Advice, Engineering Manager

5 Mistakes That Engineering Managers Make

We all make mistakes in our careers and lives. However, in our careers, some mistakes are more costly than others. Engineering managers who have the responsibility of being a multiplier instead of a maker need to understand and avoid deadly mistakes, as their mistakes not only have an impact on themselves and their careers but also on the teams that they look after. With great power comes great responsibility.

So without any further ado, let’s take a look at five deadly mistakes that engineering managers make so you can avoid making them.

1. They Deep-Dive Into Code and Code Reviews in Order to Understand the Complexity of a Project
Code snippet.

The beauty of agile rituals is that planning and estimation are done by a team rather than one individual. So there is really no need for engineering managers to be looking into the code base and keeping an eye on code reviews in order to understand the complexity of a project.

Instead, if they believe that something is taking too long, they should look at other contributing factors such as technical debt, lack of skill and knowledge, a suboptimal process, and so on.

2. They Give Into Their Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Engineering managers have seen firsthand how technology is always changing and evolving. Almost every month, there’s a new framework, a new library, a new programming pattern, and/or a new tool coming out. So, naturally, they have this fear that one day their technical knowledge will be obsolete if they don’t keep up with it. As a result, they try to go back to coding every chance they get.

Coding and leadership require different parts of the brain and different mindsets to succeed. When you are coding, you are focusing on solving a problem and doing deep work. Leadership is all about leading by example via action, behaviour, and then creating an environment that empowers others to do their best work — not getting your hands dirty in implementation.

3. They Think Too Logically and Fail to Acknowledge Team Members’ Feelings

“We are not trained counsellors or therapists,” I once heard an engineering manager say. Let me share with you my own personal experience. I used to work with a manager who was technically capable and excellent at problem-solving.

But I didn’t enjoy working with them because I felt there was no empathy, genuine care, or appreciation for their people. When I mentioned to them that I didn’t feel appreciated or valued, he’d start singing my praises every other time I saw them, making it all insincere. There’s nothing worse than having a leader who’s not genuine.

4. They Underestimate the Importance of Adjacent Disciplines Such as Product, Design, and Marketing

I’ve written about this in a previous article. Some engineering managers believe software engineers make the world go round. When asked who the creators, makers, and innovators are, they immediately answer, “Software engineers. Other disciplines exist so they can support software engineers.” They also have this “build it and they will come” mentality.

When there is a time to build and create something, they over-index on technical details instead of working collaboratively with other disciplines to figure out what is going to add the most value to customers and how to package the solution.

5. They Steer Away From All Kinds of Processes

In my article Four Things I Wish I Knew as the New CTO of a Startup, I wrote that not all processes are evil. It’s true. More than a decade ago, as a young and novice CTO, I ran an engineering department at a startup with no formal process for a year. Not having any kind of process meant it was hard for us to know if we were working efficiently. A lot of tasks couldn’t be shared because there was no way for a different person to know how to even begin doing something. Documentation was nonexistent. I was lucky that there was no staff turnover in the year that I was there. Otherwise, handover and onboarding new people would have been quite expensive — not to mention chaotic.

Another problem with not having any kind of process is that I felt like I was a gatekeeper for many things. I couldn’t scale myself.

Before deciding to dismiss all processes, engineering managers should widen their perspective, think, and learn about how a process could help or hinder them in creating high-performing teams.

Keep Moving Forward

My advice for engineering managers who are at the beginning of their careers is this: Be mindful about how and why you’re showing up, doing what you do every day. When you make a mistake, own it, learn from it, and move forward. Transparency and authenticity always win.

Be a leader — not just a manager.

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.