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Developing Hard and Soft Skills: An Engineering Manager’s Guide

To an engineering manager, the term “career development” is almost always associated with furthering your technical competency through conferences, workshops, and classes. But while improving technical skill sets in the tech industry is hugely important, improving your soft skills is equally as crucial.

Often in technology, industry soft skills are not an emphasized part of career development. However, it is often the soft skills that managers have (or don’t have) that tend to make (or break) a team. As a manager, your main focus is to keep your team as productive and happy as they can be. Your mission is to motivate your team, support them on complex and high level technical vision/architecture, and back them up during technical reviews.

Whether you’re preparing for a role as an engineering manager or looking to become a better engineering manager, you should use these soft and hard skill questions as a guide to be more effective and help your team.

Soft Skills

  1. What soft skills are your strongest?
    It’s important to recognize where your strengths lie and use them to your advantage as you hone your skills that need improvement.
  2. What soft skills would most benefit your team?
    Having an external reason or motivation for strengthening a skill makes it easier to dedicate time to improving it.
  3. Are there common themes in the feedback you’ve received in past reviews and positions?
    Common threads can you point towards a skill that you already know needs improvement.
  4. What interactions make you uncomfortable in your current position?
    Improving your ability to handle difficult situations in your current position (e.g. mediating conflict, providing praise, handling criticism) is an area where you can see immediate results.
  5. Have you asked your team for feedback on your performance?
    Often, feedback is from managers to individual contributors, but having an upward route for feedback will help both you and your team.

Once you’ve identified the areas you’d like to improve on, begin reading articles or books about these areas, such as having difficult conversations or being a good listener. Most importantly, practice implementing these skills and reflect on what aspects are working and what aren’t to continue tweaking and improving yourself. When your team recognizes you’re working to improve your own soft skills, they will recognize the qualities and skills you already bring to the team.

Hard Skills

  1. How are you tracking your team’s progress?
    Make sure your method of tracking aligns with how your company measure and defines success (e.g. completing sprints, meeting milestones, customer satisfaction, and budget).
  2. Have you made a technical roadmap for your project and team?
    A technical roadmap provides concrete direction for your team that can be referred to as often as necessary.
  3. Do you have the materials necessary for growing your team ready?
    Clear, updated, and readily available onboarding material is often an oversight that can easily be avoided and makes adding a new teammate a more seamless process.
  4. Are there technical areas your team lacks expertise in?
    Providing training for your employees or using internal knowledge sharing to your advantage can help save your team time, money, and headaches.
  5. Are there new skills you’ve been interested and excited to learn more about?
    Don’t forget about yourself and what made you an engineer in the first place.

The hard skills of an engineering manager differ from the hard skills of an engineer. While an engineer’s hard skills are focused on product development (software languages, PCB layout tools, etc.), a manager’s hard skills are focused on ensuring the team has the time, budget, and resources they need to successfully create a product.

It’s important to learn new capabilities when making the move to a management position, such as Agile Development and the tracking tools your organization uses for program management (e.g. Atlassian Tools and Microsoft Project).

Once you have identified hard skills that could help you and your team, begin looking internally: Who are the subject matter experts at your organization? What yearly or quarterly trainings are available? Does your organization sponsor trips to conferences?

And externally: What workshops are being offered in your area? Is there a conference or local meetup where you could get more support and ideas?

Successful engineering management is difficult because it requires the right hybrid of both hard and soft skills. You will always have skill sets to improve in order to be the most effective manager for your team. If you’re dedicated to continually assessing and developing those skills, your team will thank you for it.