I’m new to Engineering Management, what books should I read?

There are so many great books that I could recommend for a new manager. Narrowing down the list has been challenging!

We’re fortunate that much is written on the practice of management. In addition to that, many Engineering Managers have detailed the specifics of working with technology teams. However, this makes it difficult to know what to focus on first.

I’ve picked the first 10 I would recommend to a new manager. These are all books I’ve read and have influenced how I think out management and leadership. As ever, if you disagree or want to add your recommendation then please let me know!

Moving to a management role

The Manager’s Path
Camille Fournier
I wish that this book had been available earlier in my career. What’s so great about it is that it covers all levels of the Engineering career path, so there’s something in it for everyone. For those starting on their management career, there’s detailed information on how to mentor others, how to manage projects and how to start managing people. The content is actionable, so the book becomes a useful reference as your career grows and responsibilities change.

Behind Closed Doors
Johanna Rothman, Esther Derby
This book is another good one for “getting started” with management. The book is in the style of a business novel and follows the journey of Sam as he joins a company as an Engineering Manager. Using this context, the reader learns about the core principles and practices of managing people, teams and projects. For new managers, the book accelerates them through many of the challenges they are likely to encounter as they make their career change.

First, Break All the Rules
Marcus Buckingham, Curt Coffman
Unlike the first two books in this list, this text covers a broader perspective of management – not only that of Engineering Managers. In it, the authors have bought together many years of research from Gallup on what makes exceptional managers and workplaces. For new managers, it’s a source of inspiration for developing a style of management which promotes the development of traits seen in good mangers and teams covered by the research.

Motivation and Empowerment

Drive
Daniel Pink
This book has probably been one of the most impactful on how I think about working with people and teams. I read it when I took my first Engineering Management role and the details on how intrinsic motivation is an indicator of performance alongside the information of how to nurture this kind of motivation in people has greatly influenced how I manage teams.

Turn the Ship Around
David Marquet
A story of leadership from a military setting (the U.S Navy) that has a surprising amount of overlap with leading engineering teams. Naval Captain David Marquet took over command of a struggling submarine, and the book tells of how he engaged the crew to such an extent that it became the best performing ship in the fleet. Key to the story is the idea of empowerment and intentional leadership, showing that in your new management role, there’s an alternative to top-down management to getting things done.

Communication

Crucial Conversations
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
There are many exciting challenges when it comes to moving to management, and for me, one of the essential skills to develop is a way to communicate effectively. It is especially true when it comes to those high-stakes conversations – performance reviews, feedback, negotiation – where our emotional responses often cause us to be less effective. This book helped me deal with those situations more positively. It’s something I suggest that new managers read early in their career so that they’re aware of the challenges and techniques to overcome them before that crucial conversation comes up.

Radical Candor
Kim Scott
Alongside Crucial Conversations, Radical Candor helped me develop techniques to have better, more impactful conversations, with my teams. Perhaps the most cited aspect of the book is the quadrants describing the styles of feedback conversations. You can probably pick this up from a blog post, but by reading the full text, you’ll get more depth into the different styles and advice on how to have more productive feedback conversations.

The Coaching Habit
Michael Bungay Stainer
For most, by the time you become an Engineering Manager, you’ve likely developed a considerable amount of experience you can share. One of the hard aspects of your new Engineering Manager role can be resisting the temptations to provide all the answers when someone is struggling. The Coaching Habit sets out seven questions which you can use in your conversations with your direct reports to support them in realising their potential. There is more to being an effective coach than is covered in this book, so think of it as a way to kickstart coaching skills.

Project Delivery

The Goal
Eliyahu Goldratt
Another business novel, where we shadow a manufacturing plant manager trying to improve the performance of his factory. Which might get you thinking, “what has this got to do with Engineering Management?” As well as looking after people in your organisation, you could also be responsible for the delivery of projects. This is where this book helps. The Goal shows us how to discover the true nature of our business and then goes on to explain how we can improve the way we produce outcomes. The factory in the book is manufacturing parts, but the ideas of the Theory of Constraints are directly applicable to software delivery.

Accelerate
Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, Gene Kim
If you’re not already managing a team practising Continuous Delivery, or even if you are, this book provides the science behind why these practices are so valuable to building well-performing teams. You might not learn any new techniques of how to make the change from this book (I’d recommend Continuous Delivery, The DevOps Handbook or Site Reliability Engineering for that), however, you will leave with an understanding of the benefits that can be gained from taking such approaches. You’ll also learn about some useful starter metrics for measuring the performance of the teams you work with.

You can find more of the series at https://stevebennett.co/2020/04/21/im-new-to-this-what-do-you-recommend/

I’m new to this, what do you recommend?

Recently I was asked what resources I would recommend for someone moving from an engineering role and taking on a management role. Many people become a manager without clear training and development plan in place from their employer. 

 “Congrats – you’re now a manager. Good luck!”.

In this environment, finding your own sources for development is critical, yet, there’s so much out there that it can be challenging to know what to prioritise. 

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Even if you do have the support and development plan in place from your boss, there’s still value on discovering alternative resources for information to help you develop your own approach to management.

I hope to give you some help with this through a series of blog posts covering some of my favourite resources for learning and development. I’ll list out some of the books, websites, communities, conferences and people I look to for inspiration, advice or growth. 

Each post will be included tagged with #newtothis on my blog, so over time, my hope is to build up a series for you to refer back to.

And throughout the series, I want to hear your feedback. If you disagree with a selection, let me know! And if I’ve missed your favourite, please tell me – I’m always on the look-out for new sources of inspiration.

Here are the lists:

Are you ok?

Life is weird right now. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and everyone reading this is likely to have undergone significant changes to the way they live, work and play.

I started at Stash a week before the UK lockdown was announced. Stash took the decision the week before to move all their staff to remote work, so for the first time I’ve been through a remote onboarding process. This has continued, and as I write this, I’m half-way through my fifth week of working 100% remote. Once again, something new to me. New skills to learn, new ways to work.

For folks that know me, you’ll understand that I’m not the most socially active person. As an introvert, the idea of self-isolation seems to be designed for people like me. Yet, it’s hard. It’s hard not sharing a physical space with co-workers, friends and family. It’s hard looking at the same four walls. It’s hard having your freedoms removed. All these changes result in a higher cognitive load as we try to adapt to the new normality.

News broadcasts, social media and conversations with others cover a single topic – the virus. Rarely are these conversations positive. This induces higher stress levels as our concerns grow about not just our own health, wealth, and well-being, but also that of others.

Undoubtedly, it’s a difficult time (understatement).

Trying to adapt to the new normal, while at the same time dealing with the higher stress of just being will put emotional, mental pressure on yourself. I feel it, and make no mistake, others around you are experiencing this too.

At this time, we need to look out for each other. Take the time to talk to people, and ask one question – “Are you ok?”. Then shut-up and listen. Don’t offer solutions or advice, just listen to what they say. Let them know you care and let them know that you’re there if they need help. Let them know that there are people there who can help.

We may be self-isolating, yet with Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, etc. we have better technology than ever to stay connected. So, jump on a call with someone you know and check-in – “Are you ok?”.

Look after each other.

On Leaving Alfresco

This week, after over 3 and a half years, I left Alfresco. The decision to leave was a difficult one, but ultimately, it’s the right move for both the company and me.

My connection with Alfresco goes back further than the recent years working for the company. Back in 2010, while working at Yell, I was part of a team tasked with creating a knowledge base based on (the now deprecated) Alfresco Web Content Management. It’s fair to say that 10 years ago, I wasn’t exactly enamoured with the software.

Although we made it to production, the project wasn’t a success. Eventually, we dropped the feature from Yell.com and shut down the services.

Fast forward to August 2011, and I’d obviously felt that I had something to give to the Alfresco team. I applied and interviewed with Gavin Cornwell (not sure he remembers this though) for a Senior Engineering position. I made it through the phone interview; however, things didn’t work out, and I didn’t end up joining.

Instead, I joined eBay and then moved onto Marks and Spencer. By this time, I’d stepped away from coding day-to-day and was forging a career as an Engineering Manager. In May 2016, I made the decision that M&S wasn’t going to be the right place for me long-term and started to look for my next role.

I’d been following Alfresco throughout the previous 5 years – as an open-source software product company on my doorstep, it was always interesting to see where they were headed. To my surprise and joy, I found that they were recruiting for Engineering Managers. I interviewed, got an offer and then joined in July 2016.

The next three years were a whirlwind of development and learning. I attempted to move my thinking from delivery of evergreen e-commerce websites to enterprise on-premise application software. It was a steep learning curve and I’m grateful to all those on the team that helped me along the way.

Over this time, I moved from Engineering Manager to VP of Engineering for the Platform Engineering team. I worked with this team to increase the cadence of releases, increasing automation and reducing the amount of time spent on manual release validation.

I was also present through many changes of leadership at the company, this included the sale to Thomas H. Lee Partners and a couple of changes of CEO. Throughout all these changes, the team I worked with remained focused on improving the Alfresco Content Service and Governance Services products.

I want to thank everyone who supported me throughout this journey – particular Brian Remmington – the ultimate in positivity and deep thinking, John Newton – founder and true visionary, Mario Romano – a driven leader always pushing for excellence. Latterly, Tony Grout joined the team as CPO and helped me develop new insights and understandings of running Engineering teams.

Over my time at Alfresco, I’ve also worked with many of the founding engineers, and I am grateful for the education they gave me.

But most of all, I want to thank the Alfresco Engineering team. The team I was part of is made up of many incredible developers, testers, ops engineers, agile coaches and managers. As well as those employed directly by Alfresco, I was fortunate to work with an excellent team of engineers in Iași, Romania.

So, what’s next?

First, I’m taking a month off. After 13 years of continuous work, I need to an extended break before heading into my next role. I plan to do some coding (for fun!), running and reading, and hopefully meet up with some of the people I’ve not spoken to in a while.

Once I’m fully recharged, I’ll be joining Stash as an Engineering Manager, helping them build out their UK Engineering team. It’s an exciting opportunity to join an already successful team on a new venture, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of kick-starting Engineering in Reading for the company.

Getting better feedback

Recently, I came across the following post on Twitter.

The post resonated with me as it demonstrated a regularly encountered problem when collecting feedback for individuals, or looking for feedback for yourself. 

In many organisations, the request for feedback comes as part of a performance review cycle. During this process, an individual will review their goals, assess their career development plan and reflect on feedback from their peers.

As humans, we have a bias to want to be near people that look and work as we do. This bias means that we tend to notice when people act or behave differently from the way we do. We also have a preference for assuming that people ascribe success in the same way we do and want to follow the same path we are on.

When asked to provide feedback for a peer, I’ve found that we rarely give enough context around the goals the person was hoping to achieve, let alone their longer-term career aspirations.

As a good team member, we want to help this person improve, so we want to provide them with actionable feedback that can help. However, lacking the context, our internal biases, start their work, and we fall back to making a comparison against something we know well. Typically, this will be the path we’ve taken or against our career aspirations.

Feedback based around these assumptions leads to statements such as that in the original tweet – “be more like me”.

So, what can we do to improve the feedback we give? Or to help those we’re asking for feedback?

To get actionable feedback, we need to provide context to dampen the internal assumptions. Provide the person you’re asking feedback from with: 

  • High-level information about the career plan or aspirations your working on, for example, “I’m working towards being able to take the role of a Software Architect in the future”
  • Context around the specific areas you’d like feedback on – “To achieve this, I’m looking for feedback on how I can improve the way I communicate our technical choices.”
  • Details about the goals you’re working on – “This quarter, I wanted to reduce our technical debt by 25%.”

In these recommendations I’m making the assumptions you’re asking for your own feedback, you should modify as necessary if you’re asking on behalf of someone else.

By providing this framing, the person being asked for feedback is more likely to give you precise, actionable feedback based on your goals and aspirations rather than their own ideas of what you should be aiming for. 

Furthermore, by adding a constraint, I’ve found that it becomes easier for people to give critical or constructive feedback, as you’ve invited them to comment on an area you’ve probably already identified that you want to improve.