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Engineering leadership | Blog Post

How To Excel As A Remote Engineering Manager

Wes Mitchell-Lewis

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Engineering managers are often thrust into management without any formal training, leaving them to figure out how to be a good people manager on the fly. If you’re new to engineering management, you must learn a new routine and behaviors. You’ll need proper support and ramp-up time because you’ll be learning a lot very quickly. And the learning curve might feel steeper for a new remote engineering manager.

The good news is, the same core principles apply to management regardless of whether your team is in-office or remote. The difference is simply that remote management requires more intentionality, but once you’ve built your remote work muscles, you’ll be a better manager for life.

What is a remote engineering manager?

There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a software manager role. It varies from org to org, and even from person to person. That is why it’s crucial that your definition closely matches your leader’s. Get crystal-clear about what outcomes you’re responsible for and what you’re expected to do. When you move into the role, be sure to ask the right questions – 

  • How will my performance be measured?
  • What should my typical day look like?
  • How much say will I have regarding personnel decisions?
  • What areas of improvement have been identified for this team already?

What does it mean to be a remote manager?

In a remote environment, you need to ask yourself a lot of pointed questions: Do my direct reports know what they need to do, how it needs to be achieved, and who to work with? In an office environment, you have the luxury of casually checking in with your employees in person. When you’re remote, you must be more purposeful in communications. 

What does it mean to be an engineering manager?

It’s no coincidence that some of the best sports coaches have backgrounds as prodigious players in their own right. In the same way, the best engineering managers tend to be superb engineers. However, in a management role, it becomes less about writing code and more about setting a strategic vision, accomplishing company-wide goals, and removing obstacles for your direct reports.

What does it mean to excel as a remote engineering manager?

The best managers have a feel for fostering talent, equipping their teams with the tools they need to succeed, and building a team that’s better than the sum of its parts. These skills are not born so it’s your job to cultivate these in yourself. Your leader can be an invaluable resource in helping you develop these skills, as can your direct reports. Be transparent with both that their input is welcome regarding your ability to manage effectively.

The 1 on 1 Meeting

Employees who have regular 1:1 check-ins with their managers are 3x more likely to be engaged, so be sure to make time with everyone on your team. Use 1:1s to connect with your direct reports on a personal level, set your expectations for work, and check in on critical projects. As a remote engineering manager, you should be more concerned with outcomes than with hours worked –  use 1:1s to set that tone.

Remote 1 on 1s Might Take Longer

Communication takes more energy in a remote environment. There are fewer opportunities for casual conversation around the water cooler where you could learn things about an employee like the names of their family or pets. Stay patient and budget enough time to get through everything you need to cover. It’ll be worth the extra time in the long run.

Create a Standing Time – Keep it

Don’t hold 1:1s on an ad hoc basis. Just because you don’t have anything to meet about doesn’t mean your employee feels the same way. 1:1s should happen at a regular cadence – adding a recurring meeting to the calendar and keeping it is a great way to reserve space for open and honest employee conversations. You do not always have to use the whole time allotted, but better to keep consistent.

Create An Agenda

Your 1:1s are critical to your employees’ success. Prepare an agenda about what you’d like to cover to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. Use something like a shared Google Doc for each individual’s ongoing 1:1 meetings. It will give your reports a chance to add their discussion topics and make it easy to follow up on action items from previous 1:1s.

Leave With Action Items

Don’t end your 1:1s without discussing the next steps. Before signing-off, ensure your employee understands what is expected of them and that they have everything they need to accomplish those action items.

Tracking performance

A common question remote engineering managers ask themselves is, “How will I know that my employees are working?” Remote engineering requires trust, and micromanaging your employees will only frustrate them. Try to come up with a hands-off system for tracking performance.

Focus on Output, Not Hours

Don’t get hung up on the amount of time spent working. Instead, look at what your employees are producing. Are you advancing toward your team goals? When employees talk about what they’re working on for the day during stand-ups, does that work get completed?

Set Individual & Organizational Level KPIs

It’s much easier to be accountable when every team member has clear marching orders. Each team member should understand the broader department & company priorities and how their individual and team OKRs directly advance those company priorities.

Set Achievable Milestones

Break big projects into smaller milestones to keep track of progress. Be supportive and encouraging as your engineers hit those milestones to help them feel like they’re making headway.

Measure Progress

OKRs are important, but to track day-to-day performance, you should be paying attention to the milestones that will help you achieve those OKRs. Whether it’s “X commits a day” or “X% of releases that are bug-free,” codify these KPIs, then track and measure them in real time.

Ultimately, it will all depend on what you find works best for you, your team, and your company. But, with these tips and expert advice, you should be able to move into a people manager position with ease and excel in that role. Below, Jennifer Farris, Terminal’s Chief People Officer, recommends the six C’s framework to instill great management practices:

The Six C’s of Remote Engineering Management

  1. Clear Purpose: Does your team understand the Vision for the company and “why” the work they are doing is important? This is a hugely motivating factor for many people, and if you’re seeing a lack of focus or drive, it may be that they feel disconnected from the overall purpose.
  2. Cascading Goals: What are we doing this month/quarter/year and how does it align with the company’s overall purpose?
  3. Clarity of Role: Does everyone know their roles and expectations?
  4. Continuous Feedback: Have you created mechanisms to give and receive feedback?
  5. Coaching: Do you have effective one-to-one communication and recognition with your team?
  6. Career Journey: Does each person on your team have career goals they are personally motivated by that you check in on and actively support?

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