How Do You Become a True Engineering Leader?

Four Engineering Managers from Facebook, Kabam, Clever, and Medium shared their tips on becoming a great Engineering Leader during the Plato event hosted on May 15, 2017 in San Francisco.

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Christian opened the panel with interesting quotes from Peter Drucker, a famous management consultant, educator, and author:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. With the rise of the knowledge worker, one does not ‘manage people.’ The task is to lead people.”

Christian pointed out that companies today aren’t focused on creating as much of a strong engineering management and leadership culture as they should. He asked others about their own definition of leadership and the characteristics of a good leader.

How do you define ‘leadership’?

For Jean, a good leader is someone that people want to follow, makes you better at what you do, and is excellent at communicating and getting the team to work well together. She added that good leaders should guide people to a common goal.

Nikhil brought up an interesting point — engineers are very opinionated people and notice things other people don’t. There are two types of engineers you might have on a team: non-leaders and leaders. The difference between the two is that non-leaders tend to complain and not take any action to improve a situation, whereas leaders are more proactive about solving the problem.

As a conclusion to this question, Yi cited John Maxwell: “Leadership is influence.” Yi explained that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader and influence others. And you don’t need to be leader in your job—you can influence other people like friends and family.

What is the difference between a manager and a leader?

While Yi agrees with the Peter Drucker quote, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” he adds that at the end of the day, the leader controls the “what,” direction, and goals, and managers control how you meet those goals.

Richard mentioned a book he read about high-output management where the author pointed out that the output of a manager is the collective output of their team. Leaders are the ones who solve problems.

Nikhil adds that when you are a leader and not a manager, the big difference is that managers have the positional authority they can use to influence their team.

Christian emphasized there’s a difference between being a leader without being a manager and being a manager without being a leader, citing examples like Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

How did you prepare for going from an individual contributor to a manager?

Christian noticed that many people have coaches for things such as sports, music, programming, but that there was much less coaching in leadership, even when it’s needed. Because of this, he was interested to hear about the road that the other panel participants took to becoming a manager.

Jean mentioned that at Medium, she landed a specific role called a group lead. That’s why Jean herself is more oriented toward coaching than the traditional technical leader role.

Nikhil was an employee in an early startup, and they started to hire more people and he began managing them, which he still does to this day. He admits that his path is not something he would advise other people to follow.

Richard was lucky — he had a great mentor as a manager in 2003 when he was working at LucasArts. He learned a great deal from his mentor. Fast forward a few years later, when he was working on a project that needed a manager, and based on his experience from this mentor, he thought he’d be a good candidate. He explained how he went sheepishly to his CTO and said that he wanted to give the manager position a try. His CTO replied, “I think you’re ready.” Richard also said he recognized that there were things he didn’t know, and that recognition helped him to focus and grow by learning those things. He advised leaders to look for what they don’t know, embrace it, and don’t worry about the things you already know. Instead, spend that time and energy learning new information.

Yi’s first management job was at Facebook, and he went through their training program. He said that he became a manager because it was what his manager wanted. When Yi told his manager that he didn’t know what it took to be a manager, his manager replied, “No worries, just keep doing what you’ve been doing.” “Apparently, he lied,” Yi joked. He quickly realized he needed to change a lot and learn new skills to adapt to a new position. The only thing that didn’t change was his commitment to providing value to others.

He also added that there was a lot of training at Facebook, but once that training ended, people were on their own. That’s why he believes in what we’re doing here at Plato.

Check out the full video below, and be sure to visit our YouTube channel to find the rest of the videos from this event!


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