Webinar: How I became an engineering leader
Developers turned engineering managers discuss the skills you need to level up your career.
Before I became an engineering manager at Amazon, I learned that every manager has a unique style. Finding mine gave my career a new sense of purpose.
Alex Kavalsky is a Software Development Manager at Amazon whose team develops the Content Management System responsible for scheduling and presenting content to millions of Amazon's customers. Alex leads his team in scaling and working backwards from thousands of internal customers to deliver on high-visibility products.
Some engineers become managers because they like the idea of leading other people. I don’t think that’s enough. What motivates you as a manager? Maybe you’re passionate about the customers and product growth. Maybe you’re passionate about helping people solve challenges and grow in their careers. Your approach should play to your unique strengths and interests. That’s how you develop your own style as a manager.
In my 4-5 years as an engineer at Amazon, I had a number of managers, each with their own management style. In my first role, my manager was a self-proclaimed software manager/product manager hybrid. He was frequently meeting with customers, setting up user research studies, and dreaming up the "what's next?" I loved seeing that as an engineer on the team. I found it inspiring.
Although I didn't quite have another manager like that, I learned through my next few managers what I really appreciated in an engineering leader: a focus on product and on people.
Every manager needs to have a balance, but for the most part, every manager I’ve worked with indexes on one side of this triangle. Here’s how that breaks down:
Today, I think of myself as a people-focused manager. I have thought a lot about the qualities that make a good people manager successful, which I’ll share later on. But first, let’s touch on the other two styles.
Product-focused engineering managers are customer-oriented. Like my first manager, this type of manager is focused on the users for whom they are building their features or products.
As a product-focused manager, you always have to be a little more visionary. If your product stops growing, you start fading away. Product-focused managers are able to sustain this long-term perspective and growth for their teams. Product-focused managers can always answer: “What’s next? What’s around the corner?”. These are the big questions that engineers generally ask (senior leadership always asks them, too).
Of course, in most companies, there are dedicated product managers who work across teams to help realize the product vision. But software managers also have that critical responsibility to grow their products and focus on customers.
The only issue with always thinking so far in the future is that it limits what you can do in the short term. If you’re not thinking about what’s happening right now and reacting to it, or trying to be proactive, it can hinder both the people and the performance. There can be a tradeoff with delivery – or you can even run the risk of breaking things – if you lose track of what’s happening day-to-day.
Product-focused engineering manager
Performance-focused managers prioritize delivery. They index heavily on project planning, scheduling, and measuring.
Here are a few questions that performance-focused managers tend to ask:
To some extent, every manager has to focus on performance. Consistent delivery will always be important to senior leadership. At a basic level, your team has to be able to execute.
As a result, some managers may over-index on performance, and some may under-index. (My own personal growth area is that I tend to under-index on the output because my focus tends to be so much on people).
But here’s the catch – if you over-index on performance, you run the risk of burning team members out. For that reason, you can’t have a single-minded focus on delivery. You need to leverage your employees’ strengths, but also understand and support the ways they want to grow.
Over-indexing on performance can also lead to inflexibility in the workplace. Sure, there may be the occasional hackathon. But generally speaking, engineers want and need more time to experiment. Lack of flexibility to explore can often lead to a tradeoff in performance.
I have seen organizations hyper-focus on performance and output, which has resulted in teams rotating and shifting to the point that they needed to rethink their approach. It’s actually okay to miss goals. It’s unfortunate, and it’s not ideal, but it’s okay – as long as you have a core group of strong engineers who can get the team over the finish line, especially during the stressful times where things don’t go as planned. I would never underestimate a strong group of engineers who are excited and empowered to help.
Performance-focused engineering manager
My journey to becoming a people-focused manager exposed me to a wide range of management styles. When I first became a manager, I drew inspiration from each manager I saw.
Like I explained at the beginning, my first manager had a clear product focus, but they were a strong people manager as well. For some of our 1:1s, we would go mini-golfing in one of the nearby Amazon buildings. The best part? Our conversations weren’t just about what I was working on. We discussed career aspirations, mental and emotional health, and life in general. It was a relaxed, open, and trusting environment, which really worked for me as an individual engineer. I appreciated having the chance to talk to my manager about my career without being fixated on output, or worrying about the next promotion.
Whether or not mini-golfing is your style, the best people managers I know are invested in each one of their employee’s career growth and development. If you invest in the people on your team, it may lead to higher employee satisfaction. Engineers will feel more connected to their work, too. The reason why is pretty simple: you’re working with them, you’re talking with them, you’re helping them grow.
I will also say that people management is truly a two-way street. I love getting feedback from my engineers. But that was also an environment I had to cultivate; in my first few years of managing, I didn’t get that level of feedback.
Of course, you may find that there’s a conflict between what engineers want to work on and what needs to get done. That’s an incredibly hard tradeoff. Engineers may not volunteer to pick up the less glamorous work. It’s important as a manager to sprinkle in some of the exciting work, and to get people thinking on the more visionary product-focused side when it’s possible. (Then you have to follow through with any commitments that you make to your engineers.)
Here’s the thing: I love the idea of employee relationship building. I love the idea of working with people with whom I’ve grown and worked so closely.
On the flip side, having someone stay on the team too long may be detrimental to everyone. Their ideas can get stuck in the ways the team operates. To avoid this issue, I like to encourage my team to look for the next big thing. There are always opportunities on the teams around us. I felt like that’s how I grew the most as an engineer: by exploring all the different products we could work on. (That’s how I learned that I liked awesome UIs, for example, which is where I work now.) I’ve had experiences where someone leaves the team for a different role in the company, and the next person is able to contribute new ideas with completely fresh eyes. Don’t be afraid of those opportunities for rotation.
People-focused engineering manager
When I show up to work each day and think about what I’m doing to be the best possible manager for my team, I start with the following tenets:
1) 1:1s are essential.
I’ve had managers in the past who treated 1:1s as quick status updates, or worse, skipped them altogether. I don’t recommend this. Every 1:1 is an opportunity to interface in a meaningful way with your engineers.
Again, the best 1:1s aren’t just focused on what you got done last week. I love talking about career growth, which is actually more taboo than it leads on. Talking about someone’s career growth can be personal! Sometimes people might not be so open about discussing their career goals, but if you don’t understand how your engineers want to grow, you’re not going to know how to help as a manager. Managers aren’t mind readers, which means we have to find out this information somehow. So, I have developed an array of tools that I use to prompt deeper, more substantive conversations:
Once a month, I make a point of having a focused career coaching discussion. Eventually, I love for the engineers to drive those conversations. But at the same time, I like coming in with a question or a prompt and just seeing where the conversation takes us. These are actually my favorite conversations of all.
2) Understand what motivates each engineer (and celebrate their accomplishments).
Sometimes the thing that motivates an engineer the most is a promotion. Sometimes, but not always.
I’ve actually found that in most cases, the engineers I work with are looking for greater challenges to take on more so than promotion opportunities. They’re looking for tough problems to solve. Of course, these problems have to be in their wheelhouse (e.g., I’m not going to tell a frontend engineer to go solve a databasing problem). Finding the right work and opportunities for each of your team members is one of the best things you can do to help delivery.
I also make a point of celebrating each engineer’s accomplishments. This boosts their confidence and instills a sense of ownership. But here’s the catch: you have to celebrate each engineer in the way they want to be celebrated.
An all-hands meeting may not be the best time to celebrate an engineer (“hey this person fixed a critical bug so we could launch on time, everyone clap!”). Maybe they would prefer an email, or a shoutout in a standup. It all comes back to understanding what motivates each engineer, and finding ways to help them excel and be celebrated in a way that is best for them.
At the end of the day, seeing each engineer grow and achieve the goals they set for themselves is the most gratifying thing. And sure enough, getting them promoted can be a really big deal. Developing a roadmap for individual engineers is something that excites me, because I get to see that growth happen in real time.
3) Embrace awkward silence.
Listen. Don’t judge or solve. Just listen. And when it’s your turn to speak, ask more questions.
The biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is to embrace the awkward silence. This part can be very challenging at first, just listening and being okay with no sound at all. This technique has actually opened a lot of doors for me to connect with my team and understand what they’re working towards.
Avoid trying to "fix" by jumping to change or solve problems, and instead, challenge yourself to ask more questions. An engineer will encounter plenty of problems in their work, but your job as their manager isn’t to solve these problems for them. Your job is to listen and understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and then help them think through the problem so they can solve it themselves.
Tools like visual imagery cards can help you to embrace awkward silence in a more structured way. To get started, you present the engineer with a series of pictures – these can range from mountain climbers to deep-sea divers. Based on the engineer’s choice, you begin to ask probing questions. “Oh, I see you picked a mountain climber to represent how difficult of a trek it is to reach your next goal. What’s at the top of the mountain? Are there other mountains you can climb?”
4) Culture matters.
We all know that it can be challenging to connect with your engineers remotely. Remote work has changed things a bit for my team, but we do our best to get creative (for example, I set up an instructor-led virtual succulent planting event that the team loved).
I am very proud to say that our team still works together well and remains close. As a result, everyone on the team knows each other’s strengths and growth areas, more so than I’ve seen in other teams.
As a team, we’re more transparent and proactive about asking for help. Our senior engineers enjoy mentoring, particularly around areas where they want to learn, which ensures that the mentor and mentee both benefit. My team exhibits a high level of collaboration and communication internally, as well as externally – I am always happy when I hear other managers talking about my engineers and how they’re helping others across the company grow. We always make the point that we’re not in this isolated fishbowl. We work cross-functionally and have a lot of touchpoints across various teams.
We celebrate our successes, but we also own and learn from our mistakes through retrospectives after every project. To some degree, we actually treat our retrospectives kind of like a venting session, where the senior engineers take a lot of leadership and accountability.
One last thing: every Friday, we have a happy hour. It’s not the same every time – sometimes we play games, sometimes we just talk. We’ll talk about our weekends, our vacations, the most interesting things we learned at trainings. Those conversations really help open people up.
5) Don’t just be a manager. Be a coach.
Everything I’ve talked about so far ladders up to this idea. Being a successful people manager depends on your coaching ability – and I’m not talking about being the sideline coach of a football team.
Managing refers to the job of overseeing the work of others. The focus is on being directive: here's what needs to be done, here's how I'd like you to do it, here's when it needs to be completed.
Coaching takes on a collaborative and empowering approach, pointing team members towards their own resourcefulness and insight. Unlike training, where the curriculum and the trainer set the agenda, coaching centers around your employee. It’s more like you’re having an ongoing dialogue over the course of months and years.
Coaching and treating your team as individuals increases confidence, communication, and performance.
Setting up recurring career coaching meetings, instead of typical 1:1s, can help with this. I find that if you ask open-ended questions like “How do you feel like your career is progressing?” without any context, it can be hard to get a specific response. That’s why I’ll use visual imagery cards to help prompt deeper conversations and spark new insights.
I also recommend having your engineers drive their own opportunities for growth. I feel grateful that my engineers have gotten to the point where they enjoy having candid conversations about their career, and that they know I am here to help.
When engineers within our org come to me and ask what it’s like to become a manager, here’s what I say: my motivation for people management isn’t for everybody. I like to talk (for that matter, I have always been more of a social developer). I also like to listen and support. Those are my strengths. For an engineer trying to figure out what kind of manager they would be, it really comes down to their strengths and comfort level.
Finding your management style doesn’t happen overnight. Reflecting on your strengths and looking to past managers for inspiration can help you define an approach that feels right. It’s okay to have a particular focus in your management style – most managers do. Just understand your bias and how it influences your style. If I’m really focused on people, for example, is it hindering me from getting my job done, or from developing others, or from making sure my product is growing?
At the end of the day, there is no one way to succeed as a manager. I think of it as being on a surfboard, riding a wave. You can steer a little bit, but the wave is the thing that is really doing the moving. You can’t veer off the wave, or attempt to control it. Your best bet is to work with the wave to get to where you want to go. The wave, of course, is your team. How you work with the wave is your management style.
Above all else, I encourage people to understand what you enjoy about being a manager. At times, it can be the most rewarding career choice ever (promotions and career milestones for your team, major deliveries, seeing the amazing things your team can build). At other times, it can be incredibly challenging and difficult (underperforming members who you feel can get better, shifting priorities, things that affect your team that are out of your control).
Your engineers are complex individuals with strengths and growth areas and aspirations. My journey to people-focused management started with a genuine desire to help engineers reach their goals. I think a lot about the Dunning-Kruger Effect in my work, which is the idea that when you initially encounter a new problem or space, your confidence is high – but then reality sets and you realize how much you don’t know. At this point, your morale is at an all-time low. I believe that your managers are there to help you get past the bottom of the curve, to help encourage you and boost your morale so that you can start learning in a meaningful way.
If you are motivated to get to know each engineer and understand how they need to be coached, you are in the right place to start your management journey. I hope that my story (and the framework of product, performance, and people-focused management) can help you to find a focus that works for you. The ideal management style doesn’t just reflect your strengths – it also inspires you to grow with your team every day.
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