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What Makes a Good Engineering Manager?

March 22, 2023 (Syndicated From dev.to)

I’ve had many jobs in tech and have been working in the industry for over 10 years. I’ve been thinking about the jobs I enjoyed and those I didn’t, and it all comes down to the manager. This begs the question, “What makes a good engineering manager?“. As I’m deep in the job hunt, I’m questioning what kind of role I want, and what to look for when it comes from the hiring manager, and ethos of the company.

Do they seem happy? Stressed? Burnt Out?

I think you can learn a lot about an engineering manager from their personality and their stress level. Don’t get me wrong, a little stress is always fine, but how do they handle the stress? What’s their outlook on the work? Do they take responsibility for mistakes they make? All of these things can make or break a good manager.

Do they understand the code?

I’ve had managers that didn’t fully understand the intricacies of the code. They didn’t empathize with the engineers as to what the pain points were. A good manager understands how the code works at a high level, and makes time to listen and understand the cost of workarounds, and technical debt. Coding is mostly a series of tradeoffs, a good manager understands this illustration:

Quality, Speed, Cost tradeoffs

Being the “Shit Umbrella”

There’s a lot of stuff that is dealt with at the company level that has nothing to do with building the product. High-level business planning should be hidden from the engineers. A good manager should shield the developers from this type of stress and decision making.

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Knowing the Strengths of Engineers

Engineers are widely different. Some engineers are good at deep chunky features, others may be good at smaller bugs. Some have strengths when it comes to a particular code base, language, frontend, backend, etc. Engineers may also have preferences in what they want to do, and what they like coding. A good manager plays into the strengths, and caters to what their preferences are.

Aside from just talent, and preferences, engineers also have different personalities, and energy levels, some are more social and some are less social. Obviously recognizing the personalities of your engineers is also super important.

I think about a team or pod as the fellowship of the ring, a squad or group of people where every person is bringing something unique to the table. Each person weakness is strengthened by the other members of the team.

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“Fellowship of Engineer-Ring”

Wrap up

Being a manager is hard, and there are a lot of pitfalls. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of qualities that make a good manager, the true key is having empathy for all parties.