Google Rethinks the Value of Engineering Managers
Shawn Wasserman posted on November 29, 2013 |

It’s not uncommon for engineers to devalue managers. Red tape and meetings can certainly get in the way of innovation, but does management actually do more harm than good?

This certainly used to be the mentality at Google. In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Google describes how they convinced their engineering workforce that engineering management matters, and how they determined which managers were up to snuff.

The debate over management at Google went as high as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; so back in 2002 they performed an experiment. They hypothesized that by cutting out ALL managers, the red tape would be reduced, innovation would increase, and a more grad-school-like environment would be created. As the wall between founder and engineer dissolved, however, a flood of minor and personal issues went all the way to the top desks. Unsurprisingly, the experiment only lasted a few months.

To find a real solution Google created Project Oxygen, and after double blind interviews and people analytics, they came to two conclusions. First, engineering management does matter. Two, there were 8 simple qualities commonly found in high-rated managers.

Google’s 8 qualities of an effective manager are:

1.       Coaching

2.       Empowering the team instead of micromanaging it

3.       Acknowledging the best interests and success of each team member

4.       Promoting results and productivity

5.       Listening and communicating effectively

6.       Ensuring the career development of their team members

7.       Strategizing for the team clearly

8.       Having the technical knowledge to help and advise the team when needed

These are great concepts, but they’re also concepts any MEM program worth its salt would already focus on. So the question does arise, what was the point in all of this? Well, as my old manager always said, “In god you trust, everyone else bring data.”

With the company specific data Google acquired, they were able to customize a plan of attack fit for their organization. A vigorous management hiring process was installed. Leading managers were tapped for knowledge. Lower ranking managers were set up with the proper training. Reward systems were set up to ensure managers performed well and that engineers with the proper skills moved into management positions.

Information like this is especially key when you have 5000 managers, 1000 directors, and 100 VPs for a whopping 37,000 employees. Managers overseeing 30 employees are hard pressed to micromanage, and the overall hierarchy is downplayed by the sheer quantity of one’s direct peers.

Unfortunately, with such a small pyramid running the show promotions are scarce, which could easily create a motivational problem. To solve this issue, Google relies on lateral movement of employees. If an engineer has reached the glass ceiling of his or her team, the company shifts them to another team working on bigger and better projects; a simple but innovative approach that Google never would have found had it not been for their personal study.

We can’t all be Google and every organization is uniquely different. HBR suggests doing your own studies, therefore, to identify the minutia of your own organization. Perhaps one day they’ll even make such studies the topic of their own MEM course.

Source: Harvard Business Review.

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