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On the Craft of Engineering Management

Shawn Axsom - Director of Engineering at Docker
Shawn Axsom - Director of Engineering at Docker
Understanding the profession, and whether it’s the right path for you

What would you say...ya do here?
Some have wondered what I do all day. And truthfully, even Engineering Managers don’t always know.
As an Engineering Manager, and now Director of Engineering at Docker, it’s taken some time for me to learn more about the role and craft, and some of being a great leader and manager is helping define my role based on what the company needs most.
I’ve met with 70+ people since February in coffee chats, and one of the more common questions has been about the evolution into and day-to-day details of the Engineering Management profession.
Being an engineer can be cut and dry: go write code.
But if you become an Engineering Manager, you have more freedom and more opportunity to be proactive.
Instead of having certain responsibilities, you have “accountabilities”. Being accountable, you have more leeway on how to approach the work. And the accountable areas often aren’t specific and task-based.
You define and act on an approach to:
- Building the right team
- Putting together the right working agreements
- Helping the team and individuals grow
- Ensure the team is communicating and visible
- Execute projects
- Celebrate wins
Let’s talk a bit more about what you are accountable for, some analogies, and other roles of interest.
The Who, When, and How
> Product managers define the “why” and the “what” that engineers will build. The engineering manager serves as the technical lead to determine “how” the team will build. Together you align on the “when” to deliver new customer experiences and lead your teams to success.
As an Engineering Manager (EM), I’m “joined at the hip” with a team’s Product Manager (PM).
Especially in product organizations like Docker, the Engineering Manager works closely with a Product Manager, usually both assigned to the same team in executing a team’s mission, both in maintaining the responsible services of the team and in establishing and driving a roadmap of projects.
As a preface, the EM and PM should be highly aligned, such that each can represent the other in their absence. 
Divisions in accountability are helpful to know:
- Who is making sure the ball isn’t dropped in that area
- Who has the final say when there is a disagreement
Ideally, the two can act in a partnership where both feel equal voice and alignment in leading all aspects of the team.
Having said that, a common way to describe EM and PM accountabilities are:
- EMs: How, Who, and How Long?
- PMs: Why, When, and What?
Note that EMs may also be responsible for the Why and What as far as technical and architectural concerns. And this overall breakdown is simplistic and may vary between companies.
The customer data platform Segment describes it a bit differently:
Analogies to help explain the Engineering Manager role
Another way to understand the ideal implementation of the role is through relating to other concepts or roles.
Servant Leader
- You are often helping others
- You act more as a peer than a “boss”
- At times, servant leadership requires acting more as a report to the IC, than a boss of the IC
As a servant leader, the roles can be reversed.
You do have some degree of guiding others and facilitating the processes.
But you also are there to support others, doing what they need of you, and helping where people need you the most.
Facilitator
- Ensure everyone is communicating during execution
- Make sure people are in the right roles and have the right responsibilities
You often schedule and run meetings, and make them as fun and productive as a meeting can be.
That means sharing the leadership responsibilities. Allowing equal share-of-voice across the delivery team and other managers.
And contrary to what the role of power may lead you into, you should pick others and share the “power” and responsibilities with them, highly delegating what others are interested in helping with.
Therapist
- Happiness and mental health
- Motivation and burnout
The first orders of management are the individual and the team. Ensuring the team has high trust and cohesion starts with each team member.
Expect that some team members will be purely business, and others may open up more about their personal lives.
That’s fine, as long as there are no human resources concerns or conflicts of interest.
Finding and discussing happiness concerns both helps keep people motivated, and it can help pinpoint pain points on the team that affects more than emotional wellbeing.
Coach
- Guiding learning and growth
- Ensuring progression is visible to the individual and others
- Sponsoring
Coaching doesn’t mean you have the be the expert in everything, as I thought when I first had direct reports.
Coaching means guiding the employee forward in their growth, pointing them to the right resources or mentors, and helping act as an “accountability buddy” to discuss progress with and share learnings.
It also means finding the right opportunities to lead projects, take on initiatives, or help with some of your management responsibilities that they share interest in.
Glue
- Fills in for other roles
- Project Manager
- Finds gaps in execution, makes sure they are filled
Finally, being an EM is about being the glue that holds the team together.
Ideally, the EM role ideally should differ wildly between teams and companies.
As an EM, you need to find what hampers execution the most, and what ways the team can improve. Take on or delegate some responsibilities that may fall outside of your job title that you think would benefit the company the most. There are often problems or opportunities that arise that others might not be considering and might not fall under anyone’s role or responsibilities.
Want to learn more?
I’ve discussed further what you might enjoy about Engineering Management, and what other roles you may want to consider, on Hashnode, here 💛
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Shawn Axsom - Director of Engineering at Docker
Shawn Axsom - Director of Engineering at Docker @shawnaxsom

Engineering Management and Leadership

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