The former CTO of TaskRabbit and current Director of Connector Engineering at Airbyte shares how he leads engineering teams to continuous success.
4 essential qualities of an effective engineering manager
Is engineering management the right career path for you? We asked EMs across the industry what it takes to succeed in the role.
Engineers face an important choice as they move up the career ladder: Should I be a technical lead or an engineering manager?
While there is overlap between the skills each role requires, technical leadership and engineering management are very different paths. Deciding which one to take depends on your natural strengths and interests.
The basic distinction between technical lead and manager roles is the emphasis on technology vs. people. Technical leads spend more time writing code and learning new technologies. Engineering managers spend more time helping people grow and collaborate effectively.
Alex Kavalsky, a Software Development Manager at Amazon, advises that management isn't the right track for everyone. "Some engineers become managers because they like the idea of leading other people. I don’t think that’s enough."
We asked engineering leaders across the industry what it actually takes to thrive in a management role.
Today we'll cover 4 qualities of successful EMs to help you make an informed choice about your career path.
1. Effective Communication
Communication is a vital skill for managers and engineers alike – teams perform best when everyone shares information effectively. However, becoming a manager significantly increases your communication responsibilities. For example, you will:
Set and communicate expectations to your team.
"As a leader, your role is to connect everyday tasks with the larger question: Why does my team exist? When employees understand how their contributions impact the mission of your team and company, they will feel more engaged and inspired." – Magda Miu, Engineering Manager at Adobe
Magda starts by communicating with leadership to understand company goals and how her team can make an impact. From there, she sets team-level goals and defines behavioral norms that will help engineers achieve their mission.
Setting and communicating expectations is an ongoing process. Magda recommends reviewing behavioral norms with your team at the end of each month and revising accordingly.
Translate between executives and engineers.
As a manager, your performance is measured by the business impact of your engineering teams. This means that you need to communicate effectively with executives and engineers – two groups that speak very different languages.
"As an engineering leader, a regular part of my work was explaining the tradeoffs of technical investments to business people. Let’s say the business wants to implement two-factor authentication. From a business perspective, I can affirm the value of the idea while explaining the technical complexity behind it: it’s not as simple as adding a field to an existing feature." – Karl Hughes, Founder & CEO of Draft.dev
On the flip side, it's also important to explain business decisions to your engineering teams. This can be challenging when the decisions require engineers to scrap a project or change course. However, you can maintain morale by communicating clearly and leading with empathy:
"How can a manager ensure these drastic changes do not devalue dev work? By understanding the external changes from a business perspective, and then connecting those product imperatives to the team’s technical interests. Managers must communicate the why that drives a change in scope, and assure the team that the change is meant to empower their work to be even more valuable, more effective." – Fahim ul Haq, Co-Founder & CEO of Educative
Facilitate productive meetings.
Facilitating productive meetings is one of the most important skills in engineering management. To make the most of everyone’s time, the best EMs:
- Set and share meeting agendas beforehand to help everyone stay on-task.
- Provide concise background context to get everyone up to speed.
- Ask respectful questions that advance the conversation.
- Document all decisions and share them with attendees.
"Imagine an environment where the team only brings “safe” ideas. Nobody speaks up if they realize they’ve made a mistake (or spotted someone else’s). Nobody asks clarifying questions for fear of being labeled as someone who doesn’t know their stuff." – Magda Miu, Engineering Manager at Adobe
Jossie Haines, leadership consultant and former VP of Engineering at Tile, encourages engineering managers to build trust by communicating inclusive values. These include the importance of being vulnerable and growing from our mistakes.
2. Extreme sense of ownership
"Engineers measure their success by the quality of their code. For engineering managers, success is measured by the impact of people, processes, and delivery." – Ariel Weinberger, VP of Research & Development at Amplification
Moving into management means owning new processes. Instead of focusing on writing great code, you will be expected to:
- Show bias for action by looping in the right people, providing feedback, and communicating with stakeholders.
- Make tough decisions that will benefit the business when a group can't reach a consensus.
Phillipa Rodney, Engineering Leader and Coach, stresses the importance of making tough decisions while exercising empathy. This is where effective communication and extreme sense of ownership go hand in hand:
"Being empathetic doesn't mean avoiding uncomfortable conversations. In fact, lack of clarity around changing goals and expectations will prevent your team from adapting successfully. Depending on your management style, you may need to make a conscious effort to be more transparent and ensure your team has the level of structure and clarity they need." – Phillipa Rodney, Engineering Leader and Coach
3. Interest in mentorship
Engineering management is all about supporting business goals and people's career growth. To find a successful balance, Ariel Weinberger keeps these 3 things in mind:
- The business strives to make money.
- Your team needs motivation to achieve business goals.
- Software engineers want to grow and work on exciting projects.
The trick is to negotiate these 3 points and find as many win-win solutions as possible. Through ongoing mentorship, you can help engineers grow in a way that also serves the business.
Hema Ramaswamy, Senior VP of Engineering at Tracer Labs, finds that working with each engineer to identify and recognize their strengths leads to more productive teams.
"I view our success as collective, not individual. We don't need every person to have every skill. The best teams are comprised of individuals who have complementary strengths and work together effectively." – Hema Ramaswamy, Senior VP of Engineering at Tracer Labs
As an EM, you will spend a lot of time helping engineers identify strengths and opportunities for growth. This includes regular 1:1s to help engineers find projects that advance their careers while accelerating the team.
4. Desire to learn
Are you interested in learning:
- How to communicate effectively with engineers and business leaders?
- How to own project workflows, delegate, and provide feedback?
- How to build relationships with engineers and align their career growth with business objectives?
If you are an engineer pursuing management, you ideally have experience in some of these areas. But as long as you are interested in growing these skills, you can find success and fulfillment in an engineering management role.
Becoming an effective EM doesn't happen overnight – it is a growth journey. If you'd like to get started, resources like EMHub and engineering management courses can help you level up your skills and lead happy, high-performing teams.