It has become a constant temptation to praise engineering leaders and undervalue engineering managers, but maybe we shouldn’t be focusing on their differences but on correctly understanding their roles. An engineering manager’s job is to assemble a team that’s fit for the task at hand, to ensure that each team member has everything they need to do their job, track progress and remove roadblocks, and generally, to keep a steady course towards the desired outcomes. Nothing wrong with that now is there?

Problems arise once we begin expecting all engineering managers to, other than doing everything on the above list, also be incredibly inspiring visionaries. That isn’t possible. It’s also not necessary. Other than having a great power to inspire people to give their best, great engineering leaders also have a reputation of following their own path, questioning the status quo and inspiring people to walk alongside them, etc.

Now, imagine that every team would follow a different engineering leader. It sounds a little bit like a recipe for chaos and misalignment with a hint of disaster, wouldn’t you agree? While there is no doubt that engineering managers should work towards developing engineering leadership skills and use them to help their teams, their overall mission is different.

Why engineering managers matter

In her book ‘A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change,’ Camille Fournier, managing director and head of platform engineering at Two Sigma, and a former tech vice president at Goldman Sachs and CTO at Rent the Runway explain how quality engineering management is the salt and pepper of good engineering, healthy workplaces, and profits.

She is challenging the idea that engineering management is a soft skill that is less worthy of being developed than hard engineering skills. Camille argues that building engineering management skills is not only a more challenging task than many software engineers seem to think it is, but it also a rewarding and fulfilling experience.

In Camille’s view, software engineers need to understand that:

  • organizations don’t grow just by having great engineers who can write code. Someone needs to coordinate them;
  • on top of continuing to develop their technical expertise, engineering managers must also become skilled at coordinating resources and projects;
  • a good place to start for engineers looking to take the management route is tech lead or mentoring interns or new joiners. Both tech leads and mentors have an interesting and immensely useful challenge of influencing people without having any formal authority.

Along with ensuring clarity of direction, milestones, goals, and that the right people are focusing on the right things and that engineering managers are also responsible for helping team members develop professionally and grow their careers.

One of the caveats when it comes to being a good engineering manager is that you can’t manage others if you aren’t very good at managing yourself. Growing skills like grit (passion for a goad mixed with tenacity), listening, empathy, actively and constantly seeking out feedback and action on it, along with understanding that all the strategies in the world don’t add up to anything in the absence of good execution are the building blocks of getting a good grip on who we are as professional and then being able to manage others. Self-awareness, accountability, and a growth mindset are also a must.

What makes a great engineering leader

One key trait of any engineering leader is that they can inspire and “move” people (both metaphorically and literally), often in the absence of formal power or authority. We used to give charisma and gravitas great credit for those abilities — some people seemed to inspire trust and respect in others or could naturally and easily draw people towards them.

A more nuanced definition of a great engineering leader has become necessary, and charisma doesn’t seem to hold that much value in the new paradigm. In his ‘Good to Great‘ bestseller book, Jim Collins argues that being charismatic isn’t really an essential trait of a transformative engineering leader. Instead, he points to attributes like knowledge, discipline, passion for what they do, but also humility, a sense of responsibility for their teams along with a deep desire to help others succeed.

Putting others’ interests first or at least being mindful of them is already a step in the right direction. Clearly, that’s no easy task. Ignoring selfish impulses is not only unnatural and against our nature, but the jobs get even more complicated when trying to fight biases that we are not even aware of having. However, a genuine interest in others and the desire to help them grow and succeed is a recognizable trait in all engineering leaders.

And as if the list wasn’t long enough, already, popular leadership guru Simon Sinek also adds the ability to create a culture governed by safety and mutual trust to the desired skills. In his view, a great engineering leader understands that a team’s strength lies in building on the trust shared by its members. Great engineering leaders develop and nurture a culture based on mutual trust.

Summing up, to succeed at any career — whether the aim is to become a Michelin starred chef or the CTO that leads its engineers towards unicorn status — a list of necessary skills and a strategy to achieve them is essential. Also, there are very few jobs or businesses where the ability to manage resources or to influence others is not only precious but also necessary. Whether a company needs more or better-engineering managers as opposed to engineering leaders, is a mix to be figured out case by case.