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Surviving the First Year: Tips for New Engineering Managers

Surviving the First Year: Tips for New Engineering Managers

Chris Held
Development Lead

As a new engineering manager, you might be feeling a little intimidated by the new role you've taken on.

How do you balance managing projects and helping others when you still have work to do?

I want to share what I’ve learned as a development lead at Headway and how it could help make the transition a lot smoother.

People want and need your trust

We’ve all heard it before… “build strong relationships with your team.”

What does this even mean in practice?

With more trust, you will worry less about work getting done.

A good way to build that trust is understanding the level of psychological safety with your team on projects. It might sound like a crazy term, but it’s super helpful to understand why your team might be feeling or acting in ways that create more friction.

Making time for 1-on-1s

I know what you’re thinking. These things are the worst…

They don’t have to be.

At first, this was one of the things that worried me the most. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to maintain my level of project work while taking on these additional meetings through the week, but I’ve grown to enjoy them.

Keep in mind

It’s important to make these a conversation, not just cast judgement.

This is a good time to check in on stress levels, what’s been going well, and simply asking them what’s on their mind.

How it helps

Intentional time to focus on one person is a good first step to show you really care.

At Headway, we have weekly 1-on-1s where we discuss more short-term things like what the week is going to look like and checking in on any quarterly goals. This is also a time to address anything immediate that comes up, such as PTO requests.

Quarterly and annual reviews that don’t suck

Reviews are just as helpful for your own improvement as they are for others. This is a good time to reflect on their personal goals as well.

Every company can have different approaches to reviews.

But try to keep these questions in mind:

  • Ask them: “what’s been going right this quarter/year?”
  • Ask them: “what’s been wrong, missing, or confusing this quarter/year?”
  • Ask them: “where do you feel stuck or ineffective?”
  • Ask them: “how can we best support you?”
  • Ask them: “how do you feel about your goals so far?”

Intentional listening for better communication

Listening is hard. You have to be intentional about it. It’s not about listening more, it’s how you listen. Listen carefully to your team members' ideas and concerns, and be transparent about your own goals and expectations. This makes it more of a comprehensive conversation, not just you telling them what to do.

a software engineering team at headway discussing a project in a group setting

Ways to make improvements

Don't be afraid to ask for feedback or to admit when you don't have all the answers. We actively work on open and honest communication improvements during team weeks and retreats. Our team has done Dare to Lead workshops, which have been really helpful. A tool we’ve used effectively is BRAVING Trust by Brene Brown.

We also use an async tool called Lead Honestly to check in with each other and start new and interesting conversations around our roles.

Understand the technical aspects of your team's work

As an engineering manager, you don't need to be an expert in your team's specific field, but you do need a basic understanding of the technical aspects of their work. If you don’t understand where they are coming from, you’ll start to create friction.

Staying involved in projects

This reduces any confusion or assumptions. It will also make it easier to set realistic goals and deadlines. Maintaining my independent contributions to project work has been extremely helpful here, but it’s been hard to not be able to dive as deeply as I have in the past.

Sometimes you have to use your best judgement on where you can spend your time. And if you share those priorities with your team and why they are that way, they will be more empathetic to your decisions.

Focus on the positive, don’t ignore the negative

As a manager, you have a significant influence on how your team feels and works together. Make sure you're setting a positive tone by promoting collaboration, recognizing team members' achievements, and fostering a sense of community.

Celebrate wins

While we have slack channels for each project to privately celebrate, we also have a company wide channel to let the rest of the company join in. Within the last year or so we also started using a new tool called Progression to automate and encourage asking the team to thank each other on their own.

Lowering the barrier to entry has been a great way to make sharing wins easier.

People are generally very busy and it can be hard to step back and appreciate your own hard work, and the work of others.

screenshot a software engineering team sharing gratitude for each other in a slack channel

Responsibility through flexibility

Encourage your team members to take breaks and find ways to manage your time and energy between work and personal life in a way that doesn't lead to excessive stress or exhaustion. This can include things like setting boundaries, prioritizing self-care, and being mindful of your work hours and workload.

Stepping in when you need to

While it’s great to stay positive and celebrate, sometimes you will need to have those hard discussions with people. Remember to speak with kindness and not always place the blame on the other person. As a leader, we need to take notice when others are in trouble and learn how we can help.

Mindset alignment

These moments can feel stressful, but if your team is understanding of the best ways to both share and receive feedback or concerns it can make things a lot easier. Our team week workshops and retreats really help set the tone for that.

Always learning, always something

Being an engineering manager is a continuous learning process. While we still try to grow in our technical skills, it becomes more important to listen to your team. When they share things, take the time to reflect on your successes and failures.

Let your team know how you are going to improve or what you will change. They want to know progress is being made and will hold you accountable.

The impact you can have on others through this is pretty cool. So enjoy the ride!

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