Dear Engineering Manager, you don't look like me

management leadership


As an Engineering Manager, I am accountable for the delivery of my team as well as the growth and wellbeing of each of my reports. Throughout the years, however, my day to day hasn’t always been the same. This is mainly due to the fact that the expectations for the EM role differ greatly between organisations.

In this post I want to recap my experience so far, for those new managers trying to understand their role and anyone interested. If you want to learn more about the most common EM archetypes, please check Pat Kua’s excellent post here. I will use it as a reference for my reflection.

I have experienced three archetypes in three very different organisations where I had a management role. All of them included line management responsibilities, but there were some fundamental differences that I’ll try to explain below:

  • The Product EM: in the lack of a Product Manager, the EM inherits their responsibilities. In my case, this included meeting with customers and users directly and gathering requirements, then translating those requirements into technical tasks, designing a solution and leading the team, fully hands-on, to deliver the project. While doing this, I frequently reported status to both customers and senior management. This also included thinking about how the product should evolve over time and what new product features to bring up with the customers.

  • The Tech Lead EM: with a PM to take care of the product side, there is more mental space to think about architecture and engineering health. While keeping myself fairly hands-on, I was able to provide technical direction to my team, and operate as a technical consultant to other parts of the business. I was heavily involved in system design too. It was a great opportunity to explore mentorship in depth, as well as promoting good engineering practices in the organisation.

  • The Team Lead EM: as a team lead I mostly leveraged my expertise growing people, removing blockers and managing stakeholders and risks. A lot of my mental space was dedicated to providing constructive feedback, coaching and addressing performance issues (Pat is really spot on about this one on his post). Even though I ran projects end to end from time to time, on most occasions I delegated that responsibility to a senior engineer in my team (or to a junior engineer as a stretch opportunity) and I focused on providing support when needed e.g. managing stakeholders, outlining clear expectations and removing blockers.

In all these, I am accountable for the delivery of my team. But there is one additional archetype where I’m not only accountable but also directly responsible for it. This is a hat I wear whenever I need. This is…

  • The Delivery EM: in my experience, I had to assume this role whenever we had tight deadlines. I have a fair amount of experience in project management (even got a PMP - Project Management Professional - certification at some point), so this is something I’ve always felt comfortable doing. This typically requires a more structured approach to status reporting and resource management. There is another aspect of a Delivery EM according to Pat’s archetypes, and this is Process. In my case, reviewing team processes is something I always do at the forming stage, and then iteratively as it evolves. Again, a hat I wear when I need.

I believe strong managers are flexible and able to adapt their approach to the needs and expectations of their organisations. They also evolve with the role and mix different facets effectively in order to succeed. If you are a new manager or changed jobs recently, I’d recommend you spend some time understanding your new expectations, and adjust accordingly. These are all useful skills to have, or hats to wear. If you have a strong preference, make sure you clarify this before landing a new role or you’ll inevitably feel disappointed.

There is one last archetype Pat mentions in his post that I don’t have much experience with yet. The Lead of Leads EM. I’ve only given it a taste once, when I had a manager of one reporting to me. I confess I’d love to explore this option further in the near future. The last hat of the well-rounded EM. Until then, I rejoice in mentoring others on the little I know and sharing random thoughts on blog posts like this one.

I hope you learned something new. Thanks for making it all the way to the end!