It’s been a year since I became an engineering manager, and I’ve been thinking about what lessons I’ve learned. A year may sound like a short time, but it feels like ages. It’s hard to even remember what it was like to be an individual contributor on the team. I’ve developed a lot of new skills over the past year, but I think the best thing I’ve gained is a new perspective.
Managing a team and a project forces you to understand the whole process of shipping software, especially the role humans play. And shipping software, at least for the types of products I build, is mostly a human challenge.
Set clear expectations
The easiest way to hold people accountable is to be upfront about what you expect from them. I often hear management platitudes like “give people room to fail”, but this plan doesn’t work if your team doesn’t know what constitutes failure or success. Failure is only valuable if people learn from it, and in order to learn, people must understand why something is a failure.
A common challenge for new (and old) managers is figuring out how to give people negative feedback, but if you’re clear about what you expect, it’s easier to deliver feedback directly and honestly. It takes work, but setting clear goals and objectives is what allows you to hold people accountable.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
To communicate a clear vision of what you want your team to achieve, you need to repeat yourself. And repeat yourself. You need to repeat yourself until what you have to say is predicable. It’s better for people to get tired of hearing you say the same thing, than to be surprised to learn they’re working on the wrong things.
Even if you deliver a message to the whole team, deliver it again individually. I’ve found weekly 1:1 meetings are a great time to refine my pitch, but also to improve it. Ideas are living things, and they evolve as you have conversations about them. Incorporating feedback from all the smart (and hopefully different) people on your team is one of the best ways to make those ideas grow stronger.
Nobody knows what they’re doing
The final big thing I’ve learned is that all the way up the org chart, nobody actually knows what they’re doing. This isn’t to say managers and executives are bad at their jobs, but rather that everyone is human. Every leader started out as someone like you, and probably still is someone like you.
Be the change you want to see. If you work in a healthy organization, your boss will appreciate it. If you do things well, you may even be promoted and end up as exactly one of those leaders who don’t have things all figured out.