The 5 Habits of Awesome Engineering Managers

December 10, 2016

By Scott Dietrich

This is the eleventh in a series of posts that address how New Relic does engineering management in the real world, written by various New Relic software engineers and managers. See all the posts in the series here.

 

Most engineers I’ve worked with have a healthy skepticism when it comes to management. Common questions include: What do managers do, anyway? Do they actually add value? Do I really want to become one later in my career?

I personally feel that engineering management can be a rewarding amalgam of roles: one part technical leadership, one part project management, and one part amateur psychologist. I believe that the main responsibility of an awesome engineering manager is to build awesome teams. Awesome teams are fun, smart, and effective. They make other teams around them more awesome. And, even better. they ship awesome software.

For engineers thinking about a transition to management, here are five habits I’ve observed in awesome engineering managers. Adopting these habits could help you become an awesome engineering manager as well:

1. They smile

Smiling is one of the easiest and cheapest life hacks for improving your team’s environment and well-being. Smiling is known to reduce stress and increase happiness. (Want proof? See “There’s Magic in Your Smile” in Psychology Today and “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside.)

Perhaps what’s most amazing is that smiling doesn’t affect only your own stress level and happiness; it also has a positive impact on those around you. Smiling is most likely the easiest thing you can do to help create a positive, productive environment for your team.

On the other hand, if you never or rarely smile, you are probably sending subtle signals to those around you that you are unhappy or unapproachable. That will not help you build an awesome team.

2. They tell their teams they are awesome

Every engineer deserves to feel that the team they are currently on is one of the best teams they’ve ever worked with. Awesome engineering managers ask their teams whether they think the team is awesome. If the manager doesn’t think it is true, and the team members don’t think it is true, there is some real work to do.

Engineers and engineering teams and individuals often lack the confidence to declare their awesomeness. It can be difficult for a team to become awesome unless someone first tells them they are. And since the engineering manager’s job is to build awesome teams, awesome engineering managers make sure to tell their teams just how good they are.

The “fake it ’til you make it” approach is surprisingly effective. Awesome engineering managers are often their team’s biggest cheerleaders and first to make the declaration. They also try to be as specific as possible in giving their team details about things that are going well. Of course, it’s important that the team’s awesomeness doesn’t come at the expense of other teams in the company. Awesome engineering managers also point out the awesomeness of the entire engineering team—and the entire company.

3. They take time to get to know their team

Awesome engineering managers know the importance of psychological safety in building effective teams. The term “psychological safety” was coined by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, and it’s worth taking a few minutes to watch her fascinating TEDx talk on the topic. Similarly, a recent Google blog post—The five keys to a successful Google team—focuses on the importance of psychological safety in empowering teams to be awesome.

It turns out that taking time to learn about and express interest in the lives of each team member helps build genuine relationships, which can help to improve communication and psychological safety. That helps create the type of environment where everyone can do their best work.

Put simply, teams with greater psychological safety are able to take risks without fear of ridicule. Psychological safety makes it safe for team members to ask questions, suggest alternatives, and challenge the status quo. This leads to greater creativity, productive conflicts, engagement, and results.

4. They are present

Productivity guru W. Edwards Deming—who came up with the concept of Management By Walking Around—once wrote, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Awesome engineering managers know the importance of spending time in the place where their teams work together and interact with each other. For co-located teams, this generally means sitting with the team. For remote teams this might include online environments such as GitHub, Slack, HipChat, IRC, or Google Hangouts.

Your team won’t always tell you when things are going well and they won’t always bring problems to your attention. Being present and spending time with them will allow you to make direct, firsthand observations about the team’s health, productivity, and morale. You will be closer to the work, and you’ll be much more in tune with the health of your team.

5. They are not the deciders

In his classic book Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders, author David Marquet asks: “What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff.” After Marquet, a submarine captain in the U.S. Navy, observed the near tragic consequences of his team blindly following an impossible order, he “vowed henceforth never to give an order, any order.” Marquet implemented a leadership system designed to empower teams and create new leaders rather than give orders to his crew, and he produced remarkable results.

(For more on Marquet, see Jade Rubick’s post on Completed Staff Work: The Secret Management Technique to Empower Your Team.)

Similarly, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, best-selling author Daniel Pink cites Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose as “the motivation trifecta.” Pink reviews psychology studies that show, contrary to expectations, money is a poor motivator for complex cognitive tasks. Instead, self-direction (autonomy), continuous improvement of a skill (mastery), and the feeling of contribution to a greater purpose produced the greatest results.

Awesome engineering managers make every effort to delegate authority to their teams. In my experience, teams almost always make better decisions than do individuals. By delegating the decision-making, awesome engineering managers help make their teams more engaged and more effective—more awesome!

 

Be sure to read the other posts in our engineering management series:

 

About the Author

Scott is an engineering manager at New Relic. He has been in the technology world for 15+ years as a software engineer, architect, and manager. He loves building great software and great teams. An East Coast native, Scott graduated from San Francisco State University and currently lives and works in Portland, Ore. View posts by Scott Dietrich

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