There's no manual for how to be a software engineering manager. But these will help.

Published: Monday, Sep 18, 2023
Image from BPTrends

Most software managers are thrust into management without any formal training. It’s no surprise, then, that most new managers are bad. What did we expect?

Managers have a huge influence over the engagement level of their employees. And as they say, people quit their manager not their company (in truth I find bad managers to be a factor but not always the driving cause of attrition, at least at good orgs).

I definitely didn’t know what the heck I was doing when I first became a manager way back in 2004. I was just the least bad person to fill a needed role. But over almost 2 decades of managing technical teams, I have been lucky enough to learn a lot from great managers around me. And due to my imposter syndrome, I’ve continuously been looking for useful resources to help me be a better manager. I’ve come to believe that there are a dozen+ resources that hit the key points on how to be a great manager. These form the basis of a learning track of sorts for engineering management. I’ve listed them below, divided based on different stages of maturity.

This is not to say that this is the end-all-be-all of engineering manager resources, but it’s a good set of resources to get started. If I’ve missed any or you don’t agree with my list, hit me up on Mastodon or LinkedIn.

Note: this list intentionally does not focus on technical skills and project management skills. Ideally, an engineering manager would have reached the senior software engineer level before switching tracks and be in an organization which prescribes how they want projects to be run. Plus, addressing each of those would be an additional series of blog articles each!

Getting ready to be a manager

HBR What Great Managers Do - Great leaders tap into the needs and fears we all share. Great managers, by contrast, perform their magic by discovering, developing, and celebrating what’s different about each person who works for them. Here’s how they do it.

Radical Candor - It’s not enough to focus all of your attention on work performance — take the time to know your employees as human beings. Then combine caring personally with challenging directly. This is the fine art of knowing how to tell your employees when their work isn’t good enough. Delivering tough feedback is, well, tough. But by combining direct challenges with personal care, you’re able to contextualize criticism within the sense that you care about their whole selves — both in and out of the office.

Actually managing people

Once you’re ready, how do you actually do the day-to-day job of managing people? The following are the best resources I’ve found for explaining how to do effective 1on1s, provide feedback and coach your people to achieve more than they would otherwise

Manager Tools Trinity - The Managers Tools podcast has episodes on pretty much every aspect of management, but you’ll want to start with their “Trinity” which includes guidance on 1on1s, Feedback, Coaching, and Delegation. I highly recommend listening to these during your commute to and from work (and taking notes when your commute is over). But if you’re not an audiobook person, you can get the Effective Manager book instead.

The Coaching Habit - This is a book full of practical guidance for new managers. It will help you avoid common new manager mistakes and give you advice you can put into practice right away, especially in your 1on1s. If you only remember one thing from this book, remember The Coaching Habit Haiku:

Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
as you think it is.

Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule - When you become a manager, you have to realize that your primary responsibility is to your team. You are no longer an “individual contributor.” This means you also need to understand that the manager’s schedule is fundamentally different than that of an IC. This article will help you understand that difference. It will also help you coach your direct reports to protect their flow time.

Maturing as a manager

Once you’ve been doing the job of a manager for a year or so, you’ll have the basics down, but you’ll want to level-up your management game. These resources talk about how to get even better as a manager.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) - In a nutshell, your EQ is your ability to identify and understand emotions in yourself and others, and to use this awareness to manage your responses and relationships. The concept of EQ is based in biology and, like any skill, it can be improved through training and practice.

Star performers not only excel as individuals but they are also able to maximize a team’s potential through their use of emotional intelligence (EQ). They help the team build bonds, collaborate, and create synergy in pursuit of collective goals.

Google re:Work’s 10 common behaviors - In 2002, Google ran an uncontrolled “experiment” by simply getting rid of all managers. It didn’t go well. So in 2008 a team of researchers set out to prove what some at Google suspected - that managers don’t matter. But very quickly the team discovered quite the opposite. Managers matter a lot. They’ve identified a set of common behaviors among the best manager. Read what they are and how you can measure how well you’re doing.

DiSC - When figuring out how you can communicate effectively with someone, it’s important to understand their preferred communication style. The DiSC profile provides a useful framework for our purposes here. DiSC categorizes people’s styles into 4 quadrants: Dominant, Influencer, Steady, or Conscientious.

Understanding your style and the style of others can help you communicate better with others and can help you coach your direct reports to communicate better with their team. In my experience, communication challenges are one of the biggest sources of conflict within teams, and DiSC can help you identify the core issue and resolve it. Try, or search “DiSC Profiles” to find out more.

Bonus: Getting Things Done As you mature as a manager, you’ll also be getting busier and busier. If you don’t have a system for managing work, you will quickly get overwhelmed and burned out. This is the best framework for being organized that I’ve ever found.

Becoming a leader

Eventually you will want to start influencing teams or more people, including people that may not even report to you (or report to people who report to you). Becoming effective at this level means knowing how to effectively influence others and helping them overcome their differences.

Switch Learn how to be more effective at driving change both with individuals and groups. Switch asks the following question: Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives? The primary obstacle, say the Heaths, is a conflict that’s built into our brains. Switch shows that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that matter to you.

Start with Why - This powerful message started as a TED Talk about how great leaders inspire action and then became a book. Understanding how to get to the core of what motivates people will help make you a more compelling leader.

5 Dysfunctions of a Team - Teams are made up of individuals with varied interests, opinions, strengths, and weaknesses. That naturally leads to conflict. But since many people haven’t worked in a high-performing team, they don’t know what they are missing and accept mediocrity within their team. This book explains the reasons teams commonly fail and how you as a manager and leader can help get a team through the storming phase to be a high-performing team.

Managing large groups and groups of groups

Eventually you won’t be able to stay closely connected to everyone who rolls up to you. At this point, you won’t know what you don’t know, and things can start to go off the rails if you aren’t creating a culture of candid feedback and asking your people where they need help.

Psychological Safety - A climate of psychological safety makes it easier for people to speak up with their tentative thoughts. As team members share their ideas, respond respectfully to others’ views, and engage in healthy debate, they establish vital shared expectations about appropriate ways to behave. This also leads teams to consider a wider range of viewpoints and improves buy-in from the whole team. The best, most high performing teams have high psychological safety. On the flip side, a lack of psychological safety can be found at the root of many noteworthy organizational errors and failures. Use Google’s research and others to promote and measure psychological safety on your teams.

Measuring teams - In order to figure out how to help your teams improve, you’ll first need to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Atlassian has written about how they measure their teams’ health. I recommend reading this and adapting it to what’s most important to you and your teams.

SPACE metrics - SPACE is a new framework to measure productivity of your teams. Unlike some other misguided efforts to measure developer productivity, SPACE is meant to measure various aspects that affect developer and team productivity, specifically satisfaction, performance, activity, communication, and efficiency. By recognizing and measuring productivity with more than just a single dimension, teams and organizations can better understand how people and teams work, and they can make better decisions.

Phew, that’s a lot

That’s a lot of different things to cover, but then again, engineering management is not an easy job. These resources have all helped me over the years. I highly recommend all of them. If you’ve used these, what do you think about them? What other resources have you used to become a strong engineering manager? Let me know via Mastodon or LinkedIn.