How to Win Productivity Quickly at Work: Here's Guildmaster's Engineering Manager Job Description
Updated: Mar 30
What Exactly Is A Manager?
Many people equate managers with leaders. Management and leadership are two completely different skill sets, however. Good managers will know how to be good leaders, and good leaders will know how to be good managers. We’ve written more on the differences between leadership and management at Engaged Agility.
Guildmaster defines leadership as the ability to attract and retain followers. It’s contrasted with followership.
We use Mary Parker Follet’s definition of management in terms of its contrast to knowledge work or individual contribution. Knowledge workers get things done through what they know. Managers, in turn, get things done through people.
Why Is A Manager’s Job Description Important?
Job descriptions are the APIs of the organization. They define the rights (like class methods) and responsibilities (like class properties) of people who fill specific roles.
They’re super important to how we work.
As the tyranny of structurelessness maintains, if you don’t formally design your organization, you’ll get the default organization of human groups – cliques. That’s often not an effective organization for whatever strategy you’re pursuing, and it also tends to have problems with toxicity.
From a software engineering perspective, org charts and job descriptions aren’t unlike UML Class diagrams. Who reports to whom, who fills each role, and what that role can do -- all fit nicely in the UML class diagram framework.
These relationships, responsibilities, and rights are all meaningful because they help define success for a position. There are many incredibly talented people out there who just need to be given a goal, and they’ll achieve it. They need success defined for them; a good job description serves to do that. What does being successful in this role resemble? You should find that in the job description.
An Ideal Engineering Manager’s Job Description
We call this an engineering manager’s job description because that’s our target audience. Nonetheless, we believe this job description would work well for any management position in any function as a foundation.
The description breaks across five disciplines; good managers will keep these disciplines in tension. In other words, this description will define good managers as those who complete two competing tasks relatively well. This tension is one reason why management is so hard. You can’t lean too much in one direction without failing at another competing concern.
The five disciplines are as follows:
Each of these disciplines is important, though a shift of what will be important changes depending on your level within the organization. In other words, a front-line manager will spend more time on specific disciplines than a director (manager of managers), who will spend time differently still than VPs (managers of directors).
I put (managers of…) in parentheses because that’s how we’ll define various titles. If you are a director but have no direct reports, or none of your direct reports themselves has no direct reports, then that’s just a title. You’re not playing the role of a director.
We’ll present each discipline first, then discuss how a focus on those disciplines may change as you move up in the organization.
Ultimately we want to keep individuals engaged but challenged.
Engagement is about having the energy and interest to do the work. You can have tons of energy but not be interested. You can also be interested but have no energy.
Ideally, you’d like to see people with an internal locus of control who want to see the task done for its own sake. Often you can appeal to the ideas from Drive, which we’ve codified as Guildmaster’s "Three Seashells" of purpose, autonomy, and mastery.
Ensure folks’ work provides those three things, and that other forms of compensation are fair, respectful, and transparent.
Weekly one-on-ones are a great tactic.
Regular positive feedback
Protect first and second seashell time
Organizationally just and competitive compensation
Learning hurts. If you aren’t feeling stupid, you aren’t learning, and no one likes to feel stupid. It is so easy to help people avoid learning things, but the pitfalls to the organization are dire. If you have one software engineer who knows and does everything and others who are too scared to try, you have a learning problem.
You, or your killer software engineer, may be making things worse because you want to have your other staff avoid the pain of learning. The issue is that your killer software engineer only got that way because she had to learn. Usually, this is why high-tenure people know the most - no one came before them to “protect” them from the lessons coming their way.
A guild/badge system to ensure staff are constantly leveling up
Regular critical feedback
A good peer review and design review process
Psychological safety to ensure colleagues are giving feedback
Individual Coaching Take Aways
Keeping people challenged is going to sap their engagement. And the easiest way to boost someone’s mood and engagement is to remove stress. But some stress is beneficial because it grows us. Thus, keeping people engaged but also challenged is difficult.
A good engineering manager will keep teams gelled but in tension.
A gelled team is a well-oiled machine. They know what they’re supposed to do and what they can rely on others to do. This state often takes collaboration and contact. People need to work together and have good experiences doing so.
Retrospectives can help by surfacing issues in the team and putting dedicated resources into fixing them. You may also need to pull people apart occasionally to resolve disputes. This technique includes coaching individuals on how to handle their conflicts themselves and doing your part to soothe hurt egos through active listening.
Tuckman’s model of group formation
Active listening, negotiation, mediation
Groupthink is the death of good teams. While toxic team members can hurt psychological safety and thus hurt new ideas, the group itself can become toxic with positivity. No one wants to be the one who points out that everyone’s going in the wrong direction.
Disagreement hurts. Arguments can get heated, and it’s easy to take things personally. Still, if you aren’t occasionally arguing, the team is not getting better. It’s stagnating.
The number one focus on keeping a team in tension is to ensure a wide variety of perspectives on the team. That means demographic and neurological diversity. Find people with different backgrounds, levels, sources of education, and industry experiences. Mix people of varying skill and experience levels.
If a team gets too comfortable, they may need a challenge. Is this really the best place imaginable to work? What can be better? How can we be more productive and more engaged?
Unlike gelling, keeping a team in tension requires the manager to step in and resolve the occasional dispute. This entails arbitration skills while focusing on organizational justice to resolve sticky conflicts.
Hire for diversity
Psychological safety to bring up issues
Disagree and commit
Arbitration and organizational justice
A good engineering manager will keep processes familiar but also flexible.
Familiar things are things we don’t have to look up daily. They’re “at hand.” The easiest way to make a work process familiar is to make it simple and rational in the first place. Simple things are easier to remember than complex things. And rational things can be figured out and reasoned through even if you don’t know all the details.
Training and onboarding are the next steps, with quizzes, challenges, and mentoring to keep the processes self-enforcing. Having a writing culture and using tools like peer review of processes themselves are both helpful for simple processes and an example of a simple process. There’s no need to introduce a new way to maintain a process; you already have one in the way you maintain code!
Lean and Agile off-the-shelf processes, rituals, and vocabulary
Principle of sufficient reason - people should know why a process exists
Training and onboarding curriculum
To improve the way we work, we will have to change something. Any improvement will come from a change; though not all changes are improvements. This phenomenon means things need to be changeable - easily.
Part of this comes through a solid communication process: here’s what we’re trying and why. Another part comes from ensuring current processes are as simple as possible. Communicating changes to a simple system is more straightforward than communicating changes to a complex one.
While the process has trouble being both familiar and easily made different, some tactics for doing so are the same. Namely, writing culture and the use of PR tools. These tools effectively communicate how things are and how they are changing.
Lean and agile mindset - a just-in-time, just-good-enough process
A good engineering manager must be a paragon of a company’s culture while also its harshest critic.
Guildmaster defines culture along the Big OH values. These values come from the HEXACO model of personality – specifically, two personality traits detected by the HEXACO. O stands for “openness to experience,” while H stands for “honesty-humility.”
In groups and organizations, we see open cultures as okay with taking risks and new ideas, while closed cultures will seem more traditional. Honest-humble cultures will seem collaborative, while less humble cultures will seem competitive.
Companies tend to fall on a 2x2 continuum of collaboration versus competition and risk-taking versus tradition.
Managers, more than individual contributors, must exemplify the company’s chosen culture. That means it’s even more important that their values align with the company’s values.
This impact scales with power. The higher you go, the more stringent values must apply to a manager. Individual contributors can live the most leniently. Let’s say you’re in the OH quadrant - cooperative and risk-taking. You may implement that by taking a solid second look at any individual contributor candidate hire who scores in the lower 1/3rd of those values.
Front-line managers, though, ought to be in the top half of their values. C-levels ideally would be in the top third.
In addition to believing the values, good engineering managers need to emphasize them and over-communicate them repeatedly. Show how you apply values to your decision-making (especially when resolving disputes).
Big OH framework
Effective positive and critical feedback
Hiring/firing based on behaviors, not just performance
There is always room for improvement. While we must live the values we claim to have, we must understand that there is always a better way to live those values. Firms with a good culture need powerful people to be exemplars. But they don’t need cheerleaders.
The ability to criticize the culture you’ve helped create is how to separate good cultures from good cults.
Just as engineers personally identify with their significant projects, managers will likely identify with the processes and cultural practices they’ve implemented. This personification makes it hard for them to step back and see those things critically. No one wants to admit that a process they worked hard to make fair may actually be quite unfair, or that an attempt to take risks may actually have caused people to act conservatively.
Balancing the principle of generosity (assume the best intent) with managerial courage (root out bad actors)
Introspection, emotional intelligence, self-reflection
Near the highest level of decision-making, we have strategy. Strategy is the analysis of discrete trade-offs the company must make. While managers may sharpen strategy at lower levels (e.g., project and task prioritization, dispute resolutions), it reaches a crescendo in the C suite - where leaders may decide between entire organizational charts, and new markets may be avoided or invaded.
A good manager will be strategically decisive while ensuring they are opportunistic.
While strategy is a sound way to deal with high-level systems problems, it’s also an excellent way to remove ambiguity and make it concrete. This benefit enables folks executing the strategy to define success better. Much like this very job description helps people know what they’re responsible for, by defining a strategy concretely, you’re helping lay down a surgical curtain to tell people what not to do.
You’re telling them where to focus, how you’ll be measuring their success, and where they should feel safe to take risks.
Presentation and public speaking skills, over-communication
Managerial courage and discipline to stick to decisions
Sensemaking and model building
Strategic thinking is mainly about being proactive, helping people decide where to focus, and shrinking the problem size. At the same time, you still need to be somewhat unfocused - open to new ideas, problems, and opportunities.
It can often be easy to bracket everything that isn’t “in the plan” as “we’ll tackle that later.” This tendency is especially true if it’s super expensive to get your plan out to the staff in a way they understand. But this leads to stagnation. It also prevents taking advantage of opportunities quickly.
Ensure you keep some resources in reserve and outsource a lot of your opportunism to your staff. Keep your ego in check that you didn’t necessarily account for everything in your strategy.
Reserve and slack
Autonomy in opportunity discovery
Strategic Vision Key Takeaway
People need to know the plan; they need to know as quickly as possible. But like process improvement, the plan needs to adjust for new information. To a degree, good managers do this by allowing for a lot of autonomy in how others execute the plan. After all, one should not dot every "i" and cross every "t". The strategy is there for various teams to perform as they see fit.
However, even at the highest levels, you must be open to being wrong or missing something. You have to be open to spotting a new opportunity. The strategy should be as concrete as possible but easily amended. This trick is challenging to do.
How Does an Engineering Manager’s Job Description Change Compared to a CTO’s?
We’ll use the following four levels as guideposts. If you have senior VPs or assistant managers, scale these proportions between two nearby positions.
A manager has individual contributors as direct reports.
They should expect to spend 90% of their time on teams and individuals, 5% on process improvement, and the remaining on culture and strategy - primarily executing cultural and strategy projects from higher up or providing feedback on them.
A director manages managers. Because of this, team sizes tend to be smaller as you go up, so there’s additional energy to focus. Directors can see patterns across managed teams, which makes them ideal for focusing on process improvement.
They should expect to spend 70% of their time directly managing their team and the individual managers on that team. And 20% of their time should be spent on process improvements across their managed teams. The last 10% will focus on the execution and initiation of strategy and cultural discussions, still primarily centered on the goals set above.
A Vice President manages directors. This relationship means there are a lot of individual contributors who all report to a single VP. This position emphasizes even more the value of strategy and culture. They’re also able to coach their directors on process improvement and see broader patterns still.
They should expect to spend 60% of their time directly managing their direct team and the individual directors on it. 20% of the time, they should allocate to spearheading department-wide process improvements and coaching their directors on individual process improvements. They should spend the remaining 20% on strategy and culture, with an equal share between executing the vision of the C-levels and initiating their own visions.
CTO and other C Levels
Since this is a blog post about engineering managers, we’ll target our advice on CTOs. But this advice would also apply to other C levels - except for the CEO.
CTOs manage vice presidents. They command broad swaths of product and engineering experts, multiple functions, and multiple product lines.
They should expect to spend 50% of their time managing their direct reports. This amount is far more than most CTOs do! Remember, a CTO is a manager first. If your direct reports can’t get good answers from you and relay those decisions to their staff, you’re fighting at drastically reduced capacity. CTOs cannot move mountains alone. They must rely on the organizations they build to do that, and the skill and engagement of the VPs are tied directly to their organizations’ performance!
About 45% of the time, CTOs should be thinking about strategy and culture. Most of this will be initiating strategy and cultural projects themselves and delegating the execution to their staff. They should, however, do this in collaboration with other C levels on their team and with ears open for feedback. This behavior is their most significant influence on the armies of individual contributors that report through them. Finally, they can look at 5% of their time dedicated to process improvement. Focus processes primarily on the VP team itself and some remaining coaching of those VPs in their own process improvement efforts.
What about CEOs?
CEOs manage other C levels. They’re the manager for the C levels.
Their time would be similar to CTOs, nixing the last 5% of process improvement in favor of 50% of their time spent on culture and strategy. Any “process improvement” at the C levels is equivalent to dispute resolution discussions between them.
How to be a Good Engineering Manager
To recap, we said a good engineering manager would…
Keep individuals engaged but challenged.
Will keep teams gelled but in tension.
Will keep processes familiar but also flexible.
Must be a paragon of a company’s culture, while also its harshest critic.
Will be strategically decisive while ensuring they remain opportunistic.
We put out some tactics to do well at each of these objectives.
How to Hire a Good Engineering Manager
If you’re looking to judge engineering manager candidates for hiring, you could turn this job description into some challenges and interview questions. Ask candidates to diagnose situations where their reports could be more engaged or challenged. Ask them what they’d do to remediate problems where their teams aren’t gelling or aren’t in tension. Ask them about times in the past when they’ve dealt with mysterious or fixed processes.
For challenges, set up mock one-on-one meetings with interviewers who will act out certain situations you want to know if the manager can handle. Ask them to write feedback to handle both positive and critical cases. Walk them through a mock kaizen or other process improvement meeting, and see how they attempt to find bottlenecks and make suggestions.
How to Grow a Good Engineering Manager
If you’re using this job description to help define success in a position, you can define metrics that attempt to track engagement or gelling directly via surveys. But you can also measure how well managers pursue the best practices listed in the tactics section.
You can provide training and mentoring on those tactics and use the percent focuses described above to tailor that training to different levels in your organization. Finally, you can set up a people management guild or community of practice that starts with the above job description and tactics as a template. Then encourage iteration on that description to help them self-organize around success.
Management is hard to define. But it is vital to define because we need to think about what management is to begin to talk about what makes managers successful.
Top talent often leaves due to struggles with their direct manager; this stuff is necessary.
We’ve put together a definition of management that shows being a good manager is hard. It’s all about satisfying two contradictory goals. But if you can pull it off, your teams will thrive.
We’re on a mission to make jobs suck less, one software management tip at a time. We need your help!
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