Explaining the engineering manager role is not a new subject. Nevertheless, the EM function is often defined differently depending on the company, its size, and even the market it operates. In this post, I offer my version of it, in an attempt to provide a new, valuable perspective.
Fun fact: this is the first piece on this blog featuring hand-drawn graphics ✏️
Who will find it useful
The information in this blog post will be helpful to people who collaborate with Engineering managers at work, willing to learn more about the role. For example, software engineering and recruitment professionals, SaaS sales experts, and individuals interested in becoming an EM.
In addition, people interacting with EMs in more of a social, informal setting – like friends, acquaintances, and perhaps family members may also find it interesting.
Typical Engineering manager job description
Engineering manager jobs on LinkedIn, Indeed, or Glassdoor often look similar, just as the theoretical job post below. In it, the responsibilities and requirements look reasonable and make expectations more or less clear.
However, it reminds me of a collection of buzzwords, making it difficult to understand precisely what kind of future awaits the person joining this theoretical company as an Engineering manager.
Below, I tried to explain the Engineering manager role without overcomplicating things, making the added value of the EM function in an organization clearer.
While thinking about daily work, several categories of responsibilities emerged. During a typical week, I work through them, regularly switching and trying to keep the balance in progress on every level. Here are the categories, where one is the foundation for the next: happy team member, happy team, happy customer, happy company, and happy me.
Here, “happy” is used more in the sense of “satisfied” than actually happy. We’re still talking about work, and while being happy is nothing wrong, “satisfied” has a better-suited and perfectly sufficient meaning.
Also, “happy” has a slightly different meaning for every level. Going into detail on each would make this post uncomfortably long.
A quick note on putting “happy me” on top of the pyramid, as it may look a little, well, selfish. In reality, having the “me” satisfied with both challenges and achievements is essential as it drives intrinsic motivation, fueling the ability to follow through (and keep the rest of the levels “happy”).
Categories in detail
Let’s break down the categories. Sticking to the promise to keep this post highly practical, every activity in a given category will point to the concrete action the Engineering manager is expected to perform, marked with the following picture:
The stuff below may seem like a lot, but people in the Engineering manager role don’t do all of it every day. Yet, overlooking any of these for an extended period can be dangerous for team motivation and project success.
Category 1. Happy team member
A happy, motivated team member is the foundation of everything good in a company. Let’s see what can be done to make one appear on the team.
Psychological safety in the team
Ensure no blame is cast if someone fails. If a mistake is made, the best we can do is learn from it. The worst? Blame someone and hold a grudge, wasting time, energy, and social capital.
Find opportunities to do things differently. Standards are good, yet it’s easy to leave value on the table by blindly following all the rules without thinking them through.
Own (or impact) the recruitment process to keep the incoming hires at the expected company standard and team culture. Easier said than done! 😳
Create and safeguard an environment where it’s okay to be yourself. Yes, just that.
Alignment between working styles of team members
Identify and address issues between team members. This is often done during 1-on-1s and is probably one of the most unnoticeable parts of EM’s work.
Having extended knowledge about people on the team helps with this, yet it’s not always possible/easy to do.
Being there as someone team members can talk to about whatever is happening in their life. We’re all humans, and I like it when it stays like that, even at work.
Communication channels for feedback
Work on creating quality feedback and deliver it timely. Ask for feedback.
Just two sentences, yet a vast field of opportunities. It’s almost like art, knowing how to give and receive feedback, when to do it, and when not to. Curious whether it’s possible to ever master it in full 😃
Own the process for the direct team at a minimum. Improve it whenever possible through constant feedback from new people joining the team.
Check out these 4 simple tips to make your onboarding process better fast
Manage sick leave records, PTO (vacation) requests, and align these with the product plan to avoid the velocity chart panic.
Own or influence software licensing budget (tools for the team) and ensure licenses are issued on time. Think of code editors or database management software.
Ensure proper access to resources for new (and existing) team members. Think of GitHub, Confluence, or company HR software.
Note on the last two points, licensing and access: there may be a separate team managing these, making the life of EM easier.
Category 2. Happy team
Sense of direction
Ensure there’s a clear roadmap, and everyone knows what we will be working on next week, month, and half a year from now.
Suppose the company has a strong project management office and the team has a highly professional product owner. In that case, the PO already sets a lot of direction, helping the whole team feel better about work.
Alignment with the product management organization
Get project priorities, short- and long-term, to understand “what’s next” and communicate to the team
Estimate team involvement and translate it into input for the hiring plan. Review the hiring plan with the recruitment org to ensure a timely start of the new hires. This helps avoid a stressed or overworked team in the future (in case hiring gets complicated).
Alignment on the company goals and values
Gather information on the company’s direction and share it with the team, including both positive and negative news. The difficulty of this activity wholly depends on company culture.
If the company culture supports this, make a flexible office schedule available and ensure office days are aligned with all team members to make use of the social element
When possible, welcome unplanned requests like longer lunchtime to allow for a walk outside if working from the office
Keep an eye on the needs of people and influence office development direction accordingly. In this case, small things can make a big difference in making the workspace a comfortable place to be in
Relay suggestions from the team to office management. It is closely related to the previous point but is more about specific requests.
For example, in the team’s opinion, the cleaning team is not doing a good job, and they would like to see it improved.
Find time, budget, and motivation to organize team-building exercises for the whole team. A few things need to be taken into account:
- the willingness of every team member to participate in such outings
- the willingness to do it after working hours
- the kind of activity that would suit everyone or most
Celebrate wins, in addition to the above. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a big event to cheer on the recent team achievement.
Category 3. Happy customer
What makes a customer happy? Good quality product delivered on time! Mostly.
Good quality product
Own the team’s software development lifecycle, and work on improving it. It can be about better testing, making software more reliable, or maybe upgrading parts of the system to the latest version.
Such measures help keep the software product predictable and reliable (predictably reliable?)
Collect feedback through cooperation with the product management team that has direct access to the customer. Make sure their input is available to the team and is actionable.
Category 4. Happy company
A successful company allows its teams to grow through experimentation, innovation, and delivery. Depending on the company’s state (and about a hundred of other aspects), teams may be offered additional educational resources, better tools, or time for non-project work.
Monitor the company’s direction and communicate everything back to the team
Category 5. Happy me 😃
It is tough to do all of the above when you don’t get any satisfaction or even dislike your job. So, what makes me a happy Engineering manager? The three things below, as it turns out.
My team is happy
Having satisfied people in the team is paramount. Whenever they are not – something needs to happen to fix that.
Management is happy
Keeping management in the know about what’s happening creates harmony. When there is ambiguity and uncertainty in the environment, it may introduce anxiety and raise it to potentially unhealthy levels, undermining productivity.
I have time to improve
There’s no instruction manual for the Engineering manager job, leaving a lot to figure out. For a while, my North Star question of “What kind of leader do I want to be?” helps to shape my approach to engineering management. It is rarely easy (facing honest answers can be daunting), but often growth is in friction, isn’t it?
Finding the balance between the three is never straightforward, but striving towards it helps define the day-to-day.
Quite a list! While it looks like a lot of work (and it is), careful planning allows for keeping everything in check and ensuring that important things are always on top of the to-do list.
In my previous post, I talked about an experiment using a to-do list for one week to keep track of everything. Spoiler: it worked!
Good Engineering managers become trustworthy and proactive partners in the engineering organization. EMs can be expected to work on multiple projects simultaneously, hire and manage culturally diverse teams of engineers from different disciplines, formulate and execute strategies, and coordinate with other managers and the product organization.
Becoming a successful engineering manager requires good communication skills, working knowledge of different engineering disciplines and how they relate to one another, and a developed sense of empathy to navigate all kinds of social situations.
Thank you for reading, and please let me know if you’d like to learn more about any of the topics mentioned above. Feel free to reach out on Twitter to keep the conversation going!