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Common Pitfalls of New Engineering Managers

Feelings Aside
Toxic Atmospheres
New Manager

10 May, 2021

Bob Kruger
Bob Kruger

Sr Director of Software Engineering at OPSWAT

Bob Kruger, SVP Engineering at SunView Software, recalls some of the common challenges new engineering leadership faces, and a few effective strategies to overcome those challenges.

Problem

Imagine this: you are a creative thinker! You can conceive next generation technologies, and how to assemble them behind the scenes. You are the go-to person for technical glitches or other questions about the engineering organization. You represent the team and not just yourself.

Maybe you’re recent to the role or been in it awhile, but you find it hard to speak up. Most everyone is somewhat afraid of being wrong, and with engineers, they want to be always right. They are not keen on people saying “this doesn’t make sense” … or worse.

I worked very closely with a co-founder of one of the tech giants, as well as many other significant companies. Many of these people had very strong personalities and opinions, and sometimes were almost abusive with their remarks. Of course, many are not this way today, but as a less seasoned manager, it was more than a little scary to present new ideas. I questioned how to survive and grow in my role if I could not handle these sorts of upper management challenges. Not only that, I observed that many new engineering managers, and even smart engineers, shied away from sharing brilliant ideas merely because of such intense superiors.

Actions taken

Often, before going into a meeting with senior management, I didn’t just do my homework or think about the great things that I had to say; instead, I thought about some of the big mistakes or majorly wrong prognostications that my superiors made. I reminded myself that nobody was perfect and that even the smartest people make mistakes. What made these people so successful was taking risks and not being afraid to air their viewpoints. They welcomed challenges and I had to do likewise, in addition to summoning up the courage and mental support I needed to present my position.

I could cite many examples, but one was at a session where we were assigned to teams with each team given a problem to solve. During this time, we were observed by the senior executives and cognitive psychologists, where they frequently stepped in and out of the room with clipboards to note how future leaders interacted with each other. Each team eventually presented its results, and my team went first with me volunteering to lead the presentation since I had assembled all the slides.

30 seconds into my pitch, I heard that was the “stupidest f***ing thing” and on its heels I heard the claim made by someone else, but significantly louder. Okay, it was game-on. Aside from trusting my team to support me, I knew that I had prepared in depth and recognized that these guys didn’t have all the answers. (In the end, we completed the presentation and our competitors did as we had strategized two weeks later.)

Another, less confrontational example, pertains to people being quick to say no to big ideas, rather than saying yes and figuring out how the idea might work. Not every idea deserves to see the light of day, but too often we dismiss things without giving them a chance. I recall a formal, multi-day brainstorming session with a bunch of my teammates at one company. One of the outputs that we came up with was a “software guarantee.” The idea was that our software could be implemented, done within a specific timeframe, and provide timely value to people. If we couldn’t, we would refund the cost of the software. No other software company did that, yet we devised parameters that made it possible. The idea drove revenue … and our competition crazy.

Lessons learned

  • Find a way to sustain your confidence. Remember, even the most successful company leaders make mistakes. They don’t let these mistakes keep them from proposing new things. Bear in mind too, that these leaders cannot necessarily do everything you do … which is why they hired you.
  • Sometimes the craziest ideas turn out to be the best ones. Think about saying “yes” before you say “no.”

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