An engineering manager is a key role in the organization and employees' lives. It's difficult to be a good software engineer, but it's much harder to be an engineering manager. As a manager, your expertise is not limited to management issues, but you also need to have a strong engineering background to tackle any technical problems and support your team in the hour of crisis.
I have worked with many types of people - good engineering managers, bad engineering managers, people who had no title of manager but still performed their duties as if they were EMs, and those who had no idea what engineering management is despite being in the role for many years.
The view expressed in this post are completely my own and are based on my personal experiences. They are by no means the global representation of engineering manager traits
When I am employed by the company, there are some things I expect my EM (Engineering manager) to do in order to support the team and help people around them grow. In this post, I will talk about things they should or should not do to become better engineering manager who is respected by their direct reports, liked by their colleagues, considered competent by the management, foster a positive culture, and help the company make good progress.
When a new person joins the team, EMs have to make sure they have good onboarding support to understand the underlying tech stack, sister teams, and domain knowledge. Provide them with all the resources and people they need to succeed at their job. Given your broad scope with the team, you don't have to handle everything. To make things simple and help other people on the team grow, you can also assign an experienced person from the team to become their mentor for the first few weeks on the new team.
Onboarding is not a fire-and-forget activity. Keep checking with them about how onboarding is going, whether are they facing any blockers, and honest feedback about the mentor. As you go along, help them take on a good mix of comfortable and challenging tasks that will demonstrate if they are learning and getting used to the team
A lot of EMs think they are helping their direct reports by micromanaging their activities. Your job is to support them in their role, help them understand team culture and technology, and connect them with the right people and teams.
You can ask them what is expected, but you don't need to tell them how to do it. This is assuming they've already gone through the required training and have ongoing feedback about their work.
When you micromanage people too much, they depend on you for everything they do. But if you give them leeway to apply their own understanding toward the problem, they will become more autonomous and independent in their thinking.
The only way to positive improvement is to share and act on feedback. As an engineering manager, you should not hesitate to share critical feedback if you see gaps in employee performance. Don't criticize them while delivering the feedback, but let them know what caused it and ways to improve on it. Also, do regular check-ins to see how they are doing with the previous feedback and follow-up action.
Delivering critical feedback can result in an awkward situation, but there is no way around it. If you hold it back and only keep talking about good things, their performance will never be at the expected level and they won't get the opportunity to grow and rectify mistakes.
Be Open to Feedback from Direct Reports
One thing that most of the EMs think is, they are exempt from the feedback about their performance from direct reports. If you're working in a well-functioning corporation, companies offer all the employees to share their feedback about their managers.
Be transparent and open to receive feedback from your reporting team. Just as they do, you should be able to take critical feedback in a graceful manner. If you hear something that is not pleasant, don't be indignant or defensive. Try to think if it's valid feedback. If you think it's an unfair assessment of your behavior and treatment, ask them if they can come up with past examples.
Even if you're not happy with the feedback from your direct reports, don't get all vindictive. You might be violating company policy on harassment, which may destroy the team morale and transparency and they may completely stop providing the valuable feedback that you might have used for your own career development
Stand for Them
As an engineering manager, you're representing your direct reports for appraisal, promotion, and due credits. If they are going through a difficult situation, support them and do everything within company policy to help them handle work-life balance.
If you think they have been given unfair treatment, stand with them and resolve the situation. If you think they deserve a promotion, work with them to create a strong case for promotion and push for it during the calibration meeting with strong facts about their contribution and impact on the company.
Be Honest about Goals and Promotions
It's no secret that everyone wants to progress in their career and wants more money. However, companies have rules about how one can be eligible for promotion. Work with employees to know which track they are interested in (Tech vs. management), set up goals that satisfy the bare minimum for promotion, and help them identify tasks that will make their promotion case even stronger.
Also, organize a monthly check-in meeting to see how they are performing and if they need any help with goals. Provide critical feedback, but also give them work of encouragement if they've done an excellent job.
If they aren't ready for promotion yet, tell them why and what they need to do to be on the right track for promotion. Don't give them false promises if you cannot make it. You're just delaying the bad news and when the time comes for you to deliver it, it will be more awkward, or even worse, the employee may already have chosen to part ways with you.
Help them Grow
Your job as an EM is to extend the employees' network, take them out of their comfort zone, and encourage them to take on challenging work all the same while assuring them that you will be there to support them if they face any major hurdle.
The list of initiatives that can help them grow includes but not limited are, to mentoring, interviewing external candidates, leading a sprint planning meeting, hosting a SEV review, working with sister teams for a few weeks, or launching an end-to-end feature by coordinating with major stakeholders.
The good candidates for initiative could be something that contributes to the company and something an employee hasn't had experience with before.
So this is all I have for today on how to become a better engineering manager. The management field could be daunting in the beginning due to people management, meetings, spreadsheets, and performance reviews, all while writing code in your free time. But it's also fun. You get a chance to help people grow and develop their careers, listen to their feedback, and share your experience so that they can learn from your mistakes.
The engineering manager is also an opportunity for you to show up your skills not just as a competent engineer but also as a good manager who knows how to balance priorities, grow the team, share feedback, and improve productivity.
Do you have tips of your own on the topic? I would love to hear! You can connect and message me on LinkedIn.
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