The Role of an Engineering Manager

I was in a meeting with my boss when he asked me to describe the priorities of my job. I froze. It was my 6th month as an Engineering Manager and I was unable to articulate what that meant.

That was frustrating. As a Software Engineer, you build software products. There’s a measurable outcome and a clear expectation. It feels great! But once you make that lateral move into management, it gets fuzzier. And the more people you manage, the fuzzier it gets.

I knew I wasn’t doing a bad job. My team was delivering great products at a decent pace, morale was high and I just received a good performance review. But it didn’t feel right that it was so hard to explain what I do. If I can’t articulate what my job is, how can I be good at it?

It took me a while to find the right words. But after several months to think about it and read a few books, I’ll give it another try.

There are three dimensions to my job: provide feedback and guidance to my team, understand the motivations of each member and be accountable for results.

Giving feedback, weather is critique or praise, feedback is a powerful way to guide your team in a positive direction. Good feedback is timely, insightful, and actionable. It’s a powerful tool and should be used with care. These conversations may look like the following:

Good job on that design review, I appreciate how much work you’ve put into it and how important it is that we’re all aligned in what needs to be done.
Thanks for taking the time to make that presentation. Although, I’m not sure everyone got the point you were making. I think it would have been clearer if you used a slidedeck instead of a demo. I’d be happy to review it with you next time

Use praise to reinforce positive behaviors and critique to highlight areas to improve. But always be constructive when criticizing. Be clear, direct and offer suggestions on how to improve.

I also incentivize everyone in my team to give feedback to myself and each other. Many times they are better positioned than I am to offer it in a timely way.

Understanding what motivates the people in your team is key if you want them to stick around. People usually do their best work when their passionate about it. And it’s the manager’s job to find the interception between what makes them tick and the needs of the business.

To really know what motivates someone is hard. Asking about it is a start, but you won’t always get an answer straight away. You need to work on that relationship. Talk about your own motivations and what frustrates you. Once you open up it’s a lot easier for them to do the same.

Being accountable for results means that you will represent your team with stakeholders and are able to make hard decisions when needed. You need a deep understanding of the problem space your team operates in. Without it, you’re just a messenger.

I always do my best to empower my team to take ownership and make as many decisions as possible. I don’t have to agree with every decision but I always have an opinion. Sometimes the team can’t reach a consensus and I step in to unblock the decision. Other times, I simply contribute by adding context that isn’t immediately available to other members.

Next time someone asks what I do all day, I won’t freeze. I’ll just talk about these three points: feedback, motivations and accountability. I also mentioned I read some books, so I’ll leave three recommendations that I’ve found very impactful for my development:

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