Aspiring engineering managers (EM) often ask me, “What do you look for in an engineering leader?” or “What can I do to become a better engineering leader?”
Engineering leaders must continuously learn and grow. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can offer you my experience in engineering and product management, which has given me a unique perspective on what it takes to become an outstanding product engineering leader at any level.
It’s my hope that this will be helpful in improving your own path to a leadership role. If you have questions, suggestions, or would like to learn more, feel free to send me a direct message or you could take a look at career opportunities at Medallia. We’re always looking for great talent!
As a key pillar of engineering management, the notion of product leadership may seem like it could conflict with your product management mandate. The intent isn’t to clash with management but to show just how indispensable an EMs perspective is to the product triad (Product, Design, and Engineering).
When an EM lacks perspective on the goals and future direction of a product, they cease to be an effective member of the triad, and quickly become an operator of a monotonous software factory. EMs must understand, and should even influence, product strategy and design. This makes them a productive contributor to the product triad–well beyond the confines of technical decisions and delivery. In addition, being in a position of influence will motivate your team. Influential thinking on product direction fuels and inspires teams to take action and innovate.
“How” things get shipped is as important as “why” things get built. That doesn’t mean market analysis, product definition, go-to-market strategy, etc. are within the scope of an EM either. But an EM should enthusiastically dig deep to understand these areas as well as challenge a given direction where the supporting data and/or conclusions drawn are ambiguous or unsubstantiated.
Responsibility for the product is yours as much as anyone else’s in the triad. It’s your role and right to lean into that responsibility and take ownership.
Many engineers and current managers view management as an escape from being technical development. Yes, management does create distance from coding, but a great EM always remains an engineer at their core and continues to build.
As your responsibilities grow, your ability to commit code and/or engage in daily technical discussions will shrink. Budgeting exercises, customer visits, product reviews, strategy sessions, and one-on-ones will chip away coding. But that doesn’t mean you stop learning.
Depending on where you are in your career, and your workload, staying up-to-date could require supplementing your working hours with nightly reading or coding. Regardless of your days, technical acumen remains the key to your sharpness as an EM. Continually feeding your technical know-how, will give your team an advantage navigating their challenges.
Remember, your role may be that of leader now, but you’re an engineer always.
Adept Project Management
Why “adept project management” and not “project management skills”? Because project management is a craft. Putting it into practice is far more complex than simply adopting a framework (e.g waterfall, SCRUM, Kanban, Hybrid-SCRUM, etc.). There are many pieces to balancing a project plan, which require skill and, subsequently, adept knowledge of the factors that may impact the quality of your execution scheme.
A good EM seeks to understand how to best balance the “cost of doing business” (i.e. escalations, bugs, infrastructure investments, etc.) with feature development. They do this in terms of what percentage of resources are committed to one concern vs the other. EMs should feel empowered to maintain their position with regard to resource allocations–pushing back on product management and the broader business where necessary to keep a healthy mixture of product stabilization and enhancement.
Often quality doesn’t get enough consideration. But great EMs allocate time and resources to tackle the pyramid of tests to shield the product and ensure its quality. Far too many EMs cut corners in quality attempting to reduce time to market. The problem is that due to this shortcut, subpar quality results in a poor customer experience. This damages the reputation of the team and creates a negative perception of the product in the market. The takeaway is high quality products lead to greater revenues and happier engineers. Note to self: don’t skimp!
Another concern that’s often an afterthought is delivery. This area comes in many shapes and sizes, spanning from the simple decision of how you ship a feature (e.g. branch management vs. feature flags/toggles) to the more tedious task of lining up resources across functions to support a product launch. Delivery is one of your core responsibilities as an EM. It requires a strong sense of ownership that can push the limits of what you believe to be the scope of your responsibilities. Regardless of perceived role, you’re responsible for putting the product in the customer’s hands and should be actively removing anything in the way of fulfillment. There are few things more important to the successful completion of a project than good old fashioned accountability.
An Appreciation & Understanding of People
If this topic makes you twitch or squirm, look elsewhere. Management is not the job for you. Empathy is a trait vital to your success in this role. You must appreciate others and want to understand your team, department and broader organization. The day you become a leader is the day your concerns become greater than your own.
Beyond caring it takes a great amount of time and energy to bring people together and motivate them to action daily, but it’s not without reward. If you relish in the victory of others, the accomplishments of your team will push you onward. However, if valuing another’s success is not in your DNA, then you will find yourself perpetually fatigued and drained as a manager, lacking the capacity to give back to your team.
If you want to get into management to help others overcome obstacles, and not for personal power or prestige, you’re on the right track. Keep it up and push yourself for greatness. And, feel free to reach out to me if you’d like explore opportunities at Medallia.