Reflecting on one year of being an Engineering Manager

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey

Shortly after joining Babbel I had the opportunity to lead a newly formed team as the Engineering Manager. Since I was feeling comfortable with my Android Engineer responsibilities and already doing parts of a manager’s daily work, I had hoped that the new challenge wouldn’t be that difficult. Some parts like stakeholder management, splitting up complex topics and leading a team to deliver user value are similar to what Senior, Staff or Principal engineers need to do anyway.

Now, one year later, I can say it was quite beneficial to jump in with confidence but I can’t deny that I fell on my face a few times along the way. The experience was overall positive with plenty of good moments and memories throughout. This post is a reflection of my most important and unexpected personal learnings.

Every person requires a unique approach

Every person is unique and, depending on the exact team composition, you might have colleagues from different generations and cultures who speak various languages and have distinctive past experiences.

Some of them might come prepared with their career plan, some might not know what they want whilst others may be comfortable staying at the professional level they are at. Some might be goal-oriented, getting things done as soon as possible and filling missing information gaps as they see fit. Others might require a perfectly written ticket to start, but then deliver flawless software. Often it’s somewhere in between both extremes. There exist many comparison scales, which illustrates the complexity of managing people.

Coming from an individual contributor you might have your preferences, but now it’s about the team and what they need as a whole to be balanced, diverse and successful. Having an obedient team that never questions senior decision-making is not productive, but rigorously discussing everything in detail before you even start is also not fruitful. Delivering fast and cutting corners can be great until at some point tech debt comes back to bite you. It’s about balance and it comes from diversity. Success is what follows when things work well.

Your responsibility here is to get the team working well together. This means having a unique plan for every single person. Focusing on strengths or improving weaknesses are generic statements that just sound nice. Depending on the person, skill and overall team composition you would need to react accordingly. A good team is one where one’s strengths and others’ weaknesses are well balanced.

Furthermore, you likely need to have a unique communication approach for every direct report in your team. This means having a different 1:1 agenda and cadence, personalized goals and building a personal relation.

It’s worth noting that the effectiveness of your approach will only become visible at a later point in time, so it’s worth having confidence in your decisions and carrying them on for some time before adjusting your approach.

I see this as one of the best parts of the job. You are not just managing people. You are helping them grow. They are doing the work on their own and you are standing on the side, giving them hints, asking guiding questions and pushing a bit when needed. But at the end of the day it’s their journey and you are helping them navigate it.

If you don’t individualize your approach, people won’t be as effective or satisfied as they can be. Some may find it challenging to conform to a standard that doesn’t accommodate their unique strengths. This could lead to a loss of motivation or a gradual decline in engagement. Not making the extra effort to personalize your approach might be interpreted as apathy and, in return, may cause some people to disengage or simply ‘check out’.

And if you think this is too much work – this is your main job. You are their manager. This is the most important thing you need to do. Becoming a manager and having growth conversations with your direct reports is one of the most rewarding parts of the job!

If you do this well, most other things will fall into place. If your direct reports all feel valued and have the space to grow and take responsibility you might not even need to do much related to planning and delivery. People can be amazing if you just create space to be themselves and opportunities to go for.

Business outcome matters, not team output

Becoming a manager means you are responsible for a whole team. You might think your job is to make sure people work and get things done. And while this is not false, it’s not your actual responsibility. First and foremost, it is people management, secondly is actually delivering user value.

Improving ways of working to get the team to deliver smoothly is a challenge. But this does not guarantee you will have business impact. A well-oiled machine can go really fast but in the wrong direction. You, together with your designer, product manager, research and analytics are tasked with choosing the correct path. You might say that this is not your responsibility, but I beg to differ.

Your part there is to properly understand user problems and discuss solutions along the viability and feasibility scales. If something is technically impossible in the given time frame, do you need to hack a way around it or use a different approach to achieve the same outcome? How do certain solutions fit the company’s current and future technical architecture? What are enablers or tech debt that support or hinder some solutions? There are many questions that look at the problems from a different angle and help you make the right decision in order to move forward.

It’s easy to come up with the best technical solution and complain that you don’t have the time to properly create that oil-painting masterpiece. But if a small sketch delivers the same user value and gives you more time and resources down the road then why is this even a question? In case the sketch or the masterpiece don’t solve the problem at all, then you know you tried something small and learned from it. Sketching a lot to draw a masterpiece later is what most artists do after all. Don’t confuse great code with great product. If no one is using it, what value does it really have?

Meetings are not bad if you get value from them

Meetings get a notoriously bad reputation. Remote work and “quick syncs” haven’t helped at all. And it’s quite understandable. We have all been in bad meetings. It’s not out of the ordinary that people miscommunicate, agendas are arbitrary or at the end everyone is more confused than at the beginning. 

Async communication has its time and place. It’s a great way to interact with others without interrupting work or expecting an immediate answer. It lets people gather information and respond properly and thoroughly. Furthermore, once written down it’s forever there, making it easy to look back or get new people onboarded.

Nonetheless, sometimes discussions would require hours or days of asynchronous communication and you can’t be sure everyone read or understood everything. In other cases you just need a fast response on multiple questions. There are many scenarios where talking to people directly is the best thing to do. And that’s what meetings should be about. Quickly sharing information and making sure everyone understands it. 

Having said that, starting conversations async could definitely help set up the scene and get people involved in the topic. Sharing some pre-reading and creating a clear agenda adds structure and focus to the meeting. There is nothing more frustrating than spending the whole time talking about what the meeting should be about.

Also while setting up the meeting you need to make sure everyone that needs to be there is there. There might be a lot more people you could invite, but do they need to participate? Who are the decision makers or who has the knowledge needed in this meeting? Invite them and just share a summary to everyone else. Fewer people requires less moderation and leaves little room for someone to slack off. It also makes people take responsibility and find their replacement, since everybody owns their part of the discussion.

Once started, meetings can easily go in any direction. It’s worth keeping track if you are still talking about the topic at hand. If not, just take a note to not fully forget it and steer the conversation back to align with the agenda. Those tangent thoughts and discussions are not necessarily bad and can be the beginning of great ideas or products, but their time and place is not during this specific meeting. If you decide to completely change the meeting topic, go for it, but make sure everyone is onboard.

It might go without saying, but time is a limited resource and the faster you get things done the better. It’s not about obsessing over productivity, but trying to keep the attention of many busy people to discuss trivial or non-relevant things for the majority of them isn’t going to work. If you want to chat with those people, finish the meeting and go for lunch or coffee with the specific ones. No need to keep everyone else listening to your podcast.

Another good practice for meetings is asking closing questions to get everybody aligned. This then sets the scene for formalizing next steps and making clear what is expected from them in the future. Action points need to have a responsible person and deadline assigned. Then you’d know for sure that everybody is on the same page.

Meetings are a tool. They can be used well or poorly and it’s on you to define that. You can follow the general guidelines from above, see what works and create your own style based on meeting participants and company culture. What is clear is that we are humans and need to collaborate with one another to get things done. Meetings are a great way to do this.


The engineering manager job has a lot more hidden gems than I initially thought. Working with people can be a great thing if you approach every situation with empathy. Even though the output is not as instant as with programming, you do notice the cheerfulness and gratefulness of your team along the way.

Not seeing the direct output is also a blessing in disguise since output doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s about your outcome. Excelling at people management means your direct reports are heard, appreciated and set to become their best selves. There is also a business to run and moving the needles is what is important. If I could choose again, I would definitely take the same path.

Photo by Jamie Hagan on Unsplash

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