In software engineering, the career path is different from that of a generic manager. You’re expected to lead your team, but you’re also expected to be a skilled expert who can guide technical decisions. For some people, especially those who like pure technical work, combining these two roles can be overwhelming.
“The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change” by Camille Fournier was written specifically for engineering managers. Fournier, the former CTO of Rent The Runway, and one of the greatest engineering leaders in the industry explains the peculiarities of managing people in tech and gives advice for each career stage.
Read our short summary of “The Manager’s Path” to learn more about engineering management.
Good managers are not easy to find. Some are neglectful. Some are micromanagers who control every step of yours. And some are just abusive.
But what makes a good manager? Fournier says a good manager helps you grow in your career, gives feedback, and is respectful. She mentions three things that you can expect from such a manager:
However, Fournier points out that your workplace happiness is your responsibility. Just like your manager, you also set the tone for your relationship. Fournier gives advice on how you can do it.
An opportunity to mentor another person gives you a chance to learn how to be a manager – in a safe environment, as people rarely get fired for bad mentorship. But how can you make these relationships effective?
An intern is a temporary employee, typically a student who needs to get some experience. You have to be ready for two things: this person doesn’t know much, and he will probably not stay in your company.
However, don’t let your intern get bored. Assign a project. Break the project down into milestones. As an alternative, give them some small features of your current project to work on.
This is a great chance to see your company through fresh eyes. You may take the processes and culture in your company for granted. A newcomer would not. Explaining the rules, spoken and unspoken, you may get a different view of your company world.
The best relationships of this type evolve naturally. A senior engineer on the team mentors a junior one, to help him get more productive. If it’s beneficial for both, it’s okay. But sometimes, people get mentors only because someone wants them to. And it’s not always needed.
Fournier defines “the alpha geek” as someone who “values intelligence and technical skills above all other traits”. Alpha geeks always make it seem like they have all the right answers. They believe they're the best ones, undermine the work of their colleagues, and often redo it without any warning.
Naturally, it’s hard to work with alpha geeks. They make horrible managers. Mentorship can be useful for them, though. It may help them learn to listen and communicate things in a way that will be understandable to others.
From the title, it gets obvious that the term “tech lead” is expected to be both a technical and a leadership position. Fournier says it’s “not a point on the ladder, but a set of responsibilities”.
Being a tech lead means that you will continue writing code, but will also have to represent the group to the management and deal with the project management processes. You will still make technical decisions, but also think about how you can empower your team and remove obstacles for them. This is not an easy role.
It can be hard to balance the work of project management and oversight with hands-on technical delivery. Some days you’re on a maker’s schedule, and some days you’re on a manager’s schedule.
You should continue writing code, but not too much.
Project management is a complex process. It involves breaking a goal down into small pieces, and identifying which pieces can be done in parallel and which in sequence.
How can you make project management effective?
Recommended reading: The Low-Down on Effective Project Management
You can switch tracks if you want. It is common for people to try out management at some point, realize they don’t enjoy it, and go back to the technical track. Nothing about this is permanent.
When you start to manage, some of your direct reports will be people you don’t know yet. So what steps do you need to take to make a relationship with them more tight-knit?
You could try asking newcomers a series of questions that will help you understand how to manage them best. How would they like to receive feedback, in person or through email? Is there any manager behavior they hate, like skipping 1-1s?
Create a clear set of goals for your new hire to achieve in the first 90 days. These goals must be realistic, preferably based on the experience of your prior hires. Sometimes you will see that, unfortunately, you hired the wrong person.
Recommended reading: The First 90 Days - Summary & Tips for (New) Leaders
New hires must clearly understand what is expected from them. If you want to get a weekly summary of progress via email, let them know. If you’ve got an unspoken policy, according to which an employee has to work alone for some time trying to fix a problem before they can ask for help, let them know.
As we mentioned before, it’s valuable to see your work with fresh eyes. However, take new hires’ observations with a grain of salt – these observations might lack objectivity.
Continuous feedback, which is a regular sharing of both positive and negative feedback in real time, is very important. But it cannot be used alone. A good idea is to combine it with 360-based feedback.
360-based feedback includes feedback not only from a manager, but also from teammates, anyone a person being evaluated interacts with, and a self-review.
The problem with a 360-degree review is that we tend to forget things that happened a long time ago, and overemphasize things that happened recently. This is why, writing a performance review, it’s critical to account for the whole year.
Fournier calls the role of managing a team “engineering lead”. She emphasizes that it’s crucially important for the engineering lead to stay technical:
Even though you may stop writing code, your job will require that you guide technical decision making… you have the job of … making sure that the decisions pass the technical smell test and have been balanced against the overall context of the team and the business.
Unfortunately, some companies split the management and technical tracks. As a result, the manager's job becomes just administrative, and that is not good.
Managing a team, be ready that conflicts will arise. Avoiding a conflict is not the best tactic - it leads to dysfunctional work.
How can you create a safe environment where conflicts get resolved?
Recommended reading: The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team: Book Summary
Team cohesion is very important, but some people ruin it with their unhealthy habits. Fournier classifies such workers into four types:
When you start managing multiple teams, the number of your duties multiples accordingly. Meetings pile up. You get to feel overwhelmed. This is why you should know how to manage your own time.
Fournier emphasizes the difference between importance and urgency. The problem is, we feel urgency more clearly than importance. For example, when you get an email, it feels urgent, even though it’s not necessarily so.
As you navigate your new obligations, start to ask yourself: How important is the thing I’m doing? Does it seem to be important because it’s urgent?
Recommended reading: How to Prioritize Projects (When You’re Understaffed)
Busy with meetings, you get distracted. Help yourself - start to delegate. Fournier divides tasks into four categories, which determine if you can delegate the task:
Delegation is a process that starts slow but turns into an essential element for career growth. If your teams can’t operate well without you, you’ll find it hard to be promoted.
Managing managers is similar to managing multiple teams. Again, you’re responsible for handling several teams, but there is a difference – the teams you manage are not closely related. Sometimes you don’t even have the skills some of your teams do. That’s why this level is more challenging.
In addition to what we just mentioned, there is one more difficulty managers’ managers face - they’re in charge of helping solve issues they don’t directly witness. Subordinate managers are not always reliable narrators. But there is a way out – a skip-level meeting.
Skip-level meetings are meetings with reports of your reports. Their purpose is to get an idea about the team’s health. One technique is to conduct 1-1s with each person in the organization. This way, big managers can build a surface-level personal relationship with everyone who works in the organization. It’s very useful as it helps the boss to stop seeing people as just “resources”.
The people pleaser is a dysfunctional manager on the managers’ manager team. Typically, his team likes him – but as a person, not as a manager.
These are managers who hide problems from their teams, avoid mistakes, overpromise and underdeliver. They try to make everyone happy, both their own manager and their team, but reach the opposite effect. Their managers have no idea about problems happening, and their teams are scared to fail.
Fournier underlines that if you have a people pleaser on the team, you should let him know his behavior is not productive. Usually, being aware of the problem helps.
It would be a mistake to think that once you hired a new manager, leading a team is just his concern. First-time managers need a lot of coaching. They typically overwork.
A good idea is to have them undergo additional training. You can use either your company’s curriculum (if you’ve got one) or look for training opportunities outside the company.
Cultures are very important for teams. And managers create subcultures. Make sure the manager you hired fits your environment.
Very often, people don’t want to hire managers from outside. Sometimes it’s a necessity though. To make a safe choice, make sure this person has the skills you need, discuss their management philosophy, and do the reference check.
Technical senior leadership is not the same as general-purpose senior leadership. Naturally, their duties differ.
Fournier mentions the following roles technical senior leadership can play:
Strategy is a critical element of senior leadership. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t know where to start. Fournier recommends considering the following steps:
If you as a leader want to create healthy teams, you need to understand what’s important for your company - and then create a culture.
Fournier defines culture as “generally unspoken rules of a community”. This means that if you’re a part of a culture, you don’t have to think much about the rules – you just act according to them, in a natural way.
One of the tools that reflect the culture in your company is a career ladder. This is a document that shows how career growth happens in a particular company. The career ladder is an important element of hiring, writing performance reviews, and promotion.
So how can you write a good career ladder?
Engineering management is not easy. But if you want to grow professionally, becoming a manager will probably be a necessary step. You will have to shift focus from personal ambitions to the well-being of a team. You will also have to improve both your technical expertise and communication skills. With the right strategies, nothing is impossible.
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