While engineering is sometimes thought of as a solitary craft, building modern technology products requires cohesive and collaborative teams of people. And, like teams of all types, strong leaders are needed to communicate, delegate, and motivate.
But these skills don't always come naturally to technical people. Whether you’re new to leading a team or looking to up level your skills, here are four characteristics that every successful engineering manager has mastered.
In general, studies show that managers are more effective when they are knowledgeable about the subject matter their team is dealing with. And engineering management is no exception. The very best engineering managers tend to be highly skilled engineers in their own right.
On the one hand, a technically competent manager will have a superior handle on the work that they are managing and therefore be better able to make recommendations and to evaluate necessary trade-offs.
Another (perhaps maybe less obvious) reason is that technically talented managers are often better able to garner respect from their teams. Pure managers—even those with exceptionally strong management ability—can struggle to manage high performing individual contributors, who tend to have a tough time taking orders from managers that don’t fully understand their craft.
Steve Jobs went through these growing pains in the early stages of Apple, hiring “professional managers” and subsequently realizing that his talented employees couldn’t learn from “bozos” who didn’t have any skills beyond 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 that sets 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.”
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 that can’t relate to his or her team on an emotional level will struggle to build the camaraderie and trust necessary to cooperate and do good work.
According to answers on one popular Hacker News post about how to be a good technical lead, engineering managers must be sure to make themselves available for questions, even if they’d rather not be interrupted. This can run counter to high efficiency, but it’s important that managers spend the time to develop their team members, ensuring better performance in the future and ultimately improving efficiency.
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 of which communication style someone prefers, simply “ask them how, where, and when they prefer to be spoken to.”
According to Hired’s SVP of Engineering, Nidhi Gupta, the hardest part about the transition to engineering manager is learning to “bite your tongue” rather than giving your frank opinion straight off the bat. Engineering managers must calibrate when a team or team member requires their input—and, just as importantly, when they’re better off left alone.
Nothing frustrates a high performer more than having someone unnecessarily supervise a task that they are fully capable of performing independently. 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 can be crucial, and the presence of a steady hand comforting for 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 allowing a team member to potentially waste time on a project, but will both facilitate them becoming a better engineer and build trust that you’re there not to micromanage, but to develop their skills.
Great engineering managers have mastered the skill of assessing the situation, both in terms of its importance and in terms of the competence of those involved, including knowing 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. And 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 that being a engineering manager is a constant balancing act between these two sides of the coin—but that successful leaders not only create high-performing teams