Career conversations as an engineering manager

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.

However, nurturing career growth across your reports rarely requires as much time or effort as you might anticipate. Like with other managerial work, sometimes the key is just starting the conversation and making small tweaks, be they project shakeups, side project time, or other efforts so engineers can reach their full potential.

The best place to start is your 1:1s. You already have them on the calendar on a regular cadence (and if not, you should!). It’s a space away from tactical, active project subject matter (you’ve got Jira, standups, and other tools for that) focused on serving the needs of your report, not you. I also find 1:1s have a pretty loose format that lends itself to more experimentation around the subject.

Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to have career growth come up organically from the report themselves. When it’s explicit (“I want to get better at X”), the topic has dropped on your lap; all you have to do is engage. However, more commonly growth areas require more effort on your part via packaging and reframing a set of existing, otherwise unrelated set of conversations. Identify patterns where your report has been repeatedly blocked or frustrated on a specific issue, and bring them up in the context of a potential growth area. That may sound simple but requires nuance in practice: you’re looking for roadblocks where the report was in control and is self-aware of the blockage. For example:

“A month ago you told me you were stuck on a pull request for days more than you expected, and you attributed it to writing tests in standups. Last week you opened our 1:1 frustrated about a test slowing your workflow down. I know tests have come up at least one other time in our conversations. Do you think writing better quality tests could be a growth area?”

The hardest growth areas to identify are with reports doing otherwise solid work but tend to be quiet in 1:1s or prefer to converse about subjects outside their career path. This requires an active fact-finding probe on your part as EM. Sometimes a straightforward question (“what do you want to improve on?”) does the trick, but I find it can come off as trite. I prefer a more indirect route; ask what kind of engineer they see themselves becoming six months or a year from now. Bring up a hypothetical forced switch to another project or team focus to get at what their worries could be about change. Look back at past 1:1s, pull requests, and engineering docs by the report and try to connect the dots for areas they lack depth. For instance:

“You’ve been doing strong work overall and we haven’t talked much lately about career growth. One thing I’ve noticed is while you’re talkative here in our 1:1s, you tend to be pretty quiet in larger team meetings. I think you bring up a lot of well-reasoned opinions; do you think public speaking or framing arguments in a larger group could be something to work on?”

Sometimes the best ways to uncover new career growth paths isn’t from report to EM, but the reverse, an accompaniment to the feedback you give back to the report. In particular, giving critical feedback is part of an EM’s job, but can put people on the defensive. Having a well-intentioned growth plan as a suggestion alongside helps soften the impact. It shows you care and ends the conversation in a way that suggests a more optimistic, productive path forward. One example:

“In our weekly status meeting, I noticed in your verbal update to the team you rambled a bit, jumping from subject to subject without much focus. I prefer focused updates that tend to be more informative and helpful to the rest of the team. To do so I think we could work on one area together: meeting preparation. What if you spent 5-10 minutes before the meeting writing down a few bullet points and then using it as a loose script?”

Even if they disagree with your idea, ask for additional suggestions. Just getting the conversation started can force them to reflect on their career and unlock new ideas.

Remember the 1:1 career chat is just the beginning. Nurturing and monitoring growth requires separate work, a subject that encompasses more than we could do justice for in any single blog post. But career growth has to start somewhere; the right 1:1 conversation is an effective way to make that happen.