Being a Great Engineer != Being a Great Engineering Manager

I just read Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss, describing “Project Oxygen”, which analyzed Google’s performance and review data to determine which characteristics are most important to being a successful manager at Google.  This was summarized into eight key success behaviors and three common pitfalls.  The big surprise?  Google “…found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight.

This is not a surprise to me and supports what I have come to believe after years of engineering management – being a great engineer does not necessarily prepare you for being a good manager.  This is not to say that great engineers can’t also be great managers, but the process many companies use of taking their best engineers and “promoting” them to management is flawed.  In many cases, it leads to a company losing a great engineer and gaining an ineffective (or worse, harmful) manager.  Many companies compound this problem by creating career ladders that effectively force engineers to choose between a career ceiling and a management path.

There are many characteristics that I see in successful managers.  First and foremost, good managers have to always be working to ensure the success of the team and their individual reports.  Success goes beyond just getting projects and tasks done – it also means helping their individual reports understand their strengths and opportunities for growth.  It requires taking a real interest in where each person wants to go in their career and creating opportunities for them to reach their goals.  Good managers need a lot of block and tackle type skills to unblock people and ensure they have an environment that helps them remain productive.  Good managers encourage growth for their employees by giving direction when needed but empowering them to try (and sometimes fail) in the interest of helping them learn and improve.  Of course, good managers must also be proactive about confronting tough issues and addressing performance problems to maintain a high-quality team.

Those characteristics are not necessarily the same characteristics necessary to be a great engineer.   It is not uncommon to see great engineers also be really great mentors and solve problems (beyond just engineering) in creative ways, but it is not typically their focus.  Also, the way they work is typically different.  Most managers have a tremendous amount of context switching during their day and need to make themselves available and interruptible to unblock others – this can be highly detrimental to an engineer that typically pays a high cost for context switching and getting back into the flow.

Another critical characteristic of good managers is knowing how to get problems solved.  This is very different than knowing the solution to a problem. The manager adds value by unblocking their report, not by being smarter than their report.  Many times I see very technical employees go to a much less technical manager with a technical problem.  While the manager may not be able to solve the problem directly, they can usually identify the steps (and people) required to get a solution.   This is where I see many organizations make mistakes when looking for managers – they assume that a manager can’t manage engineers if she is less technical that the engineers in the organization.   As an example of how this can manifest itself, at my company we were looking for an additional engineering manager and the bar was set pretty high based on the performance and 360 feedback of our existing manager – engineers thought he was great.  The engineers interviewing the candidate used the exact same very technical questions we use to identify great engineers.  The candidate did not do well.  In the wrap-up meeting I asked if they had ever needed their great manager to to answer these types of technical problems and the response was, “no – we have really solid tech leads for that”.  We quickly adjusted the engineering manager candidate questions to stop looking for successful engineer skills and instead identify manager skills that make other engineers successful.

For most of my life I have had the privilege of working with some truly exceptional programmers (far better than myself).  It did not take long for me to realize that the value I could create for each company as an engineer was much less significant than the value I could create by ensuring that other (better) engineers were effective and successful.  However, some companies make management the only option for career progression, which encourages great engineers that are passionate about coding to switch to a role for which they are less passionate and probably less capable (yes this is a generalization and I apologize to the truly amazing individuals that are both deeply technical and exceptional managers).  More companies should have parallel career ladders that allow engineers to remain with their hands on the keyboard and heads in the code while obtaining a career level as high (or higher) than management positions.

On a side note, one of the things I really liked about Project Oxygen is the approach of using data to analyze business processes.  I find that many companies that are data driven and have a deep understanding of their customer metrics many times don’t have the same understanding of how they work and what make them (in)effective.  We regularly collect data at my company and use it as an input to redefine how we work and constantly benefit from that evaluation.

Here is a summary of Google’s findings from Project Oxygen:

Here are the 8 top behaviors of managers in order of importance:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team

Here are an additional 3 manager pitfalls:

  1. Have trouble making a transition to the team
  2. Lack a consistent approach to performance management and career development
  3. Spend too little time managing and communicating

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