The Key to Your Purpose as an Engineering Manager: Andy Grove’s Formula

· 5 min read
The Key to Your Purpose as an Engineering Manager: Andy Grove’s Formula

When I just started in the role of an engineering manager, I was struggling to transition from coding myself to supporting my team. It felt impossible to know for sure whether I was having any impact as a manager, which was frustrating — as an engineer, I never had a problem with that. Meetings, email, admin tasks in Pivotal Tracker we used back then, and Slack took up most of my days while my team peacefully worked on projects. I worried I wasn’t adding value.

This problem went away by itself after a while — I guess I just outlived the impostor syndrome. But some time ago, I was reading Andy Grove’s “High Output Management” and saw his simple but powerful equation for measuring a manager’s output:

Manager’s output = The output of your team + The output of others you influence

This formula clicked with me. This was exactly what I needed when I was starting out. To be an effective manager and provide value, you must focus less on individual tasks and spend more time delegating work, coaching people, and nudging other leaders to improve collective output. Because your individual output doesn’t matter anymore.

Your success will be invisible because it’s your team’s success now, but you’re the one who will be blamed for your team’s failures.

When switching from individual contributor roles, it’s quite common to keep focus on things you do. After shifting your focus, you’ll see tangible improvements in your team’s morale, productivity, and work quality. Your own days will feel less frantic as you’ll have a clear purpose and won’t need to question yourself anymore.

Focus on your team’s output first

If you look at my calendar during the first year of managing people, you will see back-to-back meetings stacked on top of individual project tasks. No wonder I felt anxious and ineffective.

I remember one specific meeting when Tim, an engineer on my team, gently pushed back on a timeline I’d proposed. “We have a lot on our plates right now,” he said. “Adding this project by next Friday seems unrealistic. Besides, the tech debt is so big we can barely add any new functionality.”

I was surprised, thinking about how quickly I could do the task myself. But Tim was right — the team was overloaded while I jumped from one task to the next. Working as a team is a totally different story from working on your own, pretty much like a program is very different from a product, as Frederick Brooks Jr. highlighted in “Mythical Man Month”.

That meeting was a wakeup call. If I wanted my team to produce great work, I needed to step back and support them, which in turn meant spending less time in the weeds and more time unlocking my team’s potential.

Start actively delegating tasks so that people on the team can strengthen their skills, and you can free up your time for coaching and support. It will be hard to give up control at first. But the more you do it, the better the results will be.

Also, make your 1:1s a sacred space for team members to share feedback and ideas. In those meetings, you’ll learn so much about your team’s unique strengths and what impedes your work. Together, you can clear those roadblocks.

Over time, you’ll see increased ownership and velocity from your team. Bugs will go down as morale will go up. By focusing on amplifying your team versus your individual output, you’ll help them gain skills, autonomy, and passion for their work. Your calendar will finally reflect your new role.

Influence people beyond your team

Per Grove’s equation, you need to look beyond your immediate team. A good example would be an intern I worked with as a contractor years ago, Jamie.

I once noticed that Jamie was chatting with coworkers from another team on one of the Slack channels, even though it was only a week since he joined the team. “Jamie seems to know everyone already,” I said to my manager, Zack, with whom we chatted frequently.

“Well, yeah,” he said. “Jamie is quite proactive. He introduced himself and asked everyone about what they were working on.”

I was struck by Jamie’s example. He modeled the power of networking and showing interest in others’ work — things I aimed to do more of. I was an introvert and envied people who were creating connections quickly.

Think about the key partners, like the Design team that your engineering team depends on but doesn’t interact with enough. Reach out to their manager about doing a working session together.

At first, it will feel awkward to insert yourself into other domains. But remember Grove’s equation and how influencing and helping people beyond your team multiplies your results.

The Design manager will appreciate you initiating communication, and you two brainstorming together might spark new processes that will boost both teams’ performance. You can then expand connections across other departments, too.

Also, make sure to publicly recognize cross-team collaboration. In meetings, call out great examples of people working together to encourage others to follow the example. People flourish when their efforts are highlighted.

Through strategic networking, giving feedback and praise, and modeling desired behaviors, you can positively impact much more than your own team.

Align time spent to the equation

A useful exercise is to track how you spend every hour for a week — I do this from time to time to this day to make sure I maintain the balance. When I first did it, though, I was horrified.

Hours lost to low-value tasks like reports and unnecessary meetings. Very little time was spent on high-leverage activities like 1:1s with my team. I started guarding my calendar ruthlessly. Now, when someone reaches out for a non-urgent ad-hoc call, I politely decline and propose to discuss async or during our scheduled call.

Saying no will feel uncomfortable at first. But soon, your days will be filled with meaningful conversations with people about their goals and roadblocks. You’ll finally carve out time for check-ins with your peer managers, too.

By rigorously applying Grove’s formula to how you spend every hour, you can become a radically more effective manager. I wish I had started doing these time audits years ago.

The North Star for Engineering Managers

Andy Grove’s simple but profound output formula clarifies the core responsibility of an engineering manager — enabling your team’s success and helping others to improve results.

Keeping this formula in mind will help you let go of low-value tactical work and become laser-focused on the highest-leverage activities for empowering people — things like coaching, delegating, collaborating, and providing feedback.

If you’re a new manager overwhelmed by the transition from individual work, lean on Grove’s formula and let it guide how you shape your days, meetings, and priorities. It will make you not just a better manager but a better leader.

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