Engineering Management: Choosing What To Work On
I’m currently taking some time away from my job on parental leave, and it seemed like a good time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned the last few years about engineering management, this is my second post here, a followup to my post on What EMs do
In my last post I listed a bunch of different things that engineering managers can do to produce value. Given the sheer number of things that engineering managers can consider doing to help their teams and make an impact, the next question quickly becomes: how do I balance my time and work on the right things? I think of this in terms of maintaining rhythms, finding high leverage work, and following some principles for maintaining sanity.
There are a number of rhythms that I try to maintain every week. For me these include 1-1s with my team, our agile sprint rituals, preparing weekly updates for our VPE and CTO, and dedicated time set aside for strategic work. I focus on protecting these times and as much as possible, but also maintain a pretty high bar for what type of thing I set up as a recurring meeting or obligation. I draw a distinction here between things I do a lot, and things I try to do every day/week/sprint/month. Making it a regular commitment prevents these things from being washed away by busy periods and unlocks the compounding benefits of something that is routinely practicied.
Rhythms are a great fit for activities that are high value but low urgency, like maintaining important relationships, keeping up good information flow, and protecting time for longer term creative work. The important thing here is being selective and as I’ll discuss more below, making sure to review regularly to make sure they’re still a good use of time. Rhythms become an anti-pattern when they get disconnected from value — when you keep doing something that is no longer providing value — a zombie standup meeting or a regular meeting with another team that could just be handled through async communication. I doubt that there is a universal ideal ratio of rhythms to unstructered time, but for me personally I end up having about 20 hours each week that is preblocked for the same activities every week, and that has felt like an appropriate tradeoff between the urgent and new with the consistent and important.
With my remaining time I try to focus as much as possible on high leverage activity. As in my last post I’m borrowing language from Andy Grove’s High Output Management here — leverage is simply a term for an activity’s value relative to its cost in time/effort. So training somebody to do repeating work is often higher leverage than doing it yourself; you pay a one time cost to get an ongoing benefit of the task being completed and growing one of your teammate’s careers. If the term leverage doesn’t speak to you, you can think of the pareto principle and trying to work on the 20% of stuff that brings 80% of the value, or working “smarter not harder”. The point is to figure out what activities are going to have outsized impact and push to prioritize them.
Will Larson has a good guide on identifying work that matters. It’s focused on staff-plus engineers, but the principles apply to EMs equally well. Once you’ve exhausted low effort high value efforts, there’s more value in taking on the bigger problems that will truly impact a company. Swarm on existential issues, but otherwise try to find places to work where there’s room to make impact but you will get support. You can scale your impact by investing in people and nudging or editing other folks approaches without having to own everything yourself or by helping them finish projects that need a bit of help getting to done. And it’s important to see if there are only things that you can do. I can’t phrase this better than Will did so I would highly recommend reading the whole thing on his site. I would add that for managers ultimately all of our value will disappear if we do not have a high-performing team that is able to stick together and make progress over time. I’ve never regretted spending time investing useful time into my team.
Of course in real life, picking high leverage activities is not an exercise where we calmly sit back and pick from a neatly arranged menu of options. Instead as an EM you will be bombarded with requests for your time; meetings with other teams and departments, project meetings, compliance documentation, onboarding new employees, performance reviews, mandatory company trainings, process improvement discussions, status update requests and more. Some of these things will be high value and important, depending on the culture of your company almost all of them may appear urgent. It isn’t a productive goal to only ever work on the most important things at all time. There will always be urgent work that you’ll find you feel you need to do. However there are better and worse ways to handle this flood of urgency.
Effective managers know the importance of saying no to many things in order to focus on the essential. There’s space to grow beyond that though — a no that preserves a manager’s integrity is better than a yes that they fail to follow through on, or one that leads to them working on the wrong things. But even better is if they can work with the people making requests on their time to find ways to make the urgent request smaller, or help get it delegated to people who will grow through the work. Ultimately managers are as effective as their relationships and finding ways to say yes without getting distracted from the most important work is a valuable advanced skill. Of course the temptation can be to trade away these hard decisions and problems by simply giving more time.
Working more hours is the ultimate short term time management power move. It’s also a quick path to burnout. I try to follow a few principles to keep my schedule sane.
First it’s important to reconsider your time commitments regularly, especially any recurring meetings/commitments. Many recurring meetings degrade in usefulness over time, and even ones that should be a bedrock of a manager’s schedule like 1-1s may need to be adjusted as the needs of the participants change. I try to reconsider my calendar as a whole at least once a quarter, and anytime I have what feels like an unproductive meeting or a scattered day I try to think through whether I can make any adjustments to my schedule to improve in the future. This can be as simple as Lara Hogan’s concept of defragging my calendar to put similar things together and clear creative space, or involve reworking a meeting that has gone stale to be more useful for the team — maybe even reducing its frequency or canceling it and replacing it with an async process.
My second principle is that constraints are good. Any EM will have an essentially infinite amount of work. There’s always more training, strategy, preparation and planning that can be done. If you’re still comfortable coding that represents another near-infinite pool of potential contribution. A work till it’s all done approach simply won’t succeed. There is always more. So I try to embrace a schedule and accept that schedule as a constraint to solve for in my work. At points this has been a literal daily stopping time for me — more commonly in my career I’ve simply held a value of being there for my family and protecting family time, as well as protecting my health and time to take care of it. That has meant that at times I have flexibility to pour a lot of time into work, and other times I’m more limited in my total time to devote to work. In each case though I’m able to take a finite amount of time and do my best to optimize it for the challenges in front of me.
Stay Sane, Keep Your Integrity, and Remember That People Matter The Most
Managing your time in more senior roles is hard. You’re not given the direction that you may have gotten used to as an IC engineer, and a lot of the most important work won’t have a timer or anyone yelling at you to get it done. If you’re struggling with this I recommend giving yourself grace. And if you take anything from this piece I hope you remember to protect yourself with constraints so that you stay sane, avoid compromising your integrity by over-committing and ultimately err on the side of investing in people. In 5 years it will be the people you’re interacting with today who are going to have the biggest impact on your career, and as I look at the scope of the rest of my life I expect it to be my impact on people that I remember for better or worse, much more than the results of a project or whether I nailed a certain process for my team.
More Engineering Management Posts
This is part of a series of posts on Engineering Management. You can see the whole series here.