Successful Engineering Management: 7 Lessons Learned

by Johanna Rothman. © 1999 IEEE. Personal use of this material is permitted. However, permission to reprint/republish this material for advertising or promotional purposes or for creating new collective works for resale or redistribution to servers or lists, or to reuse any copyrighted component of this work in other works must be obtained from the IEEE.

Introduction

Many engineering managers came to management through the technical ranks. Although they may have had plenty of engineering training and mentoring, they frequently learn management skills the hard way, through trial and error. Managers have two primary jobs: to get the best work out of the people who work for you and to create an environment that enables people to get work done (so they can do their best work). This article describes some of the lessons I have learned about each of these management jobs.

It’s Always the People-Help People do Their Best Work

1. Make time for uninterrupted talk with each person in your group every week.

Whether you are a technical lead or a functional manager, one of your deliverables to your management is a periodic assessment of what and how your organization is doing. You also have a deliverable to your staff, of knowing enough about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it to give them formal and informal performance reviews. You can’t meet those deliverables if you don’t know what everyone is doing.

I hold one-on-one meetings with each team member at a regular, uninterrupted time every week. (When I manage more than 12 people, I meet with some people every other week.) I set aside 30 minutes every week to talk to each person about their jobs: any issues or problems they’re having; if they need my help; their performance; and how well they are meeting their goals. I generally set aside one day during the week to have one-on-ones. I set up a specific time in advance with everyone, and then I meet privately with each person. If we uncover an issue that we need to discuss in more detail, we set aside another meeting time.

Many managers say that they just don’t have the time to meet with everyone on their staff once a week. In my experience, if I don’t plan time with people every week, they will interrupt my work, because they have to talk to me anyway.

If you plan time with your staff, you can reduce the number of unplanned interruptions (both theirs and yours), and understand more of what they are doing. When you understand what your group is doing, you can be more effective at helping people set priorities, reallocate resources, replan parts of projects, remove obstacles, and so on.

2. Assume the person doing the job knows how to do the job

Because many managers started as technical people, they know what it takes to do the job their staff is now doing. Well, they think they know now
You or your predecessor hired the people in your group. Presumably, you hired these people because you thought they could do the job. If you assume each person knows how to do his or her job, you will get better results than if you assume they don’t know. Although some people do their work successfully with or without your assumptions, some people’s work will be affected by what they think you think of them.

Give your staff their assignments, ask if they need help, and then leave them alone to get the work done (unless they ask for help). I don’t mean that you shouldn’t talk to them while they’re doing the work; you just shouldn’t interfere with them doing their work. Interference can take a variety of forms:

  • If you sneak up behind them, leaning over their shoulder, and asking, “How’s it going?” Even after they pick themselves off the ceiling, this will still not win you points with your staff.
  • If you ask every day, or worse, every few hours, how they are doing. This looks like micro-management to your staff, which is irritating. After all, don’t you have any work to do? In addition, they will assume you think they don’t know how to do their job.
  • If you say, “I would do it this way”, when they haven’t asked for advice. Inflicting help is not helpful.

If you’re not sure how to know if your people are succeeding, agree with each team member on when to ask for help. Everyone, including you, should choose a metric for knowing when he or she is stuck. One of my clients has a 15-minute rule-if anyone is stuck on something for 15 minutes, they have to stop and talk to someone else about the work.

When you assign work, ask if the person understands the work to do, and if he or she has the tools to do it. Decide jointly when you will check in with each other (periodic status reports, one-on-one meetings), and stick to that schedule. If the person gets stuck, he or she should feel free to come to you for help, but if you insist on interfering, your employee will come to you for help only as a last resort.

3. Treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you’d like to be treated.

The Golden Rule “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated” is appropriate for many purely social aspects of life, but not always appropriate for work.

Effective managers learn how each member of their staff wants to be treated. Some people want specific tasks and instructions, while others prefer more general information. Some people are motivated by solving new, tough, complex problems, but others are only comfortable when dealing with things they already know how to do to.

In addition to working differently, we all prefer different types of recognition. Money is not the only method of recognition you can use to reward your staff. Some people are motivated by private thank-yous, some by public recognition, some by M&Ms or movie tickets, some by a team party. Remember that whatever motivates you will not necessarily motivate every member of your staff. Talk to your team members to learn what form of recognition each prefers to receive.

Create an Environment That Enables Good Work

4. Emphasize results, not time.

Many organizations reward people based on the amount of time they spend at a job, not the results they achieve. However, hours on the job may not correlate with productivity. If you really want to improve an organization’s productivity and efficiency, consider permitting everyone to work only 40 hours per week.

One objection I often hear is that “You can’t get anything done here between 9am and 5pm.” If you manage in a high-interruption environment, decide what you can do about the interruptions. Are there meetings you can cancel? Are your team members able to organize their work so that they can be maximally productive?

When people are at work more than 40 hours per week, they start taking care of theirbusiness at work. They pay bills and they call the people they haven’t called because they’ve been working.
Once you create an environment where people get work done at work, and start encouraging people to work no more than 40 hours per week, you can then reward people based on what they can accomplish in 40 hours a week. I always find that productivity goes up (because people aren’t too tired to do the work, and because they’re not taking care of personal business at work).

When you start observing results, not just time, it’s also much easier to give accurate and appropriate performance evaluations. Are your staff completing their plans and designs? When they write code, how much rework do they need to do? (If you only observe how much code I can write, I can create many defects along with my code.) Plan the work for a 40-hour week, and reward the kind of work you want done in that time.

5. Admit your mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes. They can range from forgetting a meeting to making a crazy customer commitment. It’s embarrassing to admit that you make mistakes. Many of us think that we lose the respect of our group or peers when we admit mistakes.

If you don’t make mistakes very often, you can actually gain respect when you admit your errors. If you forget a meeting, and then apologize, the other person will understand you, and eventually forgive you.

Whatever you do, don’t deny or ignore your mistakes. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make them go away, it turns the problem into a monster. At a recent client, a manager yelled at his staff in a meeting. After the meeting, he realized that he should not have yelled at the team. He was all set to let them settle down a little, and talk to them in a few days.

I suggested he talk to them right away, before they had time to get angrier with him. He resisted at first, but then relented, and spoke to each person alone two days later. Every person said something like this to him: “I was just angry with you after the meeting. If you’d come to talk to me right away, I would have chalked it up to a bad day. But now, it’s been two days. I’m still angry with you, in fact, I’m even angrier, but now I’m not sure how to trust you. I don’t deserve to be yelled at. How will I know you won’t do this again?”

My client wasn’t altogether sure how to handle the situation. He thought he’d done the right thing by waiting, and had only made the situation worse. He decided that he would never let things wait again, and talk to his staff right away.

It took his staff a few months to fully trust him again, but my client actually increased his personal power by admitting he made a mistake. Now, he and his staff can joke about the incident, and they all call it a turning point in his awareness and capabilities as a manager.

6. Commit to projects only after asking your staff if they can do it.

You’re sitting in a senior staff meeting, and your boss turns to you, and says “Can we have this project next October?” It’s incredibly tempting to just say “Of course!” However, your staff will appreciate you more if you can say, “I have to think about that.”

Even if you’ve already considered the request, and asked your staff what it will take to do that work, you still may not have enough information to commit to the request. You might be in any of these situations:

  • In the moment, you might confuse this request with another request.
  • There may be other implications you haven’t considered, since it’s no longer the same time you first considered this request.
  • If you “train” your managers that you answer questions on the spot, your managers will continue to press you for an answer.

When you discuss an issue with your staff before making a commitment, you’ve said these things to them:

  • I want to know what it will really take you to do this work.
  • I’m not afraid to tell my management what it will take.

Considering the work before committing to it is one case where managing “up” is a byproduct of respecting your staff. In addition, considering your staff’s input may bring you respect and loyalty from your staff.

7. Plan training time in the regular workweek.

Engineering is a challenging and constantly changing discipline. Since it is constantly changing, consider planning training time in the regular workweek. If you don’t train your people on an ongoing basis, you will both lose.

The training can be about the projects or about technology. You can do this in a number of ways:

  • Hold brown-bag lunches, where each person discusses a particular area of his or her expertise.
  • Hold periodic expository talks from each department. With any luck, each department in your organization is intimately familiar with what it does, but normally other departments don’t know what the others do.
  • If you have cross-functional teams in your organization, you could have each team present its project to the rest of the company.
  • Invite outside experts to talk about specific technology or projects. These experts could be professional consultants or speakers, or they could be a knowledgeable friend or colleague.
  • If you’ve bought a tool and already had training, consider organizing an in-house “user group” meeting, where people can share how they use the tool with others and discuss problems, tips, and tricks.

Summary

Engineers can be good managers, if they think about managing their management performance in a similar way to doing engineering: identifying how to manage your staff, and a willingness to observe your own work.

You don’t have to do everything perfectly as a manager. You need to do enough right to help people do their best work group and provide your staff with an environment they can do their best work in.

Acknowledgements

I thank my reviewers for their valuable comments: Brian Lawrence, Rachel Silber, Karl Wiegers, Jerry Weinberg.


Since 1999, I’ve been writing other articles and giving presentations about engineering management. See Successful Software Management: 14 Lessons Learned for a more recent version.  In 2012, I started writing monthly columns about management myths. Start that series here: Management Myth 1: The Myth of 100% Utilization. Or, take a look at Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

12 Replies to “Successful Engineering Management: 7 Lessons Learned”

  1. Hi there,

    The points you have mentioned are soo much true that I cannot agree with you more. The moment a technical manager starts looking at managing the team as a measurable task, things change – for good.

    I would like to add to the above points – as a responsible manager, he/she should give the team a chance to evaluate his/her results as well. Document them and continue evaluating oneself on what need to be improved and what is already good. This ability to evaluate your manager brings such a sense of transparency in the team that it drives the ultimate amount of commitment.

    Transparency, trust and commitment is something a manager WILL need to succeed… As a manager is nothing without the team which works with him/her.

    1. A “review” is putting the cart before the horse… The work place is not a training ground. We must know what someone can do before we assign work to them. If we don’t, we are at fault when we produce an inferior product.

      1. Clif, maybe I am misunderstanding you. I certainly don’t agree with letting people take on work when you don’t know anything about their capabilities. I believe in do something to prove yourself, deliver, do a little more, deliver, and so on.

        However, the workplace is a training ground. We are always learning, growing, doing things we have not done before. The manager’s role is a supporting role: to create an environment in which people can do the best job they can, to ask people if they require anything to do that best job, and to provide training if they need it.

  2. I wonder if you have encountered difficulties that degrade the working effectiveness between engineers and managers and, more specifically if you have encountered an instance (or instances) where an engineer’s warning about a possible technical glitch or malfunction was ignored or rejected by one or more managers when that possible malfunction was communicated to the manager(s). Is there a lesson or two to be learned in such matters?

    1. Hi Fred. Yes, I have certainly encountered problem where engineers and managers don’t work together well, where they don’t hear each other. This problem can arise from engineers not knowing how to provide data to the managers. It can arise from managers not realizing how important the data is from the engineers.

      That particular problem can arise from any of:

      You are discussing the same problem that led to the space shuttle crash, when taken to the extreme.

  3. Thank you for the perfect explanation but I have question , what is the difference between ” Management engineering ” and ” Engineering management ” I saw that universities offer both programs.
    Thanks in advance

    1. Stella, “Engineering management” is when you manage engineering teams. If you read more of what I have on my site, it’s what I do, with a distinctly software approach.

      “Management engineering” appears to be a degree program offered by several schools in some form of Engineering and some Management. It appears to be offered at the Bachelor’s level, as well as advanced degrees, believe it or not. (I was astonished!) Well, I do learn something every day.

  4. hey am lois i would like to ask for help from you guyz …because would like to pursue management engineering but where i live we dont have too much information about it

    soo would like asking you here what courses can one undergo in order to succeed in management engineering?
    please help me!! ….hope i’ll get your ultimate answer..
    thank you

    1. Hi Lois, from your email address it appears you are in France. I don’t know what the French schools have to offer.

      You could get an MBA, but those degrees rarely discussion how to manage projects and lead people.

      You should read my book, Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management. Also, read the management myths. I will be creating a book later this year with all the myths and what to do about them.

      I offer private coaching, if you want to discuss that.

      Good luck!

Leave a Reply