Building modern technology products requires engineering manager skills to lead cohesive and collaborative teams of people. These strong leaders need to communicate, delegate, and motivate, even if engineering is sometimes a solitary craft.
These abilities, however, don’t always come naturally to technical people. Whether you’re new to leading a team or would like to transition from an individual contributor to leadership, here are four skills every successful engineering manager should master:
In general, studies show managers are more effective when they are knowledgeable about their team’s subject matter. The very best engineering managers tend to be highly skilled engineers in their own right.
On the one hand, a technically competent manager has a superior handle on the work they are managing. They therefore are better able to make recommendations and to evaluate necessary risks and trade-offs.
Another (perhaps maybe less obvious) reason is technically talented managers often garner respect more from their teams. Pure managers—even those with exceptionally strong management ability—can struggle to manage high performing individual contributors. Experienced team members sometimes have a tough time taking orders from managers newer to their craft.
Steve Jobs went through these growing pains in the early stages of Apple, hiring “professional managers” before realizing his talented employees couldn’t learn from “bozos” who only knew people management. While engineering managers certainly need soft skills to be successful, a strong technical foundation can be a huge advantage.
While it may seem like a platitude, arguably the most important skill for any leader is the ability to set a direction and communicate it effectively to his or her team.
This doesn’t always mean verbal or even written direction. The best leaders back up their words with behavior and set the standard for everyone around them.
Further, successful engineering managers know how to communicate upward to superiors and laterally to other departments, keeping the organization at large in sync and making sure that their team is contributing meaningfully to the broader company.
According to Chris Fischer, CTO and VP of Product at Aaptiv, one significant challenge of being an engineering leader is the need to communicate effectively with many types of people. You must “be able to perform capably [in all] types of conversations—often within the same hour… you must appreciate different roles, different needs, and different styles.”
What does ’emotional intelligence’ mean? In its simplest terms, it’s the ability to recognize, manage, and regulate emotions.
While the process of engineering can often seem cold and scientific, the reality of an engineering organization is just as human as any other.
A manager unable to empathize with the team struggles to build the camaraderie and trust to collaborate on good work.
According to answers on one popular Hacker News post about how to be a good technical lead, it’s best for engineering managers to be available for questions. Even if they’d rather not be interrupted.
This can run counter to high efficiency, but it’s important managers spend the time to develop their team members. This ensures better performance in the future and ultimately improves efficiency. Not to mention attrition rates.
Fischer suggests that you “pay attention to and prepare the style of communication that suits the other person most effectively.”
This doesn’t have to be complicated, he says. If you’re unsure which style someone prefers, “ask them how, where, and when they prefer to be spoken to.”
According to Hired’s former SVP of Engineering, Nidhi Gupta, the hardest part about the transition to engineering manager is learning to “bite your tongue.” It’s easy to give your frank opinion but emotional intelligence skills help you know when. Good engineering managers evaluate when a team or team member benefits from their input—and, just as importantly, when they’re better off left alone.
Nothing frustrates a high performer more than unnecessary micromanagement. Further, promoting a culture of accountability is crucial in a complex environment like engineering, where no manager can ever have full visibility into what his or her team is doing. Micromanagement, however, can work in opposition to the goal of accountability.
Conversely, inexperienced employees or teams not only crave direction and guidance—they often need it to build confidence and expertise. In critical situations, an extra set of eyes and a steady hand often comforts a team under pressure.
The same Hacker News post touches on the importance of allowing your team members to explore approaches they think are correct—even if you believe they’re wrong.
This is a tricky balance, because it means a potential “waste” of time. The secret is to maximize any learnings and benefits from this latitude. It should help team members become better engineers as well as develop trust you’re there to help develop their skills.
Great engineering managers master the skill of assessing the situation, both its importance and the competence of those involved. This includes whether to let the team run its own show or to step in.
Engineering managers are a special breed, requiring both technical savvy and people skills. This combination doesn’t come easy. According to one Senior Engineering Manager at Facebook, “the first few months are going to be miserable,” but those willing to discard some skills in exchange for others can be successful.
Whether you’re new to leading a team or have been honing these skills for years, it’s easy to see being an engineering manager is a constant balancing act. The successful leaders and teams learn to incorporate these skills together.
Revised Nov. 30, 2021