Being managed by a non-technical manager
CTO at Coffee Meets Bagel
Odds are likely as an engineering leader you will someday be managed by someone who is not technical. This could be a CEO, a general manager, or someone else that has strong business acumen but not any real technical chops. Odds are, your relationship with that manager will change.
The first time I was managed by a non-technical manager, I realized right away that the way I would interact with them would be radically different to the way I dealt with other managers. First, it's likely they don't want the details of the problems you are encountering but they want to know that you have adequately figured out to solve the problem. Second, they likely won't understand the scope of a project, the real risks around project estimation, and not understand the finer points of dumpster fire project that you may be dealing with occasionally. Finally, they likely underestimate or devalue some of the things you feel are important like tech debt, security, or other technical requirements they might assume come for free.
Here's a couple lessons I've learned along the way:
Get a better frame of reference: Often, the person managing you is a good business person but not a technologist. Understanding finance and other business related activities, even at a superficial level helps. If you can frame the projects and problems based on outcome to the business, risks to the business, etc. you have a common understanding in which to make decisions. Don't be afraid to ask "dumb" questions around the business the hopes to get a better understanding -- it will make you stronger and you will get a deeper understanding of where they are coming from.
Frame solutions in understandable ways: Most likely, your manager doesn't want to know the gritty details of a production incident or why a project was underestimated but they do want to feel comfortable that you know those details. It's important to both communicate that you know what happened before their eyes glaze over, but more importantly, to highlight the possible solutions and their costs and risks, and come with a strong opinion on how to solve it.
Build a shared understanding on engineering as an investment thesis: Whether you own your budget or not, most likely your manager wants to make sure you are investing wisely in the resources in the company. One thing I always do is not just show what engineers are working on, but show as a percentage how much of the engineering team (sweat dollars) are being used to invest in Infrastructure/Tech debt, Product Development, and Maintainance. By breaking things down into categories and showing it as a percentage, most non-technical managers will understand there is more to engineering than building features.
Own the technical decisions: Most likely, your manager will want you to make technical decisions between build vs buy, hire vs outsource, which technology to use. It's better to present them with the various alternatives but also have a strong point of view. You are likely employed to express your technical expertise and they will need to rely on your to keep them informed of the pros and cons.
Be good partners with your peers: You'll undoubtedly have peers which also may not be technical. If you report to a CEO, you'll also be peers to the VP of Product, Customer Success, and Sales to name a few. The last thing your manager wants is a bunch of in-fighting or cross talking. Take the time to build relationships with your peers, understand the connection points between the two, and build a shared understanding to work effectively. It's much better to meet regularly with your partner in Sales to help decide on dates, functionality, etc. then to play telephone with your manager to get the Sales perspective and talk to you. Knowing that you are part of a team as part of your manager's direct report that's distinct from your engineering team that report to you will make you a better leader and a better employee.
"Understanding finance and other business related activities, even at a superficial level helps."
"It's important to both communicate that you know what happened before their eyes glaze over, but more importantly, to highlight the possible solutions and their costs and risks, and come with a strong opinion on how to solve it."
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