How to Be a Manager Employees Never Want to Leave

Brett Huff, Engineering Manager at Trello and Plato mentor spoke about how to create a great team culture during a Plato event hosted on June 29, 2017 in Paris.

If you want to be mentored by Brett or by anyone else in our pool of mentors, sign up here.

It’s hard to truly define engineering management — everyone has their own definition and interpretation, and it changes constantly. For example, in software development, when engineers developed new languages and frameworks 30 years ago, they used machine languages such as C and C++. Today, new engineers can program faster than ever before; a job that used to take one year to complete now only takes a month. In engineering management, it’s a bit different — you come into the field with only coding skills, and need to learn everything else on the job. These lessons are hard and can’t be transferred from generation to generation easily.

One of the guests at our Engineering Management Talks with Plato event was Brett Huff, an engineering manager at Trello. Brett shared some of his hard-learned lessons to help new engineering managers on their journey.

The role of engineering manager

Brett sees management as an intersection between the structured world of “how to build things” and the massive world of people’s feelings, emotions, and personalities. To give the audience more context, he explained what he does as a manager.

Does he write code, configure a server, or troubleshoot a production environment? Nope. He occasionally gives ideas about a product, and while some of them are decent, he gets shut down a lot, and his ideas are often rejected. But he emphasized that his role is to take a hit and protect his team so they can do their jobs.

Part of his job is to figure out what’s not working and fix it. Sometimes, a feature the team is working on is struggling and needs to move in another direction. Other times, people are not right for their position, and Brett needs to either help them get on the right path or let them go. One of the hardest situations he faced was to reassemble a fully functioning team because the feature they were working on wasn’t great for the company.

“My job comes down to: I take blame, I make hard and sometimes unpopular decisions, but I provide an environment where people can grow and they can do their best work,” Brett said.

Are you making the right decisions?

The moment you step into an engineering management role, you become a decision-maker. But how do you know that you’re making the right decisions as a manager? Brett looks at the number of people leaving his team voluntarily — if the number is low, that’s a good sign. Remember, people don’t quit the company, they quit their manager. If employees don’t feel fulfilled, they leave.

In Brett’s opinion, people need three things to feel fulfilled in their job:

  1. Responsibilities and things to do
  2. Working with people they like and being on good teams
  3. Opportunities to grow

Create an environment that people don’t want to leave

When it comes down to it, employees feel fulfilled in their job when they’re in a positive, encouraging environment. In Brett’s experience, even the most difficult people to work with, those who change jobs often, will consider staying and growing with the company if they consider it a good environment.

He told a story about member of his team who was brilliant and could write great code and structure things very well, but he was difficult to work with — he just didn’t get along with people. He’d worked at ten different companies over seven years. After this employee’s first three months at Trello, Brett asked him, “Where do you want to be in the future? Let’s have this career discussion so we can get you on the right track.” The employee responded,

“This is the first place I’ve ever worked where I’ve been willing to think about what I want to do in five years.”

Brett said that this is exactly what he does — provides an environment where people can do their best. He doesn’t do their best for them; he merely provides the environment for them to flourish in.

Preaching management to engineers and dealing with developer divas

When someone is new to engineering management, the first thing he or she needs to realize is there is no coding in the role. Brett periodically tells his employees that management is not about coding, but dealing with people. Whenever someone transitions from an engineer to a management role, he asks the simple question: “Do you like the people part?” If the person says no, then he or she is probably not suited for a management role.

In response to audience questions, Brett talked about managing a “developer diva.” In Brett’s opinion, people love to help other people and contribute to something. A developer diva tends to think he/she is better than everyone else. Brett recommended trying to figure out the diva’s personality, think about how you can help that person, and how that person can, in turn, use their knowledge to help other people. You can only do so much, though. Just keep learning and do your best.

Check out the full video of Brett’s keynote below, and head to our YouTube channel to see the rest of the presentations from the event.

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Plato is a community of top-notch engineering leaders who dedicate 30 minutes of their time per week to have calls to help engineering managers, or engineers who are currently transitioning to management roles, face their challenges. Sign up to become a mentor or to be mentored.