Coaching reports

Managing teams

Nebulab is a learning organization: we're in a constant process of transformation, both as a company and as professionals. This is why we only take on clients that we're excited about, and why we invest so much time and energy in the growth of every single person working at the firm.

Engineering Managers are at the forefront of that growth process. Through project work and 1:1s, they can help steer teammates in the right direction and create opportunities for them to learn freely and safely. This requires EMs to be extremely proactive and intentional about their work, and to constantly keep in mind each teammate's needs and growth path.

Promoting a teammate's continuous growth boils down to three key activities:

  1. Establishing and reviewing a learning path.
  2. Creating space and opportunities for learning.
  3. Providing continuous and effective feedback.

Establishing a learning path

Pro Tip: We started to put some of our learning paths in public for the entire company to see, in order to build accountability and learn from others. You can find them in Notion and, if you like the idea, you're more than welcome to add your own learning path there!

Most people at Nebulab have a learning path, no matter their position or seniority. At its core, the concept is fairly simple: you decide in which direction you want to grow as a professional (i.e. your vision), then compare your vision with reality to understand the gap between the two, and start tackling resources that will close that gap. As you go through the resources and get closer to your vision, you continuously re-evaluate and re-define the vision.

Learning paths can contain pretty much any resource that will help close the gap between vision and reality: it can be a book, a conference talk, an article, or a task. No matter the resource, you should encourage the teammate to take some time after tackling the resource to reflect on and discuss what they just read/watched/did. Grappling with ideas is the best way to solidify them.

When designing a learning path with your report, try to keep it realistic and don't overdo it. It can be tempting to fill the path with different topics and resources, but this can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead, remember that there's always time to expand the learning path, and tackle it one chunk at a time.

Creating space for learning

Learning and growth at Nebulab mainly happen in two environments: while working on engagements and during Investment Time.

Being a consulting firm means we don't have complete control over our day-to-day work environment. This, in turn, means that learning on client engagements must happen in a controlled, safe manner that will not hurt performance. You know your client best, so you should figure out a setup that will allow the team to learn while also delivering on business initiatives. In our experience, this usually means monitoring "experiments" closely to ensure that they stay within safe boundaries, and that key outcomes are achieved within the established timelines.

When it comes to Investment Time, you and your report have complete freedom over how to use it. As a manager, keep in mind that Investment Time should be a benefit, not a chore: you shouldn't force someone to use it for learning, if they don't seem interested in doing so.

Providing feedback

Finally, a key aspect of coaching reports is providing feedback about their performance and growth. Direct feedback is the best way to coach your reports, and it should be a regular part of your day to reflect on their performance and think about what positive or constructive feedback you can provide.

At Nebulab, there are multiple rituals that involve providing feedback to your report. Each ritual has a different cadence and a different "scope of impact", and you should use all of them in a holistic and strategic way:

  • Situational feedback is feedback about a specific event. For example, you might think your report did a particularly good job of handling a project, or a particularly poor job of communicating with a stakeholder. In this case, you should provide the feedback immediately, so that you can have a relevant and useful conversation while the memory is still fresh in everyone's mind.
  • 1:1s are best reserved for more elaborate feedback conversations, where you want face time to dig into the matter and explore it from different angles, or when you need to collect information from different parties before providing the feedback. For example, you might want to use your 1:1 with a Principal Engineer to talk about their own coaching practices.
  • Matrix evaluations are the most structured type of feedback. They are the place for really taking a step back and evaluating performance in a systematic way. Ideally, matrix evaluations are just a place for codifying feedback that's already been given in other ways—if the result of an evaluation comes as a surprise, it might mean you're not giving your report enough feedback on a day-to-day basis.

There are many best practices when it comes to giving feedback, and our standard Learning Path for EMs contains a lot of useful resources. The most important principle to keep in mind is that feedback is always a two-way street. Giving feedback requires you to listen more than you talk, because someone's reaction might provide invaluable context.

Coaching senior contributors

Coaching juniors is typically a breeze: their learning path is clear, their feedback loop is short and their progress is very tangible. Juniors are like sponges, absorbing everything they come in touch with. Your only job is to provide the right support, to unblock them as needed, and to make sure they don't get ahead of themselves by studying topics they aren't ready for.

But very often, you might find yourself coaching senior reports who either have more experience than you, or seem to have "outgrown" the traditional coaching practices. While all Engineering Managers have a technical background, they aren't necessarily required to be the smartest person in the room, or the one with the most experience. Being an EM is a career of its own, with a different skill set and different responsibilities, so this is absolutely normal.

If you're used to coaching juniors, where the path is clear and the progress very tangible, it might be scary, even frustrating to deal with a senior, where the coaching areas become more abstract and nebulous, and the feedback loop much longer. However, this is a natural progression of coaching, and you should be glad you have a high-performer on your team.

Here are a few tips for effectively coaching senior ICs:

  • Let them pave the way. You need to come to terms with the fact that senior contributors usually have a clear direction in mind for their career. They might not be as responsive as juniors to new challenges, and that's okay. Have an open conversation with them to understand how you can support them in their growth, and keep exploring different areas together.
  • Get comfortable with saying "I don't know." When coaching someone who's at the beginning of their career, you might be used to having all the answers. This will most likely not be the case when coaching a senior. Get used to not having an answer and finding it together. The best part of coaching seniors is you get to learn with them!
  • Get them to coach. Seniors have a lot to teach the rest of the team. One way to keep them on their toes is to start delegating some of the technical coaching to them—having someone with that kind of experience on the team can really multiply the results of your coaching efforts. But before you get them to coach, make sure they're on board with the idea!

Finally, you should avoid getting into a "growth at all costs" mindset. Not everyone is interested in learning new things and getting exposed to new situations all the time. Some professionals are perfectly content with where they are and, as long as they're effective ICs, there's no reason to force them in their learning journey.