- In a growing tech company, what are the most valuable things on which an engineering manager should spend time
To the already long list of mistakes presented there, here are some others I've experienced so far:
Thinking that it is enough just to create task lists in Excel
I have seen quite a few managers that, after being appointed into position, completely forget their craft, forget about people, forget about product and transform themselves into task administrators. The problem, I guess, lies in lack of role models and lack of understanding of the job. Management is not a reactive profession, but rather one that requires time to think and put things into perspective.
To overcome this situation, one needs to seek for role models, read, ask questions, network, escape the comfort zone of always being busy. This is particularly hard and requires a lot of emotional energy, especially in an unstructured environment, without clear performance metrics and job descriptions.
Disconnection from the product
I also call this "management from excel" or "management from inbox" and, to me, it means relying only on reports to mark work as done instead of going on the floor and inspect the product yourself. This is very dangerous as it leads to optimistic reports where everything seems fine while the product is completely broken. It also leads to non-communicative behavior in the team, lack of challenge, lack of risk management, sloppiness that spreads - the broken window effect.
Every communication layer needs to add something valuable to the communication. When communicating up, the manager needs to create a new layer of abstraction and encapsulate the information for the needs of his/her managers and when communicating down, he needs to be able to break the information for his colleagues.
When the manager is not able to deal with his superiors autonomously, without constantly asking for support and clarification from his team and vice versa, he doesn't bring any value to the communication. He needs to understand the problems, the product and the requirements so well that he can have a dialogue with all his peers without constantly relying on "wait, I need to ask my lead programmer / engineer / game designer / marketing / HQ/ ... ".
To overcome this, the manager needs to practice questioning skills and treat every problem with deep understanding.
Being afraid to go to the team and say: "look, this is not working. What can we do?". Being afraid or postpone to open touchy subjects and trying to maintain a sense of peace and calm at the expense of higher risk and lower performance.
To overcome this, the manager needs to practice self confidence and facilitate genuine dialogue. Curiosity and questioning also help.
Lack of trust in team members
By trust I mean not "I trust you to finish the job without checking" but rather "I trust you to open up to you, challenge you, be vulnerable in front of you to push you to over perform". Lack of trust leads to complains about the team to upper managers, disconnection from the team, conflict avoidance, gossip, low performance.
There are many ways to overcome this, but a basic one is to go to the team with problems and ask them to help you solve them. Something like "guys, we have this on the table; what do you think we should do about it?".
Lack of control and measurement
Very much linked to all of the above: lack of trust, lack of depth in analysis, managing from excel. In order to be able to challenge the team one needs facts. Facts come from setting up several metrics and benchmarks for performance, then bringing the results to the team for debate. Without this, all dialogue becomes personal and subjective.
Not asking for support
Manager's mission is to ship projects, grow people and deliver value and, sometimes, we don't have the knowledge, experience or tools to tackle every problem alone. We need support and we need the maturity and courage to step back and say "ok, if I pursue this course of action alone, the risk of failure in unacceptably high". Many managers were appointed as leaders to their teams for their own drive for achievement and resilience in front of problems. We need to understand that the results are more important than ourselves. It is true that nobody wants to work with a defeatist, but also nobody wants to work with someone who is blind and drives the projects straight into the fence. Vision is needed as, most of the time, there won't be an upper layer with enough knowledge of the project to be able to take the decision to offer help without being asked for help.
There are other behaviors at least as important as these: lack of decisiveness, hiring too soon and firing too late, not taking into consideration values and team fitness when hiring and firing, and many others. These were probably the ones that affected me the most so far and I will probably touch them in a future post.