Become an effective software engineering manager

Aug 05, 2021 - 12 min read
Joshua Ahn
editor-page-cover

Welcome! Whether you’re on a new adventure of becoming an engineering manager or walking into the first week of your new job as an engineering manager, you’re in the right place. Today, we will cover your first steps on how to be a software engineering manager. Whether you’re new to engineering management or looking to hire an engineering manager for your startup, you’ll find helpful tools and guidelines for navigating some of the many questions every experienced manager once ran into.

Your First Days

Four Tools for Success

Measuring Output



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Your First Days

Getting oriented your few days at your new workplace blends a list of questions ranging from a simple “where is the closest bathroom?” to an abstract “how will I effectively manage my team?”. Your next days involve observations to best answer these questions. Before you schedule your meetings, one-on-ones, and introductions, spend some time organizing your plan of action for your investigation.

Observation Snapshots

In preparation for the following days, categorize your investigation into three parts:

  1. Your observations

  2. Your manager’s observations

  3. Your team’s observations

What to include in observations:

  1. Personal Anecdotes

  2. Timed Samples

  3. Event Examples

  4. Jotted Notes

Your observations:

In this category, write down any observations you notice between the start and end of your day.

Considering your new role, much of your observations will originate from your interactions with other individuals within your team or company. This circle is where you will be writing down your interpretation of what you’ve heard, seen, or sniffed out across all your interactions. Look out for misalignment on any communication downward or upward between you, your manager, and your team.

Your manager’s observations:

In the following days, your conversation with your manager should include their perspective on your team and company. Come prepared with questions to fill gaps of knowledge or any curiosities you have regarding their work experience. You want to look for areas of improvement for downward communication.

Your team’s observations

Your conversations with your team members should bring up their perspectives regarding work experience on the team and product. Keep these observations in mind as they cover what works best for them and areas they hope to grow in. Your job is to improve communication with you and your team and to target any false beliefs they might hold between them and your manager.

Introductions

Now that you’ve prepared your course of action for observations, it’s time to start scheduling conversations with the rest of your great team.

One-on-ones with your team:

Go around asking your programmers for 30 minutes of their time to grab a coffee or chat over zoom. There are two goals for your one-on-one introduction:

  1. Their perspective on what the team is working on and what they are working on as an individual

  2. Their perspective on what is going well, what is challenging, and what needs improvement

Keep your meeting as informal as possible to achieve the best conversation around these two goals. Keep the conversation organic and casual by “breaking the ice” with open-ended questions that allow your conversation partner to do most of the talking and for you to piece together their thoughts.

At the end of the meeting, thank them for their time and schedule a weekly time to meet with them. Considering that software development requires high focus, be conscientious of their time when scheduling a meeting.

One-on-ones with your manager:

Proactively schedule a time to meet with your manager. There are five goals for your one-on-one with your manager:

  • Information on your team and product

  • Information on individuals: superstars vs. strugglers

  • Thoughts on the current project management: Length of time, Number of changes

  • General advice on your position within the company

  • Best practices to interact/ work with your manager

Your observations from this meeting will fill up one of the snapshot bubbles listed before. Now that you have all three bubbles filled, it’s time to put your snapshots together.

Putting it all together

Now that you collected the necessary information to finish your investigation, it’s time to put it all together. As you put your snapshots together, look for places of alignment and misalignment in communication. These don’t always have to be a negative feedback loop, but you can also look for missing positive feedback loops. For example, if your team is known to be performing well, yet they don’t hear their performance improving, start working to fix that gap.


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Getting Yourself Organized

Every day requires your full attention to detail and information. As you step into your new role, aim to master each tool to make your days run smoother and avoid mistakes. We’ll cover four good housekeeping tools and how to use them during your first week.

  • Your calendar: Organizes time

  • Your to-do list: Organizes tasks

  • Your message inbox: Organizes messages

  • Your information storage: Organizes notes

Your calendar

Before we start, let’s cover a couple of rules your calendar should abide by:

  • Times you are meeting people

  • Times you are busy

  • Times you need to focus

As you can see, each rule focuses purely on time. Avoid using your calendar as a to-do list to keep your responsibilities partitioned across your various tools. Your calendar tells others when you’re free while also blocking out times for yourself.

During seasons of heavy recruitment and interviews, be mindful about blocking time out for breaks and focus on your other responsibilities. Keeping an organized calendar prevents your schedule from becoming overly booked and helps you stay efficient throughout the day. Keep in mind that not all times throughout your 8-hour day are equal. Be mindful about times you’re most productive and preferences of when to meeting with other people.

Your to-do list

Like your calendar, your to-do list should abide by a couple of rules:

  • If a task is not on your to-do list, you’re not doing it

  • Make your to-do list first thing in the morning

  • Check off items before you go home

  • Set reminders for anything to keep as much out of your brain as possible

Your to-do list starts your day and winds down at the end of your day. By placing items on your to-do list, you free up mental space for the rest of your day after work and find a better work-life balance. Someone asks you to do a small task? Write it down. Your notebook running out of paper? Write it down. Learn to love checking items off your to-do list and experience the freedom it provides when you’re away from work. You’ll find that a disciplined cycle of using your to-do list provides productivity during work and efficiency during rest times.

You might be asking, which software or medium works best as a to-do list? Depending on your company, your to-do list should live in a place that can:

  • sync to multiple devices

  • automatically repeat recurring tasks

Whether your software is Asana, Monday, or Notion, try to keep your to-do lists tidy and follow the rules first detailed in this section for more productive days.

Your messaging inbox

Here are a couple of rules to follow when organizing your messages:

  • Never delete an email or message

  • Unsubscribe from email lists you don’t read

  • Set rules for important messages being sent to you (Example: Include the word “URGENT” in the subject line or top of message)

  • Set rules for what your preference on incoming messages

Example: Urgent & time-sensitive tasks send via slack

Your information storage

This tool has the most amount of flexibility and depends on your preference. While there are no set rules for where and how you should keep your notes, here are some suggestions:

  • High accessibility for your medium of note-taking

  • Different mediums of note-taking for different occasions. (Example: phone for desk, laptop or notebook for in-person meetings, laptop for remote working)

Put to Practice

Now that you’ve read through some of the rules for each tool, it’s time to assess your usage of these four tools. Ask yourself questions on how to improve your calendar or partition out your mediums for note-taking. Here are some questions to ask yourself for each tool:

Your calendar

  • What other uses of your calendar do you use it for other than scheduling your time? Where else can you record that information?

  • How often do you block out times for personal focus?

Your to-do list

  • What software do you currently use for your to-do list? How has this software helped you, and what are some features you wish it had?

  • Have you tried a full day driven solely by your to-do list? How did it feel?

Your messaging inbox

  • What are your current important messaging preferences? Does your team know how and where to message you for time-sensitive issues?

  • Do you use your email as a to-do list? What subscription services do you delete?

Your information storage

  • How do you currently differentiate between where you take your notes during meetings and at your desk?

  • What is your preferred method of note-taking? What are some occasions you anticipate using a pen & paper over an electronic device?

Hopefully, you feel more prepared to take on your first week with all these tools in your toolkit! The more organized you are, the more capacity you have to perform your other tasks. Speaking of other tasks, let’s cover how to categorize the many hats you wear.


Categorizing Your Hats and Output

Categories of work

Back in your programming days, you had a measurable number of tickets you could get through or your code to show you completed tasks for the day. Now, your job involves working with other people, which often leads to a feeling of lacking tangible work to look back on at the end of the day. The best way to tackle the small number of tasks throughout the day is to categorize your various managerial duties for the day. Andy Grove, co-founder and late CEO of Intel, advised managerial responsibilities to be classified into four buckets:

  1. Information gathering

  2. Decision-making

  3. Nudging

  4. Being a role model

Information gathering

We touched upon this topic earlier with your information gathering tool, but this duty includes those previously mentioned rules alongside the places you might find information.

One of the most significant advantages of working in person in an office involves candid or random conversations amidst coffee breaks, water breaks, or passing by in the hallway. Fundamentally, information gathering adds to your knowledge base, which holds the potential for application in the future.

The rules for information gathering are simple:

  • Be inquisitive

  • Ask questions

  • Seek out information

You’ll find that your knowledge base will save you and your team time and energy in the long run.

Decision-making

Out of all the responsibilities you hold as a manager, making decisions is now a significant part of your life. While some decisions seem more straightforward than others, take each decision-making moment seriously and with respect.

Furthermore, keep in mind the different areas of decision-making throughout your time as an engineering manager. Whether you’re making decisions on hiring new employees, the direction of your project, the timeline of your project, or the allocation of your work, keep in mind that small decisions can grow to high costs in the future.

Nudging

Nudging refers to influencing a decision by contributing your viewpoint to a discussion. Moments of nudging occurs during meetings or casual talks on any topic. The goal for nudging is to express your perspective and take advantage of opportunities to expand your influence within your organization.

Throughout your career progression, consider that your voice holds more authority. Your opinions have gravity, so be intentional about when to share your views.

Being a role model

Put simply, walk the talk. Demonstration of high work standards starts by leading at the front as an example. Your development team needs to see you as their role model. To get you started, here is a list of ways to present yourself as a role model:

  • Exhibit strength during stress

  • Build trust through honesty and integrity

  • Make time for your team

  • Learn about your team as individuals

  • Offer encouragement and practical advice

Your Output

You may have guessed this already, but there is no perfect measurement for all your work, but Andy Grove created a general rule:

The output of your team + The output of others that you influence = Your managerial output

Moving forward, this mental model provides a framework for your output. You’ll notice that the equation dictates your output mainly by the output of others and less on yourself. As you move away from the role as a software engineer/individual contributor and more towards a management role, other’s success measures your success. Spend your time coaching and mentoring others, nudging, and investing time into decision-making.

Wrapping up

It’s time to put these steps into action. To summarize, your first few days to become an effective software engineering manager involves creating observational snapshots of you, your team, and your new manager through meetings and conversations. Spend time setting up your organizational tools to make your work more efficient and productive. Organization frees mental space. Free mental space improves rest. Improved rest increases productivity. Categorize your work into the four buckets of information gathering, decision making, nudging, and being a role model. Last but not least, measure your output through the output of your team and the people you influence. You got this!

Happy learning!


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WRITTEN BYJoshua Ahn

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