First and foremost, Engineering managers at tech companies need to have T-shaped skills. What’s a T-shaped skills, I hear you ask. According to Wikipedia, it’s described as:
The concept of T-shaped skills, or T-shaped persons is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of persons in the workforce. The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.
Therefore, in the case of an engineering manager, the vertical bar on the letter T is the technical and software development skills that the person possesses, either through formal qualification like a graduate degree in Computer Science, Information Systems and the likes, or through experiences like working as a software engineer or web developer, or both.
While the concept of T-shaped skills is new, it is now more important than ever as technology is the centre of our lives and software is used in many industries across the globe. As technology products becomes more sophisticated and complex, engineering managers with T-shaped skills are a razor that can cut through all the complexity and manage software development teams effectively at tech companies.
Today, I will focus on the more nuanced part of the T-shaped skills which is the horizontal bar of the T. Without any further ado, here are 10 important skills and attributes engineering managers at tech companies need.
- Project Management
I am using the term Analytics very loosely and broadly here as it includes all kinds of metrics and measurements. Firstly, it’s important for an engineering manager to have a very good understanding of the team’s performance and throughput, which are usually measured through defeat rate and velocity. Secondly, business metrics such as customer acquisition, engagement on features, conversion and so on are important for an engineering manager at a tech company to be familiar with so that they can make trade-off decisions when allocating team members against work.
By Finance, I mean anything to do with accounting and budgeting and knowing where your money goes. This skill goes hand in hand with Analytics skill as often you will need to know your metrics to be able to make an informed decision on finance-related matters. As you get more and more senior in your engineering management career, you might be given a budget to work with for your engineering department. When that happens, you need to start thinking about spends such as recruitment, tools, training and education for employees.
Whether you call it presentation or public speaking, the gist of this skill lies being able to convey information effectively to an audience and getting them to produce an outcome that you need from them; whether it’s about getting a buy-in from stakeholders on a project, inspiring developers to take on a new initiative, or educating product, design and marketing counterparts on technical details, having a solid presentation skill will help you do your job make more impact in your role as an engineering manager.
Being able to communicate effectively is one of the essential skills for engineering managers. In this day and age where many of your team members are likely distributed and remote work is the norm, async written communication is a recommended medium. Whether it’s emails, memos, blog posts or documentation, it’s necessary to keep your content crisp, clear and engaging.
How to learn this skill?
Writing is one of those skills that you get better with deliberate and consistent practice. I can say this with certainty because English isn’t my first language and I didn’t even start speaking English or writing more than 10 English words every day until I was 15. My usual advice for engineering managers to hone their writing skill is by starting a blog. You can read more about my blogging journey here. But if you are not comfortable to start a blog straight away yet, start by committing to write 100 words a day for a month about your day. You don’t need to share this with anyone if you don’t want to. And then challenge yourself to write 300 words a day the next month, 500 words the month after, until you get comfortable enough to start your own blog or start writing on Medium.
One of the reasons why technical people often make bad leaders is they think logically, sometimes too logically. You can’t expect people to be always logical, reasonable, and to act according to your predefined assumptions. You can’t create an if-then-else statements around real-life problems and execute them repeatedly, expecting the same answer or reaction every time. So having the ability to hack into people’s minds become a useful skill to have as you will be able to more attune to unique needs of your people, understand what makes them tick and enable them do great work.
6. Project Management
I put this skill as project management and this includes both scrum master and agile coaching skill as well as traditional project management skill. A lot of engineering managers in their early management career are quite accustomed to agile way of working, able to plan sprints, perform agile rituals, release iteratively, and so on, but they have room for improvements when it comes to managing complex cross-team projects with risks and multiple stakeholders.
How to learn this skill?
In my opinion, the best way to learn project management is through application. I have a PRINCE2 project management certificate but I learned so much more on the job than from theories. If you don’t have a complex project to manage yet, you can help out with pro-bono projects.
A picture is worth a thousands words. As engineering managers start dealing and working with people from disciplines other than engineering, they realize other people across the business are very different to themselves. In these situations, technical skills and abilities become less important.
What becomes more important is to be able to explain technical details in a way that everyone, especially a nontechnical audience, understands and to come out of meetings with a shared understanding across all disciplines.
And one of the most efficient ways to achieve that is visually.