Be a better engineering manager

For the sake of this article, I refer to an engineering manager as an R&D manager in the hi-tech software engineering industry. But I am sure, these are applicable to engineering managers everywhere. My experiences has been with respect to the highly challenging EDA industry, and so, the information below may potentially be biased towards this industry.

An engineering manager will need to have a few qualities and need to do some things which are absolutely essential to manage a productive high energy team.

  1. Lead technically: This leads the pack. The leadership has to be technical. An ideal engineering manager is one, who has grown up the ranks from software engineer, to tech lead, and now to engineering manager. He should know the specialization technically. When his developer explains a complex idea and is reasoning out why it would take a month for him to develop — the least he should be capable of, is to understand the idea, and realize its complexity.
  2. Be able to code: When there is crunch time, the manager should roll up his sleeves, and get to brasstacks. He should be able to fire his gvim/emacs/editor-of-choice, and be able to debug.
  3. Review code: He should be able to review code, atleast at a high level. There is no way, an engineering manager can ‘own’ his team, is, if he is atleast partially accountable to the teams deliverables. I am not saying, he should review line by line. He should be able to skim the bug-fix, or a feature algorithm, and be able to determine, if it is deviating or conforming with any pre-determined spec/discussion. Speaking of code reviews, there are two good side-effects. Firstly, the manager knows exactly what each of his team is working on, and can guage the productivity of the team, at any given point in time, first hand. Secondly, he is continually sharpening his saw (in Covey language). He keeps in touch with programming, and with the algorithms in his niche.
  4. Be an excellent communicator: He needs to be able to talk two languages. He should be as conversant to the developer/engineer, as he should be with management. This is crucial. Developers should build their trust in their manager. The manager is the conduit of communication between the engineer and management. The manager should also be able to distill the communication going downwards, and pass only information that is useful the developer downwards. Engineers almost always feel there is too much of management communication that flows down. A good manager distills this information and feeds only relevant information to the engineer.
  5. Be a good listener: As I said earlier, the developer builds trust in the manager. He expresses his anger, sorrow, angst, happiness – everything to his manager. A good manager listens and empathizes. There is reinforcement of trust here. A good manager listens carefully and remembers. Have you ever seen the pleasantly surprised look on an engineers face, when you ask him/her, how his/her mother is doing, after her surgery. How do you know ? He was ranting a couple of weeks ago, about how hospitals in Bangalore suck. You rememebered. You asked. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing that pleasant surprise on his/her face.
  6. Be good in planning: You should be able translate developer deadlines to project level estimates and vice versa.
  7. Be a good negiotiator: You will have plenty of situations when you have to bargain with your developers and quite a few situations when you would have to bargain with the management as well. Most likely, the latter.
  8. Be a good influencer: This is a big one. It is related to the previous point, but a little more subtler. When you win your negotiation, you win one, lose another. But, with being influential, you win both ways. You convince. You make sure, the other side takes a decision – the decision you want them to take.
  9. Have good meeting organizing skills: Two skills are needed for this. Have meetings only when required. Start the meeting on time, and finish it on time.
  10. Be flexible: You would need to be flexible. You cannot expect a developer to turn up for a meeting at 10AM (very early morning !). You should be ok to shuffle around meetings so that it is convenient to most people. Be flexible in cancelling meetings, if one is not needed at that time.
  11. Work with the team: Last but not the least – work with your team. Do not sit in your room and let the team do their work. Work with them. Debug with them. Discuss with them. Plan with them. This is not just good for the team. It is good for you as well. You are abreast of what the team is doing technically. It will help you plan your schedules more accurately. And you are continously sharpening your saw – broadening your knowledge.

These are some of the techniques, that could make you the star engineering manager. These are but the tip of the iceberg. The main thing is, you stand for the team. You are their conduit to management. And you are the face of the team to management.

Note1: The above list is in no particular order of importance.

Note2: The usual disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely mine, and are not of my employer, in any way.

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2 Responses to Be a better engineering manager

  1. Sai C says:

    Hey Mouli,

    Great post about the leadership qualities a manager needs to possess. IMHO, I believe # 1 and #11 are very critical as are others. The fact that a person is put in the Engineering Manager’s position should lend credibility and first and foremost s/he needs to understand technically what the product requirements are and should be competent enough to channelize the efforts of his team to achieve the goals while meeting cost and development schedules. This is sorely lacking in a lot of the corporations not just in the US, worldwide. Your article hits the nail on the head and I think you’ve done a wonderful job of presenting your thoughts succinctly. Keep ’em comin’ my friend!

    Take care!

    PS: Interesting to see that you are into using Photoshop. I am yet to read that article, i’m sure it will be good too!

  2. gcmouli says:

    Welcome back Sai. Thanks for the compliments.

    As for your PS, I am not really a Photoshop user. I use the freely available Paint.Net software ; which has a smaller subset of Photoshop features – but hey it is free! 🙂

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