One of your core responsibilities as an Engineering Manager at Nebulab is to oversee the execution of the projects under your mandate. Most Engineering Managers only lead one external (i.e., client-facing) project, although some EMs may run internal teams instead.
At its core, leading a successful team at Nebulab boils down to consistently supporting the client, the team and Nebulab.
Supporting the client
Creating value for the clients is about understanding the context your team operates in, coordinating the work your team does, and constantly finding new opportunities for your team to be valuable:
- Understanding the context. The best Engineering Managers at Nebulab have a knack for diving head-first into foreign industries and verticals and getting as much context as possible, so that they can use it to inform their day-to-day work and decisions. You should use every opportunity at your disposal to connect with subject matter experts in and out of the client's team: it will help you understand their desires and motivations, and it will reassure them that you have their best interests at heart.
- Coordinating the work. The code that gets written is only the tip of the iceberg. Below that, there's an ocean of "glue work" that often remains unseen, but is critical for the team's success. That glue work is the bread and butter of EMs, who are responsible for doing whatever it takes for a team to run smoothly. That might mean breaking down a project into small, digestible chunks, connecting people on different teams, or handling some bureaucracy so the engineers can focus on writing code.
- Finding the opportunities. EMs should be constantly on the lookout for new opportunities to create value for their clients. Perhaps a project might go faster if the team had one more frontend engineer, or there's a project on hold that the team might execute immediately. As an EM, you're in a unique position: you understand the client's needs, and you also know the team's capability to execute on them. The ability to use this kind of understanding to the project's advantage is what makes EMs invaluable.
Supporting the team
Good Engineering Managers coordinate the team to execute on the client's vision. The best EMs, however, go one step further and align the client's and the team's interests, so that everyone feels like they're part of a single team, working together towards a shared vision.
Creating this kind of environment is more art than science, but here are some battle-tested practices that will help you drive the team in the right direction:
- Encourage cross-pollination. Some consulting firms create an "us vs. them" mindset, where working with clients is seen as a necessary evil. They do this by minimizing points of contact and creating "gatekeepers" such as project managers. We do the opposite: we encourage the team to interact with clients as much as possible, promoting public communication and direct interactions. This helps the team learn more about the client's vision and industry, and feel like they're part of the client's mission.
- Allow people to take ownership. As a manager, you might be tempted to own every single goal and initiative your team commits to. This kind of micromanagement will alienate your team and lead you to burnout. Instead, find ways to cleanly and responsibly delegate ownership to your team, and limit yourself to supporting them. This will seem scary at first, but it will bring out the best in your team, and it's the only sane way to scale your workload in the long term.
- Create space for learning. In an ideal world, your team members will be learning something new with every single initiative they undertake. While this may not always be possible, and boring work will always be part of the job, you should continuously look for ways to create learning opportunities for your team, by putting the right people on the right projects and creating safe boundaries for experimentation and innovation. You can read more about this in Coaching Reports.
One aspect to keep in mind is that there's a fine balance between empowering your team and protecting them from external pressure and time wasting. The latter activity is commonly referred to as being a shit umbrella. Finding the right balance requires time and constant introspection, and it's possibly one of the most valuable and critical aspects of management work.
Engineering Managers are in the perfect sweet spot between hands-on and executive work: they interact directly with teammates and clients, so they have first-hand understanding of how well our values, practices and policies translate into the real world; at the same time, they report to the Directors, so they also have the resources they need to ignite company-wide changes (e.g., through the peer-level meeting).
In addition to ensuring the project's and the team's success, you should always be on the lookout for ways to improve Nebulab as a whole. Are there are any practices in your team that you're finding particularly beneficial or detrimental? What could improve your team's life and happiness? How can we as a company better serve the needs of our clients?
While not a part of your day-to-day work, these kind of introspective questions should be a core part of your job here. None of our policies are set in stone: we're continuously reinventing ourselves to become a better workplace for our teammates and a better consulting firm for our clients, and we can only do that with your feedback and suggestions.