Managing Engineers

5 Traits of Exceptional Engineering Managers

April 16, 2015

Case studies on exceptional leaders are abundant – but specific, and narrow in scope. Rather than distill what makes a great manager through the lens of a specific individual, we asked engineers of all stripes to share what the best managers do to give them the room to create, produce, and solve hard problems.

Put another way, “what traits distinguish exceptional engineering managers?”

They Set Clear Objectives

Provide context.

“The production of effective solutions requires an understanding of the problem,” says Stephanie Chou, a software engineer at AppDynamics. It’s imperative that your team has context for the end result you’re trying to achieve.

Why does this problem matter? What are the limitations? And – easily overlooked – how does solving this problem fit into the overall strategic picture?

Dr. Marina Tharayil, Manager, System Design and Controls Group at Xerox adds, “I think creativity requires some space, freedom and a sense of ownership and empowerment.”

“Most engineers are self-motivated and want to do a good job. With an understanding of how their work fits in the bigger picture, regular feedback and a supportive environment, they can produce great results.”

Give your engineers clear, assigned tasks.

Make sure you effectively communicate the purpose of the tasks you assign and the goals and expectations you have of your engineers.

And, per Victor Long, principal software engineer at Nemetschek Vectorworks, Inc., engineers work best when able to focus on solving one problem at a time.

Several studies have demonstrated that allowing employees to focus on one task can increase productivity significantly. With the advancement in technology, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by what you can do; however, being able to do something doesn’t mean you always should. It’s important to select one thing to focus on and worry about the next thing when it’s appropriate.

They Set Reasonable (but Aggressive) Expectations

Expectations are the next step after setting an objective. “If I’m on a project that I feel is important to the company, with reasonable but aggressive expectations, my creativity will shine,” says D.J. Brenner, a Chemical Engineer for Honeywell.

Not surprisingly, an unrealistic turnaround has the opposite effect. Dave Robinson, a veteran Aeronautical Engineering Designer, provides this illustration:

The typical example, in the case of the manager’s perspective, is that of schedule:

“Just get it done to meet the schedule and we’ll fix it later if need be”

Alternatively from the employee’s perspective:

“Just a few more weeks and I can provide you with the ‘best in class’ product on the market”

In either case, the employee can feel rushed and unable to produce the sort of work which gives them the pride and satisfaction associated with a job well done; which incidentally may exceed the extent of what the company has set as a goal for its employees.

Bottom line: it’s your job to know your team’s capabilities. Be demanding, but not unrealistic, and make sure your team understands exactly what they’re working toward.

They Ensure their Team has the Resources to Get the Job Done

Nothing grinds development to a halt like inadequate tools or resources to get the job done. It’s also destructive to team morale.

Which tools are necessary is as individual as the project or team; but they can range from the tangible (state of the art equipment) to the environmental (a quiet, distraction-free workspace). The manager’s responsibility is to spot an inefficiency and address it swiftly.

Brenner points out “If my manager keeps me focused on technology problems I’m in a great environment.  If I’m focused on bureaucracy problems then I need to find something better.”

Exceptional engineering managers create, maintain, (and when necessary protect) a productive development environment.

They Regularly Remove Obstacles (Including Themselves)

How much time does your team spend engineering?

Exceptional managers remove as many obstacles (including bureaucratic or time-wasting activities) as possible. Says Brenner, “If I’m given a project which I can see has little value then my job becomes very tedious and it becomes very difficult to be creative.”

Be accessible – but don’t hover.

Unnecessary attention from managers is a frequently-cited impediment to progress. Robinson adds “a good manager knows when he or she needs to act and how to act when called upon to do so but for the most part, allows their employees to get on with the tasks assigned to them.”

Create a rubric – a calendar or similar platform – for when and how you’ll provide feedback to your team. Staying in the loop is critical, you have to make sure everyone is on the same page, but don’t be the guy everyone feels looking over their shoulder.

They Listen and Cultivate Strong Relationships

Break Down Silos.

Can your team collaborate easily across the organization? If not, what silos are in the way? What can you do to change that?

Silos impede projects in the short-term, and, in the long-term, careers. And if you want to foster loyalty and team cohesion now, care about the career aspirations of your team members as individuals. Dr. Tharayil shares:

My first manager at Xerox made a lasting impression since it was my first work experience. Barry was a very supportive manager … his team was a very productive, aligned, efficient and close-knit group due to the tone he set and the energy he brought to the team. He supported each of us, making us feel valued, and enabled us to grow in our paths, even if it lead away from his group.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Caring about Your Team.

Your team is made up of people; people want to be heard, understood, and to feel valuable. As a manager, the stronger your relationships are with your team, the stronger your team will be.

Andrew Bruce, an SAP Consultant and Software Solution Architect, elaborates:

Strong relationships are the only thing that truly provides both long- and short-term motivation… [they] cost nothing, and the dividend they return is the highest of all.

Some employers try and bribe their employees with perks, like a pool table (I’ve worked at place that bragged about its pool table, yet the relationships weren’t strong), give every other Friday afternoon off, or whatever. It doesn’t work.

There is nothing like having a supervisor who has a strong relationship with you and actually cares about you. It has an incredible effect on your ability to innovate, create, and solve problems, or in other words – be the best engineer you can be.

Day-to-day, exceptional managers do whatever they can to make sure their team is happy, productive, and engaged. To be effective in this role, you have to foster relationships. And listen.

Without exception, every engineer we interviewed agreed their managers, more than environment or task, had the largest impact on their creativity and output.

Exceptional engineering managers share their team’s desire to solve difficult problems – but provide a framework for execution with an eye on big-picture organizational goals. They set clear objectives, remove obstacles, and provide constant feedback. They not only know how to get things done, they foster their team’s growth, individually and collectively, to accomplish the task.

Great engineering teams, regardless of discipline or project, share one thing in common: exceptional managers.

Have another trait to add? Share it in the comments or via Twitter @HireEngineers


[Photo: Flickr user Matt Cornock]