How You Can Have Impact As An Engineering Manager
How Engineering Managers create impact and shape organisational culture
If you are a good leader,
Who talks little,
They will say.
When your work is done,
And your aim fulfilled,
“We did it ourselves”
Last year, I shared how Zalando enables and supports the continued growth of our Software Engineers. The piece was written from a leadership perspective. A natural sequel to that would describe how our leaders are empowered. Specifically, I would like to provide my own perspective on how Engineering Managers can create impact and shape organisational culture.
To provide some context, Engineering Managers use the distinction between the “Team You Lead” and the “Team You Are On”. For the former, an Engineering Manager, is responsible for a single delivery team of Software Engineers or Applied Scientists. This is the team that they are leading. The latter refers to the Engineering Manager’s own team (their peer group that forms a department, and is led by a Head of Engineering).
The Team You Lead
I use the team you lead as the starting point to describe Engineering Management, because this, in my opinion, is the bread and butter of the role. Forming and leading a high-performing delivery team is no small feat. The team of individuals must collectively progress through the four stages of forming (purpose and raison d’etre), storming (sharing feedback, ideation, and defining roles within the group), norming (establishing ways of working and responsibilities), and performing (peak delivery and problem-solving). Take a look at Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team (or read the Manga Edition for a more illustrated journey) to peek into the complex problems that leaders need to resolve in order to keep their team healthy.
Engineering Managers are accountable for driving the delivery of projects from start to finish - encompassing the entire lifecycle of what the team builds, how they structure step-changes to systems, how they can monitor and measure the performance of said systems for operational excellence, and all the other ingredients that go into delivering effective software.
The Team You Are On
Beyond the team that they lead, I mentioned that Engineering Managers have another team, and this is their peer group. No two organisations are identical, but typically, multiple teams are grouped to form a department, which is fulfilling a part of the larger group strategy. This for me, is where the magic happens for Engineering Management, and it is where I encourage my direct reports to make the biggest impact.
Andy Grove defined a Manager’s output as the output of her/his organisation, plus the output of neighbouring organisations under her/his influence. To put that in context, this is the output of the Team You Lead, plus the output of the teams of your peer group. For the sake of this post, I make the assumption that these teams are interacting, and I do this because “A system is never the sum of its parts; it’s the product of their interaction”.
Interaction is Culture
So, if the yield of a system is the product of how the parts interact, you might be wondering how Managers influence this.
Culture has entered the chat...
Culture is how work happens between people and between teams, which sounds simple, but culture is complex, and takes considerable time and effort to instil.
I recently read a great description of culture, which hypothesised that culture is composed of behaviour, processes, and practices. Let’s take a look at each, and hone in on the Manager’s role within.
A well known study of engineering team effectiveness from Google, named Project Aristotle, identified the common elements of their best teams, and at the top of that list, was Psychological Safety. Psychological Safety “...refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk”. If we strip this down to bare metal, it is referring to how comfortable, and encouraged, team members are to speak up, to give their opinions, and to support one another.
Engineering Management is not about dictating what our engineers do, nor is it about having all the answers to the hard questions. Similarly, engineers are not blindly following instructions, nor are they viewed as code labourers. Instead, Engineering Management is about creating an environment that sets clear expectations and goals, encourages voices and opinions, destigmatizes failure, encourages diverse thinking, and supports the individual growth of each team member.
To accomplish this, Engineering Managers are provided with the autonomy to support their teams and to enable success as they know best. They should be guided by Our Founding Mindset (OFM), but be led by their own experience and know-how.
Achieving this within the Team You Lead is one thing, but the key is achieving this across the wider scope of the teams within your influence. This requires customer-first thinking, working backwards from the organisational goals, and ensuring that all teams have enough information and support to achieve their target. In other words, putting purpose over ego, and doing what’s right for the organisation and the customer.
A successful organisation is driven by autonomous, and empowered teams. Peak inside each of these teams and you will find a diverse collective of talented, ambitious, and driven individuals. We are actively shaping the Zalando of the future by hiring great people with high potential. Our Engineering Managers are responsible for contributing to, and defining, the processes that will enable these teams of individuals to succeed.
Processes at Zalando are constantly evolving; responding to the ever-changing landscape in which we operate. In order to successfully equip an organisation with the necessary processes for momentum, decision making, and enablement, our Engineering Managers are required to collaborate with other leaders across multiple disciplines and job families, such as Principal Engineering, Product Management, Technical Program Management, and Design.
Perhaps they might be collaborating with Talent Acquisition Partners to refine the candidate experience during the hiring process or creating a Mentorship program. In other cases, they might be contributing to a cross-functional working group to define KPIs to measure progress relative to the Group Strategy. Perhaps they might be supporting the Cyber Week preparations. You get the idea. These are just four examples that my cohort of Managers have been working on recently, however, they all share the running theme of intrapreneurial spirit - embodying our “Act Like an Owner” founding mindset. Making things happen throughout the organisation that ultimately become a tail-wind for impact.
If the purpose of processes is to shape the environment such that group thinking and empowered decision making is supported, then practice is the more granular day to day activities that sit atop the processes. These practices help Engineers to get things done.
As before, if we take the team you lead as the base, the Engineering Manager is responsible for working with their team to define fruitful ways of working that embrace best practices and foster collaboration. This will take time, especially for a newer team, but through trial and error, you will find that sweet spot.
When we hone in on practices beyond the team, we see wider collaborations across disciplines to get things done collaboratively across the department.
Practices, in my opinion, are the catalyst for helping Engineering Managers to understand how to scale themselves, by delegating and supporting the individuals on their team to step up and take on more responsibility. If we take a look at Communities of Practice, Operational Review Meetings, or Guilds, we typically see Engineers taking more of a leading role in establishing these practices, but in order to do this, our Engineering Managers are playing more of a supporting role. We are identifying opportunities and matching those to individual goals and aspirations. We are setting those individuals up for success by coaching, providing feedback, utilising training and development budgets, and stepping back to let them drive.
As individuals are growing into these responsibilities, it is important to nurture experimentation, to celebrate successes and failures, and most importantly, to provide the context (the why) of how these practices are related to the bigger picture.
Engineering Managers are responsible for steering and enabling a high-performing team of engineers, but their scope of influence and impact extends far beyond the realms of the team. Managers help to shape the behaviours, the processes, and the practices of the organisation to yield, and foster, a culture of innovation, delivery, empowerment and drive. This culture is what enables organisations to succeed in our non-linear world.
The Harvard Business Review recently published a terrific article, stating that in order to retain your best employees, you need to invest in your best managers. This article resonates with my own view that the success of an Engineering Organisation is greatly supported by our Engineering Managers - the ones who are close enough to the metal to implement culture, yet elevated enough to encompass a broad scope of influence, and provided with enough autonomy to innovate for the organisation.
I would like to finish this article off with an extract from our Role Expectations for the Management track:
“Great managers come in all shapes and sizes. There is no ‘checklist’ for leadership … No leader can do everything - some will exceed in certain capabilities while others will exceed in a different combination - this is OK and intended”.
If you're interested to work with us, take a look at our open positions for Engineering Managers!