Becoming an Engineering Manager
Why do you want to become an engineering manager?
Every engineer who transitions into management gets asked this age-old question at interviews, performance reviews, and career planning meetings. Most new managers I know have answered, ‘I want to help other engineers grow.’ This is brilliant. It tells me that they have the right motivation to become a multiplier. Beyond enabling others, there are various, more nuanced flavours to engineering management. Every manager feels more inclined to play certain roles compared to the others, though a strong manager can apply a range of styles and skills from their leadership toolbox to handle organizational challenges. They can lean into a few flavours at a time to most effectively handle the problem at hand.
Let's illustrate the eight flavours of engineering management through an example scenario. You are deployed to a recently formed team. The product managers are concerned that multiple projects didn't meet the estimates, yet again. The sales team has completely lost faith in your team to deliver on your commitments and put a lot of pressure on your manager to rectify the low performance. What does debugging the struggling team look like in the eight flavours of engineering management?
The metrics keeper
Make data-driven decisions to evaluate and improve the team's performance.
Let's look into the data to see why the projects are delayed. I have a hunch that it is about our low velocity. I have set up the four key metrics from the book Accelerate: lead time, deployment frequency, mean time to restore (MTTR), and change fail percentage. It looks like our team's deployment frequency is low, and the lead time (defined as ‘the time it takes to go from code committed to code successfully running in production’) is exceptionally high compared to the industry average. Looking at our CI/CD dashboard, the long test-running times could have contributed. Let's staff this project ASAP in Q2.
The process nerd
Understand the team's pain points and change its processes.
From the team's last retrospective, we identified that each project needs a specific owner in order to have clear accountability in the team for our running projects, from ideation to deployment. While we're at it, let's document the way we run projects and compile a playbook to get alignment within the team and eventually have other teams adopt it.
A sparring partner to Product, maximize the team's value add.
Let's go back to the whiteboard. What was the problem statement for this project? What value were we attempting to yield from it? We want to validate our assumptions in the shortest cycle possible. Let's work with Product to scope it down significantly, chop it up into multiple iterative milestones, and establish clear metrics and ways to prove our hypotheses.
The tech lead
An advisor to Product on short-term execution and long-term technical success.
We need to tackle these tech debts before we can deliver fast. Let me work with several experienced engineers on the team to scope this out. We could move the purchase flow code into its own service out of the monolith. With a 4-engineering-week upfront investment, we could reduce at least ~70% of engineering time whenever we have to touch this critical purchase flow that the sales team relies on so much.
Build long-term relationships between teams and departments.
I need to make sure other departments are aligned with the changes our team has planned. To have the project playbook idea and the purchase flow refactoring project go through, I need to make sure the Head of Product backs us up before our leadership meeting by Tuesday. Let me have a chat with them.
After we get the green light, I'll set up a meeting with the Head of Sales, updating them about our improvement plans, so that they can gradually restore their trust in us. And of course, I will report up to my manager about the game plan, so they know I have gotten the team performance taken care of.
Hire for the team and do outreach to help with recruiting and company branding.
We need to hire! We are tremendously understaffed, and we need another team of engineers to pull off all the major 2021 initiatives. I'll ping the Head of Talent Acquisition, write the job descriptions, put together a panel of interviewers, and get this going. I'll be speaking at four meetups for the next two weeks, two of which are with organizations that support engineers from an underrepresented background. I can't wait to show off all the cool technical challenges we are tackling and recruit a diverse and inclusive A-team. Let me quickly tweet the event blurbs and repost them on LinkedIn.
Handle tricky team dynamics, negotiate, and arbitrate when disagreements arise.
To hire for 2021, I need to put together a budget plan and a headcount proposal before Friday. I know we will be sharing this budget with R&D. My explanation needs to be on-point to justify the hires. I'll clearly state that we can speed up the ongoing projects in my plan with the new hires.
An engineer on the team has been struggling for a few months. Their code quality was poor and required significant rewrites from their peers to meet the production standard. This has been dragging the team's productivity down. I have already given both verbal and written feedback and helped them find a technical mentor. Unfortunately, we might have to separate with the engineer if they don't show improvements in another four weeks. I'll work with people operations to look at our options there.
I have noticed a team conflict looming on the horizon, affecting both the team morale and our project delivery. Report A accused Report B of having a condescending attitude when doing their code review. Report B accused Report A of not adhering to the latest React industry standards. Given that they have had trouble settling this for the past month, I'll need to step in, set up a 1:1:1, and de-escalate the conflict.
The people enabler
Mentor, coach, and sponsor reports into better versions of themselves.
I’m the career coach; I want to help the engineers in my team grow. Turning our team's execution speed around is a great opportunity for our mid-level engineer to step into a senior role. They had an idea to refactor out our purchase flow code into a service. I can sponsor them into the role by carving out the time for them to take the lead on this so that by the time we have our performance review, I can use that as an example to promote them to senior.
I also noticed that Engineer X tended to take up less space than the others in our team meetings. In our 1:1s, they shared some brilliant ideas with me to restructure our team's project management flow to prevent delays. They didn't bring them up at the team meeting as we have agreed. I wonder if it could be an issue with low psychological safety within the team. I know people ops are working on an inclusion survey with a third-party provider. Let me align with them on how I could get involved there.
Especially for the new managers out there, I hope that this article has given you an inner compass on your recently inherited expectations. No managers naturally perform all roles well, and you likely have a few comfort zones or roles that you are more equipped to fulfil than the others. But just like any skill, you can acquire them with time. And you might be finding more joy and fulfilment in the eight flavours of engineering management than you expected!