An Engineering Managers guide to doing 1:1 meetings

Written by Bertrams Lukstins

May 17, 2021

As with many things in engineering, 1:1’s is an area up to interpretation, personal management style, and general company guidelines.

While it’s not easy to make a one-size-fits-all guide to 1:1 engineering meetings, there are certain things we’ve picked up after speaking with 150+ engineering managers.

This article aims to provide substance and some context to make engineering managers understand 1:1 meetings better and pick up some new ideas. Let’s jump into it!

Why do 1:1 engineering meetings?

There are many reasons, from well-known management idioms of “employees don’t leave companies, but managers” to company recommendations or even policies.

The reason why you do them is important, it will drive the structure of the meetings and reveal the exact game plan for your 1:1’s. If you are new in the engineering manager role, 1:1’s can be a good way to get yourself a structure to managing your developers, a possibly daunting task.

For senior engineering managers, these meetings provide a chance to mentor more junior developers. Well-structured 1:1’s will also make your work as an engineering manager easier, with reviews, for example.

But perhaps the main reason why an engineering manager should pay attention to 1:1’s is that they are a great way to be a better and more efficient leader. They are the chance to listen to your team members individually, work on their progress, influence their thinking, and align them towards the goals of the organization.

Let’s keep this “why” section in mind as we move onto the next one, as it’s closely tied with this one…

Agenda and content of your 1:1’s

This is what engineering managers struggle with the most when just starting in the role or implementing 1:1’s. The good news is that this is very easy to solve!

First, consider company-wide initiatives:

  • Employee roadmaps?
  • 30-60-90 day plans?
  • OKR’s / KPI’s?
  • Personal development plans?
  • Mentoring programs?
  • Product roadmap that the developers can influence?
  • Got any company initiatives, such as hackathons?

All of the above can be implemented in your 1:1’s and really – it’s self-explanatory – touch on the personal development plan if your company has one, cover the KPI’s, speak about the product roadmap if developers influence it. 

If your company has no initiatives, do what a good leader should do: listen to what people want and report that to your managers for consideration.

Next, consider who you manage:

  • Juniors – focus on mentoring and action items from each one-on-one that they can do.
  • Seniors – retain them, build relationships with them, make this about if they’re happy in the company or not.
  • A mix of different seniority levels – you might have to adjust the plan for each person, this means a bit more time to prepare before the meetings.

Lastly, you need to take into account how you run your team right now and if 1:1’s can add to the structure you have in place.

  • Async communication: would it make sense for people to bring up issues on the 1:1’s?
  • Sprints & standups for roadblocks: make the 1:1’s about mentoring and retention, instead of roadblocks.
  • Perhaps your team consists of a mixture of skills as you’re building a complex product. The 1:1’s can act as a way to deep-dive into some areas you’d not cover on the sprint call.

The key with everything mentions here so far is context to your organization…what makes sense and works for you?

Below are some extra pointers to consider incorporating in your 1:1’s:

  • Product: do they understand how the product brings value to the customers and what’s on the roadmap? Perhaps they have suggestions?
  • Career growth: do they want to climb the ranks in the company? What are the options and what would they have to work on to get there?
  • Technologies & learning: are they happy with the tech stack they’re working with? Are they learning at the pace they want to?
  • Team relationships: are they happy with everyone in the team? Any conflicts?
  • Use the 1:1’s to build the traits and habits you want to see in your team. Wish people would let you know of their roadblocks? Ask them to always bring issues they face to the 1:1’s agenda.
  • Consider if the way you do 1:1’s is generating any action items for the direct report. If so, they should go on the agenda of the next 1:1 and might lead to what will be discussed on the coming 1:1’s.

Once you get a good idea of what exactly you want to discuss in your 1:1’s and how it fits into the bigger picture, you will also be able to answer questions such as how structured vs free-flowing the meetings should be.

Frequency of engineering one-on-one meetings

Chances are, you already know how frequently it would make sense to have your 1:1’s. The question is only important when you’re just starting the practice. As you start, you will know how engaged your developers are, what needs to be covered, how many direct’s you have.

The general recommendation is weekly, but we find that engineering managers mostly do them bi-weekly, weekly after that monthly.

If you already have a well-established 1:1 routine, but it’s not weekly, perhaps it’s a good idea to see if you’re getting what you want out of the 1:1’s and if they’re productive, perhaps you can increase it to weekly.

Use Zumvie to manage 1:1’s

Zumvie is designed to help Engineering Managers better manage their 1:1 meetings. This is how we do it:

  • Notes from your 1:1 meetings. Select if to make a specific note private or keep it public to you and the developer.
  • Set action items with reminders from your 1:1 notes.
  • Have an agenda for each meeting. You can set the software up to automatically remind the developer, by a Slack notification, a day or two before the meeting, to add in agenda items.
  • Replace the calendar to know where you are with each developer: get automatic reminders of upcoming review meetings or set a 12-month meeting plan for each developer and get topic suggestions for 1:1’s.

There’s much more and the best part is that we are giving the product away for free for a limited time right now! Book a time to speak here.

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