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Three Pillars of Engineering Management

What’s it like to manage an engineering organization? “It’s an art and a science.” Well, at least that’s a common cliché response.

I’ve been managing teams for close to 15 years now -- long enough to reverse engineer at least some of the “science”. This post is about the big picture of engineering management; the pillars of a good engineering leader.

As a great Engineering VP, CTO, Director, Lead, or Manager, you need to be a top performer in three categories: product, team, and engineering excellence. Building and running a top-notch engineering organization requires that you consistently excel in all three.

#1 Product
Your team’s primary output to the world is a great product. Your customers depend on it, your company depends on it, and, ultimately, your job depends on it. No matter how well you do as an engineering leader in any category, delivering your product on time, on budget, and with high quality cannot be overlooked or substituted. Regardless of your project management approach, your toolkit, or your legacy code, you need to ship the right products at the right times to your customers. If you repeatedly miss deadlines or ship low quality products, you will quickly run out of excuses and your head will be on a chopping block. When you ship well and make your customers happy, your product line will grow -- and so too will your team.

#2 Team
With a solid team, you should have the budget and headcount to execute on a mission that’s bigger than what you can accomplish single-handedly. You know you have a strong and motivated team when they deliver products on schedule, overcome obstacles creatively, and adjust to market changes rapidly.

As a manager it’s your primary job to hire the right people, train them, keep them focused and motivated and also sometimes letting the bad ones go.  Assembling, growing and retaining a good team is hard, but rewarding.

A great engineer will inform you of exciting new tasks that were achieved on top of the agreed-upon deliverables and will contribute innovative ideas moving forward. A bad engineer won’t get things done well enough or on time, and will instead offer a hundred and one excuses for why things suck. Keep the team members who innovate, care about the customer and “underpromise, overdeliver”. Invest in them, so they feel their best and perform their best.

#3 Engineering Excellence
“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” – Vince Lombardi

Great engineering organizations are like great sports teams; they don’t only get things done, they also employ techniques that maximize resilience and minimize technical debt. Engineering excellence expands beyond just the tools, and into training and discipline with your processes. Utilizing unit testing, code reviews, developer documentation, automatic build systems, deployment automation, test automation, and all the other best practices will make sure you’re building for the future along the way.

At DocuSign, for example, we have continuous education classes at least a couple times a month to keep engineers current with the best practices. The best engineers are excited about being on teams that emphasize professional development and engineering excellence, while the worst engineers think it’s excessive or bogus. Keeping the bar high helps the latter group self-select out.

While I can’t say I have mastered all three pillars of engineering management -- product, team, and engineering excellence -- I can say that they’re all essential to starting and sustaining a successful engineering organization. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to participate in teams that executed well on all three fronts, making for some magical moments


If you liked this article you might also enjoy:
SDET / QA Engineering Checklist  and Emotional Intelligence on Software Teams


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