Assessing Engineering Managers

It’s that time of year where many leaders across the globe are scrambling to kick off their “performance reviews” processes or whatever ritual the company has deemed correct. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t recommend to any of my clients that feedback should be a once-a-year sort of thing. Nevertheless, given that it is top of mind for many of you doing it with the right tools can help you create the right feedback culture and healthy discussions that will grow your team. This article will focus on the force multipliers in your organization—the managers.

Objectively Subjective

It would have been amazing if we had access to objective measurements to assess managers easily and indicate where they need to improve. Unfortunately, life’s not that simple. That means that we have to come to terms with the subjectivity of how you’ll measure the different traits and skills of the managers. Across an organization, for example, if you have multiple directors who have to rate their engineering managers, it will be helpful to try and tangibly define these. Companies often put up verbal descriptions of how different levels of aptitude manifest, just as you might do when defining career ladders.

Next, I recommend coming up with a good list of skills and traits that you’d like to use. Do not confuse these with other performance indicators that might be used to weigh the different skills. As an example, I’d argue that a team’s delivery record or health (happiness and attrition) are not skills, but indicators for the leader’s ability to coach, lead, communicate, etc. Following, I will list out my default list of skills, but feel free to change this list as you see fit.

For each skill, decide what the level you would expect to see is. My clients often start with a default for the engineering manager role and then adjust it to specific situations. First-timers are usually measured differently, and some teams might require different skills than others.

The Skills

Here is my default list, along with a short definition for each. As I already said, feel free to customize these. Some of my clients define the skills somewhat differently or use others. I tend to rate these on a scale between 1-10, 1 being the person is clueless, and 10 is virtually no room for improvement.

Tech Mastery: General knowledge of the profession, maybe specialization in specific fields that are relevant to your team’s expertise. Depending on how much technical work is expected in the role, this might be more or less important.

Autonomy: The ability to provide their reports with autonomy and agency to do things on their own, delegating things where it makes sense. The opposite of micromanagement, to a degree.

Accountability: This skill encompasses several smaller traits around how well the manager can keep track of tasks and promises, as well as gain and maintain trust. An example I often use is, “when you say you’ve got something, how likely is the other person to completely trust you?”

Communication: Another amalgamation of smaller skills. Communication includes being able to convey their thoughts to their team as well as non-technical peers. It can also span to other areas that might matter more or less to you, such as public speaking.

Coaching: The skill for any leader, and one that is too often neglected. A good indicator I use is their team’s Peter Pan Count. Managers should not have team members who are stuck without improvement for years.

Product Mastery: The difference between just any random manager and a manager within your company is that they have to also have a good understanding of your product space, the market, the users, the jargon, the competitors, etc. Personally, I believe this is essential and has to be top of mind.

Leadership: I’ve written in the past about some of the aspects that are part of leadership, such as the executive mindset, instilling purpose, and having a growth mindset.

Evaluation and Action

Equipped with this list and the expected level for each of the skills for the different roles, it’s time to sit down and assess where you believe the manager is for each. After that, you will have something that looks somewhat like the diagram below. Using it, you can more easily spot where you should be spending your attention.

Assuming your own coaching is up to par, it is time to pull up your sleeves and start coaching your managers where relevant. I encourage you to pick a single area and focus on that for 2-3 months. An evaluation that doesn’t result in any action is worse than no evaluation at all. With this process—which honestly can take about an hour to set up and 30 minutes per manager to evaluate—you should have everything needed in order to do better than 90% of the companies out there.