Great Engineering Managers

Posted on ,4 min read

This is my curated list of qualities that great engineering managers exhibit. I’ll try to keep this list updated as I learn more about great engineering managers.

  1. Direction, protection and order: A great leader shows their team a clear direction to take (vision), protects the team from failures and uncertainties (appreciation, empathy, growing people), and goes about the whole process in an orderly fashion (no chaos, well planned, well communicated). I learned this model from Ralf Herbrich.

  2. Product thinking: A great leader shows exceptional product thinking, in deep understanding of what needs to be done and what are the most important metrics and KPIs that make for a successful product.

  3. Technical superiority: A great leader understands different technology choices (e.g. SageMaker vs running an in-house k8s cluster, Monorepo vs Microservices, Scala vs Kotlin etc) and can correctly predict how one or the other will shape product needs in the future. A great leader can identify reversible and irreversible technical decisions, and when to accelerate or decelerate, which tech debt to live with and which needs attention immediately.

  4. Tactical superiority: A great leader is tactically aware of (a) which skills, (b) which people, and (c) what combination of people are best positioned to deliver and ship a product. Think Moneyball.

  5. System design: A great engineering leader is especially well versed in system design. They understand the depths of data processing, cloud computing, security principles, design patterns and general good coding principles. They are able to question and guide their engineers in the choices that they make.

  6. Communication superiority: A great leader tells riveting stories with pristine clarity and effectiveness. Their style usually cuts bullshit like the sharpest sword you know. A leader rallies all of the team and more broadly a company with their stories. They are inspiring and at the same time grounded in reality.

  7. Culture: A great leader is responsible for their team and company’s culture. They engineer the environment to ensure great culture prevails. They assemble the Avengers, read people like a book, and smell subtle imbalances from a mile away. They embody what they want to see in others — do as I do and not do as I tell you to do.

  8. Best reader of the room, and the house: A great leader is situational. They understand the context and the situation they are in and make the best decisions for the situation. They have superior understanding of cognitive biases. They read the room. They size up the cards that they’re dealt with, and can play the house and win against the odds.

  9. Get things right: A great leader gets things right more often than not. They do this with the idea maze. They think deeply about all possible paths that they can take, and then brute-force compute the best path. They live this path, and then make it happen. I learned this model from Chris Dixon.

  10. Street smart: A great leader is street smart. They have a world model in their mind heavily oriented with common sense. They use this to make decisions with ease. They’re often many steps ahead of the curve and are the first to see the light. This is their GPS. They play by the rules of the game if needed, but don’t hesitate for a second to change the rules of the game when needed.

  11. Parent: A great leader is also a great parent. They ground themselves in strong values, behave with integrity, and lead with empathy. They conduct their business with a great sense of responsibility. They are a complete person, fun to be around, broadly knowledgable with diverse interests and hobbies, and someone you can trust and look up to as a role model.