How To Grow as An Engineering Manager in 7 Steps

Ian Nowland
Apr 12 · 3 min read
  1. Management is made of tactical and strategic work. Tactical work is that which is situationally obvious something is needed from you; this can be regular (e.g., attend staff meetings) or by a certain date (e.g., get perf reviews done). Strategic work is that which if you fail at defining it, communicating it and having your team execute it, then you will have a miss. That includes misses that come from a third party who ideally would have engaged with you rather than you with them; a lot of management misses are of untimely communication.
  2. Your fundamental limits are your personal time and your focus. You don’t fully control them, but they are the only thing you have direct control of. This sounds simple but is deceptive. While there is a small value to people listening to you because of your place in a hierarchy above them; most people will only help your vision to the extent that you spend time to influence them that it is the right thing for them, which takes your time and focus.
  3. Any time the organization or anyone in it is negatively impacted (including being surprised) as a result of you or your team’s action or inaction, you have missed. The key challenge of management is you don’t have enough time and focus to get done what is needed tactically and be on top of all strategy. So you will miss.
  4. On misses, you need to recognize you have missed, be accountable to stakeholders for the miss, and spend time and focus on strategic actions to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Do that well enough, and no one minds the occasional miss. Thus failure as a manager is not the occasional miss. That is expected. Instead it is repeated misses, because you have not spent enough time and focus on strategy to get ahead of future misses.
  5. The first step of growth as a manager is getting on top of tactical work by either pushing back and communicating why it doesn’t make sense, and/or delegating to a more junior person than is immediately easy. Learning to do the latter is especially important when you are overwhelmed and pushing back is not an option; delegating to buy yourself time/focus, even though it feels like you are letting down your team.
  6. The second part of growth as a manager is starting to dedicate time and focus on strategy. This is defined as nothing more than thinking about the risks ahead, thinking about actions to mitigate them, and spending time and focus to ensure that doesn’t happen. Again a lot of misses are nothing beyond ensuring communication, agreement and action amongst all stakeholders, so a lot of the work here is developing communication and accountability systems.
  7. This comes to the third stage of growth, which is starting to leverage your time and focus by delegating strategic areas; rather than being the fulcrum, instead identifying and empowering owners in your team, or amongst your peers. The most important part of delegation is its supervision, continuing to spend time and focus on coaching and audit mechanisms to help the delegate succeed. Without supervision you have just abdicated the area, and any miss is yours.

Ian Nowland

Written by

VP Eng Metrics and Alerts @ Datadog. Formerly SVP Compute Platform Eng @ Two Sigma, and creator of Nitro @ AWS EC2.

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