If you have a look at job openings at tech companies today, you’ll find that an opening for an engineering manager role is very common. A decade or two ago, such role wasn’t as common. On the surface, an engineering manager’s role today might look similar to that of a Technology Manager, a Team Lead, a Tech Lead or a Project Manager.
So, what are the differences between those managers that I used to report to back in my developer days and engineering managers that tech companies are looking for today? In this article, I will share with you what it takes to be a great engineering manager in today’s technology landscape and the skills and attributes needed in order in excel in the role. I’ll also share with you relevant resources to help you improve your skills in those areas.
First and foremost, Engineering managers at tech companies need to have T-shaped skills. What’s a T-shaped skills, I hear you ask. According to Wikipedia, it’s described as:
The concept of T-shaped skills, or T-shaped persons is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of persons in the workforce. The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.
Therefore, in the case of an engineering manager, the vertical bar on the letter T is the technical and software development skills that the person possesses, either through formal qualification like a graduate degree in Computer Science, Information Systems and the likes, or through experiences like working as a software engineer or web developer, or both.
While the concept of T-shaped skills is new, it is now more important than ever as technology is the centre of our lives and software is used in many industries across the globe. As technology products becomes more sophisticated and complex, engineering managers with T-shaped skills are a razor that can cut through all the complexity and manage software development teams effectively at tech companies.
Today, I will focus on the more nuanced part of the T-shaped skills which is the horizontal bar of the T. Without any further ado, here are 10 important skills and attributes engineering managers at tech companies need.
- Project Management
I am using the term Analytics very loosely and broadly here as it includes all kinds of metrics and measurements. Firstly, it’s important for an engineering manager to have a very good understanding of the team’s performance and throughput, which are usually measured through defeat rate and velocity. Secondly, business metrics such as customer acquisition, engagement on features, conversion and so on are important for an engineering manager at a tech company to be familiar with so that they can make trade-off decisions when allocating team members against work.
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By Finance, I mean anything to do with accounting and budgeting and knowing where your money goes. This skill goes hand in hand with Analytics skill as often you will need to know your metrics to be able to make an informed decision on finance-related matters. As you get more and more senior in your engineering management career, you might be given a budget to work with for your engineering department. When that happens, you need to start thinking about spends such as recruitment, tools, training and education for employees.
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Whether you call it presentation or public speaking, the gist of this skill lies being able to convey information effectively to an audience and getting them to produce an outcome that you need from them; whether it’s about getting a buy-in from stakeholders on a project, inspiring developers to take on a new initiative, or educating product, design and marketing counterparts on technical details, having a solid presentation skill will help you do your job make more impact in your role as an engineering manager.
Being able to communicate effectively is one of the essential skills for engineering managers. In this day and age where many of your team members are likely distributed and remote work is the norm, async written communication is a recommended medium. Whether it’s emails, memos, blog posts or documentation, it’s necessary to keep your content crisp, clear and engaging.
How to learn this skill?
Writing is one of those skills that you get better with deliberate and consistent practice. I can say this with certainty because English isn’t my first language and I didn’t even start speaking English or writing more than 10 English words every day until I was 15. My usual advice for engineering managers to hone their writing skill is by starting a blog. You can read more about my blogging journey here. But if you are not comfortable to start a blog straight away yet, start by committing to write 100 words a day for a month about your day. You don’t need to share this with anyone if you don’t want to. And then challenge yourself to write 300 words a day the next month, 500 words the month after, until you get comfortable enough to start your own blog or start writing on Medium.
One of the reasons why technical people often make bad leaders is they think logically, sometimes too logically. You can’t expect people to be always logical, reasonable, and to act according to your predefined assumptions. You can’t create an if-then-else statements around real-life problems and execute them repeatedly, expecting the same answer or reaction every time. So having the ability to hack into people’s minds become a useful skill to have as you will be able to more attune to unique needs of your people, understand what makes them tick and enable them do great work.
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I put this skill as project management and this includes both scrum master and agile coaching skill as well as a traditional project management skill. A lot of engineering managers in their early management career are quite accustomed to agile way of working, able to plan sprints, perform agile rituals, release iteratively, and so on, but they have room for improvements when it comes to managing complex cross-team projects with risks and multiple stakeholders.
How to learn this skill?
In my opinion, the best way to learn project management is through application. I have a PRINCE2 project management certificate but I learned so much more on the job than from theories. If you don’t have a complex project to manage yet, you can help out with pro-bono projects. You can use my Agile Project Management Templates for notion to start applying agile methodology in your projects.
A picture is worth a thousands words. As engineering managers start dealing and working with people from disciplines other than engineering, they realize other people across the business are very different to themselves. In these situations, technical skills and abilities become less important.
What becomes more important is to be able to explain technical details in a way that everyone, especially a nontechnical audience, understands and to come out of meetings with a shared understanding across all disciplines.
And one of the most efficient ways to achieve that is visually.
How to learn this skill?
As mentioned in my article about creating a startup in 4 hours, I’ve been using Canva for all my design needs. They have a Design School with all the resources needed for both designers and non-designers like myself (and yourself, perhaps).
One of the lessons that I had learned from growing up in a third-world country is resourcefulness. How does this resourcefulness come in handy, I hear you ask?
As an engineering manager for a technology company where there are often competing priorities, many times you have to be resourceful and think creatively to deliver results.
For example, if you suddenly lost funding for an important project, you’re not going to go to your team who has been working hard for the past few months and tell them that they stop working on the project. You need to think creatively, be innovative and be resourceful to find an alternative solution to the funding problem.
How to learn this skill?
To strengthen your resourcefulness muscle, when you’re thinking of a solution for a problem, whether work-related or not, come up with at least one contingency plan or an alternative to your ideal solution.
Adaptability and resourcefulness go hand in hand for engineering managers. Whether it’s about pivoting your roadmap due to market disruption, or unlearning old ways of doing and learning new ways of working, technology is always changing and ever advancing and therefore calls for adaptability from engineering managers.
Being a leader in technology means you’re a leader of a specific function, and you need to have enough understanding of the function. For example: A marketing manager knows about channels of distribution and marketing trends but may not necessarily be managing a social media channel. A finance manager knows how to read Profit & Loss (P&L) and understand cash flow but may not necessarily be doing a balance statement. Likewise, for an engineering manager, you need to know about the company’s technical architecture, technology stack, and technology capabilities — at the very least.
How to learn this skill?
To keep in touch with technology, engineering managers can attend industry events (meetups, conferences, workshops, etc); read books, blog posts, and publications; and learn from subject-matter experts regularly.
I also encourage engineering managers to learn through your people as much as possible. It helps create rapport, and empowers them as they can see you’re interested in their work and you’re learning through them. This does requires courage, vulnerability and adaptability.
Back in the day, if you worked hard and completed your tasks on time, with little to no supervision, you would be considered a high-performer. And you might think as engineering managers, you need to repeat this model. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. An engineering manager’s role is not just about leading people, but they need to be managing problems. Self-starters who are willing to take risks and come up with creative solutions will be much valued than tasks implementors who make no mistakes but simply execute.
Having an entrepreneurial drive will become a norm instead of a novelty and tech companies will expect and encourage this characteristics from their engineering managers. Why? Because robots can do repetitive tasks with a better accuracy and speed than human beings can but they will never be as innovative as humans.
How to learn this skill?
Think about career security instead of job security
Technology industry is one of the fastest growing industries today. The future of work has arrived for engineering managers. I know for a fact that it is different than work we know previously and thus requires different mindsets and skills from engineering managers to be effective in their role. What’s more — it is estimated that sixty percent of all new jobs in the twenty-first century will require skills that only twenty percent of the current workforce possesses. What this means is that you will need to be flexible, adaptable and always be learning and growing in your career to thrive in the future of work. Because you might be an engineering manager today, but who knows what you’ll be in a few years from now. So build these T-shaped skills and set yourself up for success in your role today and beyond!
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.