What exactly makes a great engineering manager?

A few months ago I was discussing what makes a great engineering manager with Jakub Oleksy, VP of Engineering at GitHub. Jakub summarized his own perspective by stating “A great manager is a great steward.” In my opinion, he stated the essence of a great manager perfectly.

But what does being a great steward mean? A simple definition of stewardship is “…the careful and responsible management of something trusted to one’s care…”

So, what is a steward….stewarding?

Stewardship can be broken into three areas of care/responsibility:

  • Your people: Your team and the people you directly (and indirectly) manage and/or lead
  • Your area/scope: The thing, product, area, whatever you and your team represent in your organization (infrastructure, SRE, data engineering, etc.)
  • Your stakeholders: The people/peers/leaders and other teams/orgs who entrust you to care for your people and area/scope

Who are you a steward for? And what does being a steward mean?

Stakeholders: Who You Are a Steward for

Engineering managers (EMs) can have diverse areas of responsibility. Every organization uses EMs differently. For example, an engineering manager might oversee a team focused on an organizational area (like data engineering). At another company they could be focused solely on a product. Or both.

Ultimately, managers do have an area of responsibility to oversee — and that area has stakeholders. These are the people who entrust you to care for your people and area/scope. Managers often act as stewards for:

The individuals on your team Your peers and broader organization Your customers (internal and external) The product and/or area you (and your team) oversee

Being a Steward: What Does It Mean?

Best practices can vary by organization/responsibilities, but there are common patterns for managers to leverage. These include:

  • Owning your area’s problem + opportunity space
  • Developing a technical vision and plan
  • Advocating for change and help
  • Driving for clear responsibilities

Stewards Do Valuable Work

I’ve watched many managers define their team’s value to the org as their volume of work. For example, how many of us have heard “We knocked out xxxx tickets this month!” as an indication of sheer value? This is similar to using lines of code to measure progress. There is some good stuff at a glance, but ultimately it falls apart. It can’t deal with complexity or non-linear growth well.

Someone can always knock out more tickets or write more code. And it can be challenging to not make this your focus — as these behaviors are still rewarded (see Twitter buyout).

But a manager investing too much time in low-impact work hinders meaningful (and nonlinear) progress. This topic is addressed thoroughly in “Work on What Matters” by Will Larson.

Combat this common manager mistake by constantly stepping back and analyzing your area of responsibility/scope. That means investing time in understanding your problem and opportunity space.

While a bit overstated, Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

For your area, consider these:

  • How can you better amplify or act as a force multiplier for your team?
  • Are you and your team working on what matters?
  • Are you working through the process of surviving -> maintaining -> thriving?
  • What are the problems and/or opportunities you are working on today?
  • Will this work make enough of a measurable impact on your stakeholders?
  • Are there bigger or more important problems/opportunities you could be working on?

Stewards Have a Technical Vision and a Plan

Part of being a technical steward is development of the area’s vision and tactics the team will take to get there. Deciding how you invest your team’s time on present vs. future needs is often the most challenging part. Areas generally go through surviving -> maintaining -> thriving phases.

With that in mind, ask yourself:

  • What is the vision for your area to “thrive”?
  • How are you moving your area from surviving -> maintaining -> thriving?
  • How are you driving that vision across your team and stakeholders?
  • Do you have clear work to reach your objectives?
  • What are your area’s objectives (this quarter)? How do those progress your vision?
  • What work do you think needs to happen next quarter? How does it progress your vision?

A big advantage of documenting and pushing technical vision/strategy docs across an organization is validating if the identified strategies/work is valuable.

Stewards Drive Clear Responsibilities

A common practice for great stewards is to ensure people know what their role is in the vision. This helps get everyone on the same page with what needs to be done and who is doing it. When driving responsibilities, here are some important questions to visit:

  • Do objectives or goals have clear owners?
  • Does anyone disagree with the owners of the goals?
  • Does everyone understand their role?
  • Are there any pieces of work identified where there is responsibility confusion?

Stewards Advocate Change and Help

Progress isn’t always easy or forward facing. Complexity can arise unexpectedly, and adjustments need to be made. A steward has to work in a highly dynamic system of engineering choices and investments for those choices.

Being a change agent usually means two literal things:

  • Demonstrating ferocious ownership of your area’s problems/opportunities
  • Iterating constantly to get to an improved (or thriving) state

A steward pushes for change and advocates for the help needed for change. That might be escalating the need to unblock work elsewhere in the org or for additional engineers to support an area. What is critical is that a steward is a change agent to get to the desired future state.

To be an effective change agent consider:

  • How are you representing and getting buy-in around the technical vision of your team?
  • Who are you engaging with to advocate this vision with you?
  • How are you helping/enabling others in your area to be stewards also?
  • How are you getting buy-in around changes needed for the desired future state?
  • How are you getting the help your area needs to create the desired future state?

Note: This article was originally posted on my Medium blog