About the engineering manager role
I should've started the blog with this post.
Do you remember how hard it was to explain to your parents or grandparents what you do as an engineer? Explaining it even for yourself with the engineering manager role or its derivatives also becomes challenging.
Today we have various engineering grade systems: the general junior-mid-senior and FAANG corporate monsters bullshit with fancy acronyms like L(n) or SDE(n), but at least you have some system.
However, each company or department sees it differently regarding management skills focused on engineering teams. And there is a good reason for that: the more senior manager you become, the less your impact on the result. You become responsible for the development, yet your impact is negligible.
You start playing on different levels of influence as soon as you get into the first step, leading a small engineering group. In those roles, your impact may be huge but unseen. You might not affect the day-to-day achievements inside the project, but the project itself or the team working on it wouldn't even exist without your efforts.
Let's try to be more practical and describe what might be your expectations and challenges in the role. We don't want to disappoint your grand-relatives with the general explanation.
An entry point to the team
Or teams, it depends.
This is the basic stuff.
Your role is always would be to represent the team.
Yet it is tricky, always balancing between the interest of the team and the company, and the bigger the company is, the more this distance becomes.
I want to mention a few signs of the great achievements on this topic:
The team trusts you and believes you always do your best to protect them from unproductive noise. For example, no one from outside could unexpectedly shift the team's focus in the middle of something.
It comes from the first one: other departments or higher management do not bother the team with unexpected and urgent shit if it is not related to the team's profile, and if it is, it still goes through you as an entry point.
Your team has a straightforward 'API': how the company communicates with it.
Transparent shit rain umbrella
I just love this metaphor.
When someone asks me about my role, I use it, saying:
"Imagine that you're an umbrella, and outside there is always rain made of shit. So you're protecting the team from that shit. But you're also a transparent umbrella, so the team knows what is happening outside".
What would be a good job here is that
The team feels safe and calm no matter what happens in the company. The topic of trust is the leitmotif of your job, so we will go back to it many-many times.
You have this sense of uniqueness in the team, so you and the team feels it is special.
Yet, the team recognizes themselves within the company. There are they and we, but also we are they.
Information is everything.
In old times it was tough to work in the non-headquarter office because every decision and all information was spread and discussed in the hallways, kitchens, and coffee points. There was no such an easy thing as a video call; to make it happen, you needed a piece of good Cisco equipment and to operate it... let's just say the video call required a good reason.
As soon as video calls became relatively easy, people learned how to work within several offices and care to discuss things not only in the kitchens, and then it was COVID and the rise of Zoom.
And today, we are in the middle of the war, scattered across the country and the world. Moreover, after pandemia, people have got used to work from home and don't want to return to the office. Hence, the importance of information sharing and a lack of group creativity is as high as ever, and it is global, not just Ukraine.
So, what is the role? What I could call a solid job here is:
You and the team knows what is happening in the company and department. You share some news and significant changes before the official communication and by doing that, you achieve a lot:
making trust between you and the team stronger;
get the vibe on the news beforehand, when it is not yet news, and you have time to react if needed;
make people confident they didn't miss important stuff from the department and the company.
There is no secret information (well, almost). Your goal is to deliver relative information as soon as possible. Sometimes top management gives you a heads-up before blowing up some shit but asks you: 'don't tell the team before the update, please.' You have to challenge it constantly. There is an infrequent occasion when information is so sensitive. In most cases: they want to be a messenger yet give you time to prepare responses for a reaction because it will be your job to deal with your team.
You know what is happening in other departments technology and product-wise; you deliver that for the team; you think alone and with the team about possibilities and limitations it could bring to you all.
I love to joke that my primary role is to be a toastmaster.
To orchestrate processes, I would call it.
Planning, hiring, onboarding, synchronizing, releasing, measuring — whatever needs some kind of system, please do; it is your job as well.
Parties, bars, dinners, movie days, conferences, meetups, 'rituals,' and local traditions and memes — yes, it would be lovely if you could also bring this to the team.
I can't avoid this story.
Once, we were a small team of around 5-6 people, and it was Friday, lunchtime. I read about this new kebab place that opened recently not far away, and I proposed to check it out.
The place was average, but somehow we made it a tradition: each Friday, our team is out, or in case of bad weather, ordering in delivery shawarma.
I had no intention to do it, but I let it play and encouraged it next week and then next, and after that, it worked like a clock.
This small tradition survived pandemia and now is surviving the war. Each Friday, our chat is full of photo and video reports from all over the world.
Food and alcohol (please be responsible here) play a significant part in our lives; those are the tools you can't ignore.
As a final chord of this post, I would like to list (god, I adore lists!) two groups of expectations from the engineering manager. Internal, which comes from the team, and external, comes from the department and company.
The team is transparent:
easy to see what you do right now;
what are your plans;
how to request something or get some information from you.
The team understands what they are doing and how it affects the company, e.g., why they are doing something.
The planning and execution are efficient, so the team works with a predictable result.
The team is an independent cell and does not require guidance from top management.
Everyone in the team is involved in the product design. Of course, there are people responsible for the result; however, if an engineer has a passion for improving products and UX, it should be possible. People should know the product and care about it.
'I feel comfortable at work.'
'I am interested and engaged.'
'I like the people I am working with.'
'I am growing professionally.'
'My growth is noticed and appreciated.'
'I am getting quality feedback from colleagues and management.
'The thing I do and put my time in is needed or helpful to someone.'
The good thing, and it is also a curse, about the engineering manager role is that the more senior you are, the fewer tasks you get from your manager. So you're free to choose and decide what you will do today, tomorrow, and next week.
You can choose to frustrate all day long with some lame shit and wait until someone gives you an assignment, or use this freedom to do something cool.