Managing an Engineer’s Career Development in a Fast-Paced Environment
2 August, 2020
Managers play a critical role in the career development of most, particularly junior, engineers. They can help junior or less experienced engineers grow both personally and professionally, find the right roles for them, and align their own objectives with company goals. As a result, you will have more productive and happier individuals and teams; inspired and thriving they will be able to contribute more to the company.
Startups, unlike big brand companies, don’t have the luxury of a safety net with their well-defined job roles and departments that make a career development smooth and structured. In addition, many-hats roles notorious for startups, risk of burnout, and a short life span of startups require from us, as managers, supporting our engineers even more. Personally, I want the engineers I work with to remember this as the place they have completed their best work and use that opportunity as a springboard for their future successes.
Everyone prefers to be managed in a certain way and you should learn about those preferences during the regular one-on-ones. One-on-ones are the cornerstone to building an honest and respectful relationship between a manager and an engineer. I like to customize them to the engineer’s liking. Everything can be subject to customization -- from the frequency of your meetups to how you are talking to people.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, those meetings would take place in person, but nowadays I try to recreate as much of it as I can through video or phone calls. While we were still having one-on-ones in person, I would find the most suitable setting for each person -- we would go for a walk, ice cream, or even a pub; others would prefer more formal office setting -- again, some favoring sitting opposite or next to me.
Once the setting is in place I would plunge into a conversation trying to learn more about what they want from their career and getting that out. Our industry is fundamentally flawed if the only progression for technical people is to go into line management. We have to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole people into that path. If they want to do technical, hands-on things for the rest of their life, we should put them into that track and allow them to excel as technical leaders and make most of what they are capable of.
I like setting individual SMART objectives that are ideally aligned with broader business objectives and OKRs. The SMART methodology allows me to create and track short- and long-term objectives that are specific and measurable (and everything else SMART stands for). I check in at least quarterly and typically when setting them they are scoped quarterly and thus remaining more relevant. Sometimes, only one objective per quarter should be set to be able to focus on an individual’s progress.
I also believe that releasing people from their day-to-day work activities to allow them to pursue their own projects (in the vein of Google) is very important. We let them dedicate 10% of their working hours to their own projects and experiments. We only ask that it is relevant for our industry and/or technology and they can go for it without asking us for permission. We encourage them to block their calendar, delve deep into the project, and arrive with some innovation and excitement to continue doing what you are doing.
I also attempt to limit the surprise elements and avoid “dropping-in” to catch up with the objectives and allow engineers time to prepare for their tasks. By doing so, I make sure they are prepared, can calculate the workload in advance, and are not stressed out and can be entirely focused on a task at hand.
- People want very different things. The same applies to how people like to be managed. Moreover, this approach -- tailoring your approach to fit every individual -- is something that yields the best results. Figuring out what people want is not something hard to understand if you really listen to people.
- Don’t send people down the management roles if that is not where they want to be. They often get confused about what leadership or management means and you should clarify that for them. The lack of consistent language is pervasive across the industry and it additionally confuses people about their career choices.
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