🌄 Engineering Management for the Rest of Us - Book Notes
February 11, 2024 • 10 min readRating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
⛰ What It’s About
- A book that provides leadership tools and ideas on how to lead as an engineering manager
- Talks about thoughtful leadership. Sarah Drasner shares lessons she learned while moving into a management role from an engineer IC.
- Team Dynamics and Communication: Explains what the role of the engineering manager looks like, talks about the team one leads, communication, and how to support the team and win together.
- Recognizing the Human Side of Management
The book is all about helping regular folks become great engineering managers.
It provides insights on effective leadership, emphasizing care for the team’s well-being and fostering their growth. The book also encourages learning from mistakes and continuous improvement.
Through reading, I gained a clearer understanding of the engineering manager’s role and whether this would be a direction I’d like to go into. It helped me recognize the value of good managers and reflect on past experiences with poor management. It’s easy to underestimate the complexities of management from an outsider’s perspective, but this book shed light on the intricacies involved.
The book is split into four parts: “Your Team,” “Collaboration,” “Helping Your Team Do Their Best Work,” and “Your Work.” Sarah Drasner likely placed “Your Work” at the end deliberately. Each part is essential for developing strong leadership skills. Without any of the preceding parts, your work as a leader wouldn’t be possible.
Part 1 Your Team
“Values are the fundamental beliefs that guide us, motivate us, and drive our actions. If you pay attention, you can see how a person’s values dictate their behavior and ethics. Your values can be formed at a young age, and they can be a reaction to events. They also evolve over time.”
Understanding our values and the values of those we interact with is essential to becoming a cohesive and effective team, as it fosters mutual respect, empathy, and alignment of goals and priorities.
”Our Jobs as Managers: it’s to enable the people around me to do their best work … together.
- Enable: This means supporting, growing, and nurturing the development of other people. It means creating conditions for them to do their best work. It means my job is less about me, more about them, and meeting them where they are.
- The people around me: A good manager is not just watching their team and shutting out everyone else. A good manager looks at the wider ecosystem: their team, yes, but also their peers, their peers’ teams, the managers above them, the whole company ecosystem.
- To do their best work: Their best work is hopefully a synthesis of what they can and like to do, and what the company needs. We’re striving to find that bit in the center of the Venn diagram. In order to do this, we talk a bit about drive.
- Together: One of the interesting challenges about the role of manager is that as you’re looking out for these individuals, as well as the larger company, team dynamics come into play. There is a bit of macro and micro work that intermingles, and it can be challenging to juggle both.”
“If someone has been burned in the past and you want to support them …
Ask for feedback. In a situation with a power imbalance, the person may not feel comfortable telling you outright how you could better support them. Again, you have to go first as the leader. Showing vulnerability to them may help bring the barrier down. A note on this: only ask for feedback when you’re in a mental state where you can handle it without getting defensive.”
- feel comfortable raising issues directly with each other.
- share personal details with each other, and admit when they are having a bad day—to other team members, this is no big deal.
- can debate with one another to find good outcomes
- flexible with one another’s needs
What it might look like if team members lack trust:
- They raise issues with you about one another rather than with each other.
- They are closed off and don’t know much about each other.
- They don’t feel comfortable admitting when they’re having a rough time, so no one has context when things go poorly.
- When an issue is raised, they quickly close it, and whoever talks first “wins.”
- They think mainly of their own needs without checking in with the group.
Your Team is Not “Them.” Your Team is “We.”
“The leadership team is also a team, and should also be treated as your team. How you speak about this team is equally important.
Saying “we” holds you accountable to your team for leadership decisions that you are a part of, which is how it should be.”
Happiness and drive
”Managers should create an environment where flow state can exist as much as possible.
A few conditions need to be met for your engineers to get into flow state in their work:
- You are aligned on the base premises of the work.
- Your work is challenging, but not impossible.
- You feel a sense of togetherness with your team and peers, that you’re all building something together and have each other’s backs. Your moral values are not at odds with the work at hand.
- You feel respected.
- You get fair and timely feedback on your tasks. This does not necessarily have to be human feedback. It can also come in the form of compilation success, tests passing, or PRs (pull requests) going through. Upon completing tasks and working hard for the company, you get fair pay, bonuses, promotions, and raises.
- You feel a loss of sense of self when performing your work. You are doing something for the sake of the task, not for politics or to be right. Rather you are doing the best work possible for the best possible outcomes. As such, you care more about continuous improvements than your own ego.
- You feel like people believe in you and what you’re working on.”
Social connection ideas
- “Have everyone on the team do a short (five-minute) presentation on something that interests them, not work-related.
- Do an escape room or play a game.
- Do a values exercise, and discuss how you like to receive feedback.
- Eat the same food together. If you’re remote, you can order something frozen that’s delivered in advance to everyone. This gives the team the opportunity to talk about the tastes and smells. (While being mindful of food preferences and allergies.)
- Have everyone talk about something a bit personal: When they were small, what did they want to be when they grew up? If they could have any superpower, what would it be and why? What was their greatest challenge growing up?”
❗“I have made mistakes when trying to understand things from a different person’s lived experience, and you may have too. As leaders, we must first acknowledge that there is something to learn here. We won’t know everything. But we do have to make space for this. In How to be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, author Jennifer Brown describes Stages of Inclusive Leadership Continuum as:
Putting Career Laddering to Work:
“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” — Yogi Berra, MLB catcher, coach, and manager”Step One: The Big Picture
Ask people the annoying question where they’d like to be in five years. The answers will not be very clear but they are helpful to start with.
- I don’t really know what I want to be doing, but I know that I don’t want to still be focused on build systems in five years.
- I’m not really sure, because I think I might want to be a manager, even though I haven’t tried it yet.
- I want to be able to go camping whenever I feel like it, take my family with me, and work on the road.
- I want to be sure that fellow developers in Africa have every opportunity they want.”
In this step, the process involves reviewing the career laddering document. The employee reads aloud each list item about their current role and self-assesses their progress on each item.
Next, go over the next stage in their career and the list items for it. At the end of the process, break down any common themes.Step three: 30/60/90
The next step is called a 30/60/90. The concept is that your employee breaks down the work they want to be doing in thirty, sixty, and ninety days.
“I tend to do this with a bit of a twist: We start with ninety days. I ask, “What would you like to accomplish here within the next three months?” Since the career laddering is fresh in their minds, there’s already some guidance on what their focus should include. It’s safe at this point to let them drive, and tell you what they should be doing instead of the other way around.
Sometimes this can be quantifiable:
- Engineering: I would like to close five issues each week, ideally with at least two PRs.”
- Docs: “I would like to address content gaps on two features.”
- Anyone: “I would like to pair with at least two people.”
It can be expressed as a metric:
- I would like to help increase adoption of our npm package by 10 percent.”
Or it can be less measurable:
- I would like to try to understand our component library a little more as a newcomer.
- I would like to try to interrupt other people less in meetings.”
“I’ve also seen underperformers turn around after the career laddering process. What one might see as a lazy quality in a person might actually be a symptom of misalignment with the purpose of the tasks. A career ladder helps them recognize what, when, why, and how the things they’re working on fit into the bigger picture.”
1:1s Are More for Employees Than Managers
- But in the balance of power, the manager can always speak directly to the employee. The inverse isn’t always true.
- Ideally, a manager will do more listening than speaking, but a back and forth dialogue can be healthy too. A 1:1 where a manager is doing most of the speaking is probably the least productive.
“One risk here, for the manager, is passive listening. For example, there’s a fine line between knowing when to let an employee vent and when that venting needs actionable solutions. Or both! I have no hard rules about when one is needed over the other, and I sometimes get this wrong. This is why eye contact and active listening is important. You’ll receive subtle cues from the person that help reveal what is needed in the situation.”
Part 2 CollaborationOn how to write better documents/ ask better in a written context
As you reread, consider the following: Think of it from the audience’s perspective
- What would I think if I watched or read this without context?
- What would I need to know right away?
- What are the key questions I might have and how can I quickly resolve them?
- Does the audience need to know who is involved? Do they need a road map? Do they need justifications?
Be Careful With Your Words: In leadership roles, your words have weight. Something that has seemed like harmless venting in the past now has the potential to create large rifts in your organization.
”First of all, nothing is impossible. Everything has risks and tradeoffs. Some things are worth pursuing and some are not.”
- Ask your team members how they prefer to get feedback, and listen to the answer
- Point out positive growth on the team and give accolades for it in public
- Don’t ever expose someone’s growth in a way that belittles them. Don’t tolerate this or any kind of bullying from your team members, either. This will stifle growth and trust.
“Would you give the feedback at all or in the same way if this person looked like you? (Really try to be honest with yourself here.) What about if this person were a member of an in-group, such as a tall, white, male? Would your feedback be the same? Would it be expressed the same way?”
❗ “Put the health and safety of people above all else. People do their best work when they don’t feel they are under personal attack. Try your best to cultivate an environment where this is not tolerated. And do not tolerate it for yourself either. Not all feedback is valuable.”
“When there is conflict, it often helps to align on the values that are shared or give context to why some people may have one value over the other. Let’s look at both. Let’s say you have one team member who values “debate,” another that values “stability,” and yet another that values “learning.” A problem arises, and they may all view the same discourse completely differently.”
Part 3 Helping People Do Their Best Work
Teams often face the challenge of having too many tasks and not enough time, which can lead to overwhelm and inefficiency. By establishing clear priorities, teams can effectively manage their workload and focus their efforts on what matters most.
To facilitate prioritization and improve the speed of execution, one effective strategy is to scope down work to its essential components. This involves breaking larger projects or tasks into smaller, manageable pieces, allowing teams to make progress incrementally. One concept often utilized in this context is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach.
“Align the team with the company’s goals (the why):
- Why are they doing this?
- Why is it important to the business?
- What risks will there be if it’s not done?”
Part 4 Your Work
Boundaries of Boundaries
“For a new manager, it can be tough to understand that your job has changed and, though you may need some focus time, focus is not your primary function anymore. Meetings are now your job. Coordination is your job. Your job is to be interruption-driven so your team can stay focus-driven. This means you shouldn’t be protecting yourself too much from meetings.”
Prioritizing: Give yourself credit for timeThe meetings ARE my job as a manager. Putting these on a planner/task list and check them off as the meeting happened can help you recognize that the time spent aligning with others was time well spent.
Self-care is important. → “When Jessi asks me about resilience, she often asks how I’m taking care of myself.”
Surrounding Yourself With People Who Believe In You
Your mindset also affects the performance of others. Believing in someone else’s potential can impact their performance.
“Being a manager can be a little lonely in the default state; you don’t get to process things the way others on your teams might. You have to evoke calm in critical conditions. But you are still human, and you can’t pretend you don’t have emotions, or leanings, or worry, or fear. Find a group of people you can lean on in the hard times, ones you can laugh with, and ones who will help you feel included and valued.”
✍️ My Top 3 Quotes
- “I’ve also seen underperformers turn around after the career laddering process. What one might see as a lazy quality in a person might actually be a symptom of misalignment with the purpose of the tasks. A career ladder helps them recognize what, when, why, and how the things they’re working on fit into the bigger picture.”
- “We as managers should create an environment where flow state can exist as much as possible”
- ”Our Jobs as Managers: it’s to enable the people around me to do their best work … together."
- “Anything that provides clarity for your staff can be helpful.”
What I Liked About It
- it was inclusive and had great examples
What I Didn’t Like About It
How the Book Changed Me
The book not only deepened my understanding of the Engineering Management role but also made me more empathetic towards my Engineering Manager, as I gained insights into the complexities and challenges they face in their position.