4 Things Engineering Managers of Effective Teams Do

Written by Divine Odazie

August 25, 2021

An engineering manager’s success is judged by the team’s output and what the team can deliver. Being an engineering manager is being a people manager, and the biggest challenges aren’t technical but personal.

This article will cover some of these challenging areas and what good engineering managers do to maintain high output, effective teams.

We will cover

They inspire, motivate, guide, and do not micromanage

A question was asked on Quora – “As an engineering manager, how do I convince junior developers in my team that I am their true master?”. Engineering managers trying to convince engineers to listen to them simply because they have the title engineering manager doesn’t (and shouldn’t) work. 

In convincing engineers to listen to them, they must logically persuade, inspire, motivate and guide rather than issue commands. The engineering manager should use activities like 1-on-1’s to understand each individual contributor, what motivates them, and how to maintain that motivation.

For junior engineers, engineering managers can use structured 1-on-1’s for mentorship to guide them. Since it is usually on one of their first roles, they can use 1-on-1’s to check in on their emotional state, relationship with other developers, and goals.

For senior developers, using a less structured 1-on-1’s provides detailed feedback with stats as to performance, opportunities to grow, etc.

In building and maintaining motivation, engineers need:

  • Autonomy: Engineers need to have the autonomy to work without being micromanaged. Outside of emergencies or crises, they need to have the ability to make decisions about what tasks they prioritize, in what order, and in what manner.
  • Purpose: Purpose is the key to success for engineers. Understanding the bigger picture and knowing their part in reaching the end goal is paramount. If that’s still not clear, it’s up to the engineering manager to help them see how they fit in and the impact of their efforts.
  • Mastery: Mastery here is the need to learn and improve continuously. If engineers aren’t learning anything new or feel challenged, they will likely put less effort into their work. It is not uncommon to see engineers walk out to join another team for the opportunity to play around with a different technology stack and solve some new problems.

They stay updated with the current state of software engineering

They have been debates as to whether engineering managers should actively write code. In this article, we saw how writing code actively might become impossible as the engineering manager’s number of direct and indirect reports increases.

Notwithstanding that fact, engineering managers, for an engineering manager to inspire and guide their engineers, need to be able to:

  • Access the technical expertise of their team
  • Ask the right questions, which will help engineers unveil for themselves a deeper understanding. Asking the right questions can help resolve bugs and issues. Etc.

All this becomes easier when the engineering manager stays updated with the current state of technology. 

Also, staying updated is key when it comes to making the right design and architectural decisions for a project. In a conversation on Y Combinators HackerNews, an engineer shared how an engineering manager who wanted to build a searchable database decided the best way to go was with a 50+ input form. The engineer suggested a single search box instead. The engineer ended up building both interfaces, with 95% of the usage coming from the single search box.

He attributed his engineering manager’s decision to being rusty and not in touch with the current software design/development state.

An engineering manager can stay updated without actively writing code by:

  • Subscribing to tech newsletters.
  • Read recent engineering books.
  • Asking their company about professional development funding to take a course or attend a conference.
  • Or taking some time out to try out new technologies.

They shield the team from politics

We can find politics in every organization. We’ve discussed how politics could differ between a startup and a corporate (big company). Even though politics is less in startups, the problems it can bring are not radically different than what you might see in a big company. 

To shield the team from politics, engineering managers need to show good judgment. Much of the company’s information goes through the engineering manager. Good judgment in what to share helps protect the team from the overwhelming outpouring of politics that the team doesn’t need to know.

The act of shielding is not to say that engineering managers shouldn’t be transparent but to find a balance between transparency and protecting the team, which can be a challenging task.

Ron Litchy – Author of Managing the Unmanageable, shared that he often started team meetings with the question, “What rumors are you hearing?”. Asking the question is a way of getting transparency about what people are hearing and responding to them; sometimes, the engineering manager might hear rumors they haven’t heard before.

They align with the rest of the company

In leading a team, engineering managers make sure that every decision they make is aligned with the company’s vision.

Sometimes an engineering manager may personally not agree with some decisions made by the company, and they may have fought the decision. In this case, when they come back to their team, they can’t be completely transparent about the inside information that goes into that decision. They present a united front to the team even though they oppose the decision.

Yes, there is a need for transparency in building trust with your team. But in finding the balance between transparency and protecting the team engineering manager owns the company’s message and vision.

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