Having recently moved back into the world of testing, I often think about things I learnt as an Engineering Manager during my 18 months as one. Over that time I learnt, a lot. I enjoyed it, but wanted to get back to my first love of testing. I’m going to talk through things I learnt as an Engineering Manager. I hope that it can help other people who are looking to make the transition to becoming an Engineering Manager and more importantly helping them succeed as an Engineering Manager.
Different flavours of Engineering Manager
Now, firstly I must say the Engineering Manager role comes in many flavours, as part of my role I spent a lot of time researching what other companies do, and the scope and responsibilities vary greatly across different companies. The role I was in focused purely on the coaching, wellbeing and development of Engineers (QA and Software). There was absolutely no delivery expectation.
With the role being people focused, it meant I could give all my efforts and attentions to the Engineers that I managed. I could make sure that they were supported, that they were challenged and that they were happy. During my time as Engineering Manager, I helped 6 Engineers get promoted, I had just 1 Engineer leave and I built strong relationships with each and every Engineer that I cared for. I had positive feedback around my interactions and the environment that was created.
Without further ado, here’s the top things I learnt as an Engineering Manager.
🔢🔢 Put people first.
It might sound obvious, in a role that’s people focused, but your Engineers are your number 1 priority. This is probably the top thing I learnt as an Engineering Manager. I strongly believe that a group of happy Engineers will deliver good software. You have to genuinely care about each and everyone of them, not just on a professional level, but on a personal level as well, and the emphasis here is on genuinely there is no point in feigning interest, you will be found out.
Some tips to put people first are:
🚫🚫 Do not move one to ones
The one to one is a sacred meeting. It is there for you to be there for your Engineer, to hear how they are getting on, to provide feedback, to try and help them with any challenges that they might be facing. I learnt this lesson the hard way, I moved a one to one, and the Engineer really needed time to talk through something, and they reached out and we soon made time, but I didn’t move one to ones after that, especially without checking first.
Whilst talking of one to ones, create a solid structure for your one to ones. Encourage Engineers to come to them with their own items. This is their meeting, their time. You are here to listen and coach them through any problems.
I received some feedback that I was a good listener, I gave people my undivided attention when they were talking to me, and it’s something I was exceptionally proud of, because it was something that I made a conscious effort to do. We’ve all been talking to someone when we can tell they aren’t really paying attention, it doesn’t feel good to be talking and not have the other person listen. I want Engineers to feel good about themselves, a simple way to do this is to listen intently. As mentioned above, the one to one is dedicated time for the Engineer. As Stephen Covey says (author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) listen with the intent to understand, not to reply.
Make yourself available. This can be in the form of giving out a personal number, or having Teams/Slack on your phone. Be available to your Engineers, challenges don’t just happen 9 to 5. Even if it’s just to respond with something along the lines of “Don’t worry, let’s talk about it in the morning”. It’s not just about being available outside of working hours, but if people want to talk, make the time for them. Show them that they are important, move other meetings around if you have to, but make it clear that they are your number one priority.
Care about everyone. Not just your Engineers, although it will probably pay most dividends with the Engineers you manage. Remember things that they talk to you, write them down if you have to. I’ve written down family members, if they have pets, key dates that they have. Recently I had an Engineer mention to me they have an exam on Thursday, you know I’ll be messaging them and wishing them good luck and finding out how they got on. If the Engineers know you care, then everything else becomes a whole lot easier.
🤝🤝 Share as much as you can.
As a leader, you are privy to information, you are most likely included in email trails, meetings that contain important updates that the team need to know. Share this information with your Engineers and teams, and perhaps more important, identify how your Engineers communicate and share it using that medium.
Some Engineers like to be kept up to date with a simple message, or an email, or in a one to one. Find out what works and use that medium as the primary form of communication. Clearly there will be things that you can’t share, that are private, but if you think that an Engineer should know something, make sure you share it. I’ve never had an Engineer say to me “I wish you hadn’t shared that”, but I have had Engineers say “I wish you’d shared that with me.”
Some things that are great to share:
Company wide updates, team updates, business updates. If people don’t want to know something they don’t need to read it, or they don’t need to listen. You can have regular meetings in to share this type of information, or even a regular email that you send out to keep people informed of what’s happening. Mix up the method of the update as well, don’t rely on just one medium.
🏵🏵 Celebrate successes
Everybody loves a success story. When someone receives a promotion, share it. When a team has successfully completed a long, hard project, share it. In the form of a meeting or an email, the method absolutely isn’t as important as the message in this instance. This can be within the team or even outside of the team, don’t be shy to celebrate their wins. Remember, as an Engineering Manager, their wins are also your wins. Whilst it may be hard at first to appreciate this, in order to get the most out of an Engineering Manager role you need to recognise this. There were times when Engineers were promoted, and at first, I wasn’t able to celebrate, as it was all down to them, which whilst it’s true, I soon learnt that I played a small part in helping them get there.
Be open with your Engineers. You won’t always get it right. Once I withheld feedback from an Engineer, because I wanted them to focus on the job at hand. When the Engineer found out, they wanted to know why I hadn’t shared it, I held my hands up and admitted that in hindsight I should have shared it. Be open and honest. Even Engineering Managers are human.
🏅🏅 Champion your Engineers.
In a similar vein to both of the above, champion your people both inside and outside of the team. Talk about them, be their promoter, their cheerleader, make sure that people know who they are and think they are absolutely amazing. Make sure their voice is heard by fighting their battles.
How you go about doing this can vary, but some things to help you accomplish this are:
👀👀 Put them forward for opportunities
In one to ones, give them the confidence they need, they may need a push to do certain things, if you think they’ll be good at something, suggest it to them. This will help people recognise who they are, it will help build their profile within the organisation, so that if/when promotion opportunities come, decision makers already know who they are because you’ve put them out there.
➕➕ Give them confidence
I’ve had Engineers who suffered massively from Imposter Syndrome. It’s very real. It’s very prevalent. I have only met one person who said they have never suffered from it. Some things as an Engineering Manager to look out for are people who might not put themselves forward for things, they might be quiet in meetings, or they might not fight for something they believe in, or an idea they’ve suggested. Talk to them in one to ones, give them the confidence to achieve what they want to. If I find interesting articles/books, I’ll share it with them or purchase the book for them, to help them on their way.
🍪🍪 Pull together successes for each Engineer
Keep notes of what Engineers are achieving, then when it comes to reviews, or one to ones, or even when putting them forward for a promotion, you already have a whole list of things to include. Encourage your Engineers to do the same, David Goggins in You Can’t Hurt Me, referenced it as a Cookie Jar, and whenever you feel low, reach into that “Cookie Jar” and pull out an achievement to help you recognise how far you’ve come.
🌄🌄 Give your Engineers challenges to help them grow
There are always Engineers who are going to be proactive, driven and self-identify challenges to help them grow. In order for something to exist, there needs to be an opposite (think hot/cold, light/dark), so with that in mind there will always be Engineers who are less driven and less pro-active. As an Engineering Manager, you need to be able to recognise and identify challenges to help them grow. Bring the challenges to them, help them understand the benefits and keep them on track through asking regular updates and feedback on their progress.
❤❤ Feedback is vital.
Speaking of feedback, there is a great book around feedback, and I talk about it in Books and Inspiration, Radical Candor. It completely reframed how and when I give feedback, and also changed how I receive feedback as well. As an Engineering Manager, you want your Engineers to be the best they can be. That includes creating an environment where they can succeed. Part of that comes down to promoting both the receiving and giving of feedback as natural as possible.
Some tips for creating that environment:
📄📄 Create an avenue for people to be able to give quick feedback
This for me has come in the form of a Microsoft Form with questions on it around my performance. I have an email signature and my MSTeams status with a link to the below questionnaire. I’ve had some good responses from it. The important thing is to make it as simple as possible for people to give feedback. This I hope achieves that, or at least in part achieves that.
🧑👩 Create avenues for other people to be able to give feedback about others
I’ve seen people run “speedback” sessions, but even just having sessions in small groups of people and bringing people together with the sole focus of talking about performance can help with this. Encourage others to have a form like the one above. Use it yourself to give feedback. Be the change you want to see in the world.
💬💬 Give feedback to others yourself
Whenever I give someone feedback, I try and position it in a way that shows I sincerely care (see Radical Candor 👀👀). I give people feedback to help them grow and develop themselves. As a tester at heart, I love feedback, in the form of tests. The tests provide feedback in them being red or green. Feedback with people is different. They have so many ranges, unique contexts, you have to be careful about how and when you give feedback.
Every person is unique.
I was listening to a podcast early on in my journey as an Engineering Manager, and it had the amazing Sarah Drasner on there, she was talking about moving from an Engineering background to an Engineering Manager. She spoke about how as Engineers, we love to solve problems, and when we do the feedback is pretty quick. Whilst as an Engineering Manager, we are still solving problems. Only now, the problems are what people might be experiencing. Feedback isn’t always as crystal clear, but it’s still there, it just might take a bit longer to materialise. Engineering Managers are still solving problems, just like Engineers, they’re just different types of problems.
Which brings me on to the fact that every person you manage, every individual you work with is unique. They all have their own context, they have their own problems with their own take on reality. As an Engineering Manager, you probably aren’t privy to everything that is going on in their lives, as such you need to be considerate, you need to demonstrate empathy. Tailor your approach to every person you work with, every Engineer you manage. Make sure that when you are communicating, you are tailoring the approach. When giving feedback, again you are doing so in a way that the Engineer is comfortable with.
Recognition means different things
A great example is recognition, we have a regular award that goes to someone who has gone above and beyond, and it’s nominated on by their peers. I recognise that not everybody likes this recognition, or likes being shouted out on LinkedIn as an example, and as such, I wouldn’t do this to them. I would reach out to them individually and give them their recognition in private. It’s a way of creating an environment where everybody feels like they are valued. Help your Engineers comfortable in being themselves.
Which brings me on to my penultimate point.
Create diverse teams.
A diverse team is critical when it comes to making good decisions. The reason? You have the opportunity to hear from different people, from different backgrounds. You reduce the impact of biases. Throughout my career I have always tried to create diverse teams, always tried to allow others to have their voices heard.
There’s a lot to be said for the quote “Hire for culture add, not culture fit”. Look at what that person can bring to the team in terms of their experience, their background, their thought processes. You don’t want the team who all look the same, or think the same. A diverse team is better at problem solving and better at innovation.
It’s important to note that when talking about diversity, we’re not just talking about gender. We’re also talking about ethnicity, neurodiversity, religious, age and many more.
How to create diverse teams?
👩👩🏽🦲Have a diverse team involved in the recruitment process
This will help eliminate any biases people may have, and we all have biases. The first step to combating them is acknowledging that we have them. Remember diversity isn’t just gender. Create as diverse a team as possible. Make sure the interview panel is diverse as well. It can even help to have someone who the candidate can relate to on the interview panel to help them relax.
➕➕ Think about culture add and not culture fit
Use the interview to have a conversation with the candidate, identify what they can bring to the team. Use the interview as an opportunity to have a conversation with them. Don’t use it as an opportunity to trap them.
🤗🤗 Once hired make Engineers feel valued
Make them feel a part of the team from day one. Try and involve them in as much as you can, both internal to the team and external to the team. Similarly help them understand the company values, the culture. Recognise different holidays in the team, encourage people to celebrate in the team.
🤳🤳 Don’t forget about you.
This took a while to figure out, but it was a tough thing I learnt as an Engineering Manager, and ultimately it lead to me moving back into testing. You have to find things that challenge you, that help you grow as an individual. Otherwise you will stagnate, you will not grow or develop yourself in the way that matters most to you.
How I achieved this
I delivered a number of initiatives that would impact engineering across the whole of the company. Things like driving an initiative to bring Engineers more clarity in their careers (through the creation of career diagrams, flow charts, FAQs). Or the delivery of an interactive competency Web App built in Blazor, hosted in Azure, for Engineering Managers to help them grow and develop themselves (it was ultimately this development/engineering that made me realise that I miss the technical delivery that I had with testing before) and just getting involved in activities that helped make the Engineers lives easier.
This meant that I got to build relationships with new people, I got to experiment with some new technology and ultimately challenge myself to influence and deliver on those initiatives.
Ultimately, you still have needs and desires that need to be met, find things that help you meet them, and if you’re lucky it will be a win-win situation that will also benefit your Engineers as well.
You are here to support the people, the Engineers you manage. Creating an environment in which they can thrive and succeed. Their success become your success as well. Every person is unique, one size will not fit all, tailor your approach to get the best out of people. Constantly look for challenges for the Engineers and yourself.
The top things I learnt as an Engineering manager were:
Put People First – It might sound simple, but it’s important enough to be called out. I came into the role thinking I understood it. There were times that I didn’t fully appreciate that fact. Share as much as you can – Engineers want to be kept up to date with what is going on. Make sure that you share things that you hear (as much as appropriate), and on multiple platforms. Not every Engineer check their email, or Teams messages.
Champion your Engineers – Be their cheerleader. Champion the work, the successes and all that they do. Value your Engineers, recognise their efforts.
Feedback is vital – Give feedback as much as you can, not just to your Engineers but across the board. If people aren’t giving feedback, lead by example, be the change you want to see and be open to receiving feedback.
Every person is unique – Have you heard of the 5 Love Languages? Every Engineer has their own language, their own context and their preferred methods of communication. Understand this for each Engineer and tailor your approach to that.
Diverse teams are good teams – Bringing people together who are different will bring amazing results. They will each approach problems differently, bring a unique lens and help the team continuously improve.
Don’t forget about you – You have developmental needs, you want to challenge yourself and grow. Don’t forget about this. Find avenues to help you achieve this, and ultimately benefit your Engineers.
These are also the things I would have loved to have known from the start of my journey. So hopefully they can help others who are embarking on their journey as an Engineering Manager.