Fantastic engineering management is…

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

I’m going to write a series of posts on different career tracks in software engineering and design over the next few months. This is the first of ’em, I don’t have a timeline for the rest but will get to them all in due course, and am happy to take requests in the comments 😉

Recently, I wrote up two Canonical engineering management job descriptions – one for those managing a team of software engineers directly, another for folk coordinating the work of groups of teams – software engineering directors. In both cases, the emphasis is on organisation, social coordination, roadmap planning and inter-team connectivity, and not in any way about engineering prowess. Defining some of these roles for one of my teams got me motivated to blog about the things that make for truly great management, as opposed to other kinds of engineering leadership.

The art of software engineering management is so different from software engineering that it should be an entirely separate career track, with equal kudos and remuneration available on either path.

This is because developing, and managing developers, are at opposite ends of the interrupt scale. Great engineering depends on deep, uninterrupted focus. But great management is all about handling interrupts efficiently so that engineers don’t have to. Companies need to recognise that difference, and create career paths on both sides of that scale, rather than expecting folk to leap from the one end to the other. It’s crazy to think that someone who loves deep focused thought should have to become a multithreaded interrupt driven manager to advance their career.

Very occasionally someone is both a fantastic developer and a fantastic manager, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. In recognition of that, we should design our teams to work well without depending on a miracle each and every time we put one together.

Great engineering managers are like coaches – they get their deepest thrill from seeing a team perform at the top of its game, not from performing vicariously. They understand that they are not going to be on the field between the starting and finishing whistle. They understand that there will be decisions to be taken on the field that the players will have to make for themselves, and their job is to prepare the team physically and mentally for the game, rather than to try and play from the sidelines. A great coach isn’t trying to steer the movement of the ball from during the game, she’s making notes about the coaching and team selections needed between this match and the next. A terrible coach is a player that won’t let go of the game, wants to be out there in the thick of it, and loses themselves in the details of the game itself.

An engineering manager is an organiser and a mentor and a coach, not a veteran star player. They need to love winning, and love the sport, and know that they help most by making the team into a winning team. The way they get code written is by making an environment which is conducive to that; the way they create quality is by fostering a passion for quality and making space in the schedule and the team for work which serves only that goal.

When I’m hiring a manager, I look for people who love to keep other people productive. That means handling all the productivity killers in an engineering team: hiring and firing, inter-team meetings, customer presentations, reporting up and out and sideways, planning, travel coordination, conferences, expenses… all those things which we don’t want engineers to spend much time on or have rattling around at the back of their minds. It also means caring about people, and being that gregarious and nosy type of person who knows what everyone is doing, and why, and also what’s going on outside the workplace.

An engineering manager is doing well if every single member of their team can answer these questions, all the time:

* what are my key goals, in order of importance, in this cycle?
* what are the key delivery dates, in this cycle?
* how am I doing, generally? and what is the company view of my strengths and not-so-strengths?
* how do I fit into the team, who are my counterparts, and how do I complement them?

Also, the manager is doing well if they know, for each member of their team:

* what personal stresses or other circumstances might be a distraction for them,
* what the interpersonal dynamics are between that member, and other counterparts or team members,
* what that member’s best contributions are, and strongest interests outside of the assigned goals

For the team as a whole, the manager should know

* what the team is good at, and weak at, and what their plan is to bolster what needs bolstering,
* what the cycle looks like, in terms of goals and progress against them
* what the next cycle is shaping up to look like, and how that fits with long term goals

Really great management makes a company a joy to work in, as a developer. It’s something we should celebrate and cultivate, teach and select for, not just be the natural upward path for people who have been around a while. If you truly love technology, there are lots of careers that take you to the top of the tech game without having to move into management. And conversely, if you love organising and leading, it’s possible to get started on a management career in software without being the world’s greatest coder first. If you think that’s you, you’ll love being an engineering manager at Canonical.