This post is the first of a series devoted to four engineering management roles that can boost an engineering team’s velocity and impact. The other roles include The Nowist, The Cloner, and The Futurist. These roles are also related to the six engineering roles laid out in an earlier post: 6 Unique Engineering Roles Designed to Boost Development Velocity, but are focused on management roles instead of engineering roles.
Management is about building the really hard stuff. It’s the bloody, sweaty, teary, gritty job of getting a group of human beings to build something beautiful together. Sometimes, it can feel like playing the game of engineering in Hard Mode.
I’ve observed the most successful managers taking on four distinct roles that help them beat the engineering management game. These roles are archetypes for management. They are based on personal experience and observation, not any management theory. They also don’t demonstrate everything a manager does, just those that I think are most overlooked.
All managers possess elements of each of these roles. They might be particularly good at one of them, or be able to do each of them a little bit. But the best managers master all of them.
As you learn about the four roles (in this and subsequent posts), hopefully you’ll see something in each one that you can learn from and emulate. Think about how strong or weak you are at each role, and who you know most embodies each one.
Role #1: The Critic
Critics are obsessed with feedback, and they offer it constantly. But they don’t just deliver their own feedback, they build an environment where feedback thrives, where communication is always flowing.
Critics are extremely sensitive to how long it takes before the feedback is offered. Where a typical manager might offer feedback once a week during 1:1 meetings, a Critic offers feedback to everyone around them, continually.
They do this with various habits, like pulling people aside after meetings, walking by someone’s desk at the end of the day, writing a little email after a meeting.
Critics give feedback to everyone. The feedback doesn’t just go to their team members, it goes to everyone they come into contact with—up, down, and across the organization.
Doing this requires tact, of course, because they’re often offering feedback to people with whom they have less-established relationships. But Critics view feedback as a gift, not a battle.
The strange thing is, when an effective Critic offers feedback, the recipient almost always appreciates it because they can tell it comes from wanting everyone to be better. In fact, people may even be unaware that it is actually criticism.
Critics are the best coaches, helping point out things that will make others more effective, or helping others realize it themselves.
Where does it come from?
How do Critics acquire the information that powers all this great feedback? A good Critic knows what’s going on everywhere. They seem to have ears throughout the organization, and they are the ones who hear things before anyone else does.
Critics deliberately monitor their environment, to give them rich information all the time. For example, how would you know if someone on your team is off track on their project? Would you notice it within half a day? A Critic would, because they set up their environment to tell them.
Feedback is a team sport
But a Critic doesn’t just want to give feedback. They view feedback as a team activity, something that they want everyone around them to do. A Critic’s team tends to be a high-feedback environment with a high level of trust among team members.
To build a high-feedback team, a Critic subtly encourages the team members both to feel safe with each other and to give each other feedback in a way that is useful to the listener. They encourage an environment where people don’t hold back their opinions and everyone is heard, but also where people look forward to getting the feedback on their pull request, for example, because they know it makes them better. They build pride in accepting feedback in the team.
The downside of politeness
Critics also have an interesting take on politeness. To a Critic, politeness is a sign your team members don’t trust each other yet, that they haven’t learned to deal with conflict.
A Critic builds team trust partially by contextualizing feedback. They provide a continual commentary that helps the team members know what to do with the feedback they hear. So if someone is picking apart a design in a team meeting, for example, a Critic will make sure the individual whose design is addressed is properly supported, but also emphasize the importance of the team providing great feedback.
Critics also coach team members to show their work early, when it’s still rough, and help them learn to manage the barrage of feedback. Critics teach team members to be in the driver seat, constantly looking for useful information, but not feeling beholden to every suggestion coming their way.
When Critics go too far
How do you know you’ve gone too far as a Critic? One concern is that Critics remain focused on action, not just on communication and feedback.
Critics also have to build up the necessary trust to make sure their feedback is being well received. Critics must be open to new ideas and present their input as their opinion, not the undisputed truth. Without tact and care, Critics can be seen as jerks. The worst situation is one in which the people around a Critic feel like they have to defend themselves all the time.
Tips for aspiring Critics
Want to try being a Critic? One trick is to divide your meeting notes in half. Use the right side to track how team members participate, and how they could have been more effective. After each meeting, make a point of quickly providing team members with any important feedback.
Obviously, it’s important to monitor your environment as a Critic. Your relationships with team members are critical, but that’s only the beginning.
Traditional ways to gather information include standups, demos, sitting together in the same area, or adding a virtual chat room. You can also set up digital feeds of information, or explicitly ask people to let you know if certain things happen. Ironically, the higher your position in the organization, the less information you’ll receive. Maximizing your signal-to-noise ratio is essential if you want to progress as an engineering manager.
One of the tricks behind this is that a Critic is willing to be vulnerable with the people around them, and show their own foibles and weaknesses. They often start by asking for feedback, or explaining their own issues, before moving on to share the feedback they want to offer. This makes it seem like an exchange, and showing that you’re vulnerable is often the best way to establish the trust you need to offer effective feedback.
Finally, the hardest thing for many managers is giving hard, critical feedback. It can help to plan out how you will handle the conversation beforehand, and run it by other managers to calibrate your approach. Also, make it clear to yourself what a successful conversation will look like. Very often, it will only be successful if you haven’t shied away from having a very direct conversation.
We’ve covered much of what’s involved in being the Critic. Stay tuned for a look at the other engineering management roles. Next up, the Nowist!