Advice, Engineering Manager

Engineering Managers: Think and Act Like a CEO

According to the Global Developer Population and Demographic Study conducted by Evans Data Corporation, there are over 22 million developers worldwide. This figure is expected to rise to 26 million in 2022.

So. Many. Developers.

As software is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and software developers make up 70–80% of a tech company’s workforce, there is an increasing need for managers who look after those software developers. As a result, there is a rise in the number of engineering managers in recent years. Engineering managers are responsible for delivery teams that produce software — in particular, developers. Now you might be wondering, “How does being an engineering manager differ from managers for any other disciplines? Moreover, how would you, as an engineering manager, set yourself apart from other managers and stand out from the crowd as an effective engineering manager?”

Today, I’d like to share with you the one essential skill that is most valued but often overlooked for engineering managers. Many fail to understand its importance. And, no, it is not a public speaking skill.
It took me a while to come up with an appropriate label for this skill, but I have finally come up with one that I am happy with. This essential skill is the ability to think and act like a CEO.

As I have run my own software development agency and co-founded a tech startup before, I have been on the other side of the software business and seen the importance of this essential skill firsthand. In my current role as a senior engineering manager, I try to instill this skill in engineering managers who work for me. I also recognise that engineering managers with this skill are often more valued by executives and they are able to progress in their careers much faster than their counterparts.

Foundational technical skills and the ability to speak to and understand developers are absolutely important for an engineering manager, but if you have this essential skill of being able to think and act like a CEO, you have a better chance of setting yourself apart from the rest.

You may be thinking, “Oh, but I don’t think I can develop such a skill. I have never been a CEO or don’t know a CEO personally.” You may be surprised to know that being an engineering manager means you already have a lot of similar characteristics that are important for a CEO. Therefore, it is more about understanding and honing this skill.

Let me share with you five ways to help you think and act like a CEO — even if you have never been one. And the best news is, this skill is transferable and useful regardless of where you are currently in your management career, be it a tech lead, engineering manager, head of engineering, director of technology, or CTO.

1. Understand How Business Success Is Measured at Your Current Company

If you think every CEO’s biggest concern is the bottom line — aka how much money the company makes — then you couldn’t be more wrong. Companies at different stages of their growth have different concerns and measures of success. For example, a startup company at its infancy stage may say their measure of success is the number of engaged customers. On the other hand, a profitable public company may say their measure of success is their stock price. Some companies may even say their success is determined by their employee retention rate. Not all success measures for companies are financial, and they can change as companies evolve and mature.

So the question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I know what the success measure is for the company that I am currently working for?” This is the first and foremost question that you need to address before you can think and act like a CEO.

As an engineering manager, you would like to think your ability to deliver quality software through a team of developers is what matters the most to your company, but the truth is it is likely not. A team of developers could be busy with so many activities — agile rituals, pair programming, estimation and planning meetings, architecture designs, coding, testing, refactoring, and the list goes on — and it’s the responsibility of the team’s engineering manager to ensure those activities contribute towards a desirable outcome for the company. You will be much valued by senior executives if you understand the big picture.

2. Leverage Data Effectively

People with a technical background are very familiar with data. As an engineering manager, you were probably a developer in your previous life, are analytical, and understand the importance of backing your findings and solutions with data points.

For example, if you were putting together a recommendation on why your team should be investing in improving the response time for an application, you think in numbers, obtain the current baseline, and come up with an improvement in milliseconds. Likewise, a CEO needs to make use of data and numbers too. Whether it is about growing a customer base, making more profit, or anything else, a CEO needs to first obtain the current baseline and then decide what improvement they need to achieve.

As an engineering manager, when your teams are delivering new features or working on any project, think about how this relates to the success metrics of the company and communicate this clearly. I once had a chat with a CEO who told me that he didn’t understand why tech debt was so important because he didn’t understand what it would mean to the business if the company didn’t pay it back. It was not like his company was going to go bankrupt, right? But if the CEO understood how this could impact the availability of a critical service and portability of this happening with data points, then their tech team would have a better chance of paying back the tech debt.

Engineering managers need to be able to speak not only to developers but also to business executives.

3. Learn to Delegate

There is a saying that a CEO should work on their business instead of working in it. What this means is delegating effectively so a CEO’s time is not taken up with small day-to-day operational tasks that other people can do. They can then devote their time to achieving a better outcome for the company through planning, strategizing, etc.

Before you assume I was going to suggest you stop being an engineering manager and become a project manager, let me assure you that I am not. If empowering developers to build stuff is what you enjoy, by all means, you keep doing that. However, there is always something that you can delegate to or share with your team’s developers (e.g. running a sprint ritual).

Think about it: Not every bug has to be triaged by you, not every planning meeting has to be run by you, and not every technical design has to be approved by you. By learning to let go a little bit and also sharing the work and knowledge with your team, you will stop being the bottleneck, your developers will have a chance to gain additional skills, everything will move faster in the long run, and everyone in your company — including yourself — will benefit.

4. Be Obsessed With Continuous Improvement

Have you ever seen a CEO who isn’t interested in improving themselves and others around them? Have you ever heard a CEO say, “We have made a lot of profit this year… let’s stop making any more”? Me either. CEOs are not ones to settle for whatever they have right now. They have this desire to be continuously better and set ambitious goals to achieve them, whether it is for their own personal development or for the company’s performance.

While some CEOs do better than others in taking risks and being aggressive with their goals, they all share this common characteristic: the desire to do and be better, regardless of their appetite for risk.
Engineering managers, developers, and many of us who work in technology share this characteristic too, which is why technology is always advancing and making our lives easier and better. From smartphones to artificial intelligence and machine learning, a lot has developed in the past decade in the technology industry. All because we are continuously improving. You can bring this characteristic to your day-to-day work. When you see an inefficiency in the way of working, misunderstanding of the big picture, or lack of clarity in strategy, make it your job to improve it.

5. Bring Positive Energy

Every good CEO knows that they are not just responsible for the company but also the employees. They want to get the best out of everyone and want to bring this positive energy that will set the tone for the environment.

Cultivating a positive environment is easy when the business is doing well and is achieving its goals, but having this characteristic is especially important when there are setbacks and failures in business. Through a positive attitude and outlook, a CEO is able to inspire and influence others to follow their vision and give their best work to achieve ambitious goals.

I used to think positive energy can only be displayed by those who are extroverted. However, I have learned that having positive energy and being extroverted are not mutually inclusive. Someone can be an extrovert without positive energy or they can be an introvert with positive energy. This is an important thing to remember, as most engineering managers were developers who tend to be introverts — the quiet ones who would rather keep a low profile.

This article explains what positive energy really means and how you can project this kind of energy onto others. I encourage you to bring your positive energy to every situation, to stand-ups, to planning sessions, to meetings, to performance reviews, to 1:1’s, and I guarantee you will start noticing the impact that you make.

Engineering Managers: Think and Act Like a CEO

I hope I am not the first person to tell you that technical skills alone are not enough in your career. Don’t get me wrong: As I mentioned earlier, I believe having a foundation of technical knowledge is absolutely important for an engineering manager responsible for developers.

But if you really want to get far and get ahead in your career, you will need to start thinking and acting like a CEO. The good news is, just as with any skill in life, the ability to think and act like a CEO can be learned through practice.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like to check out my latest book on engineering management. It’s a practical guide for engineering managers at tech companies.

The Engineering Manager’s How-to Guide is very targeted for engineering managers, and in this book, you won’t find generic advice like having regular 1:1’s, giving feedback, etc. Yes, those things are absolutely important, but they are not specific to an engineering manager’s role. It’s my goal to make sure this book provides a concise and actionable guide for engineering managers, the specific and niche content for engineering managers that you won’t find in other leadership and management books.