I was having coffee with a good friend and engineer this morning, and we got onto the topic of “engineering management”. The actual term itself strikes fear into many peoples hearts, mainly because we can all relate to the rigid, unimaginative, bureaucrat manager that we’ve all had the misfortune to report to at some point in our careers. For me, it was a spineless jellyfish who had been promoted for his technical ability, not his managerial qualities, and his approach to management was to react when someone would complain to him about one of his team, then wheel out the policy documents as a way of correcting ones behavior… yes, take the time now to swallow whatever you just threw-up in your mouth.
The crux of our conversation was the point of view around whether you need engineering managers at all. My friends perspective (he works for a start-up in the Mountain View) was that good engineers don’t need managers, they know what needs to get done, and they do it. Therefor, managers where he works are just coordinators, making sure corporate rules and policies are drifting down to the talent. My position was a little more towards the mid-point; yes, you need managers, but no, not the crap ones.
The basis for my thinking was more from my experience playing football. My first junior team, what was definitely my dream team, was made up of some of the most talented players in our league. We used to get together and play pick-up matches, which were heaps of fun, but never once did we ever think we could play a “real” game without our coach! Why? Because the goals and objectives were different, and when you’re busy doing, you don’t have much time to look left or right, or in front of behind.
My belief is that, a good manager, not just a good engineering manager, is one that makes their team better, not by directing and ordering, but by coordinating and orchestrating. It definitely starts with a passion for people, and a passion for tackling things that require a team effort, but more importantly, it’s about helping people achieve their own goals and objectives, by helping them collaborate and work with others, so the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Back to looking in all directions; great engineering managers entrust their best and brightest (and lets face it, your whole team should be the best and brightest) to do the “work”, and provide the glue that brings all the folks doing stuff together against a common end-point. See, most organizations see managers as being the top of the tree, the best of the best, and this creates a structure which works great in well defined, heavily process oriented industries, but in engineering, where things are changing on a daily basis, expecting the person at the top to be the all knowing being is a recipe for disaster. At the same time, having no one play the role of coach, and trying to create a completely self-directed autonomous team, is dangerous. Don’t confuse autonomous individuals working as a team towards a unified outcome as being the same as an unmanaged self-directed team; the two are very different in my opinion.
So my advice to managers is, help your team by supporting them by unifying their vision on the outcome and endpoint, excite them to want to achieve the outcome together without resorting to the usual grab bag of motivations (money, power, shiny objects), let them own their wins and losses, and most importantly, throw away the policy book.
Because, if you’re going to hire smart people, let them be smart!