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Engineering Management as a Coaching Responsibility

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What is the purpose of being an engineering manager? After studying it for a while, I realize that there is a strong reason to believe that it is very much similar to the responsibility of a teacher to their students, a coach to their athletes, and a mentor to their mentees.

A typical distraction for a new manager, someone who steps into the engineering management position for the first time, is focusing too much on perfecting their 1:1, worrying about the performance review, and trying very hard to keep everyone happy. These are of course not wrong at all. However, it is important to keep the perspective so that such a manager is not “losing the forest for the tree”.

As with any given role, it is paramount to fully understand the success metric when playing the engineering manager role. For instance, many of us are parents to our children and a partner to our spouse. Buying new toys for the children and giving many gifts to the spouse do not always guarantee the success of doing each respective role. For the context of this discussion, it is safe to say the main objective in that role is to ensure that the children and the spouse are happy. We are doing many activities, from playing board games to baking pizza together, not for the sake doing it only. It is just one of the vary means to reach the objective.

In his classic masterpiece High Output Management, Andy Grove, described how he thinks the success of a manager needs to be measured:

the output of a manager is the output of the organization units under his or her supervision or influence

This is very important (it was a common theme throughout the book) yet it is often overlooked by a new engineering manager. Every little activity of the said manager, from conducting a discussion to orchestrating the budget, has to result in an improved overall outcome of their organization.

Jack Welch once said that:

When you were made a leader you weren’t given a crown, you were given the responsibility to bring out the best in others.

In another classic which also serves as an excellent reference for many management practices, First Break All the Rules, it is very clearly emphasized that:

the manager role is to reach inside each employee and release his unique talents into performance.

Unleashing the awesomeness of each engineer, in their unique way, should be something that an engineering manager keeps in mind, day in and day out. While this applies generally to all forms of management, it is harder to do this in the context of engineering management, due to its unique set of challenges. As Camille Fournier mentioned in her book, The Manager’s Path:

We are managing groups of technical people, and most of us come into the role from a position of hands-on expertise.

Of course it does not mean that every engineering manager has to continue to code. However, it is hardly a surprise that being too far detached from the domain space of the technical problems the engineers are facing every day is surely a recipe to lose the respect, appreciation, and trust of those engineers.

Guiding engineers to understand what their strengths are, and teaching them to maximize them, is a form of very useful coaching. It is far from being trivial, it takes a lot of effort but such an investment will pay off pretty handsomely in the near future. Sometimes the outcome does not appear quickly, but just like a professional athlete getting a lot of advices from their coach and work through the drills every single day, eventually the peak performance is within their reach.

In fact, without realizing it, an excellent (but possibly implicit) form of coaching might happen to you when you were still at school. If you know someone who is passionate about teaching (I speak from my personal experience, both my parents have a life-long dedication being a teacher), you might eventually discover that the thing that makes every teacher happy is not related to any form of financial incentive (after all, nobody becomes a teacher just to get rich). A teacher is always sad if their students are not successful (whether at that particular moment or later in life). On the other hand, a teacher is always extremely proud when each and every student of them becomes successful in their personal and professional ilfe.

If you are an engineering manager, or thinking of becoming one, try to remember the teachers whom you respected the most back then. Perhaps, there is a lesson (or two) you can still get from them.

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