Engineering Manager Skills 101: Communication, Delegation, Strategy

· 4 min read
Engineering Manager Skills 101: Communication, Delegation, Strategy

Making the leap from engineer to manager is overwhelming. Believe me, I’ve been there! One day, you’re an expert capable of solving the most complex problems, and the next day, you’re losing sleep over how to lead a team of engineers just like you. Feels like a fish out of water.

My Early Micromanagement Days

After years of building up my coding skills as a software engineer, I felt totally unprepared to lead a team. My mind was racing to find familiar ground.

The first months were a true trial by fire. I didn’t know much about delegating work effectively. Instead of trusting my team, I found myself micromanaging their every move. I constantly looked over their shoulder, second-guessing their technical decisions.

Whenever we hit a roadblock, my instinct was to roll up my sleeves, dive in, and fix the problem myself. I missed that adrenaline rush of exterminating tricky bugs through intense debugging and coding sessions. Managing other engineers’ work felt clumsy and frustrating.

At first one-on-one meetings, I rambled on awkwardly about random news instead of actually asking about other people’s needs and struggles. I was so focused on relaying information top-down that I didn’t stop to understand their roadblocks.

After several painful sprints and many mornings of waking up in cold sweat, I was completely burnt out. I realized I couldn’t scale or be an effective manager by acting as a technical expert anymore. My “hero” complex was actually hurting the process. I had to step back, learn how to promote the growth of others and focus more on high-level goals and strategy. Eventually, I found my way of supporting the team while also they execute the projects.

The shift to management is humbling at first but incredibly rewarding once you grow into the new role. Technical expertise alone isn’t enough to be a good manager. You must develop a whole new skillset and balance coaching, communication and strategic thinking.

Leadership and Team Management

Don’t suffocate your engineers by micromanaging every detail. Give them breathing room to take charge of their own work. Trust that your team has the skills to tackle challenges themselves. Don’t forget to assign stretch projects that will help them grow.

Sit down as a team to define your objectives and key results together. This gives everyone ownership over the shared vision. Make sure project plans align with the core mission and purpose that gets your squad fired up.

Show your engineers lots of appreciation for their great work. The boss’s praise and gratitude can turn someone’s day around without you even knowing. Get to know what makes each person tick. When you connect work to their unique passions and interests, it brings out their best!

Look for training, conferences, or new projects related to what people want to learn. Mentor them yourself on skills they want to pick up.

At the end of the day, your job is to be the guide, not the drill sergeant. Remove roadblocks and share your expertise, but let your engineers drive their own work. If you make it all about helping the team thrive, success is sure to follow.

Project and Time Management

Being a good leader is an integral part of the job, but you still need to make sure the job gets done and projects are delivered on time. Juggling competing priorities is the daily life of an engineering manager, so brace yourself to learn to organize work efficiently and meet deadlines.

Break large initiatives into clear phases and milestones, identifying dependencies and critical paths. Build in contingencies and set realistic timelines — don’t commit to impossible schedules. Be honest about the effort needed for each task and pad estimates to account for the unknown.

Prioritize ruthlessly, focusing your team’s time on the 20% of work that drives 80% of outcomes. Say no to lesser priorities and distractions.

Monitor progress frequently, then re-plan as needed — don’t cling to original timelines. Stay focused on critical goals while priorities shift and insulate your team from arbitrary new work. Use PM tools to maintain one source of truth for plans, current state of work, and docs. Keep projects organized digitally.

Identify recurring inefficiencies and automate workflows where possible. Balance short-term execution of urgent tasks efficiently while still thinking strategically about the long-term roadmap.

Always try to maximize team productivity within the constraints you’re given. This is tough given the natural desire of engineers to solve all the problems the right way. Unfortunately, rigorous project management is about a different thing — delivering working solutions on time, not perfect ones whenever ready.

Communication and Conflict Resolution

Leading a team is more than just being the top tech expert. You have to become a communication pro, too. Based on my experience, listening is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to us engineers — I’m still fighting with my own inclination to talk more than listen. Fight that urge to zone out and tune in to each person and what makes them tick. Ask questions, dig deeper into the challenges you hear, and make your engineers feel genuinely heard.

Give instructions clearly so there’s no ambiguity on priorities or expectations. Follow up in writing to double-check everyone’s on the same page. Explain the “why” behind decisions — context is what moves people. Don’t just bark orders without reason. And be ready to adapt your style to different personalities. Lean on analogies to get complex ideas across.

Be straight with people when things go wrong. They’ll respect the transparency, and respect builds trust. Make group decisions democratically. Get your quieter engineers talking by asking for their take. Surface the best ideas through proper team discussion. Address conflicts head-on before they become a real problem, but don’t play the blame game. The goal is to find solutions.

At the end of the day, communication is about understanding and connecting authentically. Make your team feel like you care. Encourage debate until it gets personal. With empathy and patience, you can handle any situation. It just takes some practice to build up the skill.

Stick With The Process

Making the jump from engineer to manager is no cakewalk. The early days will be straight-up awkward.

You’ll catch yourself longing for the glory days of writing code for a prolonged time when no one bothers you while delegating, mentoring, reviewing, planning, following up, etc. It’s 100% normal to feel out of your depth.

But if managing people is what you really want to do, I’d suggest sticking with the process. With time, you’ll find your way of dealing with people problems. You’ll slowly pick up the art of delegating, communicating clearly, and nurturing talent. Before you know it, you’ll feel the thrill of taking on bigger projects and getting done things you could never do alone.

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