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A Terse Guide On Hiring Your First Engineering Manager (mikedebo.com)
106 points by debo_ on March 3, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 50 comments

I want to like this, but I suspect aspects of the red flags exist in any hierarchy. You can't avoid the consequence of a command structure. If you call them a manager you're inventing hierarchies of control.

I'm probably not saying much. I liked it, it IS terse, and that IS useful. But, the red flags aren't no-go, you need to tease things out.

I'm in a NFP and was employee 22-24 and now we're 100. I know the pain of transition into states with intermediate management from 2-level. I've been in the c* role for the tiny entity, I think it doesn't deserve the c* flag actually, now, I work at a lower tier and I prefer it, because the decision logic drive isn't in me. I can't always fathom what we're directed to do, and I don't like that, but I do know some aspects of work depend on commands, not on mutual consent. So, sometimes, you wind up saying "please, tech, don't politicise this internally, do the things we need in other areas" and that winds up being told to do things, not doing it to common cause, (eg when you know a solution sucks, or is an outsource, but its a booked in signed contract you have to work to so your tech input to vary the spec or requirement was lost)

Out of curiosity, what is an NFP?

Sorry if I should have known. I did try searching and found Non-Farm Payrolls, Nurse-Family Partnership, Natural Family Planning, and an insurance broker. It's not one of those, is it?

Definitely Natural Family planning. He is sperm #22

I assume Not For Proft.

yes. my bad. in OZ, we speak about the CBD all the time. Apparently, nobody else does this for the central business district. you must think we're all stoned, all the time.

NFP is used a lot in the not for profit sector, alongside NGO for non-government organisation.

The UK also has Quasi-nongovernmental organisations, referring to a general class of arms-length statutory bodies and regulatory/representative agencies that have some devolved authority but little/no direct ministerial or parliamentary oversight. They’re often still publicly funded, or have appointments by patronage, and therefore have split loyalties; or as the saying goes, it takes two to quango.

Quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organisations, in fact.

I believe that is a later backronym, although equally valid, not least since the term is satirical.

Well said my fellow Australian. Hierarchies can push people into all kinda of tribal behavior depending on the org. Checkout the book https://www.reinventingorganizations.com/ for some alternate frameworks!

Thanks. The red flags were an experiment; it was my least favorite part of writing this, as I wanted to focus on the what-to-dos.

However, I get asked about red flags so often that I finally tried documenting a few to help people get a sense.

I thought the concerns were valid. Especially the point about managers who view themselves as opposed to "the business".

My only suggestion would be to reframe as something other than red flags. Hiring is rarely a matter of binary yes/no evaluations.

In my experience, it's better to approach these as concerns that need further exploration during the interview process, or something to be flagged for additional coaching if the person is eventually hired.

That's helpful feedback, thanks. I'll adjust the wording.

I love simple frameworks like this. I think there is an interesting parallel with directions a manager must communicate. Up, out, and down.

Up, meaning that you are able to understand the goals and mission of the organization at a deep level, including questioning new directions to make sure you understand how they align.

Out, meaning you need to work with peers and indirect reports, leveraging relationships to get things done as a team.

Down, in that you need to hold your team accountable, or better yet, help them hold themselves accountable.

Thanks! If you like this stuff, I'd strongly recommend the book I linked by Alan Colquitt. It's not particularly well-written (I think it spends too much time being angry) but it's a great synthesis of a bunch of super useful modern performance management research.

>Seeing their job as “protecting” their team from “the business”

A good manager aligns his team with the business's actual, committed vision while protecting it from churn related to comments that senior leaders make in passing or ideas they are excited about for 5 minutes.

Yea this. Being able to distill what a poor upper management sees as its actual end goals vs what they want in the moment is a huge skill. Depending on your background you can see this as being a good thing or a bad thing.

These flags are priceless:

- Seeing their job as “protecting” their team from “the business” - Talking about “the business” like a foreign entity

I’ve had to clean up many teams whose weak managers tried to isolate them in mini-silos, tossing problems over the fence to nameless mythical entities.

So, it depends.

You don't want to protect the team from a foreign entity, having to understand the political structures around them or the actual value they bring to the organization.

You do want to protect them from pressures of working 60 hours a week. You want to protect them from feeling like their priorities are a shifting sand. You do want to protect them from a VIP who just goes to them and says,"can you do this for me?" which confounds another series of priorities unbeknownst to the cofounder.

If there are toxic elements of the business, you cannot completely shield them, but you do want to preserve an island of sanity.

The bigger the business, the more "protection" the job entails because the sheer number of moving pieces can subject a team to thrashing. The smaller the business, the more a manager needs to make a strong decision of if those toxic elements exist at all and stamp them out. If you need to "protect" a team at a small company, you are at the wrong company and need to get out.

I’ve found that managers who think of themselves as protectors don’t do their teams any favors. When the teams lose this protection they get surprised that reality is very different than their managers let on. (“I never realized the rest of the company didn’t think we were rock stars.”)

This can still work. The protection is when the external customer says “the output is garbage” and the scrum master says “you are doing fine”

I’ve had to clean up many teams whose weak managers tried to isolate them in mini-silos

This is the entire concept of Scrum, isolate the developers so the only contact is through the scrum master and the product owner. I agree it is a methodology for weak managers.

Here's an even more terse guide to hiring your first engineering manager: Promote. From. Within.

Two things:

1) Many early-stage companies end up with a bunch of engineers who don't want to be managers. You can't promote from within if no one wants the job.

2) These same criteria apply for promoting from within. Sometimes I chat with folks who think none of their people have what it takes to manage the team properly. Going over this model helps them re-assess.

Great points. Dual career track exists for good reasons.

If your ICs want to become managers, apply similar hiring criteria as you would to outside managers.

Also keep in mind that first-time managers can require a lot of mentoring to come up to speed as managers. If you're a small startup without additional bandwidth for proper mentoring, transitioning someone from IC to manager without proper support is not doing them any favors.

Management. Isn't. A. Promotion. It's. A. Different. Job. Entirely.

Manager here. It really is.


Promoting someone into management whose never managed before without a proper mentorship/training structure is going to be a mess 9 times out of 10. Since they are the first engineering manager the lack of mentorship/training is a given.

This just leads to people rising to their level of incompetence rather than having an effective manager. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle

I've always like the anecdote taken from Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people": hire the person who is the best manager, but don't neglect those who excel in their roles. Giving them a promotion of a new title with salary adjustment that reflects their value to the company, while maintaining their current responsibilities, keeps everybody happy.

Notably, Dale Carnegie never managed anyone and actually changed the spelling of his name to suggest to readers that he was somehow associated with wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie. I'm not sure he offers good engineering management advice and not, you know, trite pablum.

You seem to have some axe to grind about this, but it's not really helpful. Engineering management is hard, and a number of skills and traits are necessary. If ICs are willing and able to be promoted that's great, but it's not a panacea. When it comes to early scaling, even with the best of intentions the bottom line is you may be growing faster than existing folks can acquire the requisite skills. Of course hiring from outside runs the risk of cultural damage, but promoting from within runs the risk of dysfunction via the Peter principle. Choose your poison, but at least you're growing right?

Promoting only from within can also lead to an echo chamber of dysfunctional management and process since no one knows better. The blind leading the blind and all that.

no way. you'll take someone who is a great individual contributor and find they're a terrible manager since they want to turn everyone else into _themselves_.

if you're going to promote from within, please send them to a course or something. get them some real training first or you'll have a predictable outcome.

having someone cut their teeth on you as their first management position is BS and the rest of the team will probably resent your new 'hire'

That's a good chunk of the role and why they got "promoted" though! You want more such cogs, so naturally you expect them to make others into similar-behaving cogs. Otherwise they're just "admin" and you might as well automate-them away with tools and processes.

A good choice, but also bakes in some stuff. You may need to term limit this, once it gets bigger. Sucks for the original occupant but how do you change culture for the better against a near-founder?

How do you move from "move fast and break things" to being more risk averse against your obligations beyond startup phase? Might need another person, to get the other outcome.

I was promoted. I failed in role. Maybe that colours my outlook.

In my experience, companies naturally evolve away from "move fast" to "risk averse" as they grow and anyone who wants to preserve the former has to actively fight for it. There are surely examples where more stability is useful, but stasis is pretty close to the default as companies grow.

Mike Lesk (UUCP) said, easier to fill a vacuum than push substance aside. So, the s/w weight might be why this happens.

With all due respect, your failure in a new role is your own.

Bringing in outside managers is an anti-labor practice. Especially in the context at hand, where we're talking about a company's first EM.

"What if they ruin our culture?" Promote from within, so you can be sure your first EM exemplifies your culture. If you don't think your own employees exemplify your culture, you don't have culture.

"What if we lose good people because of them?" Promote from within and backfill with a new junior hire. If your engineers are so hostile to each other that they can't stand the thought of one of them getting promoted, then you have a dysfunctional company with a hostile culture. If you yourself have the prejudicial belief that your employees will get jealous, then you're actively supporting the same anti-labor culture that says that salary transparency is bad because it makes employees aware of structural inequity.

"What if they cause harm?" Promote from within, and you can be sure that they have far more historical context and product insight than a random person you might air-drop into your team.

Unwillingness to promote from within says far more about the founder and the labor-hostile culture they're building that it does about effective engineering.

> With all due respect, your failure in a new role is your own.

What possible meaning did you place on it other than that? I completely own my own failure in role. Why else would I say maybe it colours my outlook ?

Struggling to understand what value you thought you were bringing to the conversation, saying this. You really think I didn't own my own mistakes? Why?

  > What possible meaning did you place on it other than that?
The meaning is that I agree with you that your bad experience coloured your outlook. I don't think a single negative experience is a useful guide.

I do wish you the best of luck as you try new roles and advance in your career.

Agreed. That was rude.

idk about your "anti-labor" strawman here. promoting wholly unqualified internal people who have never managed anyone before and expecting them to take over a high performing team is not a good plan, nor is it "anti-labor". think about the people on the team who have to suffer as this internal candidate learns things that anyone with schooling or training in management would already know. at least send them to a course first or something. "historical context" and "product insight" don't count for anything in an engineering manager. they're not a product designer. that engineering manager should manage engineers, not plan the product. if they want to plan product, pick a C-level position where they can do that and hire a _manager_ externally.

promoting wholly unqualified internal people who have never managed anyone before and expecting them to take over a high performing team is not a good plan, nor is it "anti-labor"

So provide training and mentoring.

We have normalised in our industry that the only way to progress is to job-hop, and it's actually to the detriment of both engineers who have to jump through the ridiculous hoops of interviewing these days, and companies who lose their valuable assets every day.

> We have normalised in our industry that the only way to progress is to job-hop

I share that this is a bad state but I think this situation is an exception. Almost all the engineering managers I know got promoted into management in a company where they held an IC position before. (Almost) nobody hires engineering managers without management experience.

(Almost) nobody hires engineering managers without management experience.

Typical path I see is IC at company A, team lead at company B, manager at company C. Some people do this in entire path in less than 5 years.

this 100+ -The assumption a subject matter specialist who has fulfilled a role can become the C* is a fundamental problem. Everyone thinks it will work. Sometimes it works. Its not a given.

Managers have to learn how to be a manager. Believing anyone can do it ab initio devalues the role.

A few questions...

1. If someone was promoted from within at another company, should their next job be a senior engineer again? Should we have our managers grinding leetcode when they're looking for their next position? If there is more than 40 hours of management work in a week, does the developer stop coding? If they stop coding, how will they get their next development job? (After all, you aren't hiring managers, you're promoting from within.)

1a. If this is the case, does your management team all keep coding because their next job will require it? Will management tasks become backburner, or do you have a large cadre of part time managers?

2. If you are promoting all managers from within, what do you do when you don't have any developers who want to manage?

I was a developer for over 15 years before transitioning to management. I'm not saying I'd never take a dev position again, but I am a better manager than I am a developer at this point because I've spent my time leveling up as a manager, not as a developer.

This has the smell of dogma about it.

We wrote a similar article recently about something I’ve found essential in hiring managers - ie understanding how much mileage they actually have on the hardest decisions https://staysaasy.com/recruiting/2021/02/15/Top-Question-Int...

Interesting blog post, thanks for sharing

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