By Sen Xu, U.S. Head of OKX Engineering
US-based tech companies typically place engineering careers onto two distinct tracks – Individual Contributors (ICs) and Managers.
The success metric for ICs includes the quality, robustness, and impact of the code you release, all within predetermined, and often aggressive timeframes. As an IC, your level should represent the impact your work is expected to have within your organization.
For many, the success metric for engineering managers seems more elusive. I've had more than one person ask me, “what does an engineering manager or director do exactly?” This topic isn’t new, and multiple posts (p1, p2, p3) and books (b1, b2, b3, b4) from industry leaders attempt to demystify what it means to be a successful engineering manager.
As an engineering leader for OKX, I believe the core tenets of successful leadership can be distilled down into four pillars:
Defining an inspiring and achievable vision for your team has to come from a deep understanding of your company's overall vision, business model, technology landscape, history, and culture. It also requires deep knowledge of your partner teams’ vision, their constraints, maturity, capacity, and focus.
Your team’s vision should not only roll up into the broader company vision, it should also integrate within partner teams and orgs, and inspire every member of your team from the bottom up.
- Let’s start with the Why and the What. Why does your team exist? What business value does your team deliver for the company?
- What is your team's enduring vision? Is this vision inspiring enough to attract the talent required to realistically achieve this goal?
- A clear team vision serves as a foundation and North Star. It guides your team's actions. It gives them their Why.
- Given general direction, can you and your team plan a roadmap and deliver accordingly?
- Is your proposed timeline achievable without causing burn out or creating tech debt?
- Is your proposed timeline defensible? Can you articulate why you need that amount of time?
- Does your team, including collaborating engineering teams, have a healthy feedback mechanism? You’ll need one to protect against larger projects becoming siloed and misdirected.
- Is the work you deliver high quality (UI close to 100% match design, scalable backend API), fast, and robust? Have you considered edge cases?
- Is your team’s work easily scalable and iterative?
- Is there sufficient documentation for future new hires to readily add new features to the codebase?
- If we open-source your work, would you feel proud to share your code with the world?
- How well does your team collaborate?
- Do you build trust with collaborating teams? Did you erode that trust at any point during the project?
- Are you able to de-escalate day-to-day conflicts among different organizations in order to guide teams to a satisfactory outcome?
- How does your team handle failure?
- Do you know what to do when a project doesn't go according to plan?
- What is your plan for handling SEVs?
- Do you have a robust post-mortem process for evaluating successful and failed releases?
- How do you capitalize on learnings in the face of failure?
Growing your team
- From roadmap planning, can you effectively map out necessary headcount and talent needs? Do you understand your team's talent matrix? Do you know each team member's strengths and weaknesses?
- Can you effectively design an interview panel for your open roles? Do you have enough capable interviewers? Are you aligned with your recruiters/sourcers/agencies to ensure the hiring path is streamlined?
- Do you understand the company's engineering rubric well enough to optimize your team’s professional development?
- Do you know what each member of your team cares about most? Can you tailor your feedback to each person so that they are readily able to receive it and grow from it?
- Are you actively removing unconscious bias, to fairly evaluate your team members' performance?
- Do you have the right signal-collecting channels to identify issues with your team members' performance?
- Do you have the right tools in place to help your team recognize the gaps between expectation and delivery?
- Have you fostered a culture of effective communication and open feedback?
- Given that most competent engineers in the Bay Area have an ample selection of tech companies to choose from, why would they want to work with and for you? Why would they want to work on your team?
- Do you and your team operate from a place of fear and power imbalance, or are you motivated by the team vision? Do you have a healthy relationship with your direct reports? How about cross-team and intra-team relationships?
- Are you actively providing resources and mentorship to your team?
- Have you established a culture of continuous learning?
- Have you fostered enough psychological safety to unlock the open exchange of ideas and expertise within your team? Do they feel unblocked to do the best work of their career without the fear of failure?
- Do you lead by example, or do you impose more requirements on your team than you do on yourself?
- Do you respect people's time and effort?
The points above are merely to foster an open discussion rather than serve as a static declaration. Many great EMs will have different responses to these. The universal success metric a manager should have is by both the individual and collective wins of their team. The qualitative measure is how much they can inspire each person to do the greatest work of their career.
I'm grateful that I've had great leaders and teammates to learn from throughout my career, and hope to continue to get better at answering these questions as I move forward.
- p1: Will Larson's blog: https://lethain.com
- p2: https://allenc.com/articles
- p3: https://medium.com/@raffi/what-does-a-vp-of-engineering-do-again-553817fbbf2a
- b1: Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister https://www.amazon.com/Peopleware-Productive-Projects-Tom-DeMarco/dp/0932633439
- b2: An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management. Will Larson https://www.amazon.com/Elegant-Puzzle-Systems-Engineering-Management/dp/1732265186
- b3: The Manager's Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change. Camille Fournier https://www.amazon.com/Managers-Path-Leaders-Navigating-Growth/dp/1491973897/
- b4: The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You. Julie Zhuo https://www.amazon.com/Making-Manager-What-Everyone-Looks/dp/0735219567