GitPrime elevates engineering leadership with objective data. In this interview series, Engineering Leaders talk about how to build high performing teams.
Engineering teams are a creature apart from other teams in an organization. It’s no surprise, then, that managing them requires a different approach than other kinds of teams.
But successfully managing engineers doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, says Peter Bell, Senior Director at the Flatiron School / WeWork and Founder of CTO Connection (the organization that hosts the CTO Summits).
“Many of the things that we see as engineering management best practices — daily standups, retrospectives, one-on-ones, and things like those — were borrowed from other places in the organization,” Bell says.
Rather, the best practices that we’re building in engineering management transfer very well to engineers from other knowledge workers. By acknowledging that engineering teams are in fact groups of creative professionals — and that creative professionals work differently than other employees who have systematic, repetitive processes (like Sales) — you can develop your new and existing teams with them in mind.
Bell has been building and managing engineering teams for nearly two decades, and he recognizes the importance of creating and holding a productive space for creative professionals. Engineers are problems solvers, first and foremost, and not just coding machines.
“For the vast majority of knowledge workers, you want to focus on supporting autonomy, mastery, and purpose,” he says.
Here, Bell offers his insights into how to develop an engineering team with the engineers—the creative individuals who make the team possible—and their needs at the fore.
What makes managing engineering teams unique?
Not all teams are created equal, which means that they require different managerial approaches. Engineering teams aren’t just different than other teams because they are made up of engineers; their differences come from the distinct needs of creative professionals.
Bell once worked as a photocopier salesman. “My job consisted of getting past security so I could knock on doors in large office buildings to cold-call people about things they had no interest in discussing,” he says. “When you’re managing a team of people to solve for that kind of problem, it feels more like a military endeavor. You’re lining people up to be shot, fall over, and stand up again. It’s a very different type of management because you’re trying to get people to be effective and to keep going, but not necessarily to be wildly creative or thoughtful about their approaches.”
Engineers need time to become experts — to master their work. They need purpose.”
The mindset in engineering management is worlds apart from the traditional sales mindset. It’s even different than the IT or project mindset that exists in the tech world, where the main target is closing tickets. The primary goal of engineers isn’t to finish projects or match quotas—rather, it’s to think creatively about the problems that they need to solve and to add business value.
“I mean, we also happen to type a few lines of code, but that’s not the hard or interesting part of the job,” Bell says. “Engineers need the time to master their work and go beyond shipping just to build another feature next week. They need purpose.”
The important thing for engineers, Bell notes, is that they need a space where they can feel autonomous, in control, and that they have the time needed to solve problems creatively.
Three ways toward an ideal environment for creative professionals
Bell identifies three primary ways to hold that style of space for your engineering teams:
Connect them with the company’s vision.
“Engineers need some sense of connection to the mission, and to the customers or clients, of the organization,” Bell says.
You can foster this connection in all kinds of ways. However your company puts engineers in touch with customers and their feedback—directly or by proxy—you can focus your team’s work not on delivering products, but on filling customer needs. This goes back to the creative mindset: your engineers will feel more purpose in the company if they’re completing the work to help out other human beings.
Invest in their career.
“Whenever somebody joins my team, my job is to get them the best possible career they can have, whether or not it’s with us,” Bell says. “That fact allows us to have early and honest conversations when the job isn’t meeting their needs and (hopefully) how we can fix that.”
Think of it this way: even if your engineers are the greatest engineers in the world, they won’t give you the greatest work in the world if the job isn’t a good fit for them. So Bell makes certain to create a good fit for his team. They can either fix the job to suit the engineers, or find the engineers another role within the organization. And if neither of those things works, Bell ensures a seamless transition out of the company to help them find a new home where they’re going to be happy—and thereby creating room for another engineer to come on board.
Clear distractions for the team.
“I hire great people and try to get stuff out of their way,” Bell says. “That’s pretty much what my job is about. Minimize the unnecessary burdens, give engineers more time to actually write code, give them the support and training necessary for best practices and approaches that will allow them to be confident and comfortable in the code they write. Then I make sure that we invest in everything from the computers and monitors, to the CI systems, to the test frameworks — the tools they need to get the job done. We support them in being able to focus on their job and not on distractions.”
How do you minimize distractions for tech teams?
That third item—minimizing and removing distractions—is the most actionable on a daily basis for an engineering manager. If engineers, as creative professionals, require space and time and autonomy to create, then it’s imperative that you guard their time so that they don’t have to.
“The biggest distraction is usually meetings,” Bell says. “Unless you’re in a five-person company where you’re all locked in a room together, meetings can have substantial coordination costs.”
Meetings happen because that’s how so many managers (and other leaders) have to think about their time. You have an hour free? Great. Let’s schedule a meeting.
Makers, however, experience meetings differently, as Paul Graham describes in his post “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” For a creative professional, a one-hour meeting can shoot productivity for half a day.
Of course, meetings are also one way that engineers can stay connected to the company’s mission and vision. “You need to balance buffering the engineers from unnecessary meetings, while at the same time giving them the agency and access to the business stakeholders so they know the problem they’re solving,” Bell says. “If you create too impenetrable a wall between the engineers and the rest of the business, they end up building according to the written requirements, not building the software that’s actually needed.”
Managers get to figure out how to strike that balance between not creating silos and getting sufficient focus time. For Bell, that means preserving large blocks of focus time by scheduling the meetings intelligently. For instance, three one-hour meetings kill productivity for a half-day the same as one meeting, so why not stack a week’s meetings together in one morning?
Meetings are the biggest distraction, but they are just one example. Anything your engineers have to focus on that isn’t related to solving problems is another distraction that you, as a manager, can work to minimize. Sometimes, that means choosing between trade-offs. Do you allow each team to choose their own log-in framework, improving their comfort over org-wide efficiency? Or do you require them all to use the same one, flipping that priority?
In general, here’s Bell’s advice when it comes to making those choices for your teams: “Accept the fact that micro-optimizations are not as valuable as keeping your team focused on the business problems that they’re solving.”
Support your team by managing up
To truly deliver on the three facets of enabling a creative space for your engineers, sometimes you don’t have to manage your engineers—instead, you have to manage up. Plenty of engineering managers have bosses or executives who come from other realms, and the sad truth is that some of them aren’t interested in how creative professionals function at their peak.
But even when those higher-ups are sympathetic to the engineering mindset, their own goals aren’t about solving problems—they are about the bottom line. So you get to manage those expectations in a way that ultimately benefits your team.
Particularly in the early days, when either the team is new or the boss is new, Bell recommends tailoring your work to the higher-ups. “Deliver highly valued things that are easier to build,” he says. “Solve the business problems that are not as challenging in order to build credibility.”
Bell acknowledges that this can be a thin line to walk for an engineering team. But, the process is about persuading your bosses that your team can deliver. You’re investing in your team’s long-term success by building a foundation of trust and rapport in Engineering.
And while you’re solving the technically straightforward problems that your bosses want solved, you can build-in time for the team to pay down technical debt, implement training, and help your team to get more productive. Empower them to control their daily work environment so they can feel more connected both to the work product and to the mission of the organization.
In other words, it’s your job as a manager to manage the expectations and satisfaction of leadership, without sacrificing your team’s creative space. In fact, the former can help support the latter.
Then, when your team puts wins on the board (both these initial small ones and later bigger ones), you can showcase them for stakeholders. How you bubble up those wins depends on the size and scale of your organization.
But showcasing and communicating those achievements is an essential part of building trust in your team’s ability to produce meaningful work. The more your organization’s leadership can rely on you and your team to deliver, the more autonomy you gain as a manager to establish the environment your creative team needs in order to thrive.