Time Tested Engineering Leadership Principles

I put together the first three of these four leadership principles during my first VP of Engineering gig, twenty years ago. Thirteen companies later, and having shared it with hundreds of engineers, I feel it is time to share the secret J

These leadership principles have been honed (a) for Engineers and (b) in the context of startups, typically with fewer than 150 employees. No claim is being made outside of these parameters.

1.   I commit to give you more responsibilities than you can handle … and help you succeed

The vast majority of Engineers are highly motivated (see my previous blog on “(Boosting) Morale in Engineering). They are motivated by their career, naturally, yet they are primarily driven by a need to accomplish and an intense desire to learn.

Another way of articulating this commitment is: “I am going to challenge you, and let you work as hard as you want, and exercise as many of your skills as possible”. Engineers hate being bored. On the contrary, they work extra hard when challenged. So my job is to continuously provide new challenges to each engineer in my team, and remove any impediments to their desire to fulfill these challenges.

2.   I commit to give you clarity, both strategic & tactical

I work hard to ensure that everyone knows where we, as a company and as an Engineering team, are going, what our objectives are (strategic), and how we plan to get there (tactical).

In practice, I make sure, during our periodic 1on1 that each engineer understands how his/her own project and role align with the company mission, and Engineering’s product roadmap.

Included in this commitment is a promise to each member of the Engineering team that on any given day, his/her #1 priority is clear. As logical consequence, this implies that each engineer only has one #1 priority (I have seen a lot of companies where this logic is violated). Their manager, or I as last resort, will handle situations where, for example, 3 VPs are breathing down an engineer’s neck, each with their own “top priority”.

Having everyone in the team understand and share the same strategic context empowers developers to make correct micro-decisions every day. As a side benefit, this frees me and their managers to work on bigger problem.

 

Taking a step back, if I’ve communicated correctly my commitments 1 and 2, then everyone in the team is working at the maximum of their ability – and – all are working in the same direction. This is a good foundation for solid productivity.

Having made two commitments to everyone in the team, I ask for two in return.

3.   In return, I demand teamwork & 3-D communications

I put teamwork and communications in the same sentence because one is meaningless without the other. Teamwork can’t exist without meaningful communications, and if we communicate but don’t work together, we don’t go very far.

No interview question will ever suss out whether a candidate is a team player or not. Instead, I explicitly declare that they should not join my team if they are not a team player.

Team work is important because product development is a team effort. Every engineer interacts with product managers, UX designers, front-end engineers, middle-tier, backend, data, QA, tech support, etc. Poor interactions with other team members results in poor individual efficiency.

Teamwork means that “together, we succeed”. Teamwork is not merely about helping out a teammate who needs help. More importantly, being a team player means asking for help when we need it, so as not to delay the whole team.

3-D communications simply expands the definition of “team” beyond one’s daily scrum. We are all inter-dependent, and we each must ensure that information gets to the people who need it, no matter where their name sits in the org chart. Making sure information is received in a timely fashion, rather than waiting for questions to be asked, is incumbent upon each of us.

In particular, this means that everyone on my team has the responsibility to inform me if I am not meeting commitments #1 and #2 stated above. I don’t read minds, and I can only take corrective actions if someone lets me know that they are bored, confused, pulled in too many directions, or under-utilized, etc.

4.   At the end of the day, we need to be proud of our work

I added this fourth principle, a few years later. I had been working at a company for about a year, had delivered a handful of successful releases, yet sensed burn-out and loss of creativity in the team.

A startup demands almost contradictory qualities from its Engineering team: speed and creativity (quality is a given). Because the demand on speed is often explicit, while the demand on creativity is often implicit, it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing only on execution at the detriment of innovation, or even the beauty of the code.

Yet, if we continuously succumb to the mantra of “ship, ship, ship”, and give up trying to build something cool, then we start on a slippery downward slope towards creating “blah” products. There are always pressures to ship more features faster, but if each of us is not proud of the product we are releasing to our customers then our customers won’t be excited about the product, and we won’t be having fun at work. Life is too short for us to accept either of these issues.

Making It All Work

There is nothing new, or magic, about these four leadership practices. The magic is in their daily practice. They work for me because I force myself to apply them on a daily basis, and I remind my teammates of their existence, their rationale and their own commitments, whether when welcoming a new member, during a 1on1, during my weekly staff meetings, at exec staff, or monthly Engineering updates, or even at the water cooler.

Advertisements