Feb 09, 2018

What’s unique about engineering leadership coaching?

As I meet with companies and clients, a question I get asked a lot is, “How is engineering management different from regular management?”

At first, my response was something along the lines of, “it’s not, but people find value in having a coach who has a shared background and common language.” The benefit of sharing vocabulary and situational knowledge is definitely useful — I understand the common dynamics of code reviews without needing an explanation of how code reviews work. I understand the cross-functional team dynamics of PMs, designers, and engineers — as well as intricacies of stand-ups, agile methodology, waterfall processes, etc. I can recognize symptoms of common breaking points of a product team as it grows to 5, 10, 50 people. My background as an engineering leader can lend itself to knocking out some low-hanging fruit that can help with some short-term tactical wins.

Those details of the domain, though, are relatively superficial — and I started to think more critically about what it is that makes engineering leadership different. There are certainly a lot of common threads to any sort of leadership training. People are people are people, and leading people is probably roughly the same across most industries — which is why there are so many business management books.

But I would strongly suggest that there is something particularly unique to this field I’ve decided to dive deep into, more than just a shared language around style guides and text editors. Here are some elements and context that combine to make engineering leadership coaching a distinctive area.


A culture that doesn’t value or reward the human side of things

Success in engineering culture is often determined by how technically “hardcore” your pursuits are. Infrastructure engineering is usually considered more hardcore than front-end development, as is tackling hard technical challenges over design or PM work. Many college CS majors view Human-Computer Interaction courses as easy fillers, not “real work” like their Compilers courses. And so, the field attracts plenty of people who are not “good with people,” and they can make it pretty far in their careers without learning how to be.

Those people later become managers. But management is largely around people and process, neither of which are considered technically hardcore. What made them successful as individual-contributing engineers are exactly what will make them at best benign managers — not great leaders who people want to follow. Much of engineering leadership coaching is around rewiring these mindsets.

Funding Climate

Founders are getting increasingly large piles of cash to build companies — many of them are first-time founders matching Zuckerberg’s profile. Their enthusiasm and product-driven mindsets are quintessential to Silicon Valley (both the show and real life). They’re doubling their companies every 3 months to start, and every 6 months after that. They hire their friends, who refer their friends, and then you have 30 people under the age of 30 (a different kind of 30 under 30).

The companies are usually entirely focused on product — shipping product, experimenting on product, finding product-market fit, product growth. Sometimes, the founders have never managed people, so the people becoming “managers” under them are modeling that behavior, and you end up with a rapidly growing management challenge. Coaching people to become great people managers when they don’t have many examples to look up to is challenging.


Speed of Growth

Companies are growing extremely quickly, which means either management is hired in, or existing employees need to develop leadership skills quickly to grow their own role alongside the company’s growth. A new engineering manager might start with two direct report, and in six months, have 10 direct reports. In a year, they may be managing multiple teams. At a company moving that quickly, it can feel like there’s no time to “invest in management.” Coaching engineering leaders in that type of environment is unique, because you get engineering managers who are responsible for the engineering output of large teams, and are also responsible for tens or even hundreds of people, but have very little non-technical training.


Innovation and Self-Learning

Engineers are learning new technologies, frameworks, and keyboard shortcuts all the time. They learn from stack overflow, private slack teams, documentation — so they may feel like they’ll just figure it out. Plenty of engineering managers start to manage direct reports with minimal or no manager training, or a very basic one that covers some legal requirements — and don’t think to ask for or seek out external coaching or training when moving into a management role.


Fluctuations in Performance

Imagine that there is an accurate metric for engineer productivity, and that a fairly bright engineer with a slightly-dysfunctional-but-not-too-bad work environment, mediocre manager, and ok-efficiency team does 10 units of work per week. It’s not a stretch to say that the same engineer — if highly motivated and well-aligned, and working on a cohesive team that gels — could consistently produce 60 units of work per week. If they feel disempowered or misaligned, or your team is not working well together, that could easily trickle to 1 unit of work, if any. Imagine the amplifying effects of good management on a team of 8 engineers.

These elements all combine to make coaching for engineering leaders one of the highest leverage ways to build a high-output engineering team, and positively affect a company’s bottom line.


Jean Hsu, Executive Coach

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

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