Becoming an Engineering Manager is a significant career milestone for many engineers or tech leaders. As a manager, you are responsible for leading a team of technical experts, overseeing the development of projects, and ensuring that the work is delivered on time and at the highest quality. However, the transition from an individual contributor to a manager is not without its challenges.
One of my mentees asked me about the challenges I faced after taking on my new role as an Engineering Manager, so this article will provide insights and my recommendations on how to overcome them. These challenges include balancing technical and managerial responsibilities, leading and inspiring a team, and effective communication. For each challenge I proposed 3 solutions.
Challenge 1 – There is a delay between your actions and results
When you move from an individual contributor role to a manager role, one of the first things you observe is represented by the reduced speed of seeing the effect/result of your work. As a developer, you get the task, write the code, test it, send it to prod, and mark the task as done. As a manager, you have a conversation with your team about, for example, psychological safety and its importance, and it could take weeks or months until you observe if your effort to learn about this topic and share the knowledge with your team paid off eventually. But there are also situations when you do not know if your words, your ideas, and your guidance were understood by your team members or had a positive impact.
When It Comes to Communication from the Top, Less Isn’t More
An article with the conclusions of a research about “communication calibration”
“Over-communication may be seen as annoying and a nuisance, but it’s not seen as a damning flaw for a leader, partly because a leader’s over-communication is seen as an attempt to benefit you, even if it is misguided, as opposed to an attempt to undermine you or simply ignore you.”
“The authors conducted four studies to test their hypotheses that employees identify under-communication as a leadership weakness more often than over-communication and perceive under-communicating managers as having relatively less concern and compassion.”
“Leaders who miscalibrated their communication were nearly 10 times more likely to be criticised for under-communicating than over-communicating.”
The advice from the article is to “ask employees about their personal communication preferences, and when in doubt, increase the amount of task-related communication to send a stronger message of caring and concern.”
Define your Manager README document. Read more about this here.
Build and adapt team’s processes
In software development, there is a lot of ambiguity and complexity. To be able to handle it and build high-performing teams a set of processes that offers structure and predictability should be in place:
- if you are building a team from scratch ⇒ have a checklist with processes that should be present, validate it with the team, and start defining the team together with your teammates
- if you are joining an existing team ⇒ start defining the processes based on the main challenges you start to identify. Work together with your team to define those processes
What kind of processes/practices/activities you should have defined in your team:
- Team’s mission – why are we here
- Team alliance – a working set of practices that we all agree on; focused more on the behaviors we accept and that respect our team’s values
- Coding guidelines
- Branching strategy
- How to make deploy in prod
- Definition of Ready
- Definition of Done
- Testing strategies
- Jira workflow
- Bugs severity levels
Some of the defined processes or practices could be impacted by multiple factors so this is why you should review them periodically with your team (decide with your team how often, and be open to adjusting). For example, the Definition of Done could be impacted by factors like introducing a new test environment or the type of features developed requiring some extra steps to call them done.
Another important aspect here is that sometimes the team could be not open to the idea of having processes/practices. In this case, depending on how reluctant are they you have mainly two options:
- if they are half-convinced about the idea ⇒ formulate the process like an experiment that has the purpose to help them and emphasize the advantages: “Let’s try this approach for X weeks and see if A, B, C will improve. If after that time it does not work we will evaluate together what are the options”. Plan in advance the recurrences for reviewing the effect of the process and its relevance.
- if they are against it, you could try applying the change management process & Cialdini’s principles of persuasion, but do pick your “battles” ⇒ Kotter’s 8 Step Change Management Model & Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion
Explain the WHY
People need to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves, something that matters to society. That’s not only motivating; it also helps encourage them to speak up, share their ideas, take risks, to try new things.
A team with purpose is engaged, inspired, and psychologically safe.
As a leader, your job is to help connect everyday tasks with a larger sense of purpose. “Why my team exists?”
Also, keep in mind to explain the reason behind your actions or decisions. For example, I got used to sending a monthly report (it was my initiative) to the management and stakeholders to share the progress and make team’s effort and involvement visible. Even so, one of my team members was not aware of this purpose and he was thinking that the report was asked by the top management and it is a form of micro-management.
A good resource to check is Simon Sinek’s book: “Start with why” where he presents “The Golden Circle: Why, How, and What”. Check here the summary of it
Challenge 2 – Too many meetings
Should I join this meeting?
Evaluate if the meeting invite contains relevant information: the purpose of it, the agenda, who will participate, and what is the expected output. If one of those things is not present please ask for extra info and question if it is the case to participate.
Usually, you should join meetings that suppose:
- to review work that’s occurred (what worked or didn’t and why)
- to clarify and validate something (policies, team goals, etc)
- to distribute work appropriately among your team
Evaluate if that meeting could be replaced by an email or by a shared document. Use digital tools for asynchronous work.
Organize the meetings based on your level of energy and work to keep one day for focus. Add colors on the calendar based on the importance and focus areas.
Also, encourage your team to flag or cancel meetings if they are not the best use of their time.
📚 More about this challenge: “Dear Manager, You’re Holding Too Many Meetings” by Ben Laker, Vijay Pereira, Ashish Malik,Lebene Soga
Organise and re-organise your calendar
Create an excel and add there your activities/areas for one week and the time you should spend on them. Compare it with reality and adjust and review (every 3 months). This idea is inspired by the book “Managing Time (HBR 20-Minute Manager Series)” which you help to learn to:
- Assess how you spend your time now
- Prioritize your tasks
- Plan the right time to work on each one
- Avoid procrastination and interruptions
Plan your day in advance: define 3 priorities per day, and make a retrospective at the end of the day.
Plan your week/month in advance. Make a retrospective at the end of the week/month and observe how have you spent the time, what have you achieved, what worked well, and where it is the place for improvement.
If you are having a complex task to do work split that big task into small and achievable sub-tasks on which you could work between your meetings and also get the feeling of working towards the biggest goal.
Prepare a presentation about next year’s tech strategy
- search 3-5 resources about how to prepare a tech strategy
- review the resources and take notes
- search for samples done by other colleagues, teams
- collect ideas from your manager about what that presentation should contain
- define a high-level agenda based on the research done
- create the slides’ skeleton
Focus on building your second brain: take notes, collect resources, reuse them, track progress and have the end purpose in mind. Check the [book summary] “Building a second brain” by Tiago Forte.
Manage your energy and apply the right time management technique(s)
“Time is a finite resource, but energy is different. It has four wellsprings—the body, emotions, mind, and spirit—and in each, it can be systematically expanded and renewed.“ from “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time” by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy
Check also these 18 time management tips, strategies, and quick wins to get your best work done and choose the right one for you.
Use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix to prioritise your work
Challenge 3 – Not being able to spend so much time on writing code
Trust your team members
Analyze and be honest with yourself: what is the area where you could bring the biggest impact and that could be done only by you? Usually, the answer is not coding. 😀 Trust your team members, bring experienced colleagues, and create a context where they can grow. Make sure you highlight the mindset you want to have on your team, give them the right tools and resources, and let them shine.
Continue to be a tech person
You could take small coding tasks but make sure they are not on the critical path. Also a good approach could be to be involved in the code review process.
Encourage your colleagues to share their knowledge. Help them to identify areas of improvement and build with them learning paths. Watch them and learn from them.
You also could work on automating some activities/tasks that will improve the developers’ experience (reminders on slack, wiki pages with Jira filters, bots on slack, etc)
Continue to learn
On your quarterly objectives make sure to add items related to the tech area: read a book, participate at a conference, prepare and give a tech talk, check the latest trends in the industry, be connected on Twitter/LinkedIn with the relevant themes/topics for you, subscribe to the newsletters, make a training, watch a tutorial.
All these activities will help you to be in touch with the technology but also you could be a model or inspiration for your colleagues.
📚 More about this challenge: