Hiring Engineering Managers Part I

I do a lot of hiring, internally and as an advisor and consultant. I also read a lot about recruiting, and OMG, there are so many opinions about how to hire engineers. Everything from the interview process to take-home tests to the validity of whiteboard coding exercises has been explored and litigated. Some of my work also focuses on hiring engineering leaders for existing teams or the first engineering leader hired for an organization. Sadly, there isn’t a large body of material on hiring Engineering Managers (EMs) or most other forms of engineering middle management. So I thought it was worth sharing what I’ve learned about how to shape an EM role, who to hire, how to hire them, and what to ask to assess whether they are the right hire.

In Part I, I will talk about shaping the role and how to think about who to hire. In Part II, we’ll cover how to hire and what to ask to ensure you make the best possible hire.

What is an EM?

The first step is to define what you’re looking for in an EM. EMs exist in a weird definitional middle ground. They are often portrayed as existing somewhere between tech leads and people leaders. They aren’t. EMs are a people leadership role; leading people takes focus and time and different skills from those of an individual contributor. Indeed, becoming an EM isn’t a promotion. It’s a career change. At various points in my career, I’ve made the mistake of believing that someone can write some code and lead a team. I was wrong, and it cost both the organization and the new manager.

First, lay out the people leadership responsibilities and competencies of the role. An EM is an entry-level leadership position. The focus is on working 1:1 with their team members to create a harmonious and productive work environment and make each team member successful.

  • Coach and mentor your team members to ensure everyone understands their responsibilities.
  • Conduct 1:1s with the team to understand their status and needs and ensure everyone is performing well.
  • Manage team members’ career goals, professional growth, and ambitions.
  • Own developing and maintaining a healthy team culture.

The EM works with their leadership (and usually Product, Design, Data, etc.) to ensure they understand what the team needs to deliver. The EM uses this information in conjunction with their leadership to ensure the team has the right makeup, resources, and processes to deliver those needs.

This focus should be mirrored in the job definitions of the EM’s leadership, a Senior EM or Director. Their role is to provide mentorship and guidance on how to do that work and grow as a leader.

Now define how technical you need the candidate to be. I prefer modeling the required technical skills more in line with the mentorship and “force multiplier” aspects of a Staff Engineer. In my view, your EMs need to have sufficient technical competency to be able to:

  • Help convert the businesses needs into Engineering plans
  • Help set technical direction
  • Help the team plan and validate estimates
  • Understand if what is built is architecturally correct, built with the correct patterns, and represents quality
  • Support and grow the skills of their team

What they aren’t doing is writing code.

Who should we hire?

So who to hire? There are two primary considerations, both intertwined. The first is hiring an experienced manager versus a new leader, and the second is hiring internally versus externally.

For EMs, my preference is to hire someone with prior leadership experience. Unless you have internal talent making lateral moves or with previous experience, this choice often means hiring externally.

Before I go further, I want to clarify that I am focusing entirely on hiring for an EM in the internal versus external debate; hiring or promoting an EM to a senior or a Director. Some organizations make a habit of going outside to hire new leaders, inject fresh blood, etc. If they benefit from existing leaders, then some organizations only hire internally, positions are filled, and external applicants are sometimes not even reviewed. I think either side of this binary is a poor choice. Reviewing all available folks on a level playing field and making the best choice for the organization is healthier, providing both the potential for internal career progression and the potential to bring in new ideas. You can never go too far wrong with the mantra of “hire (or promote) people smarter than you.”

Experience doesn’t always mean Engineering leadership or even extensive leadership experience. Folks come to roles with prior experience in leadership from previous positions. Even a year doing leadership gives you a better chance that the candidate will know the broad outlines of being a leader and have likely decided this is their career ambition.

This preference for experienced candidates isn’t blanket. Hiring candidates without experience, almost always internally, has potential benefits. New managers have to be grown somewhere. Your organization could be an excellent place for the right person to transition from an IC to a leader. You know the candidate, their strengths and weaknesses, and they know you, their peers, the stack, and the organization.

There is a gotcha worth mentioning here; inexperienced new leaders will need a much higher investment in mentoring and management. If your organization doesn’t have the bandwidth and skills to make this investment, you’re better off bringing in someone external and better set up for success.

Another gotcha is the pervasive trope that looks like an easy answer: “promote” the best engineer on the team to be the EM. This idea often closely aligns with the belief that an EM can play a hybrid role, both leader and IC. We’ve already established that being an EM isn’t a promotion. So, unless your best engineer wants this career change, don’t do it. Really, don’t do this.

The characteristics that make an excellent engineer versus those that make an excellent leader are more a Venn diagram than a circle.

Even if your best engineer wants the role, you should explore the motivations of anyone internal. This trope is also potentially a symptom of individual contributors not seeing a future in the organization or their careers unless they change into a leadership track. If, for example, you don’t have an engineering ladder or structure where individual contributors see a path for growth and progression, many may make a jump to leadership despite it not being an ideal role or not their ambition.

If you move your best engineer into the EM role and things go wrong: you’re now short a leader AND your best engineer.

For every EM candidate, experienced or not, I look for:

  • Motivation: do they want to do the job
  • Empathy: do they want to help people be better
  • Do they have strong communication skills
  • Do they have experience resolving problems and conflicts

For candidates without prior experience, I delve into how they have developed and used these skills in other contexts: have they led projects or initiatives or been in leadership roles in different capacities. I once interviewed a candidate whose only leadership experience had been running an after-school care program for elementary school students. IMHO anyone who can wrangle thirty elementary school students can lead a team.

Now that we’ve got some idea of what the role looks like and who might fill it, we can move on to the how of finding the right person in Part II.