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Good Engineering Managers Just "Don't Exist" 312

Posted by timothy
from the oh-you-wanted-good-too dept.
hype7 writes "Here's a provocative article; the VP of engineering of a Sequoia-backed startup in Silicon Valley makes the case that good engineering managers aren't just hard to find — that they basically don't exist. The crux of his argument? The best engineers get all the benefits of being leaders, but without needing to take on the rather painful duties of management. So they choose not to move up. Compare this to the engineers who aren't as strong, and use the opportunity to move up as a way to get their voice heard."
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Good Engineering Managers Just "Don't Exist"

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @05:45PM (#46241611)
    So... the good engineering managers are leading by example and managing through informal means. They are out there but since they do not have titles they do not exist. Only a manager would think like this.
  • It's personality (Score:5, Insightful)

    by docwatson223 (986360) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @05:47PM (#46241629) Homepage
    The best engineers I've met in 20 years can't deal with people or their problems. The best managers I've met have enough engineering to know what's going on and when to get out of the way.
  • by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @05:50PM (#46241655)

    The engineers are leading projects, but no one is managing the resources.

    I'm saying what I have seen to be true, but I can't imagine why anyone would go in to management to begin with in spite of some of the importance of the above statement. The biggest issue is taking responsibility for my boss (and so on up the chain). Bottom line: wall street can go fuck themselves, I won't represent that their shit doesn't stink, that it's a good idea, or even necessary. But once you have product and customers, they want to be large and in charge of the inevitable collapse they will bring, and they need that structure of managers to inflict their will.

  • Uh huh (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @05:53PM (#46241677)

    Sorry, but good positions for engineering managers dont exist.
    Source: I have an MSc and an MBA. I've heard that those are rare qualifications. What I have found: there are NO positions that want both. It's either one or the other, but never both. Business and technical are always very firewalled from each other in job postings. There are not positions that want both skill sets.

  • Re:Dilbert (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThePhilips (752041) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @05:54PM (#46241687) Homepage Journal

    No.

    That's actually one of the things he doesn't cover: good/better specialists end up doing the work, while the mediocre/lesser specialists have lots of spare time to act in a manager-like manner. Former for their achievements get more work. Later - get promoted.

  • by jcr (53032) <jcr.mac@com> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:00PM (#46241727) Journal

    I'm not at all surprised that he's not able to recruit good engineering managers to work on yet another waste of venture money. It's not a company that develops anything new or different.

    -jcr

  • Re:Dilbert (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ColdWetDog (752185) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:01PM (#46241733) Homepage

    He's not even the first. It's basically the Peter Principle. And he wasn't even the first.

    Probably originally noted by the Sumarians when they tried to get the Zuggernauts higher than two stories.

    He's really just whining and his rant shows you how out of touch these Silicon Valley guys really are. Companies like Boeing, Lockheed, the consortium that made the LHC - they work on engineering projects that would make a Silicon Valley company curl up in a little ball. You can argue that some of the megacorps are indeed getting to big to manage. Witness Boeing's stupid attempt to outsource pretty much the entire 787 in order to curry favor from various countries. As well as Lockheed's inability to get the F-35 going.

    But those projects are several orders of magnitude larger than his. He just needs to learn something from the pros.

  • Re:I know one (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@@@hackish...org> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:03PM (#46241743)

    Ah yes, the other reason there are no good engineering managers: someone who is actually focused on managing their team well, rather than playing corporate-politics games in the higher echelons, might well get fired.

  • I see his point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rilister (316428) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:04PM (#46241745)

    Having worked as an engineer and a manager in Silicon Valley, I see his point. But I've also worked in Germany, and it's interesting to see how many senior business leaders in Germany are engineers. I personally think that as a culture we (American engineers) devalue and even laugh at leadership skills. We think they're irrelevant to being a good engineer: call it Dilbertism.

    Culturally, German engineers (in comparison) see leadership of people and teams as one of their natural requirements. Engineers are reknowned for their high-handedness and taking lead in any given situation. I remember trying being in an informal situation setting a large number of tables for a party: when I started suggesting a plan, two german language students started saying "look at the engineer, taking over as usual".

    So, again, as an ex-engineer, I think our mutually reinforced disparagement of managers is part of the problem. Leadership is something we should be naturally good at, and all engineers offended by Juan's assertion should take it as a challenge, not an insult.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:07PM (#46241775) Journal
    No, it's different. The Peter Principle says, "you will be promoted until your job is too hard for you to do well."
    This guy is saying that good engineers would rather not be promoted, even though they could do the job well.
  • My view (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:16PM (#46241829)
    I work in a division of nothing but IT/IS guys (and girls) and our manager is a brilliant programmer. He's also a terrible boss. You want to be a good boss to your IS/IT/Engineering gang, here's how you do it: (1) Trust them to make the right decisions. This part alone is 90% of being a good manager. If you trust your employees, then number (2) won't even come up (2) Don't be a micro-manager. If you hired good people, give them a task, and sit back and let them do it. Quit getting in the way, it just breeds resentment or apathy. (3) Praise them in public, chastise them in private. If they do good, announce it loudly to everyone you work with, and everyone in the company. Show them you like what they did, and they will feel good about where they work. If they screw up, *gently* chastise them in private. Don't berate them, or belittle them, tell them what they need to do to fix things, and then let them fix it and go on. Don't keep bringing up their past mistakes. (4) Don't bog them down with pointless meetings and/or stupid paperwork. You hired idea people, don't kill their enjoyment of being creative by giving them scut work, take that upon yourself. (5) Look at the big picture. That's your job. Let them worry about how it's being built, you worry about the end result and where it fits in the company. (6) Back your team. Fight for them. If they need something (more resources for example) go get it, don't question them endlessly or needlessly about why, it's your job to ensure they have the tools to do their jobs. If questions are raised by other teams/managers about what they are doing or what they need (X) for, find out from them in private, but state it publicly. It's not hard to be a good manager, but too many people seem to be unable to do so. (posting anon since my boss reads this site)
  • Re:not exactly (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Grishnakh (216268) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:22PM (#46241873)

    The most talented might have some other quirks, such as not enjoying endless meetings, pointless bureaucracy, idiotic politics, and this would render them unsuited for a job in management. Of course, the other managers rephrase this as "doesn't play well with others".

  • by jgotts (2785) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .sttogj.> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:24PM (#46241887)

    No, those aren't the best engineers. Those are terrible engineers, people who have done a great job memorizing their university textbooks and they probably got all A's and can tell you 100 useless computer science facts about trees.

    The best software engineers were child prodigies who began programming as children, saw the forest for the trees at the university and didn't care much about their grades, people who have done hobbyist software work throughout their lives. These people can explain engineering to a child, admit when they make mistakes, and you can discuss with them any subject whatsoever. These people find what they need using Google, because they are great general problem solvers.

  • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:24PM (#46241895) Homepage Journal

    Go back about 40 years ago, before CEOs gathered obscene salaries, bonuses, etc for doing sweet fanny adams, and you had generations of managers who rose up through the ranks and knew the work of their associates, as they once had done it themselves. They were gradually replaced by career managers who knew nothing about what the engineer was doing, but how to play the management game and crawl up the ladder. IMHO this is why so many companies are in such trouble all the time, they are run by people who do not understand what is actually going on.

    There's a saying: Those who can't do, teach.

    My variation on this is: Those who can't do, teach, but those who can't teach manage.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:28PM (#46241919)

    Three traits define a "good" manager.
    1) They observe and know what each member of their team is working on without being intrusive by setting clear and achievable goals,
    2) They discover what their team needs to meet these goals and gets them the resources to accomplish them without needing to be asked,
    3) They contribute their efforts when and where it is beneficial, and the rest of the time stay out of the way.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:34PM (#46241961)

    So what you're saying is that the best engineers don't need no damned education because them thar book smarts ain't all they cracked up to be.

  • by James-NSC (1414763) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:42PM (#46242001) Homepage
    I'll second that observation. Ever since "manager" has become a career option in and of itself, it's attracted "those who can't do anything else and who don't produce anything of value". Prior to that being a self serving career path, managers were people who worked their way up the ranks and carried with them both the experience of being "worker bees" and the knowledge of what the pain points of the bees were. Once they became management, upper management benefited from their experience of being a worker, and the workers benefited from their experience of being "one of them" - everybody won. These days, you have managers (we have one where I work) who have never done anything else and as a result, bring absolutely nothing to the table.
  • by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:50PM (#46242067) Homepage Journal

    I'll second that observation. Ever since "manager" has become a career option in and of itself, it's attracted "those who can't do anything else and who don't produce anything of value". Prior to that being a self serving career path, managers were people who worked their way up the ranks and carried with them both the experience of being "worker bees" and the knowledge of what the pain points of the bees were. Once they became management, upper management benefited from their experience of being a worker, and the workers benefited from their experience of being "one of them" - everybody won. These days, you have managers (we have one where I work) who have never done anything else and as a result, bring absolutely nothing to the table.

    I learned these lessons from my father, who was an engineer. His manager was a managing-engineer. The person above him had been a managing-engineer. Two presidents I knew the children of, they attended the public schools, had been engineers at one time. Now the top tier of the company is a bunch of pros who live off the wealth prior generations brought to the company.

  • by Quirkz (1206400) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @06:50PM (#46242069) Homepage

    You don't think technology's pace has played a part in this? There's not only more tech and more complicated tech, so that it's hard for one person to know it all, particularly while also learning how to manage people, but it's also changing such that even if you were pretty technically sharp early in your career, by the time you've had a chance to rise to manager you're completely out of date, or quickly get there. I wonder if the environment is stacked against managers learning to be both good leaders and also keep up with tech in a way that used to be less true?

  • Re:I know one (Score:5, Insightful)

    by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:02PM (#46242127)

    Ah yes, the other reason there are no good engineering managers: someone who is actually focused on managing their team well, rather than playing corporate-politics games in the higher echelons, might well get fired.

    "Not a team player."

    But which team and what game is never directly stated.

    The "team" is not the people you manage. It is the other managers and the executives. You burn "worker bees" to protect the people on the real team.

    And that is the game. Protect the careers of the managers and executives. That's why there are management meetings and executive retreats and golf games. So you will be able to bond with the people who will be protecting you and who will expect your protection in exchange.

  • Moving up? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Chelloveck (14643) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @07:30PM (#46242331) Homepage

    Maybe the author should consider that engineering and managing are different skill sets. A person can be good at one of them without being good at the other. Or can enjoy one without enjoying the other.

    I'm not sure why it's always considered "moving up" to go from engineering to management. Ideally they're two separate but equally important roles in the creation of a product.

  • by AlphaWolf_HK (692722) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @09:00PM (#46242797)

    This isn't true at all, it's actually quite the opposite. The older line of thinking of organizations was to have a pyramid of managers, which gave line workers less autonomy. Today line workers are more empowered and organizations tend to be flattened in comparison.

    Proof: http://www.nber.org/papers/w96... [nber.org]

    In the early 1900's the highly bureaucratized management structures were largely a result of Max Weber's business principles, which started to fall out of favor in the 70's, and newer businesses try to avoid that system as much as they can. Some workers need to be micromanaged (yes, believe it or not most minimum wage workers can't tell their ass from a hole in the ground, which is why they make minimum wage) but firms where you're paid a higher salary want to avoid that as best as they can so that their employees can maximize their potential.

    And before you go "aha you sound like a manager" no, I'm not in management, not interested in it either. I'm not morally opposed to being a manager either, like some who post on slashdot are, rather I just don't think it's a very fun thing to do. I'm actually the type who prefers to simply be handed a problem and asked to solve it within the defined parameters. You do that with management (especially project management,) but a lot of times you're bogged down with accounting, and I hate accounting (and things like it, such as logistics.)

  • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @09:01PM (#46242803)

    If you're ever completely out of date, you're doing it wrong. Sure, you might not stay at the cutting edge of the latest fads, but the good new tools and techniques take 5 to 10 years to get established. If you're so out of touch that you can't pick up the buzz of something worthwhile after 5 years, and take the time to learn and master that yourself, how did you ever get through engineering school in the first place?

    Also, if your company "needs" new tech that didn't exist five years ago, maybe you are too old for that game. There's plenty of worthwhile work out there that doesn't involve gambling on picking "the next big thing" before it happens.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @09:34PM (#46242895)

    and thus we have a new variant of the "those that can't do, teach" adage that is at the heart of the education problem in the US - we don't value teachers. see:

    http://www.npr.org/2014/02/11/275368362/pay-cuts-end-of-tenure-put-north-carolina-teachers-on-edge

    and our own /.

    http://news.slashdot.org/story/14/02/13/1640215/shark-tank-competition-used-to-select-education-tech

    for exemplars.

  • by CrankyFool (680025) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @10:16PM (#46243045)

    That probably came across somewhat cranky, but is entirely accurate.

    I'm an engineering manager. Until a year ago, I was an engineer. I'm a decent engineer, though prone to quick-and-dirty hacks sometimes to solve problems rather than good long-term design. I got promoted to managing an infrastructure software engineering group (after the engineers in that group gave me the thumbs up) and in my first one-on-one meeting with each of my engineers I asked them "so what would you like me to be doing around here?"

    And you know ... yes. It turns out that if meetings need to be attended, and we have a choice between a world-class engineer attending them and a manager attending them and then passing back whatever relevant information engineers want to know, my engineers seem to prefer that I attend those meetings (sometimes. Sometimes they just call their own meetings if they think they need to).

    Generally, I consider my job to be "the stuff we need to do the engineers don't want to do" (e.g. recruiting). And I get paid less than about half my engineers (and I think my salary's a little below median for my group). Which is fair -- their impact on the organization is higher than mine.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 13, 2014 @10:49PM (#46243167)

    Wow, I am infrastructure manger, I moved up from a senior engineer about a year ago. My situation is EXACTLY like yours. I have the same meetings and I have a few engineers that make a lot more than me. Maybe one difference. There was a gap in some core technologies when I moved up (VMware and SAN mainly) so I still do a lot of hands on with but that I am slowly getting away from that because we have been short handed but we have some new guys starting soon. My guys make the suggestions, they make most of the plans, they support their own areas, they determine when they can work from home and when to come into the office, how many days they need if they have to travel to a remote office etc. Basically, they are all supervisors. I help with planning, scheduling, and the interaction with other groups and often play devils advocate.

  • by kzadot (249737) on Thursday February 13, 2014 @11:13PM (#46243259)

    Heh I agreed with the first bit. But I thought the second bit was going somewhere else.

    The best engineers are self managing, communicative, get on well with others, have a customer focus, understand the market and the domain and have an understanding of how knowledge work flows through a product development system. They understand risks and can make decisions. They don't get bogged down in the details of the latest tech toy, and are able to deliver, constantly what the customer wants with high quality.

    Good engineers can still fall short in one or two areas, that is why we need managers.

  • by jhol13 (1087781) on Friday February 14, 2014 @12:49AM (#46243487)

    In essense, good managers work for the engineers, bad managers work for upper management.

  • by VernonNemitz (581327) on Friday February 14, 2014 @04:06AM (#46243911) Journal
    Perhaps the solution is to re-think the need to manage any engineer good enough to qualify as a leader. And I'll disagree with an earlier post about "managing the resources", because that task falls under "logistics", and any good engineer understands logistics.

    So, concluding from the above, companies should hire good engineers and not hire managers.
  • by malloci (467466) on Friday February 14, 2014 @09:40AM (#46245287)

    I too work at a place where my management is promoted from the ranks of geeks. The problem? Geeks often don't make good managers. People skills are often lacking; they try to maintain that role of geek (which they were great at) and fail at the additional duties of managing.

    I'm not saying it can't be done, and i agree that Having a manager that understands technical details can be great. Having one that understands how to really manage people is 100x more useful.

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -- Albert Einstein

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