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Blog post summary: What is an Engineering Manager?

I liked the short What is an Engineering Manager? post on the AWS blog (from David Ives @ Pusher). This is a summary, but the original is worth reading and not much longer…

What an Engineering Manager is depends on many factors (team & company size, current skill sets within the team etc), but their primary concern and responsibility is to the individual (1). They are dealing with each member of the team on a personal level and are ‘in the trenches’, attached to day-to-day trials and tribulations.

The writer uses military analogies, comparing an EM to a Sergeant Major (both part of the mission delivery team and managing the experts on that team) and a CTO or VPE to a General (more detached, overseeing from a higher-level view).

I love this diagram, showing EMs being more detail and delivery focused, versus the CTO/VPE who is more overview & strategy focused:

“The EM is the interface between strategy and delivery. They will be working with the leadership team and translating directives to their team as actionable tasks and deliverables.”

The writer says that EMs should provide engineers the freedom to focus on their goals while still setting boundaries to prevent the project going of course and losing value; “a strong, but gentle handle on the work”. I liked the bowling analogy, where an EM acts as the bumper rails: “they allow everyone in the team to focus on the pins without the distraction of making the odd bad bowl”. But that the “real skill of an EM is in identifying which members of the team work best with minimal interaction and which require much more structure”. Wise words.

What is needed is “a culture of emotional safety where the team is empowered to act bravely, make decisions, and try new things without being controlled by a fear of failure.”

The writer concludes that EMs

  • Build relationships within the team while also providing great value to the Leadership Team by surfacing and communicating issues.
  • Identify high performers that need to be nurtured and lower performers that need assistance.
  • Build teams through both recruitment and recognizing the career objectives of the existing team.
  • Supports the team, provides context and acts as the voice of reason when there is debate.


(1) Saying that the primary concern and responsibility of a EM is to the individual is the one part of the post I don’t agree with. I believe the the primary concern of a EM is the team. So, for example, a high performing “brilliant jerk” who is disrupting the rest of the team needs to be addressed quickly. See also The No Asshole Rule. At more senior levels (VPE & CTO), there is also an argument to be made that your “first team” is in fact you peers – this is discussed in the excellent The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

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