Be an Engineering Leader - Not a Manager

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

People matter more than deadlines! I started in a startup that had a lot of great project management skills but low people management skills. Not until a CTO was hired, I realized that there was a day and night difference with a leader with people management skills. Great leaders give their employees a sense of “you belong here”. It’s a feeling that makes someone stay through the difficult times.

Belonging (noun): an affinity for a place or situation

Here are some great traits that a leader needs

  • Guide
  • Transparency
  • Coach
  • Problem Solver
  • Motivator

Alignment and Transparency

Monthly Engineering Meetings

Usually a company has a quarterly or monthly all hands meeting to update its employees on how the company is doing and to answer any questions. These meetings cover all the different departments with broad subjects such as how sales numbers, what is on the horizon, and company wide events. Although it’s great to hear how the company is doing, it’s sometimes a very stiff scripted corporate (soulless) meeting. The company meeting doesn’t go deep into the technical topics that engineers are more interested in.

What’s the purpose for a monthly engineering meeting? To provide alignment and transparency of the department across teams and engineers. It’s difficult to have visibility across a large engineering department or teams are silo’ed and heavily focused on their own work in a small engineering department. Typically the managers would know what other teams are doing but often the engineers on individual teams do not know.

Great topics of an engineer meeting can be:

  • Overall vision of the engineering department for this month or quarter
  • Goals that the department is focusing on such as tech debt
  • What each team is doing this release cycle or quarter
  • New ideas related to engineering such as new technology to adopt
  • Upcoming events such as internal events or external conferences/webinars

Coach — Guiding and Teaching

Eliminating Tribal knowledge

A typical customer success interaction is: “This customer issue is on fire and we need to solve it quickly. Could someone look at it?” Similar to a real life fire department, an engineer or group of engineers are dispatched to quickly put the fire out. When the fire is put out and everyone is happy, but there’s an issue with this process. Unless that engineer was on standby and their main job is dealing with customer issues, they were pulled off whatever they were doing to assist in a more urgent issue. There’s an age old wisdom that applies to this situation.

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Removing the heavily reliance on engineering to solve issues is the key to decrease disruptions. It’s achieve by a two prong approach of spreading knowledge and making the troubleshooting process easier to understand. The first step would be to teach the customer success or support personnel on how to recognize and solve particular issues. Eventually, all these knowledge should be collected and built into a customer support portal with a knowledge database and training materials.

Collaboration

Every company says that their collaboration is amazing and everyone is highly collaborative. However, the reality may be different from what the company is preaching. There are meeting rooms, pairing stations, and whiteboards everywhere but no one is using the pairing stations and working together on code. A telltale sign is team members spend most of their time by themselves focusing on their own tasks/tickets.

Practice what you preach

Both the process and environment needs to be setup for collaboration to foster high collaboration. A sales department example is saying every sales person should help each other but the best salesperson gets an all expense paid trip at the end of the year. The reward system is geared toward individuals so people will naturally hold back and focus on their own sales. A better process or reward system would be to award a team or the entire department if they reach their goal.

Praise and Recognization

Give praise when it counts. Giving too little praise and giving too much praise are issues. Something being handed out like hot cakes greatly diminishes its value. Sprint Retrospective in Agile development is a time to inspect what goals are accomplished, what worked well, and what needs to be improved. One ineffective way of recognization is listing every thing that was accomplished during the sprint outside of the goals such as all the bug fixes done. It’s great to recognize the work done but patting yourself on the back for everything is cheap. Instead, a great time to give praise is during company or department meetings and at the end of each project.

Motivation

Company Mission and Culture

It’s important to have a great mission statement for the company. People who stay for a long time want to know that they’re contributing to something that is improving the world. Something like “Our mission is to make a zillion dollars” or “Our mission is to have 100,000 customers by the end of the year” isn’t going to inspire the right people to stay. Company mission and culture show current employees and potential new hires what the company is trying to achieve and what they value. Many of the big tech companies showcase their mission statements and their culture.

Customer Feedback over Sales Numbers

Employees like to hear how customers are loving what they are creating. Sales numbers are good statistics for a how a company health is but they are boring. It’s far more interesting to know how customers are liking the product or how they are not liking the product so the design process or product can be improved.

Challenge and Growth

No one likes to come to work and do the same thing over and over again. People leave a companies for different reasons such as better growth opportunities or high pay. Some great engineers will stay despite offers of higher pay from competitors if they have growth opportunities and love their job.

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