David Patterson-Cole, former Product Manager at Meta and CEO of Moonchaser, says, “For the most part, the CEO sets expectations for the engineering manager based on how the engineering team’s goals fit into the company’s overall strategy. The CEO knows about the latter, while the engineering manager addresses the former. Understanding how company priorities may change over time—especially in this era of uncertainty—is an increasingly important discussion.”
The first step to setting expectations for your engineering managers is deciding what you want to achieve as an organization in the short term, medium term, and long term. When you map out your company goals, you’ll know the exact role your engineering manager needs to play to help your business achieve its goals. Once you do that, it becomes easier to set expectations that align with the company’s overall direction.
These goals will also serve as a standard reference point for assessing the manager’s performance, as well as identifying and resolving any performance blockers. SafetyCulture, a mobile-first operations platform, aligns their expectations for engineering managers with the big-picture direction the company wants to take. Here’s how James Simpson, Chief Technology Officer at SafetyCulture explains the way this plays out:
“With engineering at SafetyCulture, there are three directional guides that we have. The first one is to develop people, which is really all about the creation of a good environment that helps people become great engineers. The second one is fast and flexible delivery, making sure we convert ideas into software quickly and we’re flexible about it. It means that we don’t get stuck into any particular set of ideas and that we can be responsive to customers quickly, not taking too much time to get it done in a very responsive way.
The third one is improving the engineering organization, so we want to make it go the way of doing things better today than we did them yesterday. Through this, we could be able to look back across time and see a number of changes that we’ve made to the way we work so that we have a better environment for people where we can deliver more quickly and flexibly.
We start with these big three goals and then break them down into smaller pieces. Each of our engineering managers has a part of their expectations which is all about developing people, making sure that people have development plans and that people have challenging and engaging work.
Our set of expectations around fast and flexible delivery include making sure that we know what we’re delivering and that we’ve broken it down into milestones with dates and timelines, so there’s a sense of urgency around what we do. Finally, there will be some expectations for our engineering managers to bring in new ideas and new practices to improve the way we work.”
Engineering managers are expected to build a unique team, directly influence product development, and support strategic decision-making. The last thing they’d want is expending energy on tasks that generate zero business ROI.
Thomas Döhler, former VP of Engineering at Typeform and Director of Engineering at Amazon, says, “As a manager, making mistakes is expensive and harder. With more freedom to utilize company resources comes more responsibilities and the possibility of screwing up. Even if your company is open-minded and does not necessarily penalize you for making mistakes, the prospect of making costly mistakes can be daunting.”
The role of the engineering manager is rarely colored black-and-white, which makes it challenging to define expectations clearly. The way out of this challenge is to tailor the engineering manager’s role to suit your organization’s needs and set expectations based on the specific context you’ve created.
For example, if you have a lot of junior engineers on your team, the engineering manager should lead project execution to improve code quality and efficiency. On the other hand, when there’s an experienced team in place, the manager should lean more toward people management and high-level mentorship.
Chris Copeland, CTO at Bestow, shares Bestow’s formula for defining the engineering manager’s role. According to him:
“At Bestow, we think about the EM role in four key areas: vision, people, execution, and technology. Most EMs naturally excel in a few areas and have growth opportunities in the other areas. For example, consider you have a manager whose team is producing good code (execution) and making good technical decisions (technology) but employee engagement and morale are lagging.
In this case, it’s clear the manager’s opportunity is to focus on vision and people, so we’d outline concrete steps and outcomes to meet that opportunity. We also lean into Daniel Pink’s framework of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to identify growth areas that will increase the engineering manager’s performance and their level of motivation and engagement.”
A crucial part of setting expectations for your engineering managers is establishing standard metrics for measuring their performance as they execute tasks based on the goals you’ve set for your company. Yevgeniy Samoilenko, Head of Software Development at Unlimint, uses three core metrics—quality, process, and progress—to achieve this:
By monitoring these key metrics, the engineering management and the C-suite can measure the manager’s performance objectively. When any of these key performance metrics improve substantially, it’s a good indicator that the engineering manager is meeting their expectations, gaining relevant experience, and growing in their role.
Engineering is a field heavy on technical expertise and long-term decision-making. That being said, the engineering manager’s role is as communication-driven as it is technical.
Calloway Cook, the President of Illuminate Labs, says, “In my experience, there’s more likely to be an issue with communication than with competence when dealing with engineering managers. Many of the most talented engineers I’ve worked with struggled to communicate what they were working on clearly and if they were going to be late in delivering a project.”
You will improve your engineering manager’s chances of success when you’re clear on communication timelines, the primary mode of communication, and how often you’d like to receive updates on project execution.
From experience, David Patterson-Cole understands that engineering managers may have a different idea of what strong collaboration looks like within their team and with other departments, which means the C-level must take the lead on what gets communicated and how communication happens.
Calloway Cook explains that when he outlined formal communication guidelines with his engineering manager, their workflow improved significantly, and there were no unexplained delays. “For example, one of the guidelines for my business is that all messages that I send must be responded to within 24 hours. That’s a reasonable ask in the digital age that allows me to receive updates on critical projects without overstepping my boundaries and micromanaging.”
Engineering managers should also develop core communication skills like active listening and writing. “Written communication, specifically, is integral to the management and scaling of engineering teams,” says Juan Pablo Buritica, Senior VP of Engineering at Ritchie Bros. Having excellent communication skills will help engineering managers coordinate their teams to achieve tangible results, clearly articulate these results to C-level executives, and get management’s buy-in for new ideas.
Ryan Alford, CEO of Engineering Design Group as well as former Vice President and CTO at RTD Embedded Technologies, says, “My experience has always been that expectations are most successfully met when you set them by example. This starts by talking about how things are done, then showing your team ‘this is how we do things’ and by acting out the process in the way you want to see others act it out. Showing someone is a great way to get them not just to understand, but to believe in a process and take similar actions themselves.”
The goals and expectations you set for engineering managers shouldn’t be arbitrary. On the contrary, these expectations should stem from a well-defined organizational process. “Process” is a key term here because you want your engineering managers to understand that the way your company does things is not just to back a one-time event. You want them to know that when specific actions happen at the company, there are specific processes in place they should follow to see those through.
In addition, organizational processes should be transparent to foster trust between the engineering managers and the C-suite. “I am a big believer in transparency,” says Alford. “For your engineering managers to understand the ‘why’ behind an expectation, they need to see the full picture behind it. That means providing the appropriate context, history, and stories that have set the stage for that expectation. This further helps build trust, fuels good relationships with your engineering managers, and gives them the substance they need to really believe in your expectations.”
Setting goals for engineering managers is not just about giving them tasks and projects to complete. Instead, it requires creating intrinsic motivation for your engineering managers through stimulating projects and personal growth opportunities that align with your company’s business needs.
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