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Doug Arcuri
Doug Arcuri

Posted on • Updated on

What is an Engineering Manager Anyway?

I've had the pleasure of being an engineering manager (EM) for five years. For EMs who are new, I wanted to share a handful of essential tips. Here is what I learned.

The most important action of a manager is to hire. Hiring is an intricate habit, from recruitment to onboarding. EMs are accountable for its successful orchestration. They lead team growth in the organization.

And delivery and retention are essential. Trust and continued engagement of each engineer fuel project delivery. EMs are accountable for these results and retaining talent. Aligning goals and having the right engineers at the table is the way to execute.

Managers and leaders are different! Managers shepherd who does what by when. Leaders show the here to there and can articulate the why. The best strive to do both.

Management is not a promotion. It's an orthogonal discipline. Managing is different than engineering. Their toolchain is mentoring, coaching, feedback, and sponsorship wrapped in initiatives. These tools take a lifetime to master and is an art between people and technology.

Managers ruthlessly delegate. EMs entrust with painting the picture of done. They discuss the mission, the why, and give guidance. Managers leave the how to the leads and teams so they can scale.

EMs search and source relevant context. They have an investor attitude. Managers find and point in a direction for those to learn. They share information on disciplines, trends, and what is happening in the community. EMs are meta engineers. They build and tune the talent that produces the machine.

Staying technical is essential. In software, discreteness and rational thought are paramount. The language and discipline of engineering ignite the performance of others. Managers know their limits and stay higher-ordered. Whereas the team has latitude with the craft, EMs develop a toolbox to elevate that craft further.

Like software, managers follow rituals. They follow the same feedback loop of developing software. First, make it work, then make it right, finally make it fast. In management, EMs build trust, place people in areas to grow, and then optimize. Developing software sometimes requires walking away for a solution—managers typically walk into solutions.

And optimization is praise. The accelerant of culture is praise. Develop a test culture by praising those that uphold quality. Develop collaboration by those that collaborate. Do some of the initial work. No matter how small, catch them doing the right things and recognize it.

But the brutality of management is the lengthy feedback loop. EMs practice patience. The satisfaction of delivery and growing those is long-tailed. Whereas the engineering feedback loop is seconds to minutes, the manager's feedback loop is weeks to months.

EMs promote a learning culture. Software is creative work. They work to build a culture that learns from the delivery of software. They encourage and capture shared learnings for others in the organization. EMs set time for their engineers to explore.

And they invest in their management craft. A manager invests in continuous learning. They read books, listen to podcasts, and experiment to source for others. There are leaders out there with the right advice. Asynchronous mentorship is all around.

EMs continuously build relationships. Managers are also organizational engineers. To enable their teams, they focus on building alliances with everyone in the business. EMs optimize for common ground and increase optionality as projects roll on.

And they partner with product and design well. EMs collaborate on the customer journey from discovery to delivery. They barter with technology to find optimal solutions to a business outcome. EMs speak this language and can demo its functional value in front of others.

They have to make tough decisions. Sometimes a decision is necessary. Information will be incomplete, and it will be hard. But the weight of not making the decision is worse than making one no matter how unclear the outcome.

With their decisions, fairness, and no surprises. EMs make decisions that weigh options fairly. They communicate effectively by having 1-on-1s, staff meetings and are right there with the team. There are no surprises.

And impact the lives of others. What managers say has an impact on others. If done right, they see those grow, and in turn, see themselves grow. Above all, they served the business well with their tenure.

Top comments (4)

akperkins profile image
Andre Perkins • Edited

"the brutality of management is the lengthy feedback loop" - There isn't any TDD analog for managers? :)

charroch profile image
Carl-Gustaf Harroch

Well narrated thank you.

tonetheman profile image
Tony Colston

I am slowly becoming this. Good list!

rakhmad profile image
Rakhmad Azhari

Agree with things on this list. I wish I knew several of these sooner. It was hard to become an EM, especially making tough decisions without complete information.