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Becoming an engineering manager during a pandemic

Photos credits to Hu Chen on Unsplash
Photos credits to Hu Chen on Unsplash

It’s funny when you think about taking emblematic roles. I still remember when my senior manager, back in 2017, asked me to become the scrum master of my team. Damn, I thought, I need to be a “master” on something I have no clue. Ok, I have worked with other scrum masters before, but never been one. In the end, it went ok, not perfect, but not catastrophic either. The team was great and I could build my own Scrum Master style. After 2 years, another challenge pops up: becoming an engineering manager. Well, what I didn’t know by then, is that it would happen during a global pandemic!

Those leadership positions come with a lot of questions. What are the different theories to read? How do they apply to your context, to your team? What kind of leader you want to be? A bunch of questions from the beginning remain unanswered, while new ones come up as well. As Simon Sinek says, “leadership is not an expertise, but constant education”. You keep learning, making mistakes, trying new things. It’s even harder when the environment keeps changing (like in a global pandemic). With everyone struggling everywhere, former leadership theories need to be adapted. For what it is worth, here are some of my own thoughts.

"Leadership is not an expertise, but constant education"

Hierarchy impacts varies depending on several factors like company culture and previous experiences. How the team perceives it may vary between each member and produce different “gaps”. Hierarchy is not of all bad, since can help to move faster and protect the team on some situations. Problem starts when your colleagues don’t communicate with you in an open manner because of it. Add on it the lack of visual cues (e.g. in a remote environment) and things can become daunting.

Reducing those gaps should be a weekly task. First, at a team level, my actions should reflect that I am a team member like any of them. I am accountable to bring a more global vision on the delivery and strategy of the team. The same way a DEV is accountable for the technical scope, and the QA, for the app quality. At individual level, I support my colleagues on their delivery and career progression. And finally, at organization level, defending the team’s interests even when they are not around.

I must say that with Agile frameworks and methodologies, it’s sometimes hard to fulfill the above. I guess it’s important to give the team its space, empowering them on their own decisions. But how can you be a team member without being with the team? I unfortunately don’t have a success recipe here since I am still trying to figure that out. Each situation seems to have its differences. So far, I try to keep a constant contact with them, being open when I miss visibility. This way, you spend more time helping to solve a problem, rather than figuring if there is one.

The pandemic also forced the company, like many others, to move to a full remote environment. You miss so many visual cues and with all your other tasks on top, it’s easy to lose track. To mitigate that, I keep a weekly log, which I consult every day, to ensure I have a chat with each one of the team. This is, of course, on top of our 1-1’s every one or two weeks. I also make it very clear on Teams when I am available and answer any message as soon as possible.

Still, focusing on every individual remains a great challenge. Messages during other meetings can escalate to a pile of unanswered chats. Sometimes, the “soon as possible” is the next day and you feel that you failed on that occasion. How can you reduce the gap like that? I am still figuring that out a little bit more every day, but the way I am focusing on the 1-1s help me here.

Focusing on listening. Listening to understand your interlocutor, not to reply. It takes a lot of effort to hold myself, but it pays its price. The feedback is much clearer and without biases. With every colleague, I have a wiki page that only the person and myself have access. We keep the notes on each session we have and we review it from time to time. If the topic is not urgent, we can defer it to our wiki and tackle it on our next 1-1.

In the end, the above remains very much empirical. I have learned so much since I joined the team - and I keep learning - that my leadership style keeps morphing. I can only state that an engineering manager without a team is no more than a random person. This, for sure, won’t change. Also, if there is no mutual trust, there is no team either. Build trust by being transparent, act like a team member and don’t forget to look at each individual.