Good Engineering Managers Abound
Shawn Wasserman posted on February 14, 2014 |

Good engineering managers walk among us, just take a look.

I just read a frustrating article by Juan Pablo Dellarroquella, VP of Engineering from Medallia. The basic premise of the article is that good engineering managers don’t exist, period! This seems like an insulting, defeatist, and ultimately self-fulfilling prophecy.

The basic assumption made in the article is that there are two pools of engineers. First, there are the good engineers who tend to stay in their current role. These leaders, innovators and top contributors Mr. Dellarroquella argues, want to sit in front of their computers to design, and get the team going. He therefore assumes that all the engineers that move into management fit into his second pool, the subpar power hungry engineer.

This constitutes a false premise for a number or reasons. First if pool one engineers are truly the best, you should keep him/her there and pay them top dollar to ensure they don’t skip town. Give them challenges, ensure they are happy and keep that powerhouse going. However, it is a bad assumption to believe that your top contributing engineer will translate into a good manager. They require a completely different skill set.

While interviewing various Universities which teach engineering management (EM), I have asked the same question “why did you start the masters of engineering management program?” The answers were practically identical in each case but perhaps Lisa Brown, Program Manager at Montana State said it best:

"Employees found that our graduates have great base knowledge, but as they move up the ladder they don't have the foundational background to think with the different mindset of leadership and management."

As engineering management programs are popping up around the country, with two new ones interviewed on our directory alone, it is clear this demand is strong proving that a good engineer does not always make a good manager.

Additionally, this demand for engineering management is not just on the side of industry, demand is obviously great enough to sustain admissions. This proves wrong another assumption made by Mr. Dellarroquella, namely that engineers don’t want to move up the ladder.

How Engineering Managers view Engineers?

Furthermore, it is unlikely that an engineer would spend 2-5 years in a masters just so they can get the power to “call the shots”. These EM programs are designed to teach engineers how to properly manage a team, project, and company. They teach constructive approaches to management – “minion domination” is not on the syllabus.

One software company that has their management skills right is Google. In 2002, the founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided to test the manager myth the only way possible. They got rid of their whole management team. For a few months, Google consisted of just executives and engineering teams. It was disastrous. Employees were knocking on the only door they could when they had a problem or dispute, the CEO’s.

This led to a second study in which Google set to determine what made a good engineering manager. They found that the most important skills were:

  • Coaching
  • Empowering the team
  • Looking after the best interests/career development of your team member
  • Promoting results/productivity
  • Listening/communicating effectively
  • Strategizing
  • And finally technical knowledge

With exception to the technical knowledge these skills are not typically taught in an engineering bachelor’s. Restructuring the company to this management philosophy became a cornerstone to Google’s success.

Notice also that technical knowledge bottomed the list. Though it is true that your engineering team will want to know that their managers are worth their salt in technical knowledge, it isn’t the most important skill to a good engineering manager. Engineering managers should be helping when asked, but at the end of the day the job would have little if any actual engineering work.

I’m not blind to the fact that there often exists a rift between those that manage and those being managed. Bad managers exist. And at some workplaces the management team may focus more on micromanagement, red tape, and justifying their existence than success. However, to every yin there is a yang. Good managers exist too. They are out there on the leading edge laying down the path for our engineers to succeed.

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