engineering management seriesThis post is the second in an ongoing series of posts that address how New Relic does engineering management in the real world, written by various New Relic software engineers and managers. Look for more posts in the series in the coming weeks, or see them all here.

 

There is one word the describes how we here at New Relic recognize great engineers, and what it takes to make a great engineer even better—impact!

The New Relic engineering management team gauges an engineer’s potential and progress based on their ability to impact three key areas:

  1. The engineer’s own team
  2. The larger engineering organization
  3. The company as a whole

As New Relic Software Engineering Manager Balki Kodarapu wrote in an earlier post, we measure our New Relic engineers against a well-defined promotion ladder across five primary titles: engineer, senior engineer, lead engineer, principal engineer, and lead principal engineer, and we assess each person’s growth along four dimensions:

  1. Productivity
  2. Collaboration
  3. Vision
  4. Leadership

Here’s a closer look at what we mean by each of these four terms, and how we measure each at the different seniority levels:

1. Productivity

We see productivity as an engineer’s ability to help us build and maintain the current versions of New Relic products. Productivity is all about delivering today—developing project plans, scoping work for others, owning your capacity planning, and so on.

So what makes for a productive junior engineer versus a productive senior level engineer? The same general behaviors, with an expanded scope. A productive engineer is someone who can get a lot of stuff done, but we also want to see them go beyond their personal productivity and increase the productivity of others around them. So an effective senior engineer is someone who can help the entire team be more productive, while a lead engineer would actually increase the productivity of teams adjacent to theirs.

At the highest levels, we want to see a principal engineer be more of an architect, someone who looks at the bigger picture and says things like, “I notice both of you are trying to fix the same thing. Let’s get together and fix it just once.”

2. Collaboration

We define collaboration as the ability to function well within the team and the organization. We want to see engineers do work that makes their teammates’ work easier. We want engineers who are sought out for technical guidance, and who recognize and articulate the technical trade-offs required when building software.

Collaboration isn’t just about how well you play with others. In contrast with productivity, which is more about technical work (making sure your project is moving forward), collaboration requires soft skills like communication and teamwork to strengthen the engineer’s team and the organization as a whole.

As engineers become more senior, we hope to see them collaborate well and mentor more junior engineers on their team. Lead engineers should be giving expert advice to individuals on other teams, and principal engineers should be advising everyone with their authoritative knowledge (to put it directly, they should just tell everyone how to do their jobs and have everybody love them).

3. Vision

If productivity is an engineer’s ability to help us build the current New Relic, vision is their ability to help us build the future New Relic. An engineer who does well in this category is a person who anticipates problems before they happen, who seeks empirical evidence to drive their decisions, and who helps to shape our architecture. As New Relic VP of Engineering Dave Peterson likes to point out, “Today’s technology won’t work tomorrow.”

As companies grow, current systems may need to be re-architected to deal with new challenges, not to mention possible new products and features. To keep up, everyone in the organization needs the vision to keep the company moving forward.

Early in an engineer’s career, vision is about stepping back and thinking about why they’re doing what they’re doing, asking themselves questions like “Am I prioritizing tasks properly?” or “Is this a good use of my time?” As they grow in their careers, they start increasing their impact by anticipating issues, planning proof-of-concept work to test solutions to tricky problems, and proactively tackling technical debt. As engineers master their craft, they will finding themselves playing a key role in developing a multi-year technology strategy for critical areas of the business, which could involve multiple teams and systems.

4. Leadership

Lastly, we define leadership as an engineer’s ability to improve their peers, teams, and the whole organization by providing constructive feedback, working effectively across teams, and articulating ideas to both technical and nontechnical staff.

Initially, developing leadership skills is about interacting with your leaders and teammates in an effective, low-friction manner. We believe that all engineers should share information about what they are working on so that they don’t have to be constantly polled by managers or peers. Likewise they should be able to accept feedback graciously and make an earnest effort to internalize it.

For more senior engineers, we expect this will grow into pushing data to other teams and non-technical stakeholders in language everyone can understand (that is, with a minimum of technical jargon). They are also expected to provide timely feedback to their managers as well as their peers. Eventually they will mentor others, drive technical processes, and create tools and patterns that accelerate and enrich the work of all engineers at New Relic (and sometimes even beyond!).

Employee self-assessments

This framework is also useful for employee self-assessments. When I do employee reviews, I often ask people to assess themselves based on these four criteria. Afterwards, we’ll get together and compare results. Sometimes I find that the engineer thinks they are doing a better job than they really are. But often I realize that I was not aware of everything that person actually does, so this exercise can help them receive proper recognition.

 

Be sure to read the other posts in this series:

 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

Gus has been a professional software developer for 18 years, the last 1.5 as an engineering manager at New Relic. He's passionate about delivering low-latency, high-concurrency solutions across a spectrum of problem spaces. View posts by .

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