7 lessons on being Group Engineering Manager
Everyone knows this common mantra - when you start being an Engineering Manager, you are a junior and need to learn everything from scratch.
I believe that’s very similar when you start managing managers - either by being Group Engineering Manager or Director of Engineering. You bring years of experience as a manager, but you can’t just keep going with your old habits.
As Group Engineering Manager at Intercom, I manage three excellent Engineering Managers. It took me some time to figure out what it means to be a successful GEM and here are my lessons and responsibilities.
Set strategy and direction
If your teams have a common vision and would benefit from a unified strategy, your job is to create it and maintain the direction.
In the world of one common strategy for all your direct reporting teams, you get a significant asset for free - you have everyone aligned on what is the most important thing. This lets you make fast decisions across your organisation. To make it work, make sure that you invest a lot in everyone’s deep understanding of this strategy.
If your teams don’t have a common vision and they benefit from actually having separate strategies, make sure that you give your teams’ space to create individual strategies, review them, buy-in and then follow with commitment.
You will need to find some mechanisms that will let your organisation align on what is most important when the conflict happens. In that world, I would suggest investing even more than usual in building relationships and data-driven culture of prioritisation. You and your managers need to be able to have hard conversations about competing needs - you need a lot of trust and data for that.
Create and evolve boundaries.
Org structure becomes your problem. When I started to be GEM, I got four teams and a direction to shape my organisation. We ended up:
- Disbanding one of the teams
- Completely changing the identities and ownership areas of the other two.
- Explicitly calling our fourth team not-part-of-the-group.
These changes sound big and risky, but we spent months making sure that we have a clear picture of north star teams and boundaries between them that would set us up to deliver our strategy. (If you would be happy to read about doing re-organisation this size, ping me in comments!)
Team identity and clarity of purpose are one of the most significant drivers of engagement and thus retention and success.
Move resources based on the biggest return of the investment.
As a manager of managers, your job is to move people there, where the ROI is biggest. Don’t be afraid to do it often.
Moving people is always disrupting, but it’s your job to build resilience in your group to these changes. Up to some point, the more you move people, the more agile organisation you are becoming.
However, it takes time to become a high performing team and don’t underestimate that. In my group of almost 20 engineers, we always have 2 or 3 of them on a tour.
Optimise and leverage the economy of scale.
Look around where you can make something cheaper or higher quality (increase ROI in general) by leveraging economy of scale. You manage a few teams doing the same work now? Maybe you can share some work between these teams?
We did two things that worked really well even though we are still iterating on them. First, we decided to take on-call responsibility from three teams and create a shared (virtual) squad that will take these responsibilities, rotating weekly. We previously had to maintain three people on these responsibilities, now only two.
Second, we took a look at how we manage bugs and called it Group Quality Program. Previously, each team would decide what bugs they wanted to close every week. This work was never really recognised or exciting because one or two bugs per week are always hidden behind strategic work. We decided to instead have a rotating squad that works on bugs with more dedication in 6-week cycles, prioritising bugs across the scope of originally three teams. This made our investment way more predictable and sustainable, while at the same time brought real, visible momentum to how many bugs we close per week.
One of the most important responsibilities. Growing people is always important - same when you are Engineering Manager. But the difference with growing managers is a difference of magnitude.
Managers have way bigger leverage, cost and return. A great manager will massively accelerate your organisation - through their high performing team, growing engineers, excellent strategy. A poor manager will cost you attrition, opportunity cost of their team and opportunity cost of you doing their job ultimately.
Value management work.
When you are a manager with some experience, you know how to recognise great work. You can smell good individual contribution from a distance. Complex problem solved, a great relationship with a designer, scoping decision or great code review - you value these things and you praise them.
When you become a manager of managers, these things are way more disconnected from you. Moreover, people you manage won’t do them anymore. They will do more intangible management work - the one that you are most probably already very good at. But you never had to recognise this type of work. And this can be a trap.
Make sure that you maintain engagement in your managers by praising their work and genuinely valuing this intangible management work.
Communicate often, more than before.
You will spend more time communicating, and that’s fine - it’s part of the job.
When managing managers, you cannot accumulate all the information that will make you ready to answer any question, any time. You need to build a skill of gathering information, processing them, communicating them up and storing to be used later if necessary.
You will also need to get comfortable with the fact that you don’t know or don’t remember the answers. When managing even 2 or 3 managers, the scope of information and the variety of environment is already big enough to make it hard to track day to day.
Managing managers is a very interesting step in everyone’s career. It’s a natural extension of management track and gives you opportunities to mature more senior leadership and management skills.
However, I talked about positive changes and things that I reflected on and I believe they made me a better Group Manager. There are a few things that I really miss from being Engineering Manager.
I think that being Manager of Managers is something that might burn you out if you are not aware of what you won’t be doing anymore and what you will be doing instead.
I hope that this blog post shows you high-level perspective on what Group Manager does. If you would like to know what I really miss from being a front line Engineering Manager, ping me in the comments!