Managing Engineers: What to Do and What to Avoid
A good technology foundation is paramount to building a modern, successful enterprise. Engineers — from software engineers to data engineers and analytics engineers — are essential to designing, building and maintaining the infrastructure for that foundation.
For example, data engineering was the fastest-growing job in technology in 2019 and open data engineering positions rose by 40% in 2020 because a solid data engineering base enables businesses to realize their goals of more impactful BI and data science programs. Similarly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for software engineers is going to grow 22% by 2030, substantially faster than the 4% average for all careers.
However, managing engineers has also gotten harder over the years as the pandemic has transformed our mediums for communication and collaboration. Engineers are in demand like never before, and the culture, team, and mission of a company matters to candidates and employees as much as any other factor. In order to get the most out of your team and provide them with solid collaborative leadership, here are three tips for what to do and three tips for what to avoid when managing engineers.
What to Do?
1) Understand what motivates your engineers individually, what will make them enjoy coming to work each day, and make sure you keep tabs on both periodically.
Everyone wants to feel heard and appreciated, but that can be difficult when you don’t see your team every day or even every week. It’s more important now than ever for engineering managers to tap into what motivates each of their engineers and to check in on that motivation regularly. There is always another company offering higher compensation, so personal motivation becomes a huge factor in retention and performance. Make sure your engineers feel they are set up for success and can grow as individuals in the way that matters to them.
2) Err on the side of over-communication, especially in terms of roadmap and career paths.
People like to know what’s coming and what they can expect to work on next. Not only will they appreciate your transparency, they’ll also be able to connect their work to the larger goals and vision of the company. Over-communicating about the business goals and roadmap creates a shared vision that your engineers can get behind. This is especially important in today’s remote-first world, where it’s easy to miss a critical piece of information the first time.
Similarly, over-communicating about career paths reassures your engineers that they have something to work toward personally as well as professionally. In addition to tapping into their personal motivations, communicating a clear vision for professional growth gives them an additional layer of professional motivation that they might not get elsewhere.
3) Explain the business.
Engineers often aren’t as well-versed in business concepts, e.g., ARR vs. ACV for a software product, or CAPEX vs. OPEX. Understanding these concepts can be useful so engineers can gain insight into the larger decisions that are made within their team/organization or cross-functionally.
It all goes back to the idea of creating a common or shared vision that your team can get behind. For example, data is increasingly becoming more of a boardroom discussion, so the infrastructure that your data engineers work on has major implications for the business. By explaining key business concepts, and how they connect back to the engineering work your team is doing, your team will not only feel more connected to the business but also be more inclined to innovate based on business goals.
What NOT to Do?
1) Avoid micromanagement.
Nobody does their best work under a microscope, and nobody wants to feel constantly judged. You hired your engineers for a reason. Keep track of deliverables, but let them guide you on the level of involvement they want in their day-to-day work.
2) Don’t ignore the quiet folks.
Particularly in a remote environment, make sure to check in, even if just to say hi. It’s important to make sure engineers have frequent opportunities to discuss blockers and their work.
Engineers are often introverts and get caught up deep in focus on their projects, so it’s easy for them to become disjointed from the rest of the organization. Remind them that you’re here to help them through their struggles and challenges, regardless of whether or not they speak up on their own.
3) Don’t be afraid to be a bit vulnerable from time to time.
We’re all human, we’re all doing our best, and we all have our unique situations outside of work. We’re still in a pandemic, and things are different than they were. Let your team know it’s okay to take time to step back and breathe when they need to, and show them that you sometimes need that as well.
Fostering a Culture of Learning
There are a plethora of new technologies — from AI and machine learning to low-code and DevOps — that engineers need to consider in their work. One way to keep engineers happy is to encourage them to learn these new technologies and stay up to date with the latest in their field. Conferences and writing blogs or articles can be great ways for engineers to connect with their peers and get more involved in trends.
As an example, increasing data maturity has become a core posture for data-driven organizations. For data engineers, the move toward data maturity with the rearchitecting of a decentralized and more mature data management system would be one way to empower them to explore additional value propositions that may exist outside of traditional data architectures. In order for engineers to evolve as they face new challenges related to governance and regulation, it’s important that you provide them with opportunities to explore new architectural approaches that might be better suited for these modern challenges.
Taking these measures when managing engineers not only makes your team more comfortable with, and confident in, their work, but also fosters a culture of learning that drives them toward innovation.