# Four Qualities of Good Engineering Managers

Engineering management is about maximizing the effectiveness of the people you manage but people are complicated, inconsistent, contradictory and messy. You need to focus and amplify your efforts in key areas.

# Good Managers Focus on Their People

Successful management always starts with the people on your team. The single most important lesson: there is no substitute for genuine concern. If you do not care about your people you will not be successful.

Do you have regularly scheduled one-on-ones with each of your direct reports? No other management tool pays returns as large as you get from one-on-ones. Your weekly investment of a single hour can be the difference between identifying major emerging issues and the painful (and expensive) task of recruiting a new engineer.

You use feedback to encourage a good behaviour or stop a bad one. You can use the same approach for both:

  • Describe the current behaviour
  • Describe the outcome
  • Describe the effect on you & others
  • Indicate the Future Direction

Behaviours can be little or big, but you'll have more luck influencing small things that aggregate into large benefits over time. Your feedback can take the form of coaching, mentoring, reinforcing strengths or addressing weaknesses. Generally good feedback should be delivered publicly and negative feedback communicated privately. This provides concrete examples of the desired behaviours for the entire team, but your feedback approach needs to be influenced by the people involved; not everyone wants attention, even for good reasons.

You also need to constantly be looking for opportunities to delegate. Evaluate each task you are currently performing and ask, "Could this be done by someone else? What do I need to do to make that happen?" A manager adds value by permanently solving their current responsibilities and tackling new challenges.

# Good Managers Build and Maintain Effective Process

Engineers don't hate process; they hate process that:

  • is inconsistently applied and not repeatable
  • is not documented and clearly communicated
  • can't be defended (or that actively works against the goals of the team)

Organizations create process that controls behaviours and process that guides culture. The former is great for scaling low-skill resources to optimal execution of simple, repeated tasks. Very few engineering organizations fit this model. A good manager will focus on process that shapes and steers actions towards the ideal, not explicitly dictates the course of action.

The first time something goes wrong or a mistake is made, our understandable reaction is to prevent it from happening again, and our most common tool is new process. But codifying behaviours before evaluating their cost-benefit of new process is premature; first we need to ask two questions:

  1. Is this behaviour so undesirable and damaging that we cannot allow it to ever happen?
  2. What's the cost of this behaviour compared to that of ensuring it never happens?

We have a tendency to ignore the resources that go into defining, communicating and enforcing process. It takes significant time and effort to adopt process and each new process continues to extract costs merely through adherence. Think of a time-off policy that requires approval for an hour absence every time someone runs an errand; how much energy will this policy consume over the next decade? How much "wasted" absenteeism will it prevent? What broader message does it communicate, and is this messaging worth the cost?

Valid process serves the broader cultural goals of the organization; it does not define the culture. Process that gets this relationship backwards should be challenged and changed.

# Good Managers Leverage Communication to Increase Visibility and Collaboration

A good manager is a liaison with other departments for the technical capabilities of their team. They support the team with external resources and shield the team from distraction and disruption. Conflict is inevitable and a good manager first mediates, then moderates and finally arbitrates resolution. In practice this happens more at the boundaries of your team than internally.

  1. Help each side empathize with the other side
  2. Guide discussion to help the two sides address their concerns and air their grievances
  3. Without resolution, you may need to impose a decision

Dictating an outcome needs to be a last resort that is seldom used, because it consumes the "manager fuel" that you earn over time. It can also be a scary proposition out of fear of making the wrong decision, however a poor decision is generally better than indecision. If the current direction or lack of action has been identified as wrong, continuing with the status-quo guarantees failure; even a sub-optimal change in direction is likely to improve the outcome. It also gets everyone thinking about problems from new viewpoints and completes the "getting started" phase of an initiative, ending the comforting but expensive analysis activities.

# Good Managers Earn Respect and Legitimacy

Managers must earn their leadership position. Technical managers need to show they are leaders with an understanding of what a developer does every day.

# Technical Chops

Regardless of how much management you take on, coding must remain > 0% of your day. You will rarely get the hardest or most rewarding tasks because (a) they are not your focus and, (b) you are not well-positioned to complete critical-path technical requirements in a timely manner. There are always lots of small bugs to squash, documentation to update or pull requests to review. Assuming these small responsibilities show you share the same DNA with your technical team members and keep you technically relevant.

# Sharing a Vision

Engineering Managers will rarely be setting the long range strategy of the organization, but they play a critical role in translating these goals into short-term actions. This means first understanding them yourself, then communicating in a way that correlates daily efforts with progress. The team's actions will continually work to clear the unknowns between where they are today and where the think the goal lies; you need to keep them motivated, keep them moving and tweak their direction.

# What's Next?

This brief outline of your responsibilities should start to give you an understanding of where you must focus your efforts. Other articles will explore each area in more detail.

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