What makes a great manager of software engineers?

Engineers and managers rank the top attributes of engineering managers, and their relative importance.

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Engineering management is a challenging role, combining the complexity of software systems with the complexity of supporting human teams. The way managers manage has a profound impact on how teams work together to build products and advance through the organization.

To understand what factors make a great manager of software engineers, took a look at recent research on the topic, but with a unique twist: for this analysis, we are looking at what both managers and engineers believe make a great manager.

The context:

Software engineering managers have always been integral to the success of engineering teams. Managers create the conditions of success for the team’s productivity and careers, which ultimately drive the products they build.

As the software industry undergoes tremendous (and frequent) change, the industry is constantly rethinking the factors that characterize great engineering managers. This is particularly important today in a more tight economy - engineering teams at companies like Meta are flattening their organization, and managers are asked to “do more with less”. To meet this pressure, managers must focus their resources on the best, high-impact ways to support their engineers.

The research:

Researchers at Microsoft tackled this question using a broad organizational study within the company. They first interviewed 37 engineering managers and engineers to create a list of 15 top attributes for an engineering manager, and then validated those attributes with 123 additional respondents. To determine the relative importance of these 15 traits, researchers surveyed 563 members of the engineering organization (managers and engineers).

The results are analyzed in the violin plot below:

Notable insights include:

  • Maintains a positive work environment” was the highest rated attribute for great engineering managers (mean of 9.05 out of 10)
  • The second and third highest rated attribute were “grows talent” (8.98) and “enables autonomy” (8.91), indicating the relative importance of helping engineers develop their talent and allowing them to organize their work.
  • Being technical” was rated as 14/15 with a score of 7.84 out of 10. This was corroborated in qualitative interviews, where engineers felt that managers should have enough knowledge to “facilitate discussions that will help the engineer make decisions”. The researchers acknowledged the tension in tech companies, where managers are often promoted due to technical excellence and then struggle to “let go” over time.
  • In a demographic comparison, female participants rated “being technical” as more important relative to males
  • Managers rank attributes that create a feeling of being part of a team higher than engineers do

The application:

The findings above demonstrate that the best managers (according to engineers) are those that create a positive environment, enable autonomy, and present growth opportunities. Importantly, engineers see these factors as more important than being technical, and rather prefer the freedom and autonomy to experiment in their own work.

The research also presents a variation in social dynamics between managers and engineers; this likely points to an evolution of a manager’s perspective in their role. Often, the best-performing teams have a high degree of psychological safety and a feeling of “natural cohesion”, so individual engineers are less aware of the investment to create that dynamic.

Managers should take this study as a signal that often the best investment in engineering leadership comes from building a supportive, autonomous environment for engineers to grow in. This investment pays dividends in improving the team’s overall effectiveness, and is rewarded by the engineers themselves.

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