When I first started in a new role as an engineering manager, there were very few resources on being a good manager, particularly for people new to the role. Luckily over the last few years we have seen a surge in material in this area. However, it can still be a challenge to know what tools and resources to reach for in your first few days this new role. This blog post is an attempt to distill a few of the most important things I have learned in my time doing this myself as well as helping other people new to the role. I focus on norms that are often implicitly practiced but often not explicitly talked about as common practice. My experience is obviously colored by the places I have worked at. Each section has a suggested exercise that will hopefully help with some practical learning. My hope is that readers new to engineering management can use this blog as a reference during their first quarter as an engineering manager.
Before I begin, I must emphasize that this is a new and separate role from being an individual contributor. In healthy organizations, engineering management is not a promotion but a separate and parallel career track. Engineering managers share a skillset with engineers but it is still a different role and adopting the mindset of learning a new set of skills will enable you to be better at the role in the long run.
Develop competency in manager fundamentals
This category is the most straightforward but it can be surprisingly easy to gloss over it with the responsibility of a new role. It can be easy to start in your new role and suddenly discover a critical skill or information required to do something missing a few months in. To start with, look at what your organization offers in terms of training and participate in it. Even if there is no formal training, learn the most important processes for your organization before you have to participate in them. Many organizations will have a manager handbook or similar guide that you can usually reference early. At a high level a few of the most important ones are:
- Expectations of managers. Every role I have taken as an engineering manager has been different in its expectations. This can even be the case within the same organization. Learning what the full extent of expectations of your role is critical to your success. Some of these might be obvious and explicit such as “owning your team’s charter” but others might be less explicit such as “maintaining a relationship with stakeholder teams”. It is particularly important to be aligned with your management chain on what they see as the most important part of your role. This is something to flesh out in conversations with your manager. I find having a written 1:1 document with goals and on-going notes to be a useful artifact for these conversations. A part of this also consists of ‘managing up’ which I’ve written more about later in this post.
- Calibration, promotion and performance conversations. These are obvious areas you will own as the manager of your team, and you want to be prepared before they are urgent and you want to be aligned with your organization’s philosophy on these. There is a lot of material to cover here but a general rule of thumb should be “no surprises”, both upwards and downwards. Communicate feedback clearly and early, both the good and the bad. Keep your manager and if relevant your HRBP (Human Resources Business Partner), aligned on your team’s good work and also any concerning situations.
- Compensation and reward philosophy. You may not be directly responsible for this but you will definitely be asked questions about it from your team and you should be aware of the nuances and the scope of influence you have in this area. In particular learning the various ways in which people are rewarded in your organization (e.g. spot bonuses) is important to know.
- Hiring, on-boarding and off-boarding of employees. These processes are going to be a large part of your day too and it’s important to learn the parts you may not have participated in before e.g. working with recruiting and HR.
Suggested exercise: Review your organization’s manager handbook if it exists. Set up a 1:1 with your manager and HRBP (or closest equivalent) where you clarify the expectations of your role and write these up in a shared document. As a bonus, seek out a peer manager in your organization with more experience and ask them to talk through their views on expectations.
Owning and presenting team artifacts
All engineering teams have artifacts that represent the team’s state separate from the code base. Some examples of these artifacts are the team wiki, metrics, a team charter, incident reports, periodic updates to the organization via in-person meetings or emails. They vary based on the organizational culture e.g some have a writing culture (my preference), while others lean on slides or in-person updates.
As an individual contributor you may have already been in positions where you owned some parts of these. For example, maybe you were the owner for some of the metrics, weekly updates or parts of the charter. As a manager, you are now the owner of all these artifacts for your team, even when you delegate parts of them, and it is your responsibility to ensure they are actively updated and communicated out to the rest of the organization.
To break this down further into some broad areas to focus on:
- Be proactive about communicating your team’s information to the rest of the organization. Different teams will have different norms about this such as status updates, snippets or other forms. Learn about what exists already, iterate if required and make sure you are proactively communicating state to your team’s stakeholders using existing channels or new ones. If communication norms are not immediately obvious, align with your management chain on what the expectations are for you as the manager on communicating various states for your team. A rule of thumb should be to adopt a push model of communication where you are pushing state out actively vs a pull, where others have to reach out to you for state.
- Learn to present your team’s work multiple formats to different audiences. The executive team will want a different level of detail from the sales team which will be different from your key stakeholders. A metrics presentation will be different from a product review which will be different from a demo. To present this information well you will necessarily have to be familiar with it yourself, first. For instance, if your organization relies on metrics to guide decisions you should be appropriately familiar with the ones for your team.
Suggested exercise: Review the key artifacts for your team and set a goal of refreshing the most important ones by a certain timeline. If there are no structured mediums for communicating work outside the team, experiment with options such as periodic email updates to key stakeholders.
Meeting facilitation and management
Meetings are thought of as terrible things clogging people’s calendars and making entire organizations unproductive. But, it doesn’t have to be this way! As Andy Grove says in his book, High Output Management, “Meetings are the medium”. If your team is complaining about too many terrible meetings, the good news is that it’s now your job to fix them. You may have been an active participant before, and probably have called many meetings yourself, but that still doesn’t capture the agency of “owning” all aspects of the key team meetings. This is a significant shift and one way I like to think about it is to treat meetings as you would a product or tool you develop and for whose quality you are responsible. And then ruthlessly iterate over them. Ask questions about all meetings — what is the purpose of this meeting, who owns the agenda, who sends out notes, what is the outcome etc. The default answer unless you have explicitly delegated that meeting to someone is that it is your role to figure out. You should be actively preparing for all meetings you own, being active during and following up after. It is particularly important to remember that as the manager you aren’t necessarily going to get feedback if you are bad at this, so explicitly seek it out.
Given the impact well run meetings have, becoming better at facilitating meetings and meeting hygiene for your team is time well spent. I found Lara Hogan’s blog on meetings to be a great resource. I have so many more thoughts on meetings that I might write an entire post on them myself.
Suggested action: Audit all your team’s current meetings, get feedback from the attendees and set a goal of a few improvements per meeting, including doing away with unnecessary ones.
Managing up is one of the phrases that when you read it at first hints at the politics of the large organization variety and implies that it is to be avoided at all costs. Lara Hogan has an excellent post that asks the question “Is managing up a bad thing?”. The answer is unsurprisingly no. To add more to her excellent post, my personal view on this is that managing up is simply helping your manager help you more effectively. Managing up is also the closest phrase that captures the relationship between you and your manager and like all good relationships goes both ways. To new managers, the initial tendency is to take a more passive role and let the more senior manager do most of the work. Moving quickly to an active role is a sign of a more mature leader.
On the how of managing up, in my experience this boils down to proactive communicating of your team’s work and state and things you are working on with your manager. It is summarizing the most important things they need to know about, asking for help on the things they can help unblock you on, and preferably having opinions on solutions vs only presenting problems. Treat your time with your manager as a finite resource and help them help you with the most critical parts of your role. A good question to ask yourself to help frame this, if you were out for a few weeks and your manager is managing your team in the interim, would they be surprised at what they find about your team
Suggested exercise: In your next 1:1 with your manager, have an agenda topic where you discuss how you can be better at helping them and identify mechanisms by which you can work together more effectively.
Start building the relationships that will help you be a better leader
A key part of being an effective leader and representative for your team is the relationships you build on their behalf across the broader organization. To do this start a practice of 1:1 or group meetings with more than just your direct reports and manager. Some of the people you should be having these with are typically your peers, your skip manager (your manager’s manager), and any key stakeholders for your team’s products such as partner teams, product or design, and recruiting.
My process for doing these is:
- Maintain a list of people you should be meeting at some cadence. I use a spreadsheet.
- Allocate the time you think is necessary and available to meet with different cohorts e.g. 2 hours per week to meet with all stakeholders, 2 hours for peers etc.
- Backfill that to allocate time slots. This is a useful trick I first learned from Will Larson, to drive clarity in prioritizing vs making the list first and having it fill all the available time in your calendar.
As a reference, my list as the manager of a group of teams looked like this.
- My manager — Obviously. This one tends to be dictated by their schedule rather than yours.
- My direct team — both people that report to me directly and indirectly. I did more frequent meetings with direct reports and less frequent ones with skips.
- My peers — this is your first team. If you don’t already have a first team try to cultivate it.
- Stakeholders and users, including recruiting partners and my HRBP.
These were all at different cadences, ranging from weekly to quarterly. And all of them had an expiration, because that is just good meeting hygiene.
Suggested exercise: Make your list of key folks and audit your calendar to make room for the most important meetings.
This is large enough to be its own section because I have learned that this is one of the most powerful tools in a leader’s toolkit. Writing regularly helps in both learning and reflection. I personally consider sharing the actual writing to be an intermediate to advanced skill. It requires you to be comfortable owning the message and a reasonable degree of self-awareness (“manager readmes” are controversial for this reason).
Some ways to get started on writing.
- Weekly notes — Writing and reflecting on what you accomplished and learned is particularly hard to quantify as a manager. These notes can be a useful way to reflect on your impact as a manager. Since there are no other artifacts such as PRs, bug reports, or similar, your personal writing can serve as a record of your accomplishments.
- A personal charter, career narrative or brag doc
Suggested exercise: Start a habit of writing weekly notes. Sharing them with your team is optional. Write a reflection on your first 90 days into your new role. Share it with your manager and team as a stretch goal.
Continue learning and reflecting on being a better leader
I hope this post has been helpful in covering some of the basics in a new leadership role and I will close with a few additional resources to continue the process of active learning.
- Approximately a quarter into your new role, ask your manager or HRBP to help facilitate a 360 review, either using a tool your organization uses such as Cultureamp or more freeform. If there isn’t a formal tool, you can send an email to your team and stakeholders asking them to send your manager or HRBP feedback for you with a suggested list of focus areas. A very basic outline would ask for feedback on areas you need to improve in, areas you are good in and highlight any open ended thoughts your team has on you as the manager. Use the feedback as a guideline to focus on areas you need to grow in.
- Start building a network of peers and a support system. Some options are:
- Join an EM slack or discord group. There are many available and I haven’t been active in the space to recommend a particular one but found them invaluable as a new manager.
- Find peers within and outside your organization that you can tap regularly for help or advice. Consider forming a manager support group or joining an existing one. Being a manager can be lonely and finding a support and learning group is very useful to feeling less alone. This can help you build your manager voltron.
3. Read books, blogs, attend conferences. In addition to the ones I have listed below, part of the learning of being a new manager is to figure out what resources resonate with your style as a manager. I have personally read many and hesitate to recommend any as a canonical resource. The few I include here are because I reach for them frequently due to their insights and breadth:
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Alex Kleiman for reviewing multiple drafts of this blog and providing many valuable suggestions and edits.