How To Manage Engineering Teams: The Best Advice I’ve Ever Received

Name Tim Shieh Platform Associate at Pillar VC

When you’re heads down building a company, it can be incredibly hard to find time to connect with peers – yet it’s always so refreshing to learn from other people who are in your shoes. 

Last year, we pulled together a group of VP of Engineering leaders for a quarterly breakfast where we spend time together trading ideas and insight, tips and tools.

At our last Engineering Leadership Breakfast a few weeks ago, we asked each of the 25 engineering leaders who joined us to share the best advice they’d ever received about how to manage engineers. We’re sharing what we learned below.

Don't assume that your team of engineers is a team of people like you.

You’ve probably heard about the golden rule – treat other people the way you want to be treated. Perhaps more on the mark is the platinum rule – treat other people the way they want to be treated. You might like to jump right into problem-solving, but that doesn’t mean your team does. One of the most powerful lessons you can learn as a leader is to recognize people as individuals, acknowledging differences in their communication styles and motivations. Figuring out how to harness people’s collective strengths will help you unlock a tremendous amount of potential in your team.

It’s impossible to over-communicate.

Particularly in a remote world, you can never over-communicate with your team. One of the most important responsibilities of any leader is to ensure that your team has a clear sense of vision, that everyone is aligned and rowing in the same direction, and that each individual on your team understands how they impact your mission and objectives. It’s impossible to over communicate – repetition is key!

More than anything, your success depends on the people who report to you.

Your team will lift you up as a leader. Make sure you invest in their growth and development, and give them the tools and the clarity they need to succeed. Hire people onto the engineering team that you can trust to give really clear ownership of a specific area. Free yourself up to think at a macro level, and let people on the team take something and run with it, owning an area of the organization where they bring unique expertise and capabilities.

Create psychological safety to build trust.

Over two years, Google conducted a study that included 200+ interviews with their employees, and looked at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. One of the five traits they identified among successful teams was psychological safety – environments where team members feel safe to take risks and vulnerable in front of each other. Lead by example, embracing failure as an opportunity to learn, to help people feel comfortable making mistakes. 

The new cadence for iteration is rapid – set goals accordingly.

Moving away from annual goals to quarterly (and even shorter) goals creates a more organic structure for rapid iteration. Set clear goals, but also accompany each goal with clear success metrics to help you measure your output. Sprint metrics as well as architecture spikes, design spikes, technical spikes, etc. allow for better predictability in your execution. Keep in mind that unexplained variance between hitting a goal and not sometimes comes down to having more maintenance than expected; maintenance considerations should be an important component of your planning process. You have to treat your operations as part of your product if you’re a SaaS company.

And finally...

Perhaps the most important advice we heard was to remember that hope is not a strategy. Always tell the truth; resist feeling pressured to give a solution or a timeline that is unachievable. Your team will appreciate your honesty, and you can only start to create a plan when you’re facing reality head on.


For more highlights from our Engineering Leadership Breakfast, check out How Startup Engineering Teams are Adapting to Remote Work and Building Collaborative Cultures.