The above question was sent to me the other day from a former colleague and friend. He was preparing a presentation for heads of product management and product development, and not being an engineering manager himself he asked for input on the subject of “Essence of of being a successful Development Manager”
I usually refer to a development manager as an engineering manager, as developing software is much more than simply developing the software itself. When you develop/design software today, you need to take all kind of operational aspects into account (http://bit.ly/fW0OvT).
Anyway, so what’s required to be a successful engineering manager. Though question. And maybe not. One thing I’ve realized after working in software engineering for more than 20+ years (wow getting old), and have had a number of different managers, is that the single most important and an absolutely unquestionable qualification for any engineering manager is that they have a background in software engineering. That they actually have written code, tried to find a subtle bug in a multi-threaded application, that they’ve been through the process of reading thousands of lines of code to locate a memory leak (not using profilers). Have dealt with double-pointers (Macintosh handlers), cried at night because a data structure wouldn’t align at word-boundary – all that nitty-gritty stuff that makes us all sweat. I don’t purposely disqualify people that haven’t developed in any low-level programming languages like C and Assembler; however, I strongly believe that even if you’re of the automatic GC generation it still worth your while to understand and gain experience with fundamental aspects of the computer, like how memory operates.
Why is this so important, that an engineering manager actually knows how to write software? For same reasons that a lead of a bridge construction team is a bridge construction engineer, how else can he make critical decisions? Actually how can anyone be trusted to make decisions about any professional field, unless they got the t-shirt? How can any non-software engineer provide any assistance, help or guidance to the team unless he or she knows what it’s all about? I don’t know, and based on personal experience, they can’t!
There’s more to having software engineers running development teams than just being able to facilitate the process of developing the software. It’s also about understanding where in the process the team is, how far we are, and more important (sometimes) how much are we’re off course. Only people with engineering background can read another engineer, can understand where they are, and truly appreciate the work being done. And BTW engineers don’t really trust other professions, that’s just a fact. So lot’s of good reasons to why the single most important qualification of any engineering manager is that the manager in fact him- or herself is an engineer.
So a good engineering manager knows his stuff, knows how to write code, know how to design architecture, knows how to make a reasonable data model and knows how to execute. He can ask the right questions and provide the right technical answers and guidelines to his team, and he’s capable of writing code himself. Actually, any first level engineering manager should spend 25% of their time writing code. Way way better for the project than spending 25% of your time making MS Project plans, that doesn’t tell you anything anyway. Being in the code on a daily basis will tell you precisely where the project is and where it’s heading. If you’re too remote from the code you lose oversight! The project starts slipping, you’ll have delays and the team suffers, the company suffers, customers suffers and the engineering manager suffers – because he’s not a “real” engineering manager.
Able to say a resounding NO
This is actually very important qualification as well. We as engineers don’t like to say the “NO – it cannot be done”. Why is this? Personally I find it very hard to say NO. I feel that if I can’t do it, I somehow failed. It’s like a challenge, and engineers/nerds/geeks loves challenges, hence anything/everything is possible. And it probably is; however, not on a schedule.
So what most typically happens is that we say something like: “Well, it’s probably possible if we add additional resources and delay the deadline”. Nothing wrong with that, right? We don’t really say NO, and we take on the challenge. Wrong, it’s dead wrong. Reason being that the receiving party of your kind-of-NO isn’t an engineer, probably someone in the business, and here’s what they pick-up from your kind-of-NO statement: “Well, it’s ..noise.. possible ..more noise…”. See these people only pick up what the want to hear, everything else gets lost in the translation from engineering-lease to sales-lease.
If you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible within the given framework (resources and time) then, to my knowledge, there’s only one approach that works – and that is to spell it out loud and clearly by starting your answer with the NO, and whatever comes after shouldn’t in any form or shape take the power out of the NO. The receiving party will most likely eye-ball you for a while, and then start the actual negotiation on how to accomplish it. But I tell, you’ll never get to that part if you don’t start out saying NO.
Actually, NO is probably the single most important weapon you have as an engineering manager when there’s a risk of feature creep.
The third, IMHO, important qualification is the ability to understand what the business is asking for, what’re the requirements, being able to speak with marketing, sales and product management to gather the necessary input needed to be able to understand what’s expected to be developed. Take that knowledge and turn around and turn it into something engineers understand and can build product based on.
This one, actually ties nicely in with the first qualification, as it requires deep technical understanding to discuss functional requirement with the field, and at the same time being able to envision how the product or a feature eventually could end up being coded. Also, allow the engineering manager to get a sense for what’s possible and in what time frame, without always have to disturb the development team asking for help.
#programming #software #management