Maintaining Direct, Clear Engineering Feedback While Becoming Less Hands On

Michael Marano

Technical Director, Office of the CTO at Google



There are three parts to a job with people management - managing their career development, supporting them as a human, and supporting their technical skills. As you become less hands on in the day to day routines of those that you manage, your capability to give very direct, clear engineering feedback will become harder over time. As you grow and your team grows, it will continue to be the case.

Actions taken

Based on whether or not you can or cannot manage your time or on your technical desires and curiosities, there are really two paths. The decision point is to either hand off people or find ways to get more directly involved.

  • If you can carve out time for it, be totally committed to staying hands on in some way and mentor earlier stage engineers. The way I would do that is always have one project where I am hands on some percent of the time on a day to day basis. It can be a small thing like a hackathon, but do not completely give up on them completely.
  • If it doesn't feel like you either have a technical topic that you want to stick close to or have the time and space to create that buffer, think about how you are going to create a support structure for those individuals to have that. The way I have managed that, especially with earlier stage engineers is by finding a mentor or technical leads that can give them more direct engineering feedback because they are in the day to day process with them. This can be formally through the software process, one on ones with technical leads, and/or by the changing of project partners.

Lessons learned

  • Staying hands on with at least one project is important for two reasons. To stay close to the project in order to keep yourself relevant and current, but also to allow yourself a way to directly interact and provide clear feedback for those individuals. This is especially important for earlier stage engineers, where some investment from you will go a long way, even if it's just time and attention.
  • You have to have something to do in order to stay hands on and close. If you don't, then you have to have a structure to be able to hand it off. It is beneficial to make sure somebody else can help fill the gap where you can't as a manager. Then, you can personally still kind of support more career focus stuff and long term growth, but you need someone that can be close in the details with them on an ongoing basis.
  • Backing off from the day to day know about is usually a level up and you have to be careful about the messaging of that. It is true though, that part of it, is that as you grow in your career and take on larger teams/responsibilities, you will be able to contribute technically in small ways on things in order to stay close. Not so close or continuous however, that you can give as relevant, deep, ongoing feedback to the individuals as someone who is truly on the inside.
  • I have found in my past experience that staying involved comes from the desire to start a new initiative and getting technically hands on to understand new things in order to push the team. Usually when I do that, I am pulling in more senior folks to help pickup and transition that because they will need someone in the middle to translate things.
  • Staying involved in some way or another is a way to help build muscle for you, as well as, build a relationship with and drive feedback for the other person.

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Michael Marano

Technical Director, Office of the CTO at Google

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementMentorship ProgramsPerformance ReviewsFeedback Techniques

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