Engineering management

I’m a few days away from hitting 6 years at Canonical and I’ve ended up doing a lot more management than anything else in that time. Before that I did a solid 8 years at my own company, doing anything from developing, project managing, product managing, engineering managing, sales and accounting.
This time of the year is performance review time at Canonical, so it’s gotten me thinking a lot about my role and how my view on engineering management has evolved over the years.

A key insights I’ve had from a former boss, Elliot Murphy, was viewing it as a support role for others to do their job rather than a follow-the-leader approach. I had heard the phrase “As a manager, I work for you” a few times over the years, but it rarely seemed true and felt mostly like a good concept to make people happy but not really applied in practice in any meaningful way.

Of all the approaches I’ve taken or seen, a role where you’re there to unblock developers more than anything else, I believe is the best one. And unless you’re a bit power-hungry on some level, it’s probably the most enjoyable way of being a manager.

It’s not to be applied blindly, though, I think a few conditions have to be met:
1) The team has to be fairly experienced/senior/smart, I think if it isn’t it breaks down to often
2) You need to understand very clearly what needs doing and why, and need to invest heavily and frequently in communicated it to the team, both the global context as well as how it applies to them individually
3) You need to build a relationship of trust with each person and need to trust them, because trust is always a 2-way street
4) You need to be enough of an engineer to understand problems in depth when explained, know when to defer to other’s judgments (which should be the common case when the team generally smart and experienced) and be capable of tie-breaking in a technical-savvy way
5) Have anyone who’s ego doesn’t fit in a small, 100ml container, leave it at home

There are many more things to do, but I think if you don’t have those five, everything else is hard to hold together. In general, if the team is smart and experienced, understands what needs doing and why, and like their job, almost everything else self-organizes.
If it isn’t self-organizing well enough, walk over those 5 points, one or several must be mis-aligned. More often than not, it’s 2). Communication is hard, expensive and more of an art than a science. Most of the times things have seemed to stumble a bit, it’s been a failure of how I understood what we should be doing as a team, or a failure on how I communicated it to everyone else as it evolved over time.
Second most frequent I think is 1), but that may vary more depending on your team, company and project.

Oh, and actually caring about people and what you do helps a lot, but that helps a lot in life in general, so do that anyway regardless of you role  🙂

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