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Lessons in Engineering Management: Putting the Pieces Together With Will Larson

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I recently had the pleasure of attending a fireside chat at Atrium with engineers across Silicon Valley to discuss some of the challenges that engineering leaders commonly face. 

In the post below, I highlight three key topics that emerged around career development, finding the purpose amid chaos, and how to collaborate as a team versus a band of individuals.  


Are you an engineer who manages—or an engineering manager?

Management isn’t the holy grail of career development for every engineer and you don’t need to become a manager to have career progression. But the awkward reality is that at some companies advancement does require becoming a manager (in which case you may wish to consider switching companies). There are plenty of engineers out there who find themselves forced into a management profession—some of them very much not wanting to do it. 

Management is a different job and it’s not necessarily a fun job if you’re only doing it for more money. This means that you need to find something intrinsically valuable about it for yourself. One of the hardest barriers to overcome when making the transition into management is finding the ability to stop being an engineer and actually start managing. 

A lot of people try to keep being an engineer and do management on the side. As an authority figure, they might take more control over things, but they don’t stop actually engaging technically. The key to management, I’ve found, is striking the right balance between enabling people on your team to be successful and filling yourself up with work that energizes you, rather than drains you.

Think about how you can be the servant leader that the team needs you to be while also doing the things you need to maintain personal and professional satisfaction. If programming or being technical is critical to you, then carve out four hours every week to engage in that kind of work. 

A happy manager working at their 75th percentile is still a much better manager than an unhappy manager simply trying their best.


Management isn’t the holy grail of career development for every engineer and you don’t need to become a manager to have career progression. Click To Tweet


It’s going to break and it’s always going to be inconvenient

One of the things that can be most challenging as a manager is working in an environment where systems are always breaking at the most inconvenient times. Truthfully, every time a system breaks, it’s going to be during an inconvenient time. Yet there’s no place you can learn faster than at a company where everything is breaking every six months for the right reasons.

At one of the previous companies I worked for, I used to pitch candidates by explaining that when things fail, they fail so badly that we have to fix them. In retrospect, that’s not the best pitch I ever came up with, but the point is that we’ve all worked at companies where things never get fixed. How disappointing is that? One of the advantages of fast-growing companies is that things do get fixed—it’s just not always going to be easy work to fix them.

Lastly, regardless of the type of company or team you’re working with, always remember that you’re not doing waste work. It might be work that happens on a schedule you didn’t choose or when you want to do it, but you’re not doing low-value work. The work that you’re doing is central work, and work that has to happen.


Build a team and not a collection of individuals

There are two things I’m admittedly the worst at: (1) estimating velocity on a sprint basis and (2) fun team-building offsites. For the latter, it might be my personal dislike of team-building offsites, but I do believe you can bond without them and still have fun together.  The opportunity lies in finding time outside of work to connect as a team, whether it is that quarterly offsite or regularly grabbing a meal together.

I’ve also found that team bonding goes beyond just my core team. Taking on a broader team philosophy has worked really well for me in this capacity. For example, when the infrastructure leadership team meets every Monday, we meet for an hour and we invite our recruiting and HR partners. 

By inviting everyone who works closely with us to our regular meetings, and to any offsites we might have throughout the year, it becomes a really powerful tool for building the relationships we need as cross-functional partners to work through any problems together. 

Shared ownership can be another opportunity for improving core team dynamics. While two engineers co-managing a project can be uncomfortable, and perhaps work against how your team works today, joint ownership of projects can help encourage collaboration and bonding. 

What’s more, shared ownership can help promote knowledge sharing across the team, which can alleviate knowledge-loss attributed to high attrition and ensure that consistency is applied across all team practices. Without this kind of collaboration, you’re functioning more as a collection of individuals, rather than a team.

At the end of the day, time is key. Whenever I’m having trouble working with someone, I catch myself intentionally trying not to spend time with them. Yet, tragically, every time I get to know that person better, I grow to like them. As counterintuitive as it may sound, sometimes forcing people to dedicate time to one another is truly the missing piece of the puzzle.


To hear more lessons learned and opportunities for managers and engineers today, you can find my book, “An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management,” here.

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startup straight talk

A collection of our most popular blogs in audio format.


Will Larson's book, An Elegant Puzzle orients around the particular challenges of engineering management - from sizing teams to technical debt to succession planning - and provides a path to the good solutions. Drawing from his experience at Digg, Uber, and Stripe, Will has developed a thoughtful approach to engineering management that leaders of all levels at companies of all sizes can apply.

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