My lessons being an engineering manager— part 1

Until recently I had an amazing opportunity to lead a team of mobile engineers at Nextdoor. As a first time manager, the experience of going from an individual contributor to one responsible for a team and the greater good was an interesting challenge with lots of learnings. In this series of posts, I would like to share some of my lessons of being a manager first hand.

Trust

From my experience, trust was the most fundamental thing that makes or breaks the team. You, as a manager, have to gain trust of your direct reports and in turn you have to trust them. Also, you have to maintain the trust throughout the course of your leadership; trust is not a static concept.

What I have noticed is that without a sense of trust, the members of the team will not discuss important issues openly, especially with you. This leads to superficial consensus, suboptimal decisions, ineffective team dynamics, and a lot of stress on you. Essentially without trust, individuals will focus on themselves; highly optimized individuals don’t necessary lead to the most effective team.

So as a leader of the team, what’s the best way to gain trust from your team? My best advice is to put your effort into listening to them.

Listening is a valuable skill to develop since it really gives you what you need the most as a manager — information. Your job then is to analyze that information and provide appropriate feedback and support. This leads to collaboration where your direct reports see that their voices were heard, valued, and acted upon. Additionally, this can be an opportunity for your direct reports to receive feedback and a different perspective from you, which helps them self reflect and improve.

1:1

Now that you know you have to listen to what your direct reports have to say, what’s the best forum for it? My answer is your weekly 1:1. There are plenty of other sources that emphasize the value of 1:1s, and they are all true. Some managers choose to have them every other week, but my preference is to have it every week and keep it shorter. The important thing here is to commit to a schedule, agree on the time, put it on the calendar, and be there on time. The act of having it on a regular basis is the first step to establishing trust; it shows that you are there for them.

I don’t have a strong opinion on how 1:1s should be conducted. My preference was to keep it relatively free-form to discuss any relevant topics. However, one thing I asked my direct reports most of the time was their “happiness index”. This was a system that was suggested by one of my direct reports (see I am listening to their feedback :)) which basically gave everyone to come up with a score between 1 and 10 that roughly reflects their professional happiness. This was actually a good conversation starter for following reasons:

  • Allows direct reports to remember what happened over the past week. Usually all they have in mind is what is happening right now/today, so giving them a bit of time to reflect is good.
  • Facilitates specific conversations about things that are going well and not so well. Usually direct reports can provide context to help you understand the priorities of topics to discuss.
  • Sets up for action items for both sides to change/improve things.

Make sure you keep light weight notes of the 1:1s. This allows you to be prepared for next 1:1 and be on the same page about any open items that you and your direct report agreed to do before the meeting.

Lastly, it’s totally fine to end the meeting early if there is nothing more to talk about.

Importance of following through

1:1s are meaningless if things aren’t changing for better. Otherwise your direct reports would much prefer to get their coding done. That’s why following through with any action items from previous 1:1s is critical. Make sure to revisit your notes before your next meeting and set aside some time to get to things you promised.

Some of the action items I have had to tackle:

  • Getting a full team more coordinated because during 1:1s it was apparent that not everyone was on the same page about the project scope.
  • Troubleshoot any inter-team conflicts; talk to other people to get a better sense of what’s going on and come up with some suggestions to smooth it out.
  • Facilitate any non-engineering matters, including immigration status issues and performance review questions and concerns.

It’s also a good idea to hold your direct reports accountable for their tasks before the next meeting. Perhaps this may require multiple reminders, but at the end of the day the meeting is most effective if both parties put in effort to improve things.

Get to know your direct reports

Lastly, your direct reports are people. They have lives outside of work, and they have ups and downs. The more you understand your direct reports and team dynamics, the better you, as a manager, can help your direct reports succeed.

Some ideas I tried on a regular basis are:

  • Go to lunch with them; start a casual conversation and show them that you are just there to have a good time.
  • Set up some team activity outside of the office, such as happy hour, movie night, etc. This gives them an opportunity to get to know other team members as well, and this task can be delegated to multiple people; you don’t have to be the one organizing all the time.
  • Celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays. You don’t have to go all out with special planning; simply make sure to acknowledge important milestones.
  • It’s fine to delve into casual conversations during 1:1s if time permits and your direct reports feel comfortable. No one said 1:1s have to be 100% professional.

In my tenure as an engineering manager, I focused on the trust aspect the most. I didn’t touch upon any of the project management and/or technical leadership that you may be required to perform in this post, but I feel like those are very specific to each organization. Also there are a lot of relevant posts in those topics. However, I think it’s important to stress that solving people problems is longer lasting than any other types of issues you may encounter.

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