What makes a great engineering manager

March 26, 2019

‘What makes a great engineering manager?’ is a question I hear getting asked a lot by both new and experienced managers. On the new manager side it sometimes comes up as: ‘what should I be doing as a manager?’, and on the experienced side: ‘how should I help improve my team?‘. Occasionally drifting into questioning if we even need managers. Without knowing much of the research in the area, it is tempting to try to solve these questions from scratch - burning a lot of effort re-inventing the wheel.

We can start with some of the existing research in the field. Google, funded research called Project Oxygen. The origins for the research were to answer ‘do managers matter’, as it turns out, they do matter, the effect is measurable, and there is a common set of behaviors differentiating the better managers.

What I really like about this project is that the conclusions and steps for that to do next are easily laid out. One of the really hard parts of improving soft skills is just sifting though all the information. I find two aspects of really helping level-up skills is: give a shared vocabulary for discussing the problem, and straightforward guidelines for improving it. Both of which I feel this helps with.

The 10 behaviors:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers team and does not micromanage
  3. Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator - listens and shares information
  6. Supports career development and discusses performance
  7. Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team
  9. Collaborates across the company
  10. Is a strong decision maker

What is really interesting about this is that the softer skills are much more important, as if the manager’s job is to get work done through the team instead of doing work themselves. There is a quote from HBR that really summarizes it for me: “Engineers hate being micro-managed on the technical side but love being closely managed on the career side.”. To me it makes a lot of intuitive sense, the individual contributors are the ones closes to the work and the best suited to know how to do it best, the manager’s job is to support them doing that work.

Do you or managers you know display these behaviours? Google developed some questions to help you answer that, give it a try to see if there are some areas you can make improvements!

Just on a last note, how much does it matter? Well there some research from Gallup: Managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores . Given how many performance indicators are indirectly tied to employee engagement, you might get some very tangible benefits to all this.