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Johannes Scharlach
Johannes Scharlach

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Getting into Engineering Management: Useful resources to start thinking like a manager

Everyone’s path into engineering management is different. For me there were a couple of resources that I wish I had started with very early and other items that were more useful later down the road.

Reading Material – books, newsletters, blogs

Read Immediately: The most Actionable Resources

Software Lead Weekly a great weekly newsletter that curates useful blog posts and tweets around engineering management. For me, getting a regular newsletter in my inbox is a good starting point to build a habit of reading about a topic (like engineering management in this case)

The Making Of A Manager by Julie Zhuo. Julie joined Facebook straight out of university as a software engineer and today leads Facebook’s design team. She had to learn fast and make mistakes, so that we don’t have to.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Kim worked at Google and Apple and has learnt how to receive and give honest and candid feedback. It is the single most important book on how to act.

17 reasons NOT to be a manager by Charity Majors. Not only does it help you figure out if this role suits you, but also it shows many of the options you can provide your senior engineers that are wondering about their options. There are lots of fun manager activities that senior engineers can help you with and you will be more successful when you share those responsibilities with the right people.

Important Growth Literature

The Manager’s Path really highlights the different kinds of roles that exist in an engineering organisation and what is expected of whom.

The First 90 Days is great literature when your role changes. You probably have a role change where this is useful at least once a year when your responsibilities shift or your team changes.

First, break all the rules is a book that focuses on what makes the difference between an average manager and the best. Are you looking to join the elites? You need to do things differently.

Extreme Ownership. This book was not only fun to read, it also teaches a big lesson on how to step up and show ownership. You hate fingerpointing? Follow the principles outlined by the navy seals who wrote this book. It’s very American.

Further Readings that Inspire Me

OrgDev Newsletter. I love thinking about how an organisation should be built rather than only thinking about my direct reports. This newsletter talks about great resources that broaden my understanding of organisations.
The effective Executive by Peter Drucker. Peter Drucker is maybe the most well known business coach of the 20th century. His advice is timeless and not focussed on tech.

Trillion Dollar Coach. Bill Campbell had so much influence in how Microsoft, Apple, Google and many other companies succeeded. He’s probably the most influential person in tech that you’ve never heard of. He serves more as a role model to me due to this book, but it wasn’t particularly actionable.

The Phoenix Project is fun to read, because it’s a business book written in the style of a novel. It mainly highlights how good DevOps culture integrates what is in production with development as well as how important small improvements are.

Principles: Life and Work. This is not specific to tech either, but we can learn a lot about how to be great leaders and how to lead more effectively.

The great mental models. This book allows me to scale as a manager, because I can make connections between new problems and old problems quickly and treat new problems as “another one of those” by applying my learnings from previous similar problems. It is also important to teach those mental models to my best people, so that they become more effective problem solvers, too.

Building Effective Teams

Useful tooling

Atlassian has lots of useful plays that you can go through with your team. This is how you get the team to really own problems together. Not sure where to start? Do the health monitor. As a Manager I have learnt a lot about what’s working well in the team and what isn’t. Sometimes there are no surprises for me, but team members become aware of problems.

Another great resource is It is software that helps you organise events in which a large group of people can authentically get to know each other. I’ve used it for our quarter kickoff and got really good feedback on it.

Having great 1:1s

For me 1:1s are always about either coaching people (which is when I listen to what’s working well and what isn’t to give feedback about how the person can do better) as well as building trust and building a connection. To learn about a person, you can ask questions for example from this list.

For the first 1:1 with anyone, I like to ask these questions.

But at the end of the day, 1:1s are a lot about coaching and I've become a lot more effective at doing them ever since I picked up The Coaching Habit.

Giving candid feedback

The only kind of feedback that works is what the recipient chooses to hear and accept. What helped me is to make sure that

  • I provide feedback in a non-threatening setting. Usually in private, most of the time in person/video so that I can see the other person's reaction and put things into context
  • Feedback needs to be candid. When you provide it, you're speaking from your feelings and beliefs, not from a version that is bending the truth.
  • Especially if it's tough feedback, put it into perspective. Does this person being five minutes late to every meeting mean that you think less of them as a person? That you're planning to fire them over it? Make sure feedback for small improvements is seen as such and feedback about behaviour that may cost someone their job is seen as such, too

Furthermore I follow a method of communicating my observation, my impression and my wish. I do that by answering (in this order)

  1. What did I see and hear?
  2. How did that make me feel?
  3. What's my wish?

Sometimes it's hard to be specific with your wish and that's ok. You can wish for a different feeling without giving tips on different behaviour. You can wish for continuity in case of positive feedback. If you're not comfortable sharing, you can even skip the wish altogether and you will still have provided valuable feedback.

Example: An employee regularly shows up late for meetings that involve the entire team and it's affecting team morale. My feedback might look like this

I noticed that in the past weeks you often showed up late for our meetings while all your colleagues are waiting for you for five minutes. It made me feel like you don't think the meetings are relevant for you or your time is more important than your colleagues'. I wish you'd be on time for meetings where you're expected and you would help make meetings more relevant for everyone involved so that we all make good use of our time.

The person receiving this feedback might not accept the entire part of the feedback, but they will know what you noticed and they will have heightened awareness of the impression it leaves on others.

What else? What are some more resources which are useful to get into engineering management?

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