How Agile Changes the Role of the Engineering Manager

If we’re Agile, why do we need engineering managers?

As a software engineering leadership and product development consultant, Ron Lichty often hears teams raise this question, and has developed an answer. Having worked with organizations from Apple to Schwab to Stanford University, and co-author of Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams, Lichty has a particularly interesting view on management in general — and gives talks across the globe on management’s role in Agile.

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“Managers have always had fundamental roles,” Lichty says. “Very few teams really want to take on the hard work of recruiting and hiring. Even fewer of them want to take on the hard work and challenges of dealing with ‘problem’ employees. Those roles don’t change a lot.”

But the fact remains that once a company transitions from another organizational structure to Agile, other roles and responsibilities change dramatically.

To illustrate the point in his talks and meetups, Lichty uses a worksheet, complete with 50 roles that traditional managers play, such as managing delivery and project management. The sheet asks how much each of these roles change when you make the shift to Agile.

“Some roles change massively,” he says. “You’re moving from the manager owning delivery to the team owning delivery.”

Inevitably, an agile management picture will look significantly different from traditional management. Here are some of Lichty’s takes on how Agile enhances and alters the role of an engineering manager.

Focus on the big picture

With teams themselves tending to delivery, managers whose teams are moving to agile have the opportunity to shift their focus. “Agile encourages managers to get out of the day-to-day and focus on the bigger picture,” Lichty says.

Imperative here is getting your fingers out of micromanaging. Management’s role is to set the boundaries and expectations of what needs to be done. The attitude toward the team, in voice and in action, should say, I trust you to figure out how to get this done.

This is the essence of delegation: you’re setting expectations for teams, then letting them work with those expectations themselves.

“Agile encourages managers to get out of the day-to-day and focus on the bigger picture.”

Another part of the manager’s big-picture focus is to build the culture.

“Managers always had the opportunity to have a role in establishing culture,” Lichty says. “The importance of this responsibility only grew with Agile. Managers need to understand Agile as well or better than anybody else and create a culture that enables it. They need to support what Agile calls “self-organizing teams” — a culture where everyone is a leader, and where every individual on every team is expected to step up.”

The hard part of transitioning to agile is not just doing agile, but being agile. Agile’s practices have value in and of themselves, but the magic comes from the values and principles behind agile. Find your freedom to make the practices your own, by adapting them to the uniqueness of your teams, people, culture, and products. And recognize that you can always shift what doesn’t work—you don’t have to have everything perfect before implementing it—agile is a journey, not a destination.

Remove impediments

Once your team is empowered with the expectations you’ve set, their work is, as a team, to deliver one increment of the project or product after another. Your work is to support their needs and to remove any impediments in their way—even before they encounter them.

“Ask any Agile team, ‘who removes impediments?’ and they’ll say their scrum master does. But who does their scrum master escalate to? They always escalate to managers.”

Engineering managers play a critical role in supporting their people, removing bottlenecks, and getting out of the way so their teams can deliver value.

Partly, that means safeguarding your team’s focus by managing the external forces that pressure your team’s workload. Multitasking leads to wasted productivity, Lichty says. He also recommends ensuring your team has slack because running at 100% capacity tends to beget bottlenecks.

One of the larger impediments can be a lack of agile understanding in the rest of your own company. If your team is Agile, and your organization is not, you’re going to have a clash of cultures that slows your team’s progress.

“Be an evangelist for Agile with the rest of the company. Agile works a lot better when the rest of the company understands it and integrates with it.”

“Be an evangelist for Agile with the rest of the company,” Lichty says. “Agile works a lot better when the rest of the company understands it and integrates with it.” It’s a hindrance when the company continues to look at managers as owning delivery as opposed to empowering teams to own delivery.

Mind meld with the product managers

If your team is now focused on providing value to customers, then communication with product management is essential. And the engineering manager is more than just the point person for that rapport.

“Product managers are my most important partner,” Lichty says. “I count on Product to do that Vulcan mind meld with customers to totally understand not just what customers are asking for, but what they really want and what will delight them.”

“That vision is a roadmap that orders what’s going to deliver the most value to our customer.”

Lichty makes the case that engineering too often discounts product management. Product managers and product owners have a really difficult job, and when it’s done well, he says, we understand what it is customers truly want, and what is going to make the company successful in delighting them. Product managers are essential for not only identifying and defining this universe of possibilities but for focusing and prioritizing them. Product insights and foresight require serious collaboration between engineering and product managers.

“What the customer wants starts with a vision,” he says. “We want a series of projects that continually deliver what the customer wants, ultimately resulting in that vision–what our offering will look like two years from now or three years from now. In reality, things change, and it will not look like that in two years, three years from now. But this is the vision. Being able to envision the horizon toward which we are moving is really important in setting the direction for the entire product organization. Then, we need a roadmap to give us an order to the projects by which we’ll deliver the vision–a roadmap that is always based on what’s going to deliver the most value to our customer–today and tomorrow and the next week and the week after that.”

Have the time to be human

When Lichty has folks fill out that worksheet of 50 engineering roles, identifying how much those roles change moving to agile, substantial numbers of managers call out a dramatic shift that always surprises him.

“Mentoring and coaching developers has always been our job,” he notes. “Yet managers often say, ‘That one changes drastically!’ And I’m thinking, ‘How can that be true? Growing people is a fundamental part of our job.’ But they will respond, ‘Well, having been focused on delivery, I never had time to do it, and now I do.’”

When you get an agile process in place, managers effectively have more bandwidth to focus on people. Counseling, coaching, mentoring—whatever you call it, a manager is ideally working with people more than with any product or process.

Growing people has always been our job. It is a fundamental part of our job.

So, yes, an agile organization still needs management. In fact, agile teams may have the truest form of managers, because in agile organizations managers actually have the time to spend with the people themselves.

If you expect your management roles to stay consistent during the transition to Agile, that’s where you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re prepared for a transformative transition, then your organization can benefit from the enhanced, more fully realized, roles that managers can embody and the contributions that managers can uniquely deliver.

 

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