engineering management seriesThis post is the third 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.

 

As a software engineer, your end product is—surprise!—software. As a manager, your end product is your team. Those two things aren’t quite as different as they might seem.

At New Relic, we’re committed to building our teams like we build our software. Which means what, exactly? By the time an engineer rolls out a new piece of software, it’s been reviewed and tested by dozens of colleagues to make sure the architecture is solid. How do we do the same for our teams?

The answer is a small, dedicated management peer group, or a “mini-management group” that we refer to here as a “Mini-M.” When managers come together on a regular basis to check in and catch up in small groups, we can solve challenging management problems together and keep our teams moving forward.

Not a lot of companies do it. In fact, this collaborative approach to management was one of the main reasons I was excited to join New Relic. There’s no fear of experimentation here. Try something, see if it works. If not, it’s not a failure, just an experiment that didn’t pan out. Try something else. Start a new experiment.

My first Mini-M came about when I was part of the agent teams, and I’ve been involved in one ever since. These groups are diverse in terms of experience, and cross-sectional—managers new to the field rub shoulders with more seasoned leaders. Most important, no one has to feel they’re on their own.

Managing a team doesn’t have to be a solo job

Any honest manager will tell you their role is both rewarding and frustrating. Without a network of peers to turn to, it can be easy to feel like you’re alone and making decisions in a vacuum. No one to bounce ideas off or ask for advice, no one to provide that crucial feedback that lets you know you’re on the right—or wrong—track.

At worst, solitary management is inefficient. Why waste time figuring out how to solve problems in your team that other managers might already have solved? You wouldn’t let your engineers work in isolation like that, so why do it yourself?

Mini-Ms to the rescue

Despite the name, Mini-Ms make a big difference. They function as cross-disciplinary support groups, helping managers propose and facilitate process improvements and solve problems quicker. That doesn’t mean we’re peddling some “one size fits all” approach to management. On the contrary, managers are free to take tried and tested solutions offered by their peer group and mold them to fit the needs of their particular team.

Our performance review process is a great example. These reviews are useful only if a manager can act on them effectively. The next step is—you guessed it!—reviewing the reviews. By talking through our various scenarios and situations, managers can help and learn from each other. In turn, we can help our engineers to grow and succeed—which is what it’s all about, really.

The fine art of managing engineers

Managing engineers is a little like managing artists. Musicians create music, painters create paintings, and engineers create code. They need to be free to express their creativity in order to achieve brilliant things. But they must also be managed to make sure they’re operating at peak effectiveness and addressing the company priorities. It’s a fine balance.

Every engineer has specific things that, left to their own devices, they would work on exclusively at the expense of everything else. The challenge for engineering managers is to balancing their teams’ time and efforts, steering them in the right direction without stifling their enthusiasm.

At New Relic, we want to have the best engineers possible, and we want to help them keep getting better. That means having the best managers possible, and the best processes in place to help everyone do their job.

For us, Mini-Ms are very useful tools. I can’t imagine going back to a world without them.

Be sure to read the other posts in this series:

 

Background image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

Jason Poole is an Engineering Manager at New Relic. View posts by .

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