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What Will Make You a Great Engineering Leader

Leadership
Personal growth
Coaching / Training / Mentorship

27 September, 2020

Pete Murray, Principal Software Engineer at Electronic Arts, discusses what makes one a great engineering leader and singles out creating opportunities and motivating engineers as two key characteristics.

Problem

The discussions about what key qualities or traits will make someone a great engineering leader have resulted in a long list of all possible and impossible things. I am of the opinion that successful engineering leaders first and foremost have a responsibility to their engineers -- to create technical and career opportunities for them and motivate them as they encounter different challenges.
 

Actions taken

When creating opportunities I look at what my engineers are doing and where they want to be, along with assessing the value they bring to the business from the company perspective. When they approach me with an HR handbook that details what they need to do to get promoted I try to encourage them to understand how their professional growth is aligned with the company’s growth. The ticking-box activity from a HR handbook is often in stark contrast to the value-adding I advocate for. Therefore, I want them to answer first why the business needs them to be promoted.
 

In addition, I try to emphasize the difference between ‘being ready for promotion’ and ‘demonstrating that they are ready for promotion’. No one should be promoted because of their capability but because they demonstrated that capability. Many engineers would come to me with a hundred-line Excel sheet and would have 85 percent of them ticked. I would try to explain to them that a reference point is just a reference and it might not be what the company is looking for anymore and especially, not in the future. While this type of list could be useful for making a cake and having all the ingredients right, it is not very helpful for facilitating the growth of an engineer.

 

Creating opportunities is about putting people in a position to try out a role. A lead engineer who wants to become a senior lead engineer will have different responsibilities, including making plans, solving problems and making sure everyone’s delivering on plans. I have to create that experience and allow them to safely land, instead of blindly promoting someone and walking them through the worst-case scenario. Instead, I would create a short term project that would allow them to experience the role. They won’t be promoted, but they will be acting in that role for three months in an almost risk-free setting.
 

Motivating engineers is all about having them understand their role and higher-level purpose they have in the larger organization. I try to help them understand the difference between engineering as a job and engineering as a career. They miss that understanding because they don’t understand the higher-level purpose of their role. I use a football analogy to illustrate that: their job is not to keep a goal (to be the goalkeeper), but to play football and a higher-level purpose is to win matches. They don’t have to understand the ultimate-level purpose; understanding the team-level purpose often suffices -- what is the mission of the team and the possibility to play another position at the team (maybe they are better suited to be a defender or score goals).
 

We force career conversations as part of our quarterly conversations across the company and we have informal conversations any time needed. Engineers can talk to anyone -- not just someone in their direct chain of responsibility -- but any leader within the company. We understand career conversations as motivating sessions about higher-level purpose. I try to help my engineers envision the next level where they will have a greater outreach, more impact across the company or they’ll be able to bring other people with them and grow their team.
 

Part of being someone’s mentor includes being empowered to tell their boss to create opportunities for them. If someone is continually not satisfied, perhaps they should consider other roles they could play. However, before moving forward, many Whys need to be answered -- if they are not happy as a goalkeeper, make sure they understand why they have to stop the ball going in the net.
 

Lessons learned

  • Creating opportunities will result in strong bonds of trust between an engineering leader and their team. I would get an informal recognition that I believe in my people and that this is mutual. The most rewarding aspect of being a great leader is getting the recognition that you care about your people and that you are successful at growing talent.
  • Career progression is anything but ticking a box chart. Instead, career progression is about someone’s ability to do a job. The practical demonstration of someone’s abilities also provides me with a bargaining chip before a VP or whoever might be hesitant about promotion.
  • Shadowing is an act of learning and will help you learn but not to demonstrate new skills. Creating opportunities is about creating a safe environment where engineers can demonstrate their skills and experience the role in its fullest. Experiencing the role is crucial; I had several engineers who after six months in the new role felt that this is not what they wanted.
  • A lot of time we take for granted if and how people understand their role in a higher-order perspective.
  • There are multiple ways to address someone’s dissatisfaction with their role. They don’t have to change the company to change their role or even the team if they believe in the team's higher-level purpose. But be prepared that people can quit after having a career conversation and getting clarity about their purpose.

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