This post is inspired by a panel discussion from CodeMotion 2019 conference in Berlin. The panel was conducted by Lena Reinhard, Piergiorgio Niero, and Oscar Fanelli. This discussion was about the role of an Engineering Manager. In some companies, the Engineering Manager can also be called team lead for software engineers.
The responsibilities of an Engineering Manager (EM) vary from company to company. The role description can include topics like vision, strategy, hands-on technical work, training, coaching, facilitation, people, processes, and communication with other teams. Usually, it's a subset of these topics. And every company has a different subset of these topics as a role description. E.g., within most companies, it looks like the vision is part of the CTO's role description.
One topic got an agreement among all panel members: an EM is people-focused, and a Tech Lead is technology-focused. The foundation of the EM role is to deal with people. In tech companies, people are the main asset of the company, so it’s quite an essential job to deal with people. Besides an EM, there can be different other leadership roles like a Tech Lead or a Product Owner. While the Tech Lead is more focused on the technology, the product owner is responsible for the product roadmap. EM and Tech Lead can also influence the roadmap together with the Product Owner.
As the main asset of a tech company is the people and the EM deals with people: the primary goal of the EM is to ensure the performance of the people. As software engineering (at least in an agile organization) is usually teamwork, the goal is actually to improve the team performance. So one factor is team building. The panel agreed that team building is never done; it's a continuous running process. The focus of an EM is very often problem-focused, while the EM tries to improve the team performance. Usually, the problems an EM is facing are people problems around communication and collaboration. Engineering Managers should like to solve these kinds of issues as this is the main task for this role.
Because the EM focuses on people's problems, the workday of an EM is way more ambiguous than the workday of a software engineer. In my experience, there is no typical workday for an EM because new challenges occur now and then. The days are hardly plannable, and the EM needs to react to certain unplanned events. Even though not every day happens something unexpected, but I believe an EM needs to have empathy and resilience; otherwise, it will be a thought life. The panel conducted an excellent conclusion: Not being resilient to constant change is very harmful to your wellbeing within a lead role.
Additionally, to the responsibility of people, an EM is also responsible for influencing the company organization overall. The amount of impact varies a bit based on the company size. As smaller the company is, as more accessible it should be to change the organization. Improving the organization also helps the EM with their primary goal to improve team performance. Removing organizational blockers and improve the processes within the company should improve the overall team performance as well.
One question discussed by the panel was: "How do you try to foster innovation?". An innovation culture comes down to a culture of learning regarding the panel members. As the discussion was around engineering management, we need to distinguish between product and tech innovation. These two topics are not the same. The responsibility of an EM focuses on tech innovations that should support the product innovations. Speaking of fostering innovation, we come to an essential skill of an EM: People have great ideas. The role of an EM is to help to bring these ideas to life.
I like to end this post similar to the end of the discussion, where the panel agreed on two concepts. The first one was that an EM should ask the people constantly: "Are you happy?". A performing team needs some degree of happiness, and this question can also unveil blockers that harm performance. So, it's quite a powerful question.
The second thing is the idea of turning the organization chart upside down.
According to the panel, this is a way better picture of how managers should see themselves: managers care about people. In an upside-down view, you can quickly see how many people you need to care about so that they can perform at their best.
In the end, it was clear: there is no standard role description for an EM. But some things are quite close across different companies, especially when it comes to the people focus.
Title photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash