7 characteristics of successful engineering leaders

7 characteristics of successful engineering leaders

  7 characteristics of successful engineering leaders 

 
There are very few books and articles on successfully leading and managing technical teams. However, the demand for good engineering managers has never been higher and shows no signs on abating. So I am sharing some thoughts on what makes good engineering leaders.  
  1. Stay in touch with technology: Most technical leaders slowly but steadily get out of touch with technology. The first managerial role is usually based on their technical competence. However, the very strength that got them the managerial role, slowly erodes away. I have come across several technical leaders who get stuck in the administrative aspects of people management and consequently have no time to read and refresh their skills. If you are an engineering leader, irrespective of how senior you are, spend at least 2-3 hours a day honing your skills by reading, coding and building stuff.
  2. Don't under manage: It is cliche to say that people hate being micromanaged. The more pervasive problem is not one of micro management but that of under management. Engineering managers are leading a smart group of individuals and over compensate for the fear of micro management. This leads to widespread under management. As an engineering leader ensure that you set aggressive goals, have regular high quality 1:1s, provide and solicit continuous feedback  and enable learning and growth for your people. 
  3. Set a clear and ambitious vision: Engineering leaders struggle with things that seem fluffy. The word "vision" is often met with skepticism and raised eyebrows. However, good teams have a compelling vision as it provides the tailwinds to tide through hard engineering problems. Like most things vision is a skill; if it appears hard - do it more often. Communicate your vision often and hold it lightly. In other words be very open to feedback and data that suggests that the team should change course. 
  4. Set a very high bar for talent: In technical teams, quality of people is much more important than quantity. Hire & develop people who have excellent skills and attitude. Don't allow bad attitude to fester even if it appears to be compensated by extraordinary technical skills. Technical skills  & attitude don't cancel out each other. Often in technical teams, there is addition by subtraction. So don't shy away from setting and maintaining a high bar for talent. 
  5. Get to know your people: Yes, it is easier to talk to machines. That's what makes a good engineer. However, as an engineering leader, you are managing humans who are managing machines. Be genuinely interested in people, understand what motivates them and what frustrates them. Be comfortable with small talk and small things that get people to feel at ease with you and open up to you. 
  6. Create a mechanism for accountability: Engineers love working on things that are fascinating and hate providing commit dates. "You will know when it is ready" is a favorite response when engineers are asked for dates. Engineering freedom is really important and you should foster that. However, it does not mean you create an team of researchers working on pet projects. Hold people accountable but do it in a way that is culturally accretive. Examples of holding engineers accountable are sprint meetings, weekly progress and plans, weekly demos, engineering chalk talks etc. 
  7. Set few outlandish goals: Engineering teams get a major boost of confidence when they do something that they thought was impossible. Look closely at the category of really important but extremely hairy problems to solve and challenge the team to do it. Create a culture of iteration and embrace failure, so engineers are motivated to experiment and try many things to succeed. When these goals are met, celebrate, provide outsized rewards and sow the goodness that is created to enable compounding returns. 
The Author: Arvind KC 
 
                                 Arvind KC

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