More Than Code: 4 Pieces of Leadership Advice for Engineers
When I was in high school, I put my heart and soul into the theater program, where I was the stage manager for Annie Get Your Gun.
In that role, I supported and challenged the entire cast and crew to come together as a team in just a few short weeks. I didn’t act, build the sets, or control the lights. I was all about the logistics—making sure that, on opening night, everything was perfect so that everyone was able to bring their best to the audience.
That experience had a big impact on my approach to leadership. As a founder of Linius Technologies, I had to wear a lot of hats and shift my focus often to keep everything moving forward. But it wasn’t really until Autodesk acquired our startup in 2003 that I was able to parlay and scale my variety of experiences, from stage manager to hardware engineer, application engineer, and startup founder. The stakes are higher now, of course, as I’m responsible for both product strategy and development and am now overseeing a cross-functional team of 700 people around the globe. But the overarching goals of both roles were the same: making sure everyone is able to deliver their best.
Spanning from my high school theater experience to my transition from startup founder to corporate vice president, here are my four pieces of leadership advice for engineers.
1. Accept You’re Not a Master of All Trades
Unlike Annie Oakley in my high school’s musical, I learned early that when it comes to my team, “anything you can do, I can do better” is often not the case. Many people I oversee do work I can’t, with skills I don’t possess, and that is an uncomfortable transition for many new leaders. But in order to grow as a leader, you need to understand how to focus on the areas where you add unique value while bringing out the best in the other people on your team.
On my team, I make sure all individual contributors have a direct manager who can coach them within their specific domain. Those first-line managers are close to the action, with the ability to provide specific knowledge and training, as well as evaluate the expertise, training needs, results, and output of their team members.
But it’s not just about the hard skills. You also need to evaluate how people approach their work, and you can get a lot of good, tangible examples from your own observations and from 360-degree feedback. Between the two, you can correlate how that person fits into and helps advance the team—both the results they deliver as well as the approach they bring to the role, the team, and the company.
2. Become a Leader, Even If You’re Not a Manager
Computer scientist and entrepreneur Tim Howes—who grew his team at Loudcloud to 650 members in 18 months—shared some sound advice when he said, “Watch out for the temptation to take your top coders and make them managers.”
Many people believe that to advance or be seen as a leader, they need to manage people—and the more people the better. I disagree. It is totally possible and even expected to be a leader without being a manager. On my team, we have many people who coach other team members, set the technical direction, own key deliverables, and are accountable for group results. They just don’t manage people.
Managing people is really time-consuming and can get very messy at times. It has to be something that you truly want to do. You have to feel joy in getting things done through others, as you won’t be as hands-on anymore. Your own deliverables will be less tangible. If you are managing just for advancement, you may not enjoy your job or be able to help your people. Instead, consider embracing other leadership roles that do not include people management, or ask for a management test-drive when someone is on vacation or leave so you can see what it’s really all about.
3. Always Clear the Path for Your Employees
The biggest challenge as a leader is not being a roadblock. In fact, it is your job to clear the roadblocks. I am happiest when I am able to keep my team moving at its optimal pace—and that’s a large part of what I do every day. I buffer and protect people from stuff that they shouldn’t have to worry about because it could distract and hinder them.
A good day for me is ensuring the path is clear, and a bad day is when there’s some big ugly thing blocking all these good people from getting their work done, and I can’t do anything about it. Their time is the most precious thing we have, and I don’t want to see it wasted.
At this point, I’m not really a practicing engineer anymore. I’m a leader and a manager of senior managers, and I’m at my best when I am enabling others to do their best work.
4. Step Back and Observe the Whole Scene
Sometimes you may have a high-powered engineering team that is constantly delivering. But if you were only judging them based on their impressive execution—hitting deadlines and creating deliverables—you might miss out on unhealthy and unsustainable dynamics within the team.
Especially on engineering teams, when there’s a plan, engineers want to stick to it. But sometimes the plan needs to change based on new information you learn along the way. Perhaps a competitor has entered your market, or you have gotten some early user feedback that indicates you might be missing the mark. There’s no benefit to flawlessly executing on the plan if it won’t meet your goals. You need to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable coming forward and saying, “I have questions about this approach. I think we should reevaluate.” That’s not saying, “We can’t do this.” It’s asking, “Should we still do this based on new information?”
Transitioning from a startup into a leadership role at a large organization is challenging, frightening, daunting, and everything else. But it has also helped me discover how much I enjoy managing people. I saw that I was more fulfilled helping large numbers of people be effective and productive than I was in doing the engineering or creating the inventions myself. Using my position to focus on what I do best—so other people can do their best—is so satisfying.
In the words of Annie Oakley: “Aim at a high mark, and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time, and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming, and keep on shooting, for only practice will make you perfect. Finally, you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.”