From reactive to proactive Engineering Manager

Peter Drucker said in Effective Executive that manager’s time belongs to everyone. As Engineering Manager, you always prioritise enabling your team to be more productive. You act as a glue, filling the gaps that you see when others can’t see them yet. And that’s good - that’s what your company and your team expect from you.

But it’s easy to fall into the reactive mode. Always fighting the next fire, solving the next people problem, clarifying another miscommunication with another department. Especially if you are new to the role or manage big team with a big scope.

Such operation mode often tends to make us very anxious about our role, performance and career. You start realising that you don’t have time for strategic long-term thinking, growing yourself or just having fun at work doing things that you liked to do, but don’t have time anymore. How to change that?

Plan in the mid-term horizon.

I don’t mean only your career plans here. Plan what needs to happen for your team, your directs and yourself in the next few weeks or months. Be proactive and think in advance what will and could happen.

Go through the agenda for your organisation and think what’s ahead of you. Maybe there is performance review season coming? Maybe it’s the end of the fiscal year and you will need to spend more time thinking about strategy for the next one? Start preparing well in advance.

Choose a framework that assesses the health of your team and use it to think about possible improvements from various perspectives. Be proactive in improving your team, instead of reactive. Building resilient, high performing teams takes time and energy. You can’t achieve it without a plan.

Go through your directs one by one and think about their current situation. Someone recently got promoted and could use some coaching in a new role? Someone is fighting for promotion and could use a hand? Someone is unhappy with their growth plan? Start helping them before they realise they need help.

Plan short-term as your team does.

Plan your sprints in the same cadence as your team. It builds a better connection and makes you a hands-on user of your own rituals. Often you won’t be able to be transparent in your planning - there will be people stuff or your individual growth that you don’t like to share now. Plan on your own, at your desk instead of with your team, but do that in the same cadence.

If it’s not confidential or people-related, share with your team and let them keep you accountable. Explain to them why it is important and why you decided to do that in the next sprint.

Be transparent on standup with your team.

The magic of standup brings many amazing benefits. Among other things, two of them stand out for this topic - removing blockers and keeping accountable.

Update your team about everything you are doing - both reactive work that was unplanned and progress on those that were planned. Accountability is one thing, but you will also hear some ideas on how to unblock yourself.

Carve focus time in a week. More than needed.

Classic tip but always worth repeating. You always coach your engineers on estimating their job and being accountable for what they commit to. Are you doing the same? After you plan your goals for next sprint, make sure that you block 1.5x more time than you estimate. It will get eaten by unplanned work anyway, so better to estimate more than less.

What if all your time is being eaten, even though you blocked it in advance? Then you find yourself in the continuous-on-fire-situation. Think about it in a similar way you think about technology. If you find your team in a situation where you can’t build features because the toil of your tech debt is too big, you just need to stop building features and focus on paying this debt. Same with managers - if you find the toil of your team health, particular people problems or organisation health taking full of your time, just stop doing anything else and focus on improving them, one by one as long as you earn some time.

Remember that in 99% of cases, you will have more work than available time. Get comfortable with not finishing some work and dropping it. Don’t burn out, don’t overwork. Just embrace the stretch.

Report on your progress.

Meaningful and quality work should always be recognised. Make sure that you report on your goals and progress to your manager. Show that you care and you are trying to be more impactful. Sharing your spring goals with your manager is also one of the most powerful opportunities for them to coach you and for you to get feedback. I would recommend mastering the skill of managing up.

Find support in your primary team.

Last but not least, find support in your primary team. Sometimes it’s your Product Manager partner and sometimes a few other Engineering Managers that work closely to you. Whoever it is, don’t underestimate the power of support and peer coaching.

Share with them what you are doing and why. Perhaps they have similar problems and you can collaborate?

Summary

I believe that one of the biggest indicators of professional growth and seniority for engineering managers is how much of their time is spent in a reactive and proactive manner.

It’s hard to get there. There is always something surprising and some unplanned work takes over your goals. Remember that things that you plan to do are usually important ones ant the ones that are unplanned are urgent. Finding the right balance between these two and knowing when to say no to urgent stuff, taking a risk and working on important ones is also a skill that comes with experience.

And last but not least, I believe in habits. Make sure that you follow my tips with persistence and it will become natural for you to feel and be an owner of your time and focus, be proactive, deliver high impact work and move faster than before.