Random Thoughts on Engineering Management

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I have ended up managing people at the last three places I’ve worked, over the last 18 years. I can honestly say that only in the last few years have I really started to embrace the job of managing. Here’s a collection of thoughts and observations:

Growth: Ideas and Opinions and Failures

Expose your team to new ideas and help them create their own voice. When people get bored or feel they aren’t growing, they’ll look elsewhere. Give people time to explore new concepts, while trying to keep results and outcomes relevant to the project.

Opinions are not bad. A team without opinions is bad. Encourage people to develop opinions about everything. Encourage them to evolve their opinions as they gain new experiences.

“Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement” – Frederick P. Brooks

Create an environment where differing viewpoints are welcomed, so people can learn multiple ways to approach a problem.

Failures are not bad. Failing means trying, and you want people who try to accomplish work that might be a little beyond their current reach. It’s how they grow. Your job is keeping the failures small, so they can learn from the failure, but not jeopardize the project.

Creating Paths: Technical versus Management

It’s important to have an opinion about the ways a management track is different than a technical track. Create a path for managers. Create a different path for technical leaders.

Management tracks have highly visible promotion paths. Organization structure changes, company-wide emails, and being included in more meetings and decision making. Technical track promotions are harder to notice if you don’t also increase the person’s responsibilities and decision making role.

Moving up either track means more responsibility and more accountability. Find ways to delegate decision making to leaders on the team. Make those leaders accountable for outcomes.

Train your engineers to be successful managers. There is a tradition in software development to use the most senior engineer to fill openings in management. This is wrong. Look for people that have a proclivity for working with people. Give those people management-like challenges and opportunities. Once they (and you) are confident in taking on management, promote them.

Snowflakes: Each Engineer is Different

Engineers, even great ones, have strengthens and weaknesses. As a manager, you need to learn these for each person on your team. People can be very strong at starting new projects, building something from nothing. Others can be great at finishing, making sure the work is ready to release. Some excel at user-facing code, others love writing back-end services. Leverage your team’s strengthens to efficiently ship products.

“A 1:1 is your chance to perform weekly preventive maintenance while also understanding the health of your team” – Michael Lopp (rands)

The better you know your team, the less likely you will create bored, passionless drones. Don’t treat engineers as fungible, swapable resources. Set them, and the team, up for success. Keep people engaged and passionate about the work.

Further Reading

The Role of a Senior Developer
On Being A Senior Engineer
Want to Know Difference Between a CTO and a VP of Engineering?
Thoughts on the Technical Track
The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster
Bored People Quit
Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

3 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on Engineering Management

  1. zob

    on the career path:
    in 95% of the cases, you’ll get paid more and get to make more decisions if you’re a manager rather than a “technical leader” – including at mozilla – specially if you don’t make firefox code (if you dont code for a product, you’re basically a throw-away resource and probably should go work for a company’s who’s job is doing what you do instead of a browser – unfortunately, in the real world, mozilla also need these people, but dont reward them)

    due to all this, i know very few people that will refuse a management position.

  2. @zob – I see it as our (managers at Mozilla) job to change that. I have started looking for ways to change the current status on my own team and reaching out to other teams. Small, incremental changes that will take some time to bear fruit. It’s why managing is a full time job.

  3. kats

    Thanks for posting this (and the further reading links) – some very interesting thoughts that tie in to what I’ve been thinking about lately as well.

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