On Being an Engineer Manager (2018)

In this post, I will share what I learned and the challenges I faced, at Babylon Health as an Engineering Manager, as we continuously grow both as a company and as a team:

  1. Nowadays I am more balanced between delivering value to the end-user versus being a purist. As an engineer, before being a manager, it’s easy to lose focus on the big picture and just code. As I do less development, I am thinking more as a stakeholder and less as an engineer. For the role I have, I see this as a beneficial shift.
  2. In 2018 I made a significant effort to be more empathetic to my colleagues. Based on my 360 reviews, there are clear improvements. On the other hand, I still have knee-jerk reactions. Something that has helped me, is simply taking a note and discussing the matter on the next 1:1. By the time I have that discussion, my opinion, or stance, will be different and typically more serene.
  3. During technical meetings, I am now focused on making sure it doesn’t derail into different subjects. I also pay special attention to more introverted people and encourage them to share their opinion on the subject. This leads to more productive meetings and action points that we can follow through afterwards.
  4. I have noticed that some teammates have picked a couple of my personal traits. This has its pros and cons. For instance, people will be very pedantic during PR reviews (which in my opinion is a good thing), on the flip side they might be abrasive in the comments, which is obviously a bad thing. This forces me to check my behaviour and bad habits and how I can improve on those.
  5. On a more selfish note, I used to like to be seen as the person with the answers for every question about iOS. It obviously makes you feel good about yourself. Of course, this not only doesn’t scale (you can’t be the bottleneck for the entire company), it also doesn’t allow people to grow and to become themselves owners of a particular area inside the team. I am a believer that a great manager is the one that, if absent, no one will notice, because they have created such an environment where everyone can do a great job without being blocked by them.
  6. As the team grows, the nuances, like strengths/weaknesses and interests are more clear. It’s wrong to assume that an individual will enjoy doing a task as much as their peers. Understanding these differences and aligning the individuals’ interests with their day-to-day work is paramount to the overall happiness of the person and consequential of the team.
  7. I am very open about things that I don’t know. There was no particular change in this area, it simply becomes more noticeable as I develop less and have to rely more on the technical expertise of my team.
  8. At the beginning of the year and throughout I tried to be involved in multiple initiatives. These initiatives were born from different squads and the need to fill particular roles. The realization here was to be honest about the fixed amount of time I have every day and where to invest it best. In this case: happiness and productivity of my team. It’s very tempting to simply accumulate responsibilities (e.g team lead, line manager, squad lead), since it strokes one’s ego, but the consequence is that you are unable to accomplish anything.
  9. I have been at fault several times when, instead of leading people, I managed them. This is conspicuous when people do what you tell them, but they don’t really understand the purpose of the task at hand. This works with people from your team when unconsciously you “pull rank” on them. I now tend to be careful when I ask something, by making sure the person understands the why.
  10. A bad habit I still have is to ask my manager to fix my own problems. Most of these problems are usually solvable by simply having an honest conversation with the person you are having issues with. It seems common sense, but when these situations happen, instinctively you ask for your superior’s help. It reminds me of when you were a kid and you asked for your parent’s help. The curious part is that I now see this happening with the engineers I manage. It can be a double-edged sword because you want the engineers to trust that you can solve or unlock their problems, but on the other you want the engineers to be autonomous and be able to unlock themselves. My rule of the thumb is that if a 15 minutes conversation over a coffee is enough to solve the issue, I will defer to the engineer.
  11. As Babylon Health rapidly grows and expands worldwide, so does the team. This brings an interesting challenge that I never personally witness: an individual that strives in a small team, won’t necessarily continue to do so as the team grows. Leaving big corporations for small startups is common in our field and it doesn’t really surprise me. It does surprise me when this happens within the same company over a short period. The challenge for me is to continue to give autonomy to people and making sure their contributions have an impact inside and outside the team. It’s also important to remind them that their work matters.
  12. Finally, I have spent a good amount of time thinking about how mood and overall optimism influences you and those around you. As I said in the 2017’s post, I failed at being sanguine, since I am the opposite by nature. Because people adopted some of my traits, I can see this gloomy posture in them. One thing is to be cautious about a potential problem and communicate it clearly. Another thing is to resist change in a pessimistic way. Having this attitude, by default, dramatically decreases the team morale and consequently their productivity. At Babylon Health, we are still defining a lot of things that go from the way we work as individual contributors, to how we work across squads and tribes. As we rapidly expand, it’s assumed some of these processes will change and be adapted to the size of the company. It’s critical to be hopeful that these changes are for the better and, if they are not, to be confident that we will figure out a better alternative.