The typical job description for many engineering manager roles is action-packed. It is a mix of hands-on coding, technical leadership and decision making, process and project management, product oversight, people management, finding and hiring talent… the list goes on.
In our work, we deal with both technical and people systems: we support individual engineers’ growth; help teams become successful; and make the organization more productive, functional, and innovative. Above all, an engineering manager is a service or support role across these various layers.
Perhaps most fascinating and difficult is the high-level of ambiguity that comes with engineering management. Many problems or questions don’t have straightforward answers. There aren’t absolute answers to what it means to be a good engineering manager either, but there are certain values and guideposts to follow.
In this post, I look at what can shape our thinking about our role as engineering managers and how to effectively support individual engineers, teams, and organizations.
What do engineers need to thrive at work?
It helps to start shaping engineering management roles by understanding what engineers need, and the environment in which they thrive. Research from performance coach and trainer Paloma Medina exposes six core needs humans have (including at work). She calls this research the BICEPS model:
- Belonging. As humans, we strive to be part of a community of like-minded people where we understand and support each other. We also want to feel as if we are not being discriminated against or marginalized. Belonging is really important to me personally: I love working as part of a distributed team, but I also really enjoy seeing people in person every once in a while. It makes me feel more connected to them.
- Improvement. We also seek to continuously learn, improve, and grow in areas that matter to us, as well as to our team or company.
- Choice. We want to have choice, control, and autonomy over important parts of our lives. In one of my previous roles, I took on a lot of work to drive organizational change. But ultimately, the control I had over my domain was limited due to organizational issues – which led me to leave the company.
- Equality. We want to know that our access to information, money, time, and other resources is fair and equal for everyone – not just for ourselves, but also for the people around us. Everyone’s needs should be treated as equally important.
- Predictability. We look for certainty, safety, and stability in our lives. We also want goals, strategy, and direction to be consistent – and to not change too quickly. I’ve been leading teams in fast-growing startups for the last couple of years, and when there’s a lot of change happening, it’s a challenge to instill predictability in teams.
- Significance. Deep down, all of us seek meaning, importance, and status. We also want to be appreciated for our work by people whose opinions mean something to us.
If our core needs are threatened, people resort to fight-or-flight modes of reaction, which are very stressful. The failure to meet core needs has high costs for organizations by harming people on our teams. So how can engineering managers put the BICEPS model into action to help their teams thrive?
Using trust-based relationships to help engineers grow
1. Ask questions
2. Be curious
3. Connect to the bigger picture
4. Involve engineers in decision making
5. Give feedback for growth
6. Coach engineers
7. Sponsor engineers
Driving a culture of trust and continuous improvement on teams
The next important building block in our work as engineering managers is the team. According to research, high-performing teams need the following elements.
- Psychological safety. This is about believing that we will not be rejected, and feeling free to express our work-related thoughts and feelings to the people around us. It also means believing that others won’t think less of us if we make a well-intentioned mistake or ask for help.
- Structure and clarity. Everyone on the team should understand expectations, goals, and accountability.
- Meaning and impact. High-performing teams find a sense of purpose in their work, and know that their work has an impact.
Luckily for managers, this research neatly aligns with the BICEPS model. All human core needs are represented and have impact at the team level as well. By understanding and responding to people’s motivations, leaders create the basis for teams to express themselves – and provide the structure, meaning, and impact they need.
1. Build trust
2. Structure around how we collaborate
3. Remove blockers
4. Continuously improve
5. Drive toward alignment
Supporting organizational change
Lastly, creating environments in which engineers can thrive is about supporting our organization. We need to use our power as managers to drive organizational change, no matter the size of our businesses.