Scaling yourself as an engineering manager

When you think about “scaling” in the context of engineering, does your mind jump to thinking about systems, or about growing your organisation? Or maybe both! These are topics that have had a lot written about them, but what I’d like to talk about in this post is from the perspective of you as an individual: how to scale yourself as a manager.

Everyone’s situation will vary in different degrees from others, but let’s say you’ve started out on your management journey a little while ago. You may have a handful of people who directly report to you, and could maybe be working with a team; a mix of people who report to you, and those who don’t (who may not be engineers). This is going well, the team’s doing great work, and everyone’s happy.

But then, a curveball

Perhaps your manager approaches you to let you know the great news that a new team’s being hired for, and they want you to look after that one as well. Maybe some of your colleagues have left, there’s a gap in staffing, and you need to pick up some more direct reports, or work with more teams. Or it could be that you’re stepping up to a higher level of responsibility, and find yourself suddenly looking after a whole area of the business instead of just one set of people.

Regardless of the reason you find yourself here, the management toolkit that’s worked for you before may not work well now at a wider level of scale. If you carry on as you were, you’ve effectively just doubled or tripled your workload. So how do you go about making some changes?

Learning to scale

In general, when you’re scaling up and across more teams, you need to be ok with not being everywhere directly all the time. You’ll rely more on others, and will need to think about creating systems that help you. It’s worth sitting down with your engineer hat on, asking yourself questions like “what could I make reusable?”, or “what needs to be refactored?”.

In the next few sections I’ll run through some areas that could be good for you to think about as you navigate this change. My hope is that you’re in an environment where you have some level of autonomy and can try out some new ways of working 💪🏻

1. Take stock of everything that you feel like you need to do

For me, it’s usually worth pausing to take stock before diving in. Being conscious about how your role and expectations of you have changed from before can help you see how much of a gap there is to bridge, and pinpoint any areas that you’re particularly anxious about.

Grab your tool of choice, whether notebook, post-its, spreadsheet, or something else, and get brain dumping. Map out all of the things that you expect to be responsible for, and all of the tasks, meetings, or actions that you think will take up your time, or are on your mind. Make sure to consider both direct people management activities, team-related areas, and anything else that you’re across. Next, consult with other around you. What do they expect from you? Sense check to make sure that you’re all in alignment (it’s better to have this conversation sooner rather than later!).

Sometimes even giving structure to all of this and listing it all visibly can help it feel less like a swirling, overwhelming, intangible cloud of worry, but next we’ll try to make it a bit more manageable.

2. What needs to happen and when? What doesn’t?

Some of the items you’ve surfaced may be one-offs (“write a proposal for X”), or may be ongoing (“1:1s with all my reports”). For anything that repeats, think about the cadence. What happens if it doesn’t happen for, say, a month instead of a week? What happens if you keep the cadence but cut down the time? What doesn’t need to happen at all any more, or what can you say no to?

I’ve written before about how I like to regularly defrag my calendar and use semantic calendar emoji, but it’s also worth thinking about whether your energy levels and type of work need to be shuffled to better support you through this change. Lara Hogan has a great resource on this: Manager Energy Drain.

It’s worth not only thinking about the regular cadence of events, but also for what will happen when inevitable curveballs come along, or firefighting needs to happen. For this, I really like Stephanie Richardson-Dreyer’s articulation of her “manager service levels” , which gives her a common language to use with her people if she needs to jump into a different ‘mode’ for a while.

3. Get help / help others

My next suggestion is about working with people. With your new level of responsibility, you literally may not have enough hours in the day to cover everything yourself. Bringing in other people to take on some of your items can help you, but can also be a great opportunity for them to stretch, or prove that they can take on a wider role themselves. With some items on your list, you may not actually still be the best person to continue doing it, so be sure to keep this in mind too! When delegating or handing over, think about effective lines of communication and whether you still need to get regular updates, or who your go-to people could be for others to escalate to.

Whilst we’re thinking about people, it’s also worth considering if there’s anyone you can talk to who could have experienced this kind of growth as a manager before. They may be able to help you learn what worked or didn’t work well for them. Try to make sure you’ve got someone who can give you support when you need it, either in a practical sense, or emotional whilst you try to navigate this new set of responsibilities.

4. Revisit the processes and tools you rely on

If everything’s going well at the moment, you probably have a set of processes that you’ve come to rely on. Do these still work for the scale that you’re planning to move to? For example:

  • If you’re currently having an individual catch-up with your squad’s Product Manager and Tech Lead every week but will now be across 3 squads, how about turning that into a periodic group check-in meeting, with urgent actions called out on email/Slack instead?
  • If you suddenly need to cover 10 more direct reports whilst a colleague is on sabbatical, instead of your regular 1:1 schedule what about a mix of ‘normal’ 1:1s and office hours?

It’s also worth again thinking about the processes you have in place for communication. When you’d previously pulled for updates, could you reset expectations to turn that into a “push” to save you asking? Could you set up automated reminders, or gather your information more effectively through different channels?

It may well be that this need to scale yourself causes you to re-think some aspects of your workflow that weren’t really that great anyway. For example if you’re always frustrated by spending so much time writing up 1:1 notes after each session, this could be the push you needed to use an automated Hangout transcription service which puts everything into a document!

Finally, it’s also worth giving yourself a thought exercise of how your processes break down at different levels. Say you’re moving from managing 5 people to 10. But what happens if you needed to manage 20, 30 people, 4, or 6 teams? How could you overcome the scaling issues you could face with different scenarios in mind, and what can that help you with in your actual situation? Using hypothetical situations like this can help to break out of the reality of now, and bring in some more creative solutions.

5. What do ✨you✨ need to do this well?

I mentioned above the importance of having someone to go to if this is all very new to you. Spending a little bit of time thinking whether extra training, other changes in your role, or simply whether you need a lot of confidence boosting and positive reinforcement can help to set you up well.

You may also hit a point in your scaling when you just can’t do this on your own. Perhaps you were brought in as the first EM for a company, which grew from 5 developers to 50. Doing a great job at that scale on your own would be hard, so part of your role here will be making a call on when more people need to be brought in. This is also a perfectly valid aspect of scaling yourself!

6. Share thoughts, set expectations, and keep communication open

Communicating with your team, and everyone else involved with these changes will be really, really important. Make sure that everyone’s on the same page and has the same understanding and expectations. Depending on what needs to happen, you may want this to be more or less of a collaborative process, and may want to let people know individually before speaking more generally (e.g. if someone’s 1:1 schedule is changing they’d probably rather hear from you in private rather than from a group message!).

That said, I’m personally a big believer in sharing openly about how I’m feeling, so if you’re working within an environment where you have good psychological safety, it can be great to share something along the lines of how you’re feeling and what this means, for wider visibility. As an example:

“Hey folks, as some of you may know, I’ve recently been given the additional responsibility of creating our new Web Platform team. This is going to mean X, Y, and that Z will be changing. I’m a little bit nervous about this, as I’ve never managed so many people or teams before, but I’m really looking forward to it and am excited to work with more of you! I’m very open to flexing my approach as we need, so will be regularly asking if you have feedback - please be honest with me about what’s going well or if you’d like me to do anything differently!”

Scaling up can be hard, but it’s a great skill to learn

This post came out of talking to an ex-colleague whose role has grown substantially, and they were hoping for some practical tips to be able to use. I thought that by sharing my thoughts, they could be useful to others as well.

When you’re faced with taking on a lot more than you may have been initially comfortable with, it can feel daunting! However it’s also a great opportunity to explore more about your approach to management, and to experience new situations. Hopefully some of the suggestions in this post can help you out, but I’d also love to hear about your experiences too - feel free to share them with me using @sallylait on Twitter!

Header photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash