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5 questions every Engineering Manager should be asking themselves

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on January 30, 2020

First Round’s interview with Engineering & Product Leader Raylene Yung was filled with great advice for early-career Engineers and Engineering Managers. But the part that really stood out to me was Yung’s advice for Engineers moving along the management track. In that section, Yung laid out questions I believe every Engineering Manager should be asking themselves.

Here are five great questions for Engineering Managers from Yung, along with advice from other experts.

1. How healthy is my team? How high-quality and high-impact is our work?

There are lots of questions and data points to consider when evaluating Engineering Managers. But the simplest way to evaluate the output of the manager is the output of their teams. The challenge is balancing high output while maintaining team health.

“You could be working on all the right things and driving up the metrics, but your on-call rotation is on fire and causes engineers to burn out and switch teams,” Yung said. “The key is to invest in all aspects of your team and keep them in balance — even if some changes may seem counterproductive in the short-term, like slowing down your roadmap to invest in developer efficiency and team happiness, they’ll increase your impact over time.”

In Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations, the authors recommend the following tips for preventing burnout in software engineering organizations:

  • Create and maintain a respectful, supportive work environment
  • Emphasize learning from failures instead of blaming
  • Communicate a strong sense of purpose
  • Invest in employee development
  • Ask Engineers what their roadblocks are and work to clear them
  • Give Engineers time, space, and resources to experiment and learn
  • Give Engineers autonomy in their work and tools

2. How well can my team operate without me?

Earlier in the interview, Yung tells a story about what being irreplaceable means in the real world.

“I was training for my first marathon and had just finished a 20-mile run — only to discover that I was being paged for a live incident. I remember sitting in my bathtub fully clothed, somewhat delirious, with giant bottles of Gatorade in each hand and my laptop open, trying to figure out what had happened. It was a high and a low point at the same time. I felt so important and needed, but all I wanted to do was rest and get out of the way. I vowed to immediately start transferring as much knowledge to my teammates as I could so they would have the tools to solve problems without me.”

Lulu Tang

Your goal as a manager isn’t to be critical. Quite the opposite. Your goal is to build a team that can fill in the gaps when you or a teammate is out. A former manager of Yung’s was always trying to extend how long he could be away from work without his team getting too far off course.

“At first it was a few days, then maybe a week,” Yung said. “Eventually he could stretch it to a month, and then several for paternity leave. Now he aspires to be able to go away for a full year. I suspect most companies won’t let you actually be away that long, but it’s a helpful litmus test to try for yourself. Maybe you have a team of folks who, given the right tasks, can plow through them faster than you expect and ask for more. But if they’re still relying on you to tell them what’s next and break down the next project, you’ll need someone to step in if you try to go on vacation.”

3. Why does my team exist, and why does what we work on matter?

This question is multi-purpose. As mentioned in question one, Managers can prevent burnout by communicating a strong sense of purpose and giving Engineers a strong sense of autonomy. This question can do both.

Asking it of yourself reminds you of the “why” of your work, which then helps you communicate it to your team.

Asking your team this question invites them to suggest and debate new and different paths to your shared goals. Which gives them greater autonomy.

It’s also a great sanity check. “If you can’t explain why your goals and projects matter, maybe you’re working on the wrong things,” Yung said. “Solicit feedback and don’t be afraid to change.”

4. How can I help my teammates grow, across all experience levels and scenarios?

A great manager elicits high performance from reports at every level of experience. Are you successful with early-career Engineers but flailing with more seasoned veterans? Yung recommends creating a relationship where you’re both learning from each other.

“One of my first team members had been working for twelve more years than I had — I was intimidated, but decided to try and learn from the experience,” Yung said. “In our first one-on-one, I shared areas I thought I could help him with (e.g. product domain knowledge, company context), and asked for his help in others (e.g. managing senior engineers, scaling complex systems). Over the next few years, we developed a strong working relationship and learned a lot from one another.”

Another way to help your teammates grow is creating opportunities for their growth. Find out what their long term goals are and offer the trainings, books, etc. they need to accomplish them. Not only will this improve their performance, but also helps with retention. The average worker values opportunities for career growth more than any other workplace perk according to Gallup, Deloitte, and Google.

Millennials' most valued work benefits

Millennials' most valued work benefits [Get Lighthouse] (https://getlighthouse.com/blog/top-manager-mistake-causes-turnover/)

5. Am I spending time with my teams in the right way?

It’s natural to spend your time with your team learning your stack and technical work. But if you want to grow as a manager, it’s essential to step outside of your comfort zone and learn how your managers and their teams operate day-to-day.

“Do what you can to support each team and don’t shy away from gathering first-hand knowledge,” Yung said. “Attend team meetings as a guest observer, do skip-level 1:1s, and communicate transparently along the way.” It’s not clear exactly why, but communicating with folks outside the teams you manage directly can make your employees more engaged. In fact, managers who regularly worked with the largest number of people across the organization had employees with up to 5% higher engagement scores, according to HBR.

Just don’t get caught up in the details. Ask your group leads what they need. Offer context they don't have. The ultimate goal is to make changes that help your organization overall.

Not only does this question help your organization become more effective, but it also helps you in your career. Smart executives incorporate feedback from peers, direct reports, and managers when evaluating Engineering Managers.

Going forward

The whole interview is great and I recommend giving it a read. In the meantime, what are questions you ask yourself as an Engineering Manager that make you better at your job? Let me know at cathy at getclockwise.com.

Read next:

How to evaluate Engineering Managers

How Nathan made his Engineers happier and more productive with one click

Keep up with technology trends as a tech leader

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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