives that align to the work being done.
I won’t get to crazy on this topic here since I’m working on an article about this topic that I plan to publish soon. I will say that as leaders this focuses on just in time feedback, goal development, and a clear definition of what success looks like. If your recipe to manage your team doesn’t at least include those ingredients it might be worth it to evaluate your process.
Hiring and Recruitment
Being able to build a well performing team is integral to delivering a sustainable product at any organization. While it’s easy to leave it up to company Sourcing Specialist or Talent Acquisition, ultimately the manager knows what kind of person they want to hire for their team. Having the skills to seek individuals who fit and meet the need that the team must fill is key. Networking and being able to connect with individuals is a necessary skill set and should be done in such a way that people will want to come work with or for you. I suggest shadowing the role of someone in Talent Acquisition or meeting with the recruiting team to help build that muscle. I want to close this by saying not every hire will be perfect. That’s why the performance management process is so important.
To build a team to achieve a goal there must be a clear organization goal(s) that can be met. This seems obvious, but I’m always shocked at the number of organizations that don’t have targeted goals mapped out in a way that is meaningful to growth. Leaders who can join an organization, demonstrate the ability to take goals, and develop them into something valuable that the team can then understand are ripe for the picking.
There is nothing more frustrating than trying to explain something to someone who just doesn’t get it. This goes for managers as well. As an engineering manager in my experience, there isn’t the expectation that you are the best coder in the world, but you should at least be able to understand what your team is talking about.
I have found that teams feel less supported and confident when the person managing them can’t contribute to the conversation surrounding the work that the team is doing. Again this doesn’t require you to be an expert, but the team shouldn’t’ have to explain basic development concepts or practices to you. Being able to support and contribute to those conversations often lifts team moral and lets them know the person they report to can make the right decision even when the team isn’t in the room. Being able to advocate appropriately for your team and being able to assess the value of work being done is integral to the role.
No matter what organization you join there’s always going to be ample opportunity to improve the way things are being done. As an Engineering Manager being able to contribute to the life of the organization is just as important as pouring life into the team. From well-defined career paths to sustainable ways to manage performance, there’s always room for improvement.
This means that as time goes on managers should be asking if they are challenging their staff enough. Are processes keeping up with more modern ways of doing things? Do these processes allow for space for a healthy working environment for my reports? I know that I’ve asked myself these questions a countless number of times since the pandemic has started. While process improvements should benefit the overall life of the organization, if they don’t benefit the employee experience as well why even implement them?
A question I see often is “What does the engineering manager progression path look like?” The answer really depends on the organization and how intent they are on scaling as an organization. As with most things it’s also subject to change as well. The most traditional path that I’ve seen I’ve drawn in a simple chart below.
In my experience there are some other roles that could also be displayed like Senior Engineering Manager or CIO instead of CTO. Again much of this is up to the organizational needs and scaling plans. One thing to note is that growth in this career path is usually slower as managers don’t tend to swap out as much as the individual track. I’m sure there are several examples where I’m wrong. Overall people in the manager career track tend to stay in their roles longer because for them, it’s about the “long con” as I’ll call it and less about the more immediate gratification.
So, you’ve read through all this a made up your mind that you still want to be an Engineering Manager, that’s outstanding! You’re about to step in a role that is focused on coaching, leadership, and a growth mindset for your team. Start by finding someone who’s already in the role and is successful at it. Talk to them about these topics. Do their answers line up with these or take what’s above even further? Another suggestion is to find a really great scrum master, they are some of the best coaches when it comes to people leadership and selfless service.
Have thoughts on this or questions? Drop them in the comments section below.