3 common challenges in engineering management

Will Larson

Three key topics have emerged around career development, finding the purpose amid chaos, and how to collaborate as a team versus a band of individuals.

Are you an engineer who manages — or an engineering manager?

Management isn’t the holy grail of career development for every engineer, and it’s not necessary in order to have career progression. But the awkward reality is that at some companies, advancement does require becoming a manager. There are plenty of engineers out there who find themselves forced into a management profession—some of them who very much do not want to do it. 

Management is a different type of job. Finding something intrinsically valuable about it for yourself can really help. One of the hardest barriers to overcome when making the transition is finding the ability to stop being an engineer and actually start managing. 

A lot of people try to keep being an engineer and do management on the side. As an authority figure, they might take more control over things, but they don’t stop actually engaging technically. The key is striking the right balance between enabling people on your team to be successful and filling yourself up with work that energizes you.

Think about how you can be a leader while also doing the things you need to maintain personal and professional satisfaction. If programming or being technical is critical to you, then carve out four hours every week to engage in that kind of work. 

It’s going to break, and it’s always going to be inconvenient

One of the things that can be most challenging as a manager is working in an environment where systems are always breaking at the most inconvenient times. There's never a convenient time for a system to break. Yet there’s no faster way to learn than when everything is breaking every six months for the right reasons—and then getting fixed. We’ve all worked at companies where things never get fixed. How disappointing is that? One of the advantages of fast-growing companies is that things do get fixed—it’s just not always going to be easy work to fix them.

Regardless of the type of company or team you’re working with, always remember that you’re not doing waste work. It might be work that happens on a schedule you didn’t choose or when you want to do it, but you’re not doing low-value work. 

Build a team, not a collection of individuals

We're all busy, but carving time out to connect as a team is full of opportunity—whether it’s that quarterly offsite or regularly grabbing a meal together.

Taking on a broader team philosophy that goes beyond the core group also works well. For example, when the infrastructure leadership team meets, invite your recruiting and HR partners. It not only feels better to connect with your colleagues, it enables better work when cross-functional relationships are stronger to work through problems together. 

Shared ownership can be another opportunity for improving core team dynamics. While two engineers co-managing a project can be uncomfortable, joint ownership of projects can help encourage collaboration and bonding. 

What’s more, shared ownership can help promote knowledge sharing across the team. This can alleviate knowledge-loss attributed to high attrition and also ensure that consistency is applied across all team practices. Without this kind of collaboration, you’re functioning more as a collection of individuals, rather than a team.

Lastly, allow people to dedicate time. By carving out time, it empowers people to commit to the work while giving implicit and explicit prioritization as well as a greater sense of ownership.

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