The three domains of Engineering Manager craft

By Ed Hatrick-Smith - Engineering Manager.

Few people are born natural leaders. Even with some level of talent, most of us have to learn. In this article, I’ll run you through how I’ve come to view the role of an Engineering Manager (EM), through three domains of technical craft. I’ll also share some of the approaches and tools I use to help me succeed in each domain.

As an Engineering Manager at Dovetail, I’m often asked to describe my role. That’s easier said than done. The role of EM’s can vary considerably between companies. In some organizations, the role is highly technical; in others, more people-focused. Often EM’s become a catch-all problem solver for teams, making the role inherently nebulous. Additionally, your responsibilities will vary considerably depending on your seniority and mastery of the craft.

In recent times I’ve developed a fairly simple approach to explaining the EM. I use three domains as a foundation for this. These are:

  1. People coaching
  2. Team leadership
  3. Organizational impact

Each of these requires the applied development of a craft to master it. By dedicating your development to these areas, you’ll soon become a well-rounded EM.

The three domains

I will often explain the EM role through these domains and in the order I have listed them. It seems logical that EM’s should pursue their development in this order. However, that is a subjective suggestion more than anything. Reality is not so linear.

People coaching

“The best way to be a 10x developer is to help 5 other developers be 2x developers.” — Eric Elliott (JS guru and educator)

One of the core functions of leadership is being able to coach and develop individuals. Like everyone, leaders have different strengths, so this may not be true of all leaders. I’d argue it’s critical for EM’s.

To be a good people coach, you need to love people. Have a genuine desire to help and grow the people in your care. I like the concept of Servant Leadership. By following a people-first approach, investing in individuals, and prioritizing the needs of your team, you create deep trust and an environment where individuals can thrive. Leaders Eat Last — Simon Sinek is an excellent book on this topic.

A guiding principle of good leadership is creating leaders out of others. The opposite of this is trying to tightly direct people, or in other words, micro-manage. This sounds simple, and it can be. But it helps to understand the fundamentals of how to achieve it. Creating leaders further engages individuals to solve problems, operate independently, and drive business value. The book Turn the Ship Around — David Marquet provides a superb foundation for this, or watch his video.

None of the above will be achievable without a solid ability to provide quality feedback. This can be one of the hardest parts of the job. It takes practice and guts. Radical candor is a reliable approach to help with this.

Team leadership

“Excellent colleagues, a clear purpose, and well-understood deliverables: that’s the powerful combination.” — Patty McCord (ex-Chief Talent Officer at Netflix)

I’ve often said that the fundamental role of an EM is to optimize the effectiveness of an engineering/product team. That’s a reasonably good description, and it incorporates people coaching as well. But how do you optimize a team? As you become more senior, you will have multiple teams, and the challenge amplifies.

The following agile principles are a strong recommendation. If you’re new to the role or working with a low-performing team, guiding a team towards Scrum fundamentals can be very helpful. But be wary. Scrum provides a framework for agile, but it has an overhead in the form of process. As a general rule, processes should be avoided unless it solves a more severe problem. Processes get in the way of delivering value. Be cautious with the processes you introduce.

Good agile practice is nothing without equally competent product practice and superb product leaders. As an EM you may not have direct control over this, however, you can influence it. The combination of effective ways of working, with strategic product planning ensures your team is clear about what they’re working on and why. In other words, well-understood deliverables.

Having a clear target state for your team(s) can play an important role for EMs. What are the critical skills gaps in the group? What will they require in the future? This is a combination of guidance towards excellence and ensuring you have “the right people on the bus.” If the people don’t align with your vision, it’s your responsibility to reach a point where they do. Ensure your team is packed with excellent colleagues.

Ultimately, the sign of a strong team is the ability to operate without the presence of an EM. When a team reaches this state, the EM has a greater capacity to work on other teams or projects (organizational impact). In many regards, this reflects the leadership behaviors of individuals in the group. If they also have a unifying purpose, they will inevitably drive strong customer and business value.

Organizational impact

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” — Barack Obama (ex-President of the United States).

This final domain, organizational impact, requires a certain degree of leadership maturity. While I’d expect senior EM’s to have competence in this area, more junior EM’s can easily be forgiven for lacking experience.

I use the term organizational impact here to refer to the ability of an EM to implement strategies, policies, lead initiatives, influence culture and have a high-leverage impact across departments or the business as a whole.

It’s a common experience for EMs to introduce a policy that receives a lot of pushback or negativity. It’s a hard lesson having a room full of engineers tell you they disagree with what you’re recommending. Almost always, these occurrences are due to a lack of input from others prior to operationalizing. My approach is to:

  1. Write a rough draft fleshing out the reasoning and strategy.
  2. Share with a small circle of experts and incorporate their feedback.
  3. Loop in a broader circle for the second round of feedback (you may need to repeat this depending on the size of your organization).
  4. Once you have full confidence, operationalize across the organization.

The book An Elegant Puzzle — by Will Larson is packed with similar tips for engineering leaders.

Another aspect that can be challenging is leader work-streams and initiative teams. Again, all leaders will find an approach that works for them. My approach is to ensure I have the right people involved and act as a facilitator and delegate as needed. You don’t need to be exceptionally knowledgeable about a topic to lead a group of experts to solve a problem. If we consider again our fundamentals of creating leaders out of others, delegating authority to individuals not only makes them more engaged but alleviates the burden on you. You can delegate entire initiatives through this approach, as long as you’re comfortable with solving problems in ways you may not align with.

Lastly, how does an EM thought lead or influence culture or practices across an organization? A prerequisite to this is developing trust amongst your colleagues. This takes time and a track record of solid judgment. That aside, every interaction is an opportunity to influence. Conducting a presentation can work, and it’s fast. I find that influencing individuals are reasonably effective and more sustainable over time. 1:1s with your team is a frequent opportunity to promote cultural and behavioral change. More broadly, having a solid EM team with regular meetings allows you to influence other leaders across your organization.

Find your path

As I’ve matured as a leader, I’ve realized that just because someone approaches a problem inherently different from how I would, doesn’t mean their approach is wrong. We all have different strengths. Learning comes from trying and, often, from failing. Be wary of comparing yourself to other leaders. Find what it is that you excel at and leverage that strength. Understand how you can inspire others.

We have loads of engineering roles available. Come and join us on this amazing journey. Visit our careers page!

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We believe customer obsession builds the best products, so our mission is to ‘enable product teams to make better decisions through the power of customer understanding’. We think what we’re building is an exciting, brand new category of software.

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