A reading list for new engineering managers May 2nd, 2018
Like many engineers, I got thrown into management without any real guidance. I thought management was just telling people what to do. I thought there wasn’t any real science to it; you just needed to feel your way through it. I was wrong: there’s a whole field of study here, and you can learn a lot by, you know, studying! This is the reading list I wish I’d been given as a new engineering manager.…
My interview kickoff script, annotated November 29th, 2018
When I interview, I say nearly the same thing at the beginning of the interview. It’s a script I’ve practiced and honed over the years . It’s only eleven sentences, but each has a specific purposes. I’ve iterated on this for years, and it’s pretty tightly honed at this point. I published this script in the guide to interviewing I wrote at 18F last year, but never got a chance to break down where it comes from…
Goals aren't enough; you have to talk about performance, too April 1st, 2019
Craig recently wrote about his mixed opinions about OKRs. The crux of his argument, I think, is that communicating goals is the important thing, and that OKRs are a heavyweight tool (with limited success). I agree, somewhat; this post is a “yes, and”: OKRs (when done well) do one other important thing: force explicit conversations about performance. Talking about goals can be fairly easy compared to talking about performance. But talking about performance is a basic management responsibility, and unfortunately it’s frequently done poorly (if at all).…
My questions for prospective employers (Director/VP roles) April 23rd, 2019
Last time I was looking for a job, I wrote up a list of questions I wanted to ask prospective employees. I just ran across the list again, and figured I’d share. I was looking for a senior management role (Director/VP-level) in Engineering or Security, so the questions are sloped in that direction. Also note that I was in a fairly strong position; I didn’t need the a job immediately. So, I was able to ask fairly direct, challenging questions.…
Measuring Hiring Manager Effectiveness September 14th, 2020
Hiring is one of the most important parts of a manager’s job. Make good hires and your team (and thus the whole company) will have better results. Make poor hires, and those people will drag the team down. In the worst cases, a toxic hire can drive other staff to quit, totally destroying the team. Strangely, for such an important part of the job, hiring performance seems to be very poorly measured.…
Designing Engineering Organizations January 5th, 2021
How should you structure a larger engineering organization, one with dozens (or hundreds) of engineers? There are many tradeoffs to consider, and no single right answer. But, there are some structures that work better than others.
How to gather consensus before a big decision January 18th, 2021
The next time you have an important proposal to make, don’t wait until the big meeting to ask for support. Here’s how to gather feedback and build consensus beforehand, so you can make that big meeting into a non-event.
SOCCR: the framework I use for decision briefs January 30th, 2021
In my previous article, I wrote about gathering consensus before a decision. Several folks asked for more detail about how I structure those consensus-gathering and decision-making exercises. There’s a specific format I find helpful, which I remember by the acronym SOCCR. Read on for an explanation and example!
Unpacking Interview Questions: “Explain a Topic At Multiple Levels…” February 8th, 2021
Part 1 of my Unpacking Interview Questions series, where I share one of the questions I use when I interview for technical roles. Today: asking candidates to explain a topic at multiple levels. This is one of my favorite questions to ask for engineering roles; strong performance on this question correlates very highly with high job performance on my teams.
Unpacking Interview Questions: “Tell Me About a Project You Led…” February 9th, 2021
Part 2 of my Unpacking Interview Questions series, where I share one of the questions I use when I interview for technical roles. Today: measuring a manager’s ability to lead projects and manage them effectively.
Unpacking Interview Questions: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion February 10th, 2021
Part 3 of my Unpacking Interview Questions series, where I share one of the questions I use when I interview for technical roles. Today: making sure candidates align with organizational values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Unpacking Interview Questions: “Tell Me About a Disagreement…” February 11th, 2021
Part 4 of my Unpacking Interview Questions series, where I share one of the questions I use when I interview for technical roles. Today, an oldie-but-goodie: looking into a candidate’s ability to disagree and resolve conflict professionally.
Unpacking Interview Questions: The Weakness Question February 12th, 2021
The fifth and final part of my Unpacking Interview Questions series, where I share one of the questions I use when I interview for technical roles. Today’s question is the most difficult-to-ask of the series, but also one of the most valuable: asking a candidate to discuss one of their weaknesses.
Unpacking Interview Questions: Interview Question Series Wrap Up February 15th, 2021
A summary and wrap-up of my Unpacking Interview Questions series, covering why I wrote this series in the first place, some advice on developing your own questions, and answers to a few questions.
Effective Organizations Value Autonomy February 26th, 2021
I believe that autonomy is one of the most important values of effective organizations. But I also think it’s a value that’s misunderstood and misapplied. In this post, I’ll (1) define what I mean by “autonomy”, (2) explain what autonomy isn’t, and (3) try to articulate why autonomy, as an organizational value, leads to higher effectiveness.
Unpacking Interview Questions: Types of Interview Questions March 1st, 2021
There are three types of interview questions: behavioral, hypothetical, and trivia. Behavioral questions are the gold standard; they’re the most effective at predicting job performance. Hypothetical questions can be useful in certain circumstances, if used correctly. Avoid trivia.
How to Give a Status Update To Executives March 5th, 2021
Here’s a weird little skill I had to learn the hard way: how to give a status update to executives, investors, or boards. It’s different from most other kinds of status updates: much shorter, much quicker, much less in-depth. Here’s the structure I use when giving an update to this type of audience.
How managers should respond to defensiveness after feedback March 23rd, 2021
I had a call a few weeks ago with a friend and fellow engineering manager, and we spent most of it talking about someone on her team who wasn’t responding well to feedback. He was performing several parts of his job pretty poorly, but when each time she told him that his work wasn’t acceptable, he pushed back. He argued, sometimes loudly, and refused to make the changes that she was asking for. My friend came to me pretty frustrated, not entirely sure how to respond to this guy. Most managers know this feeling: they’re doing their job as a manager, giving clear, specific, professional feedback but it’s going poorly. What should you do in a situation like this?
“Fair” Doesn't Mean “Equal” March 28th, 2021
Some conversations about my previous piece brought me back to one of the earliest lessons I learned in my management career. It’s a realization that’s embarrassingly obvious in hindsight: treating people fairly doesn’t mean treating everyone the same.
On the fundamental purpose of middle management: context down, information up.
Three Feedback Models April 22nd, 2021
Here are three models that I like for delivering feedback. Each is valuable on its own and would make a great starting point for anyone who wants to build their feedback muscle. Together, they highlight some common factors in effective feedback models and show off a couple of “special features” that can help your feedback be particularly effective.
The Mass Email Mistake May 10th, 2021
Addressing behavior through mass emails or new policy rollout is a mistake. Here’s why.
Positive feedback is different from praise May 12th, 2021
Managers need to understand the difference between praise and positive feedback. Feedback is one of the most important tools in your management toolbox, and an absolute must for any manager who wants to be effective. Praise is a useful tool, but it doesn’t directly drive performance improvement the way feedback does. If you’re accidentally giving praise when you think you’re giving positive feedback, you won’t see the results you expect.
The VPP/VPE Relationship June 16th, 2021
For an organization to succeed – to reliably and consistently deliver great products that customers want – Product and Engineering need to work well individually, but more importantly, they need to work well together. The working relationship between these two organizations starts with the relationship between their two leaders. If these two individuals don’t have a strong individual working relationship, the team relationship is doomed. This article covers what a strong relationship between the VPE and the VPP looks like, and how to build that relationship.
Book Review: Team Topologies July 5th, 2021
Team Topologies (Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais, 2019) is, essentially, a book-length treatment of the Inverse Conway Maneuver. I recommend this book to folks looking to design or refactor product delivery organizations, especially those unfamiliar with the idea of aligning teams to delivery priorities.
Delegation: What's delegation? July 19th, 2021
Most managers know that delegation is part of their job, but the vast majority of management texts are incredibly non-specific about what delegation means. So today I’m beginning a series on delegation to try to fill this gap. I’ll cover the principles and theories that guide how I think about delegation, ending with a concrete example: how to delegate meeting attendance. To kick things off: what does delegation mean?
Delegation: “Give Away Your Toys” July 19th, 2021
My foundational principle of delegation: “give away your toys”. Look to delegate the work you love, not the stuff you dislike or dread.
Delegation: Make Failure A (Safe) Option July 20th, 2021
Your gut instinct is probably to wait to delegate some work until you’re fully confident that the person can handle it. This is often a mistake. Instead of withholding a delegation opportunity from someone because they might fail, you should instead create a situation where failure will be safe.
Delegation: Delegate Outcomes, Not Methods July 21st, 2021
To make delegation most effective, tell people the results you want, but let them decide on how to achieve those results.
People- vs Results-Oriented Management: Both Work! September 22nd, 2021
Broadly speaking, there are two management styles: people-oriented and results-oriented management. Taken to extremes both styles have failure modes, but seeking “balance” isn’t the answer. Both modes can be successful! Embrace the style that comes easiest to you, while learning enough about the other mode to avoid pitfalls.
Delegation: Briefing a Delegate September 27th, 2021
Some managers think delegation is easy: you just ask someone on your team to go do a thing, then kick back with your feet on the desk until it’s done. Not true: delegating that way is a recipe for failure. To delegate effectively, you need to set up your delegate for success. This means explaining the work and desired outcomes, providing context, and teaching your delegate any skills they’ll need to be successful.
Delegation: How to Delegate Meeting Attendance October 6th, 2021
Wrapping up my series on delegation with an example: how to delegate meeting attendance.
Simple Product Management Tricks October 20th, 2021
Three simple tricks product I’ve picked up that help me be more than completely useless when I need to wear a Product hat.