What makes great engineering leaders?

“When you genuinely care about your team members’ development, they’re more likely to … take risks, innovate”

I felt like one of my deadly sins being managing an engineering team in the past has been the lack of empathy to the ones I manage. It wasn’t about the processes, nor the team’s skill set, or a shiny new PM tool that was marketed to “10x team’s performance”. As engineers, we tend to use our logical thinking more than we use our emotional senses, because we’re in a field that conditioned us to think that way. The problem arise when shit gets hard, especially in a small but fast team environment a la a startup, and you’re the man in charge for all things engineering. No matter how stressful you are, never forget to be a good person to those under you. When you interact with those who work under you, you must understand that there’s an inherent power disbalance; this disbalance is often deafening, and you need to make sure they get a chance to speak—not just about engineering and working, but also how they’re feeling right now.

If you don’t create this safe space, you lose employee royalty. In a small organization, you can’t afford to lose royalty, because losing an employee is losing a big piece in the pie, compared to if you have a lot more employees in a bigger organization. In fact, employee royalty has very little to do with the current face of your organization. Here comes a paradox: it’s interesting how sometimes in startups we need people that live and die by us, but yet we don’t care about them enough. Founders encourage employees to take ownership in a startup, but they never enabled then to take it in the first place; telling them to take ownership without enabling it is like trying to light up a bonfire without wood and oil—you keep trying to use your lighter that can barely ignite anything, because you don’t even have the resources that you need in the first place (i.e., your people).

TLDR; if I’m an EM, and I have to choose between having a great engineering background, versus having great EQ, I would choose the latter every time. Your engineers are the one who needs to be empowered to do great things; you’re their cheerleader—without them, you’re nothing. Be your engineers’ best advocate.