Engineering Managers are called upon to do much more than provide a strong technical capability. In an agile, tech-focused business Engineering Managers take on the role of leaders, communication specialists, change facilitators and transformation managers - to name just a few.
Klarna, Europe's biggest tech Unicorn with a $10 billion valuation, has a reputation for building great engineering teams and cultures.
We sat down with some of their Engineering Managers from varying different domains to discuss what makes an effective engineering manager.
Understand That You Don’t Work in a Vacuum
Georg Fritzsche, Engineering Manager at Klarna, looks after 5 Engineers across 2 teams with one product manager per team. For Georg, it’s important that engineering managers remember that, although there are some common traits, they never work in a vacuum.
“A lot of things depend on the kind of organisation and problem spaces around you. Some companies want them to be more hands-on. Some want you to focus more on project management and people management.”
Understanding that your role on any given day can change dramatically is a skill in and of itself. Being able to pivot quickly and adapt to new situations as they come up is, for Georg, one of the defining traits of a good Engineering Manager.
“There are times where I might be super hands-on when something new is being started. Then there are times where I’m focused on taking a step back and removing roadblocks for the team to do their best work. You need to balance the two and which approach is the best fit for the problem.”
Georg’s Advice For Those Who Want to Step Up
When you’re an Engineer, a single contributor to the larger collective, you’re the owner of your own little world. For many, who take the step up into the Engineering Manager role, this control is replaced with a different brand of responsibility: people.
For Georg, the importance of people management in Engineering is sorely underrepresented. If you’re looking to set yourself in good stead for an Engineering Manager role, start working on your people skills - communication, team management and more.
“I'd love to see more recognising the importance of people management. And yes, you need a technical background. But a good Engineering Manager can jump into different technical backgrounds and bring value without being an expert.”
The Future of the Engineering Manager Role
Although a gradual process, there is a growing disconnect between the Tech Lead and Engineering Manager. For Georg, It’s not always quite clear what people mean when they say, Engineering Manager.
“Do you want someone who's basically doing all the architecting and engineering plans for the team? Do they want someone that can step back and build an environment for people to make the right decisions?”
This blurring of the two roles leads to confusion over key skills. As a result, poor decisions can be made. Emphasising the people aspect of the Engineering Manager role is something that Georg believes will happen in the future to clearly distinguish between the two roles.
Listen to Understand, Not Respond.
Paulo Grácio is an Engineering Manager at online financial services giant Klarna. For him, being an effective Engineering Manager starts, very simply, with a keen ability to listen to those around them.
“It's more about soft skills than technical skills, as this capacity to deal with unpredictable situations to try to understand the different sides of the same story. And have that capacity to listen.”
As companies get bigger, and team sizes increase, siloing begins to happen naturally. This structure, although important to the scaling of products and companies, leaves a large gap for miscommunication. For that reason, Paulo places significant emphasis on an Engineering Manager’s ability to listen with the intent to understand.
“I still remember when I started this position, I was always eager to provide answers, you know, interrupting everyone - ‘I know the answer to this!’. I've learned, even if I think I have the answer, to wait and listen.”
A skill that needs to be consciously worked on over a long period of time, listening soon leads to empathy - which, in turn, helps you bridge the gap between individual contributing Engineer and Engineering Manager.
“As an individual contributor you’re assessed for giving the right answers all time, that’s how you contribute more. As an Engineering Manager, you’re focusing on setting the stage for everyone in the team to have a voice to express their opinions and to feel listened to.”
Paulo’s Advice For Those Who Want to Step Up
When confronted with a decision around our future, our immediate response is to look at the why. Why should I move position? What am I looking for from this position? Paulo’s advice for those who are considering an Engineering Manager focuses on exactly that.
“I would say that the most important thing is for them to try to understand why they want to move. Because there is still a lot of people that see this progression to engineering managers as a kind of promotion when it’s more like a career change. You stop doing what you're really good at the moment you decide to move. And then you go into an area where there are a lot of unknowns.”
Understanding that making the move away from being an individual contributor and towards management is, in fact, more like a career change than promotion is key to being effective in the role. Once understood, you’ll find it a lot easier to step back from your day-to-day and focus on enabling your team.
Communication is Key
Communication is important in most management positions, but when you’re dealing with large teams, multiple products and sensitive data, communication becomes even more important. Matias Javier De Marco, Engineering Manager at Klarna, places communication as one of his governing principles.
“Aside from being technical, you need to be a good communicator and listen appropriately. It's not only about being direct and being clear. It's also about understanding the concerns that your teams might have and becoming the middle layer between your teams and the needs of the company.”
Developing your communication skills isn’t easy, especially when you’re an Engineer who is often only talking to other Engineers about Engineering problems. For Matias, the key to developing your communication skills begins with a search for feedback from colleagues, stakeholders and sometimes even friends.
“You have to be proactive in making sure that you’re reflecting on how you’re communicating. And getting feedback is always a good way of doing that.”
Matias’ Advice For Those Who Want To Step Up
Echoing Paulo’s advice, Matias believes that those who want to make the step up need to understand what they’re accepting by becoming an Engineering Manager before they can be effective.
“It’s an entirely different role to that of an individual contributor. If you think things like performance reviews, salary discussions and budgeting are going to cause you a lot of pain and frustration, then it might not be the right time for you.”
Although it helps you understand what you will like and dislike in the role, this should be no means discourage you. Instead, it should outline the skills you should be open to working on.
“I love getting involved in technical discussions. That's why I do what I do but I also have other responsibilities, that requires skills that I didn't need before. It's important to understand that it won't be the same dynamic as of an individual contributor and learning soft skills is equally important as learning technical skills"
You’re the Engine For the Team
Kristofer Ohman is an Engineering Manager & Change Facilitator at Klarna. Working on the operational part of engineering like availability, reliability and stability of their products, Kristofer has oversight of 3 teams of 8 people. More than simply a team manager, Kristofer works on driving change across his domain - which has a direct correlation on the people management side of his role.
“If you look at the change it basically boils down to one thing and that is working with humans or individuals as they go through change. You can’t perform the change on a high level of the people are not bought into the change. So it's more about working with people trying to make sure that they understand whatever purpose the company has and how that correlates to me and what I do, and then draw up clear objectives so they feel that they contribute effectively.”
Coaching and mentoring, both people-centric constructs, are integral parts of the change journey. The role of Engineering Manager within that isn’t complicated, as Kristofer explains.
“You’re the engine for the team. You need to keep pace on things. I see it as my role is not to be the top engineer within the team, but rather the one enabling the team to find answers.”
Being the engine for the team means you’re committed to the running of the team ensuring you stick to dailies, retros and always have, as Kristofer explains, an ‘action bias’.
The action bias describes our tendency to favour action over inaction, often to our benefit. However, there are times when we feel compelled to act, even if there’s no evidence that it will lead to a better outcome than doing nothing would. Our tendency to respond with action as a default, automatic reaction, even without solid rationale to support it, has been termed the action bias. In Kristofer’s case, action bias refers to his team's sphere of influence on the focus on not shying away from the responsibility of making an impact.
For Kristofer, this responsibility should extend outside the realms of your engineering teams sphere of control and towards the sphere of influence within the company.
“One of the core things that I try and encourage in my teams is to look outside of our sphere of control and be equally action biased. I hold my team accountable for taking their projects and commitment as far as they can.”