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Two Key Focuses (And a Checklist) For New Engineering Managers

There is very little formal guidance for new engineering managers. When I first moved from an individual contributor (IC) to an engineering manager (EM), I found myself struggling to find training resources. 

I want to change that - and I hope this article will serve as a small start in that direction. As an engineering leader at Mark43, I do a lot of mentorship and coaching for engineers who aspire to move to engineering management and early-tenure engineering leaders. Here are a couple of initial focus areas that a first time EM can build upon.

 

Focus Area 1: Trust, Collaboration and Communication

As a new engineering manager, your first 90 days are crucial. You quickly realize the need to gain trust while rapidly building relationships and rapport -- not only with your colleagues and your direct reports, but also with all the other discipline stakeholders. As an engineer, you spend 80% of your time with your engineering team, focusing on the engineering aspects of your role. But in a management position, you spend perhaps 50% of your time with your fellow engineers. The other 50% of your time is spent with people who are stakeholders representing cross-functional disciplines such as product, design + UX or the QA department if there is one. 

In addition, there are other teams like people ops, recruiting, platform, customer support, customer success and deployments. Hence, you need to build relationships early on because to achieve collective success your team needs each discipline aligned to a common goal.

 

Focus Area 2: Information collection, compartmentalization and sharing

As an engineering leader, the amount of cross-communication and information that will be made available to you will rise exponentially. Whether that is pre-set routine meetings, ad-hoc situations or some form of change management – there will be a plethora of details that you will hear, will need to act upon or will need to pass around within your team. These new job duties  will become your day-to-day reality as an engineering manager.

To succeed, you should have a structured way to capture all the information that you are going to be exposed to throughout the day. Unlike pre-COVID times when in-person collaboration allowed us to get away with not thinking about some collaborative processes, you now need to be intentional about your remote organizational design to drive collaboration and communication. So for example, if you are in a one-on-one and you hear something of interest, you need to be able to make the connection that maybe this is something that I should bring to the wider group, or this is a follow-up item for me to take action upon later. You need to make sure that you are staying on  top of all your conversations.

 The takeaway here is that becoming an active listener is a crucial skill for an engineering manager. Being a good listener is not enough because the role of an EM is to surface key information both from your team and for your team. 

Being situationally aware is also important. This skill will help your future self when you need to recall something a day or week later. There are so many different people and so many different topics of conversation that occur everyday that it can be difficult to keep everything straight. I recommend keeping some sort of documentation or making an immediate action item list. This simple habit will pay dividends with time. There are lots of different note and action item taking systems - find the one that works for you.

To wrap things up, here is my simple 3-item checklist to improve your first 90 days as an EM:

  1. Observe and adapt vs be rigid and impose
  2. Build connections and gain trust early on
  3. Stay technical but do not spend a lot of time implementing technical solutions

If you keep this checklist in the front of your mind as well as keeping your eyes and your ears open, you will excel at being an EM. A good EM understands that their measure of personal success is their ability to foster team success - and team success is only possible with trust, collaboration and communication. 

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