It’s an oft said cliche, but the people you manage are your most important asset, far beyond any production system you maintain or code you write.
We have a responsibility, as a tech company, to mentor, develop and support engineers so they can find and evolve on their bespoke career path - whether that is with us in the long term or they ultimately move on somewhere else.
As Engineering Manager at Paddle I spend a large share of my time developing our engineers rather than code. We've doubled the size of our engineering team in the last few months so I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately!
Everyone Is Different
It can be useful to use frameworks and patterns to guide your conversations and plans, especially when managing large numbers of people, however it’s important to keep in mind how unique people are and how different their personal drivers and goals might be.
Each individual is motivated by a different aspect of their life. Some are very progression-focused and will constantly be striving and pushing for the next step in their specific career ladder, others are just finding their feet and exploring what options they have, and every nuance inbetween.
Exploring what makes an engineer tick is a genuinely fascinating part of management, where you find together what drives them and how you and the business can help to guide them in the direction they want to go.
For instance my career has taken me on a path from Junior Engineer to a non-technical Development Team Lead, only to come back to Senior Engineer at a new company to get back to what I missed, and consequently back to a management position. My managers throughout this journey helped me decide what was right for me at that time in my life, whether that was by opening doors at the current company or supporting me in getting opportunities elsewhere.
Ultimately you’re there to manage and develop the person, not the “resource”.
Engineering Career Paths
It can be challenging to design a career ladder to cater for every type of person. However for engineers you can usually cover most desires if you can give your team an opportunity to decide whether they want to stay technical or line manage, and allow for some grey areas in between.
You might achieve this by pairing an inexperienced Engineer (in terms of line management) with one who has done it before, and let them get a taste for what well-structured 1-1s are.
These, in my opinion, are something with enough consistent structure (objectives, goals, actions) to make them useful but a good section for getting to know the individual, which will always shape their development plans. Think of them as a collaborative interview, you always want structured sections, with space for culture and personal interaction.
A different career development path is taking some of the existing line management/team leading away from someone who wants to focus on being a purely technical person, giving them the freedom to try and see if they miss the developing and mentoring once it’s gone.
It needs to be made clear to everyone that these paths aren’t set in stone if they want to move between the two they are free to do so, as long as the impact on those being managed is minimised.
The Journey at Paddle
Here at Paddle we’ve grown from 7 to 15 engineers in a short period of time, with them all initially being managed by an Engineering Manager and then moving to a model where the Team Leads manage their own teams.
There is a debate between purely non-technical managers and managers who still code, however I’m of the strong belief that you want to give engineers the opportunity to try line management without going all in, so they can work out for themselves where their passion lies.
If you happen to have an Engineering Manager who manages the Team Leads, they will also benefit from a level of coaching and mentoring that sets them up with the best chance of success, and lowers the risk of having inexperienced managers.
I honestly believe developing people is the most rewarding part of being a manager, and guiding someone through the various career choices available means the industry gets more and more people who have taken the time to experiment and decide where they want their journey to take them.