After reading An Elegant Puzzle, my interest on the EM topic did only grow! I had happened to see some positive comments about this book and did an impulse purchase 😅.
Side note: 50% of the profits will go to She Code Africa ❤.
The book is essentially a collection of thoughts and experience-supported advices about people management. Although it also comprehends a set of tools, it’s more about being thoughtful and intentional about your approach towards management. It’s directed to people moving from a developer career path to a management path.
Sarah Drasner experience is vast, but she credits other people again and again through the book, most notably her coach. That talks about her being humble, and at the same time it gives a lesson about management that you can read between the lines at all pages: management is essentially an outward task. Your duty is being there for others. She goes beyond tasks and tools, and talks a lot about mentoring, sponsoring, and caring. If The Manager’s Manual is about day-to-day routines, and An Elegant Puzzle is about management from a systemic standpoint, Engineering Management for the Rest of Us is about empathy and introspection. “Caring for your team” being the first chapter and “Believing in Yourself” the last one is not random at all.
Click to see my collection of notes. This is mostly random notes, you can skip this part, or scan it if you want to grasp what the book feels like.
Part 1. Your Team
A sentence that can be used for defining what Engineering Management is opens this part: “your work is now about enabling everyone around you”. This part is about the people that your team is made of.
The first chapter is about values, which is probably the highest level tool for aligning, and Sarah makes a breakdown among individual, team, company and your own values. Sometimes values are perceived as hollow words, but when they’re properly implemented, they’re key:
core values help companies to determine their goals by creating a stable direction forward
One of the themes of the book is EM not being only downwards (about your team) but about the whole company:
The people around me: A good manager is not just watching their team and shutting out everyone else. A good manager looks at the wider ecosystem: their team, yes, but also their peers, their peers’ teams, the managers above them, the whole company ecosystem.
The second chapter is about intangible topics that are crucial: “Trust and Vulnerability”. Trust is the basis for a healthy job relationship, and vulnerability is a way to cultivate it.
You’re the manager, so if someone is going to show vulnerability first, it’s easiest on team dynamics if it’s you.
This sentence is taken from Kevin Plank (Under Armour):
Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets
If you think that trust and vulnerability are hippie-ish arguments, there’s science backing them up:
A 2010 study by Matthias R. Mehl, et al., titled “Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations,” found a meaningful correlation between the depth of conversation quality and the depth of personal connection: when you force yourself out of small talk and into subjects that matter to you, people tend to build trust faster.
I mentioned that this book is about empathy. Check this quote:
Sometimes when a person goes through hardship, they can put up walls or be protective. Evolutionarily speaking, that’s the right thing to do to protect themselves from experiencing hardship again. However, they may be unaware that they’re acting in a way that can feel prickly to folks who may not be aware of the original incident. I have done this too, and I needed someone I trusted to point it out.
… and it’s not about you but about them:
Sometimes teams will build trust with you individually and not with each other. It feels great to build this kind of trust with someone, but your job is to boost the entire team’s morale.
👆🏻 This book is great about this. Many sources are about you and doing the best for you, but Sarah highlights the need for you to focus on others and their relationships. I can definitely envision her, sitting happy in the background of a room, while the rest of the team works seamlessly.
When your team succeeds in something, though, praise them and leave yourself out of it. By leaving yourself out, you give the team the credit they deserve. If you include yourself, people can take that to mean you’re inflating the story for your own sense of self-worth (and thus diminish the attribution you’re trying to give them for their work).
Another common topic you usually read is that a manager is an umbrella for their team, a protector, but Sarah goes beyond this:
Your job is not to be the ambassador of who you manage. You cannot think of every other group as separate. You’re part of a larger system. A company is composed of groups, but those groups can only be successful if they’re working together, not if they are protecting their own group at all costs.
The book gets into a problematic topic: communicating decisions you don’t agree with:
When you talk about the leadership team, this is “we” too. You can’t speak to your team about decisions that were made at a table with your peers and boss and say, “They decided [something you don’t agree with]” even if you don’t agree. You were there. Ideally, you took part in that decision. So when you talk about that team, presenting them as “we” is important as well.
For me, this potentially introduces a problem of trust: if you’re not 100% honest about your point of view, you might lose a bucket of trust here. I agree with the paragraph, but if more information is needed maybe you need to be more open about your own point of view. But that’s a complex topic, and context-dependent. Chapter 14 will deal with disagree and commit. I also suggest reading GitLab policy about “disagree, commit, and disagree. But don’t forget that…
as a manager, our job is to try as much as we can to drive balance and clarity.
… and …
I have made the mistake of using [a blaming approach towards the leadership team] when I wanted to be liked by my employees and for them to think of me as a peer. But we’re not peers. I have a responsibility to them
Definition of flow state:
flow state is the phenomenon in which a person is fully immersed in an activity that leads to focus, energized involvement, and enjoyment
There are many interesting lessons about levelling up, both at individual and team level. I won’t summarize them but just paste this excerpt:
But even more than that, what became very clear to me was that all of that “protection” I thought I had set up for her didn’t really serve her well for the long haul. For example, I didn’t teach her how to advocate for herself or how to navigate the system. I vowed never to make that mistake again. This is tough! If you’re strong and care about your team as people, it can feel unnatural to teach someone to advocate for themselves instead of moving things out of their way. The point is not to throw that person into the fire. The point is to care. Are you teaching them the things they need to learn? Are they really growing under you? Feeling like you’re protecting someone at all costs can also lead to your own ego trip, which threatens progress.
Try to think through what skills someone needs to succeed without you. Teach those skills incrementally. Sure, this advice is easy to say, but it’s really hard to do when you’re in the thick of things
There’s, of course, a section about 1:1s, also impossible to summarize.
Part 2. Collaboration
Your job is now to align people to the outcomes instead of tactical details of how to get something done
I’m very reluctant to repeating myself, and insisting, but that’s the wrong approach from a management standpoint:
Repeat yourself and align the group with the importance of the task
repetition becomes an important tool to make things stick. The trick is to convey the same message, but in different ways
Related to this, and about feedback quality…
There have been times where I said, “How can they all have done this?!” A whole team of people doesn’t misunderstand a direction—you as a leader weren’t clear, as we touched on earlier
Another counterintuitive hint:
People are looking for different amounts of transparency from you as a leader, and it’s okay to ask them how much depth they want as well. Sometimes I’m surprised by the answer
There’s a very interesting chapter about meetings, with some specific and actionable suggestions, such as starting the meeting with an explicit mention about expectations for individuals:
“We’re all here today to discuss how we’re going to support the next version of framework X. I have some new data to show you that frames the direction; Hassan and Jenna are here to talk about some of the details of the implementation; and Angela, we’d love to coordinate with you on a rollout process because it affects your team.”
It’s just an example, but it’s deeper than what it might look like: with that paragraph you’re summarizing that…
- you’ve been intentional about every individual invite.
- you’ve previously set expectations for everybody.
- everybody now knows what to expect from each other.
- action items from and for people are expected.
- the context and direction of the meeting.
Part of the purpose of the meeting is the discussion itself
👆🏻👆🏻👆🏻. We sometimes feel that there are too many meetings, don’t we? That’s probably a sign of not having interesting discussions, about being mere spectators, instead of actors.
There’s an incredible chapter about conflict, with many “easy to say, hard to accomplish” lessons such as this one:
the best way to have a productive disagreement is to disengage from any kind of personal attachment to an idea from the get-go
I’m the kind of person that embraces (and even seeks) conflict, but not everybody is that way, and this chapter is about handling conflict in a healthy way. Love it. There are many great suggestions, such as this one:
When I struggle to separate my ideas from my identity, I will check in with myself. If I feel defensiveness over an idea, I try my best to step back from the conversation a bit and ask someone who has been a bit quiet what they think
I’ve seen this many times. Handling people that has very different levels of “being vocal” or “loud enough” is a challenge for managers.
Part 3. Helping people do their best work
Part 3 starts with a chapter about OKRs, including a good example (OKRs are easy to understand, hard to grasp), with interesting suggestions about the process of prioritization and how to balance “your” work with their feedback:
Clearly communicate this process to everyone while you’re doing it. Let your teams, peers, and stakeholders know what you’re thinking about, and allow them to give feedback during the process
The section about “Breaking OKRs Down Into Something More Tangible” is also very helpful, as your work probably comprehends communication with other stakeholders.
For me, one of the challenges of the Engineering Manager role is stepping back of day to day tasks and taking care of the bigger picture:
If we constantly work on tasks without taking the time to think bigger, we risk being tactical rather than strategic. We can end up working in a silo, which can lead to burnout and anxiety.
… and creating a good environment for people to work at speed:
A team that’s motivated, has psychological safety with you and among themselves, has good developer experience within their tech stack, and feels aligned with the company’s goals will always perform better than one that isn’t.
👆🏻 Again, this might sound very abstract, but there’s a section about breaking the characteristics into actions.
If we never take a step back and reflect, and create a high-level system, then we need to constantly make those decisions again and again each week, which sops up some of our very necessary cognition. And in leadership, you need to protect as much of that cognition as possible.
There’s a section about prioritization, including her approach, based in notion, with the following breakdown:
- Things that are actively on fire or are time-sensitive
- Things that can be done quickly
- Things that need a scheduled block of time
- Things that I may get to further along
Although that doesn’t work for me (should I make a blogpost about it?), it makes a very, very valid point I’m addressing in a different way:
Part of the reason we do the small things early on is because morale is important
I like this approach much more than a kanban board or a homegrown to-do list for the week because they feel unsatisfying and never-ending. In this model, the big picture is broken down day by day, and at the end of the week, it’s clear I’ve gotten things accomplished, which helps me feel motivated.
Another very relevant opinion, specially if you’re new to the management path:
For a new manager, it can be tough to understand that your job has changed and, though you may need some focus time, focus is not your primary function anymore. Meetings are now your job. Coordination is your job. Your job is to be interruption-driven so your team can stay focus-driven. This means you shouldn’t be protecting yourself too much from meetings.
Last but not least, you also have to take care of yourself. I have to tatoo the next quote. I’m terrible at this:
To be a resilient manager, you have to forgive yourself. You’ll be more productive on some days (or hell, even years!) than you will be on others. That’s okay. Life is full of ebbs and flows.
It also addresses personal, internal conflicts, in a very mature way, without trying to see “the bright side of things”:
Jessi didn’t downplay the negative interaction or pretend it was actually a positive one. We acknowledged it, and then figured out how to move on.
Also, it reasons about believing in yourself as a way to care about you:
research shows that belief in your own ability can be a better predictor of future success than previous job performance
… and …
Surrounding Yourself With People Who Believe In You
One of the last tips is joining/creating a cabal of peers ❤:
The manager cabal was created by a friend, Simona Cotin. Author and trainer Lara Hogan suggested she create it during one of her workshops. Like the coach, we all listen to one another and help give advice, but this is a different kind of safe space. Where coaching gives me tools, this cabal allows us all to have a place of inclusion. We can laugh and express remorse, but more than anything, it’s a place to be ourselves and not have everything be so serious.
Although I have never had the EM title officially, I’ve managed teams for most of my career. I’ve been collecting many lessons for years in a document, and I’ve added there many references to this book :).
I’ve enjoyed it a lot. It’s packed with wisdom that is hard to master. It has helped me to understand why I have a great perception of some leaders I’ve previously worked with. Now I can read better the best leader I’ve worked for. It felt very natural, and maybe it was for her, but a closer analysis on her management style shows there are specific things that can be learnt and improved, and this book is definitely a way to do it. That explains the “… for the rest of us” title.