Congratulations, you’re now the manager of an engineer! Or maybe even a team of engineers. Every management role comes with its own challenges. Everybody likes to be managed differently, including engineers. But even though there are individual, personal differences, there are still certain aspects to keep in mind that are specific to managing engineers.
Understand how engineering works
As a manager you don’t need to have the exact same engineering skills as your team. Just because you don’t have an engineering background, doesn’t mean you can’t be great at managing engineers.
However, it can become problematic if you don’t speak their language. They shouldn’t have to explain everything to you every time they’re asking for advice. So at the start of your new role, be honest about what you don’t know and invest time and energy in getting to a basic level that’s needed to manage the team.
Managing engineers by not telling them what to do
It can be difficult for managers who do have an engineering background but resist the urge to tell your team how to do their work. Engineers are problem solvers by nature, so constantly offering them the (or your version of the) answers is not going to make you popular.
Focus on your responsibilities as a manager and offer your team the opportunity to come up with new ideas and involve them in solving challenging problems.
Encourage collaboration between engineers
Not all, but many engineers are introverts. To do their best work, they don’t want be surrounded by other people all the time. And they prefer to take a bit of time to gather their thoughts instead of solving problems in a brainstorming session.
Your challenge as a manager is to make sure that you give them space to do their work, but that your team still collaborates. One way to do this is to organize recurring get-togethers in small groups (like a team coffee break), or rotating one-on-ones (many tech companies use Donut for this) that are fun and don’t take up too much of their time. Getting to know each other better in an informal way will make them more likely to reach out when they could use some help.
Managing engineers’ productivity by removing distractions
Multi-tasking doesn’t really work for engineers. When managing engineers you want to make sure you create an environment in which they can focus on the task they’re here to do. Distractions come in many shapes and forms, from the physical work environment to getting too many requests from colleagues (or you) that are not related to their priorities.
Try to find the right balance between keeping them involved and protecting them from corporate politics at the same time. Your team will thank you for it.
Making an impact
If there’s one thing that will turn motivated engineers into unmotivated ones, it’s the feeling that their work has no real impact. Engineers are driven by solving challenging problems. Of course not every task you need them to do can be equally challenging. In that case, demonstrate how their work impacts the company’s mission and goals and make them part of the bigger picture.
What drives motivation?
But keep in mind that every engineer is different. What motivates one employee, or maybe you if you’re an engineer yourself, might not apply to someone else. Have regular one-on-one meetings where you encourage them to be honest about what drives them. Not every engineer will open up to you straight away, so give it time and work on earning their trust. Really understanding what motivates your team will help you become a better manager.
Desired career path of an engineer
And do you know how they see their professional future? Engineers especially take pride in their skills and expertise. Therefore, their idea of a ‘career path’ is more focused on developing their expertise than climbing the more traditional career ladder.
Taking over your management role in the future might be a dream for some, but a nightmare for others who just want to do what they’re great at. And getting better at it! Having to deal with the responsibilities that come with a management role would just get in the way of that. So ask open questions when discussing their future and their answers might surprise you.
Managing engineers’ fear of becoming redundant
As a manager it’s your job to make sure your team has the skills that the company needs. And those requirements change over time. Company strategies or line of products and services change rapidly. But especially technical innovations impact the work of the engineering team.
Research has shown that over 50% of engineers fear that their skills become obsolete. They’re working hard to become an expert in a certain field to then realize nobody is asking for those skills anymore. When managing engineers it’s important to be aware of this fear and together find a way to keep their skills relevant and future-proof.
Lifetime employability instead of lifetime employment
However, the days of lifetime employment are long gone. Your best people won’t stay with you forever, and that’s okay. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, introduced an approach that he called the ‘Tour of Duty’.
The relationship between the employer and employee is seen as an alliance between the two. Both sides are being realistic about the fact that they won’t stay together forever but want to make it beneficial to both. As an employee you are being encouraged to make a real impact for the company and in return the company will help you advance your career. Either with a new role in the company or somewhere else. In general this ‘tour of duty’ will last two to four years, or as long as it takes to develop a new product or important project.
This approach could give your best engineers a reason to stay and turn them into advocates of the company when at some point they decide it’s time to move on.
Find external tech talent through your engineering team’s network
Why would you tell your team to spend time outside the company when there’s never enough time to do all the work? Precisely for that reason! Most engineering teams need to bring in external engineers at some point. Because you require specific knowledge and skills for a new innovation, or you temporarily need extra hands to finish all the work.
By encouraging your team to attend events and network with other engineers, they’ll build a great network that you can leverage. Plus the insights they’ll gain from these meetings will help solve future problems.
Managing engineers by rewarding problem solvers
If there’s one thing you can count on is that with engineering projects things don’t always go according to plan. When the solution is not to bring in extra resources, the solution will have to come from within the team. This is when you’ll see who your most valuable engineers are.
Work on a culture in which your engineers feel comfortable to come to you as soon as they see a potential problem. Then encourage them to think of a solution instead of trying to solve it for them. Give your team space and time to work on it before the problem escalates.
Be your engineering team’s biggest advocate
As much pride as engineers take in their work, they’re also their own worst critic. You won’t see a lot of a self-promotion until the work has finished according to specific high standards. And even then it might not happen.
When managing engineers, make sure your team gets the credits they deserve. Keep the rest of the organization up to date about what they’re working on and why this work is important. And don’t do all the talking for them. It might be out of their comfort zone, but try to find a way to make them more visible that works for them. Your team deserves it!