A Day in the Life of 5 Engineering Managers, Part I

March 12, 2020

The following five engineering managers all started out as technicians. And while they might have come into their previous roles with experience in JavaScript, Python or Golang, their leadership skills were developed and honed on the job. 

Better.com Head of QA Engineering Michele Martone said she’s increasingly made space for ongoing training within her team. Cockroach Labs Senior Engineering Manager Jordan Lewis and AlphaSights Director of Engineering Nicolas Bonnefon are both conscious active listeners. 

“Though technical skills are essential, a wide breadth of experience is more useful than being a superstar coder,” Bonnefon said. 

Many of the NYC professionals we spoke with still make time in their days for what got them interested in tech in the first place: software engineering. But that technical work is interspersed between one-on-one mentorship sessions, roadmap production and team-building. 

Michele Martone
Head of QA Engineering

Around four years ago, Martone started working at Better.com, where her position has grown into a head of QA engineering role. Her days are focused on employee development and testing support, a component of the QA process she became involved with early on in her career there. Martone continues to develop her technical acumen just as much as her managerial skills, and still writes code. 

 

Tell us briefly about your professional background. How did you become an engineering manager? 

I began my career as an accountant at Prudential Financial. While I was there, I started to teach myself how to code and took a Java and C++ programming certificate program at Columbia. 

My first QA role was at a small hedge fund servicing company (ultimately acquired by State Street), where I grew into a management role with the guidance and mentorship of my then manager. He not only emulated what a manager should be, but also laid out expectations and a plan so I could grow into a management role. After State Street, I led QA teams at two other startups. 

 

What are your job responsibilities? 

Right now, a majority of my time is spent helping to build out the engineering team at Better. We’re growing out the QA team and our other engineering teams pretty rapidly. Being involved in hiring decisions is really important to me. 

Outside of interviewing candidates, I do a lot of development with my team through one-on-one sessions and training. Even though I’m a manager, I still spend some time coding and helping my team with their code. When I first started at Better, I helped develop our testing here, so I’m still involved in the maintenance of those critical path tests and ensuring that our builds go smoothly. 

Being approachable goes a long way with developing rapport and earning respect.’’  

 

What makes a good engineering manager? 

A good engineering manager is someone who can earn respect technically from the people they manage and their peers. They should be able to look out for their direct reports’ growth and understand where their team fits into the bigger picture. They should drive their team to meet both personal and organizational goals. 

Being approachable goes a long way with developing rapport and earning respect. I try to maintain relationships with my team members by providing ongoing training, mentorship and access to team events. 

 

Jordan Lewis
Senior Engineering Manager

During the early stages of his career at Cockroach Labs, management didn’t come as naturally to Lewis as software engineering always had. But with the encouragement of his mentor, he was able to navigate the new responsibility. He believes engineers are most productive when they are familiar with the history of technical decisions made throughout a product’s development lifecycle. 
 

Tell us briefly about your professional background. 

My professional background as a software engineering manager started in middle school, when I was granted access to an iMac and a copy of Hypercard. This gave me an itch for engineering that I haven’t been able to shake yet. 

I studied computer science at The University of Chicago, after which I did back-end engineering for seven years. I was one of those engineers who claimed complete disinterest in management. 

At Cockroach Labs, things changed for me when I was encouraged to take on managing two interns. I enjoyed the experience of learning to mentor and guide interns, and with some more encouragement, I gradually took on the responsibility of managing a growing team of full-time engineers.

 

What are your job responsibilities? 

As an engineering manager, I’m responsible for making sure that my team is productive, happy and delivering high-quality results. My days often contain a mixture of one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, helping my team plan its upcoming work and working with product management to make sure our technical and product roadmaps are well-aligned and prioritized. 

I also try to make sure I’m up to date on my team’s technical pulse by following along with discussions on pull requests and RFCs. I’m still an engineer at heart, so I try to carve out a little bit of time each week to work on something that’s not too much in the critical path of delivery.

A good engineering manager is empathetic, an active listener and works to empower reports.’’    

 

What makes a good engineering manager?

A good engineering manager is empathetic, an active listener and works to empower reports to gain a sense of ownership and mastery over their work. Listening sounds like an obvious one, but at least for me, knowing that my manager has my back because they consistently demonstrate that they’re hearing (and remembering!) the concerns and suggestions I bring to the table makes me feel supported.

As far as code ownership and mastery, the most productive engineering teams tend to be composed of engineers who feel like they really own and understand the code they’re working on. This tends to naturally happen during the beginning of a project. But projects generally need to move past that stage to become successful. 

A good engineering manager can help their team own an older codebase by being proactive about helping individuals find learning and growth opportunities on the project.

 

James Socol
Director of Growth Engineering

While Socol currently serves as director of growth engineering at Policygenius, he ran an education chat platform as a solo side project for almost 10 years prior. Much of his management experience comes from serving as a community platforms manager at Mozilla. Socol said he values long-term product development and metric-driven team ownership.

 

Tell us briefly about your professional background. 

About 10 years ago, I joined a company with a rapidly growing web dev group. After leading a couple of successful projects and taking on some hiring responsibility, I stepped into a management role. I was fortunate to have a manager who cared quite a bit about management-specific skill sets. And when he promoted us, we focused on that craft as a peer group. 

 

What are your job responsibilities? 

My major responsibilities are recruiting and hiring, coaching and facilitating whatever cross-team initiatives help the engineering or growth teams scale and improve. I also lean in to support my product teams from time to time. My typical day is a mix of various recruiting tasks, working meetings with teams, one-on-ones and making some time to review code when I get a chance.

Coaching helps people develop confidence in their own skills.’’

 

What makes a good engineering manager?

I think of good management as the right balance of three activities: sponsoring, coaching and mentoring your team to be able to give up control. Sponsorship means creating opportunities for people to grow. Doing so requires ensuring goals and values or guardrails are clear and that people have the tools to succeed. 

Coaching includes asking questions to clarify situations, eliciting problem-solving strategies and building a toolbox. Coaching helps people develop confidence in their own skills. As in any technical field, it’s important to be able to dive in and demonstrate a level of technical fluency, both to coach effectively and understand challenges.

 

Nicolas Bonnefon
Director of Engineering

A few years before becoming director of engineering at AlphaSights, Bonnefon realized that in order to have the kind of reach he was looking for on a specific project, he needed to build up a team. So he took on an engineering management role at his former employer before transitioning to his current position. Bonnefon credits his managerial success to experience and adaptability.

 

Tell us briefly about your professional background. 

I started managing relatively late in my career, after gaining a lot of experience along the technical path. After I served as the architect on a fairly big project for a couple of years, I realized there was only so much scope I could cover on my own. I needed a team around me if I wanted to have more influence on what we were building. That’s when I decided to switch my focus from building things to developing people. I became an engineering manager for a larger company before making my way to AlphaSights.

 

What are your job responsibilities? 

At AlphaSights, I’m currently responsible for two development teams, the product they build and of course the people. Since becoming a director, I’ve also acquired a number of more strategic cross-team responsibilities such as building out the architecture and professional development for our engineers. 

I spend half of the day helping and coaching my team and the rest consists of a myriad of activities such as recruiting and figuring out the roadmap for what we’ll build next. 

Because AlphaSights is a service company rather than a tech organization, I also spend a lot of time meeting with the other function heads to see how the engineering team can help them provide value to our clients directly. I’ve especially enjoyed acting as the link between business and the tech org.

A team is never perfectly rounded.’’ 

 

What makes a good engineering manager?

Though technical skills are essential, a wide breadth of experience is more useful than being a superstar coder. People skills, such as empathy, clear communication and active listening are often under-utilized as an engineer. They become paramount when managing a team. 

However, the most important quality for a good engineering manager is adaptability. A team is never perfectly rounded. The manager will inevitably be called upon to fill any gaps that are needed. So you better be prepared to serve as an administrator,  product manager, database administrator, QA engineer, friendly confidant and negotiator when necessary to ensure the team’s success.

 

George Dodwell
Director of Engineering

Dodwell can’t remember a time when he wasn’t an engineer. As such, he tries to get in a few hours of individual contributor work each day. The Addepar director of engineering said that for technical managers, conveying trust to employees and having a sense of humor are musts. 

 

Tell us briefly about your professional background. 

I have always been an engineer. I had several engineering roles before I took on any management responsibility. I’ve always been interested in the impact of engineering work and how it changes other people’s lives. Being an engineering manager gives me an opportunity to effect change at a larger scale. I love the intersection of deterministic engineering activities with the ambiguous space of customer needs and feedback. 

Being an engineering manager gives me an opportunity to effect change at a larger scale.’’  

 

What are your job responsibilities? 

I don’t think I have a typical day. On a good day, I have the morning free until 11 a.m. so I’ll exercise before getting into the office around 9 a.m. and then I’ll try and focus on individual contributor work for a couple of hours. The rest of the day is usually meetings, either one-on-ones with my team, discussing feature changes with product and design or helping organize upcoming events or engineering activities. Our daily catered lunch is also a great opportunity to catch up with people in the company I don’t usually work with.

 

What makes a good engineering manager?

Empathy and the ability to synthesize a lot of information. Knowing when to let go is key.

 

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