Advice, Engineering Manager

The 7 Types of People You’ll Meet in Your Career as an Engineering Manager

Being a manager is more often an art than a science because you’re dealing with people. While this may not be a surprise, new engineering managers often find themselves challenged by the fact that their people — programmers, software engineers, and developers — are nothing like the programming concepts they’re familiar with. Each and every one of their people is different; each has a different way of thinking, different perspective, different motivation, and different needs, just to name a few.

After almost two decades in my career, I’ve worked with enough people in the technology industry, and I can group them into seven different groups. I’d like to share with you my perspective on them, and I hope you find it useful.

The seven types of people you’ll meet in your career as an engineering manager are:

  1. The intelligent questioner
  2. The quiet achiever
  3. The loud and lazy one
  4. The ladder climber
  5. The tunnel-vision coder
  6. The wannabe hero
  7. The reliable executor

1. The Intelligent Questioner

“Why was this decision made?”
“Shouldn’t the new approach be much simpler?”
“How are we going to know when we get there?”

These are the questions you’ll get from this group of people. They’re no doubt intelligent, but sometimes they can be too much to handle and rub people the wrong way.

With these kinds of people, their manager should aim to coach them to be more thoughtful while recognizing their inquisitive nature is what keeps them engaged in their work.

2. The Quiet Achiever

The quiet achievers are dear to my heart because I was often labelled as one early on in my career as a developer.

These days, I can totally relate to them because I can easily put myself in their shoes. They are quiet, observant, and keen to produce results.

But the downside of having this type of team member is they’re not the first to raise issues — even when they notice something isn’t working well. If they have a manager who isn’t able to address important issues — such as unfair treatment, lack of recognition, or lack of opportunity of career growth — then they’ll walk out the door when you least expect them to.

3. The Loud and Lazy One

The loud and lazy one could easily be mistaken for the reliable executor or the wannabe hero on the surface level.

I still remember making that mistake when I joined a new team as their new manager early on in my management career. There was this person who was always seen everywhere: loudly explaining different programming concepts, pair programming, participating in meetings, and so on. But when it was time to get heads down and deliver, they were no where to be found. I thought of them as all talk but no action.

But as I’ve grown to understand more and more about people, I see they’re not all that bad. It’s just their energy may be misplaced, and they require special guidance and patience to bring them on a journey of self-awareness. Once they’ve gained self-awareness, they’re like a brand-new person who’s eager to contribute positively and go an extra mile for their teams.

4. The Ladder Climber

The ladder climber, as the name implies, climbs the career ladder proactively and consistently. Give them a challenging project that most people shy away from, and they’ll take it with a smile on their face. But you have to dangle the carrot in front — a promotion, so to speak.

While having the desire to do well in one’s career can’t be faulted, as their manager, it’s your responsibility to provide a different perspective to them in order to help them avoid disappointment and burn out.

5. The Tunnel-Vision Coder

The favourite saying of a tunnel-vision coder is “I’m just a developer,” followed by “That’s not my job.”
They’re more common than you might think. Some developers fall into this category because they were never empowered to think bigger. A few developers fall into this category because they’re very content with what they’re doing and they don’t know better. Some fall into this category because there’s a lack of shared understanding with their manager about their role and responsibilities. Regardless of why they’re a tunnel-vision coder, they tend to go into a rabbit hole when given a complex assignment that requires collaboration and a shared understanding of why they’re solving that particular problem.

Rather than giving them simple tasks, the manager’s role here is to challenge them and to allow them to grow. Coach them through failure, and challenge them beyond their comfort zones.

6. The Wannabe Hero

In history, a hero was often someone who saved mankind. There are fictional superheroes we’re all familiar with, from Superman to Wonder Woman.

Likewise, the wannabe heroes strive to be the ones saving their teams and organisations. They work long hours, pick up everyone’s slack, put work above everything else in their lives — all in order to be considered heroes.

The American author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” The two common tragedies with wannabe heroes are 1.) they don’t look after their physical and mental health enough and burn out, or 2.) they hoard all the important and visible assignments and leave no space for others to reach their potential.

7. The Reliable Executor

I had a manager who once confided in me that if they had an important project, they’d give it to the most reliable person in the team. When I asked what constitutes a reliable person, their answer was someone who had proved themselves in the past and someone who get things done with little guidance.

The reliable executors are often mistaken with the quiet achievers, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, the reliable executors are so reliable in getting things done because they have done the same thing many, many times before.

As a manager, you need to find out what motivates the reliable executors and what’s the cost to the organisation of letting them take on important projects over and over again. Because one thing for sure is one day there will come a time when they’re no longer available or there’s more work to be done than the number of reliable executors you have.

Concluding Thoughts

While the descriptions above may seem a bit harsh, these types of people are not all bad, and they contribute to the success of the team in one way or the other as long as they’re given the right assignment and support. Moreover, just because someone was a tunnel-vision coder or a ladder climber, it doesn’t mean they’ll always stay as one throughout their career.

I have personally worn the hat of the quiet achiever, the tunnel-vision coder, the wanna-be hero, the reliable executor, and many others mentioned here when I was a developer, a tech lead. and even an engineering manager. With the right support and opportunities, I was able to contribute to the team, to the company, and grow in my career at the same time.

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.