Managing Engineering Managers: A Primer

On hiring engineering managers

You’re never going to find a perfect candidate, so generally you’ll have to make some kind of choice between: strong on tech, strong on people management, or well-rounded but not amazing in any particular area.

The closer you are to solving niche problems (e.g. building a data lake, building a data product, network engineering) the more you can and should hire a manager who just knows how to do that. The closer you are to what many growth companies need in most roles - a very dynamic problem solver who can grow to be a multi-team manager - the more you should be aiming to hire people-focused managers.

Nonetheless, you should look for at least some experience overlap with your tech stack. If the manager is taking on a team of > 1 engineer at a growing company, they’ll likely never have time to really onboard into your tech stack. So having some foundational knowledge to build off of is very useful.

Remember to ask the most important question when hiring managers - How many people have you hired/fired/promoted?

On onboarding engineering managers

Try to get your manager some experience in the tech stack in the first 2-3 months. Exposure to the system in the early days pays dividends forever. In a crunch, focus on ability to release and debug - the critical skills for helping the team avoid and resolve issues.

On evaluating engineering managers

It can be difficult to evaluate managers. Much has been written about the ambiguity between the performance of a manager and the performance of their team. Some things to consider:

  • When evaluating manager performance, it’s important to not only evaluate the total output of their team, but also, more importantly, what they specifically did to increase the team’s output above a baseline of just leaving the team alone.
  • Your performance evaluations should include upward reviews of managers. Two or more people giving consistent feedback is a significant thing to focus on.
  • Your employee surveys should be able to be analyzed per-manager. If a manager’s team is uncommonly unhappy, it’s on them to fix it. Blaming it on external factors might be a legitimate diagnosis. Nonetheless, it’s their problem - the manager must fix the team morale or they’re not the right manager for the team. This total accountability applies more broadly as well. On all things team-performance - over time the manager either makes things work well or they don’t. The company just needs somebody who can figure it out regardless of external factors.
  • It’s important for managers to manage up. ICs often have their work transparently visible to their manager - on a scrum board, or discussed in meetings. Managers encapsulate complexity, but need to make sure that doesn’t lead to opacity. Weekly updates or using a portion of 1:1s to give updates (an anti-pattern with ICs) make sense. High level, it’s a managers job to make sure their own manager has enough information to evaluate and support them.

On skip-levels

If you have skip-levels, the number one rule is to not use it as a referendum on the skip-level’s manager. You should set expectations from the beginning that skip-levels are not for soliciting or receiving feedback on the person’s manager. People should raise concerns to and through their manager. Exceptions are for major and severe issues which can and should be raised at any time.

On changes in performance

Managers - much more so than ICs - are subject to volatility in performance. It’s easier to fail-up as a manager and managers are more subject to skills that are appropriate at one level of company maturity but less at another. Sometimes a leader’s time passes and you need to be ready to diagnose that.

On firing managers

People often avoid firing managers because then you have to backfill them, which is painful (who manages the team then!? me?!?). My best advice here is that you just need to bite the bullet and do what is needed for the team and for that manager when it’s clear things aren’t working.

On parental leave

As good as your company’s policy might be, if you do a shoddy job of supporting their team while they are gone, you are not supporting new parents well enough. You need to put a lot of effort in to make sure their team has the right amount of support and management while they are out. This can take many forms, from assigning interim Scrum Masters to assigning interim managers and everything in between.

The most common approach to handling manager leave - the manager of the person on leave just manages the team in a haphazard way - has a low probability of success. Make sure you don’t have managers come back from leave to a team that is low morale and suffering from attrition because you didn’t properly support them.

Final Thought

As you get more senior, there’s a lot fewer books/blogs about how to work. Do you know any great resources for managers of managers? Specifically ones that aren’t just for CEOs? We’d be forever grateful if you sent them to!