Hiring an Engineering Manager
VP of Engineering at OctoML
When hiring a new engineering manager there are some questions that one must first think about before starting the recruitment process. For example, what do you want your new manager to do? Do you want them to be more technical or less technical? Are you hiring them for the aspect of people management? What do you think their role will be? And how are they going to help you and the team? Once you have these remedied, you can then have a better handle on how you will define the role, what traits you're looking for, and questions to ask candidates in an interview.
Defining the role There are three facets of the job that I look for in an engineering manager.
- Personnel management aspect- Coaching, development, performance issues, hiring, and so on.
- Execution leadership- How do you help a team deliver? How do you remove roadblocks? How do you do planning?
- Technical leadership- Be able to understand what the team is doing, the details, and the trade-offs the team is making, even if you are not necessarily doing the code reviews or writing the code. This is a bit dependent on the team because if there are a lot of senior people on the team, than the engineering manager can get away with being less technically capable.
Traits I try to look for some degree of willingness to admit failure, or that you have made mistakes. It seems easy to do, but I have found that people have a hard time telling someone that they have done something wrong. To get an idea, I ask the candidate to tell me a time where a project failed because of something they did or did not do.
Questions There are the standard queries to ask. For example:
- Tell me about a performance management issue that you had on your team.
- Tell me about a time that an employee was unhappy about something.
- A case where you were able to solve it.
- A case where you couldn't solve it. The question I like most and ask for my part of the hiring loop is:
- Can you walk me through a project that you were on? Describe it from inception- where the idea came from to do something – all the way until delivery. This doesn't have to be a project that you or your team came up with. The idea could have come from the CEO and then you needed to implement it. How did you get looped into the project? How did you figure out what needed to happen? How did you prioritize items? How did you include your team?
- What I am looking for is if the engineering manager did everything themselves, if they included the team, or if they included a tech lead. I want to know the process all the way through to the execution phase which is figuring out timelines, actual design, and doing the work. How did they plan it all? Did it go according to schedule or not? What did delivery look like? Was the project successful or was it not successful? I found that this question is helpful in estimating the level of involvement the candidate has with projects. Both how they interact with their team and with the broader organization. When I want to know the level of strategic thinking I will ask a candidate:
- You have two people on your team that you will need to grow to eight people over the next six months. How do you go about coming up with a hiring plan? How do you figure out what kind of talent you need to hire? To assess technical leadership:
- Explain a system that your team worked on in as much detail as you can, the overall design. Then dive deeper into asking questions based on their answer seeing how much they know. What were the trade-offs that the team had to make? How did you help arrive at technical decisions when there were disagreements within the team? How much involvement did you have?
- Decide what level of seniority you want the person to have and make sure the position is relevant to that.
- I think the questions are dependent on how senior you are expecting the engineering manager to be. The more junior the candidate the more technical their outlook is. The more senior the more strategic and the less technical they are.
- Set expectations with your candidates. For example, explain to them what they would be doing if they joined the organization. Which team they would be taking on. What the charter is. What success would look like for them. Here is what to expect in the first month, six months, and year of working with us. This way they leave the loop feeling excited about the people, the charter, and the impact that they could have. It will also make them much more likely to accept the position.
- For me, technical leadership is the most challenging piece to calculate, not because it is hard to assess technical ability but because it is hard for me to get a solid agreement with the hiring panelists on how deep we should go.
- I don't usually ask the engineering manager candidates to write code. However, this doesn't mean that there aren't technical questions. Instead, I ask them about how the system works overall.
- In the past, there were a lot of engineering manager candidates that were failing at the technical leadership stage so we adjusted accordingly. We added some level of technical screening during the screening phase to avoid this problem.
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