My Quest to be a Better Leader

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Leading Engineers

Engineering Leadership (or management – some engineers are not fans of the term “manager”) is not easy as some people think. Leadership is hard enough, the complexity of people then add to that the complexity of engineers. There’s not a lot of books on the specific subject so it’s not surprisingly that I still hear top executives saying that one just needs be technically proficient/architect, sure – architect of teams/people maybe but not just of systems/code. That’s where the challenges of engineering leadership comes in, one is expected to be both good at systems/engineering and people. Those two could mean different worlds.

Long topic but I wanted to share what I hope to follow and achieve. These are taken mostly from Google’s Proxy Oxygen (Google’s Quest for a Better Boss), books, articles I have read on the subject (you can catch some at my GoodReads account) and experience from peers, friends and my own.

These are “big” topics on their own, (obviously thousands of books have been written on leadership), my goal is to simply to share in case it helps and for others to remind me should I forget to walk the talk.

Also, though useful in most cases, it could vary depending on what stage your company/team is in. If you are just starting up, you need more coding + pitch/sales/marketing power more than maybe engineering leadership.

There is no timeline to get these right (if even possible at all), it’s a lifelong process and better have a target than nothing at all.

1. Be a good coach

  • Provide specific, constructive feedback, balancing the negative and the positive.
  • Have regular one-on-ones, presenting solutions to problems tailored to your employees’ specific strengths.
  • Learn more about coaching and apply (and be more organized, templates etc)

2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage

  • Balance giving freedom to your employees, while still being available for advice. Make “stretch” assignments to help the team tackle big problems.
  • Give them tools to enable them to do their best
  • Demand the very best, help if possible, otherwise find other options, if all is exhausted cut losses
  • Trust them to do their best
  • Emphasize results, not time spent
  • Delegate that which is not your strength

3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being

  • Get to know your employees as people, with lives outside of work.
  • Make new members of your team feel welcome and help ease their transition
  • Treat them well
  • Know what makes them tick (money, power, status, popularity, greater good)
  • Appreciate individuality
  • Do the hard work of knowing but also ask what motivates them

4. Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented

  • Focus on what employees want the team to achieve and how they can help achieve it.
  • Help the team prioritize work and use seniority to remove roadblocks.
  • Shield the team from distraction
  • Manage external expectations

5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team

  • Communication is two-way: you both listen and share information.
  • Understanding is the goal, communication is just a tool
  • Hold all-hands meetings and be straightforward about the messages and goals of the team. Help the team connect the dots.
  • Encourage open dialogue and listen to the issues and concerns of your employees.

6. Help your employees with career development 

  • Mentor when you can, refer to someone if outside your expertise
  • Training time on regular work week hours (internal + external expertise)

7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team

  • Even in the midst of turmoil, keep the team focused on goals and strategy.
  • Involve the team in setting and evolving the team’s vision and making progress toward it.
  • Team vision, Core values
  • Where does each one fit in the team (roles)
  • To be the best, know the best (who are our competitors)
  • When saying no to roadmap/tasks, support it by giving costs

8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team

  • Roll up your sleeves and conduct work side by side with the team, when needed.
  • Understand the specific challenges of the work.
  • Learn their code base – invest time on this
  • Good architecture – “With good architecture, debugging is a breeze because bugs will be where they should be.” – David May
9. Integrity
  • Just, fair, transparent
  • Do not commit without consulting them
  • Admit mistakes
  • Give people proper credit
  • Confront problems, not people

10. Advocate Quality

  • Test, Test, Test
  • Code review
  • Simplify, Simplify
  • Continuous integration
  • Cannot commit if builds are failing
  • 5 whys – incident report always
  • Do not build something you cannot measure
  • Have a Devil’s advocate, 10th person on architecture decisions

11. Innovation

  • Advocate design thinking – emphatize, define, ideate, prototype, test
  • Safe environment to learn from instead of fear failures and move on

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