Not many people have more impact on the productivity and cohesiveness of engineering teams than their managers. Whether they are sitting down to code alongside developers or communicating feedback from senior leadership, engineering and product managers have the difficult task of setting the tone, boosting morale, and keeping teams focused on the many tasks at hand.
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From A-to-Zoom: How Engineering Managers Are Navigating the Current Day to Day
As engineering teams continue to play a more prominent role in organizations across many industries it’s even more important for managers to have the tools and temperament to bring out the best in each individual player. To learn more about how the manager’s role has changed and the ingredients for leading a successful team, we spoke to two experienced managers: Michael Goff, a former startup founder and current engineering manager in the self-driving vehicle industry and Cia Bernales, a product manager at global media company Condé Nast.
The Many Facets of Communication
Both technical and non-technical managers have to gain the support of their teams. That starts with transparency, which hasn’t always been a priority within traditional organizations. “Startups are industry disruptors,” says Goff. “They have more of a flat hierarchy or management comes from engineers like them. That has created a more open atmosphere.” When engineers are connected to the business goals or have an understanding of management’s priorities, it connects their work to the greater good. “They’re invested in this, and they want to understand as much as possible. To keep them motivated and focused on success, I just have to share as much as possible,” continues Goff.
Managers also need the ability to talk to senior leadership. “Once leadership reaches a certain level, they’re probably not in your day-to-day meetings anymore,” says Bernales.
So you need managers to be an evangelist for the work the team is doing.
Communication among team members has also evolved as the complexity and volume of projects increase. Before COVID-19 created a mass work-from-home movement, many engineering teams were accustomed to working with team members based around the world or in different parts of the country. Yet the move to a fully remote workforce has presented challenges and opportunities for managers to maintain the same level of communication.
One interesting side-effect of shelter in place is that now everybody is remote, and we all have the same level of communication,
explains Goff. “I actually think it makes it easier in some respects for meetings that otherwise would have been split between people in the room and remote.”
And yet, the potential for communication breakdowns is heightened when no one is ever in the same room and there is so much being asked of engineering teams. “There might be more opportunities for miscommunication these days, just because there are more projects and more risks being taken,” says Goff. So the role of the manager becomes critical to making those connections. “Remote work is a test for managers,” says Bernales. “Because it’s on you to know what’s going on. And if you never had that skill to be on top of things in person, it’s not going to work now.”
Teams that are fully remote, whether it’s temporary or permanent, need to come up with strategies to collaborate while also allowing for heads-down time. Bernales shared,
We’ve instituted ‘golden hours. So, 10 - 11 am Eastern, that’s afternoon in the UK and maybe early evening in Russia. There can be no meetings during that time, but you can work with and pair up with a developer or a designer.
Working remotely can inadvertently lead to more meetings than ever, which for engineering teams can be disruptive. So the onus is often on managers to prevent meeting overload.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of productivity tools is undoubtedly helping engineering teams collaborate, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “It’s hard to find a happy medium that can encapsulate your whole workflow, but it has to be flexible enough to be used by many different types of customers. We end up using many tools, but bits and pieces of each,” says Goff. The problems often crop up when different tools are used by teams across an organization. “When different teams use different tools it makes it harder to collaborate,” he continues.
I think we need to prove that there are efficiencies gained from a consistent workflow, instead of tools across multiple teams.
Showing Value and Having a Voice
The cliche of the lone engineer who codes quietly in the corner does not reflect the cultural shift that has taken place among many engineering teams today. Now more than ever, engineers are actively involved and invested in the success of their work and want to have a voice. “I have a lot of engineers who are vocal, want to make decisions, and own projects, own the code, and then, in the end, give you feedback,” says Bernales. And as technology continues to proliferate in our lives, the more valuable engineers can conceive of their roles.
The more tech that’s infused in people's lives, the more value I think there is on engineering skills,
says Goff. “By creating interesting projects, just based on what the market needs or finding ways to use technology to improve our lives—that just makes it more motivational for engineers.”