Smart engineering managers foresee what actions maximize long term impact and prioritize those actions accordingly. That is challenging to pull off in practice. The linkage between an EM’s immediate action today and its ripple effect a week, a month, or year from now can have little connection to time spent on the act itself. It also commonly lacks a paper trail or concrete “proof” of action taken. And managerial outcomes often depend on the fickle influences of human psychology and plain luck.
I’d argue individual contributors, a.k.a. developers have an easier time making the connection between action today and impact tomorrow. Most engineers deep in code have clean artifacts of their work to show progress. Developers edit files, merge pull requests, close Jira tickets, and pass automated tests. When they ship features, there’s often a tangible outcome, be it a new set of UI, a performance boost, or a database migration. Past performance across similar technical challenges becomes a predictor for future velocity. This factor is why more experienced engineers become more accurate at making estimates for their work, and why task estimation is such a core tenet of software development.
1:1s are deceptively hard. On paper, they look straightforward: set aside some time to let your reports talk through what’s on their mind. Actively listen, give them feedback, repeat. But no report shares the same personality, seniority, career trajectory, or learning style. Add to that mix a changing agenda and office politics, and you learn early on good listening alone won’t cut it. Knowing how to react at the moment in a way that’s tailor-made for your audience tends to elevate 1:1s from so-so to stellar.
But flexibility challenges aside, some principles work well for every report regardless of their background or environment. If you’re new to 1:1s or been doing them for a while and want to get better, adhering to these four basics will help.
Every engineering manager juggles multiple priorities: managing the velocity of the team, serving as a cross-team engineering representative, making sure the engineers are happy, and weighing in as a deciding voice on hard decisions. There’s never enough time to do everything which forces prioritization.
Unfortunately, promoting career growth among a manager’s reports can be the first item to get lost in the shuffle. It rarely carries the visibility that managing team velocity or a substantial presence in meetings can. Put another way, when you hit your deadlines, ship software on time, and take decisive action on the weekly sync, your boss notices. If you’re not promoting a report on schedule, you might have an unhappy individual, but it can get lost to the larger company view.
An engineering team’s formal processes — how you track sprints, run meetings, handle release cadence, and manage code reviews — helps set team velocity and impacts the happiness of individual team members. As the engineering manager, you’re in an impactful role to shape and improve these processes over time. Remember when making any change in process, be patient yet firm.
Engineers tend to dread meetings, and for good reason: bad ones can be soul crushing. Not only are bad meetings a waste of everyone’s time, it can make the meeting’s organizers look incompetent. Paradoxically, as engineers grow in their career, meetings grow more important. You attend and organize more of them, and as a senior voice in the room, your words can have an outsized impact.
Meetings get a bad rap. Well run ones are an efficiency multiplier, leaving people energized and productive, and a team more cohesive. The right meeting can even turn around an otherwise doomed project.
One of the easiest ways to improve the quality of your meetings is to prepare for them. Without preparation, you’re fighting an uphill battle against context switching; one minute you’re coding and the next you’re in “meeting mode” without clear direction.
I like design teams built around collaboration and transparency with outsiders, especially engineers. Yet that openness has to be balanced against productivity. Even with formalized designer-engineer connections, I still structure meetings to give designers as much uninterrupted time as possible.
An open structure largely derives from designer/engineer ratios. Across technology, from hot startups to well established brands, designers are almost always heavily outnumbered. And given it’s a fairly young industry, design is often underrepresented in company leadership. Granted, with “design thinking” surging in popularity, that’s changing. But across many companies, it’s still an uphill battle. If you box your design team in, you’ll stack the deck against you.
Capturing and organizing tasks is a highly personal exercise. Some turn to simple tools like pen and paper or a Google Doc. Others prefer complex systems with filtering, contexts, and customization like Omnifocus.
After trying several options, I’ve found a sweet spot between these extremes with Todoist. It provides some structure for work, but remains flexible for whatever flow I’m managing. That said, the basics I outline here should work with most task management systems.
Fog Creek software has been running a series of video interviews about software engineering. They cover hiring, firing, culture, and much more. Their most recent post with Kate Heddleston is particularly strong. Onboarding, from my experience, is a greatly underrated topic. It makes a huge impression on new staff, and a wrong move here can set the wrong tone for an extended period.
An archive from my earlier webinar hosted by InVision. I cover techniques on equipping your tech team for responsive web design and native design across mobile devices. The techniques are admittedly derived heavily from Agile methodology (daily standups, project self assignment) but I’m a true believer they can boost productivity across many team structures.
Andy Hunt, one of Agile Manifesto’s original authors, wrote a controversial post recently. He makes several arguments about Agile’s failings, and this one especially resonated with me:
Since agile methods conveniently provide some concrete practices to start with, new teams latch on to those, or part of those, and get stuck there.
I’ve seen this phenomenon firsthand. A team settles on a system as the solution to their productivity problems. They get bogged down in rules and convention, and integrate too quickly. The process stalls and dies. As Hunt argues, without flexibility, the company loses sight of their productivity goals.