3 Important Steps When Starting As A Leader In Engineering

Made Software Engineering Director in Jan 2020 when my manager left for another organisation, mainly because there’s a huge restructuring in the organisaton involving new leadership and teams coming on board. Prior to this, I was an individual contributor managing the platform software deliverables of Intel’s next generation Vision Processor Unit. Very exciting job that took me to new places, meet new people and create new software solutions.

I took on the director role with eyes wide open. Though I am familar with the team and our technical domain, I seek out help in order for me ramp up on this role where I have to individuals and managers ( in what is called a manager of manager role). As part of the help, I was introduced to a seasoned leader in the larger software organisation who was to be my mentor. At the same time, the department also hired an external professional mentor to help a cohort of managers to develop their careers.

Being new to the job, I am very eager to get things moving with the team. My mentors summarised the 3 things that one needs to deliver as a leaders in an engineering organisation.

1. Create and Communicate a Vision

Well this is probably 2 things but is is important for a leader to have the vision for the team. The vision the view of the future where you want the team to be in the future. For my case, the team has working on the same domain for the past decade or so but we are expanding to adjacent capabilities. I felt this is the right way to go, keeping our core capabilities and scaling out to be closer to our customer needs. One key aspect of the vision is that it has to be aligned to the corporate and department strategy. Therefore some strategic thinking needs to happen to formulate the vision and that can only happen when we meet various stakeholder to get clarity of the corporate strategy and direction. Having the vision is one thing, communicating it is another skill all together. The message needs to translate the corporate goals to what the engineers are doing, so that they feel they are working towards the same goals. Secondly the message needs to cater for various types of listeners, some people like stories and pictures, some like data. Once everyone is on board with the vision then we empower the team to make the execute and make the right decision on their level as they know where everyone is going. This also encourages trust building.

2. Efficiency

An engineering team is measured by the output of the team, by extension the success of the leader depends on the collective team’s output. There’s a whole field of research and practice on engineering efficiency, from methodology to metrics collection. At the very basic, the leader needs to know whether the team is performing to schedule, a sign whether we are meeting our deliverable commitments. Once we can measure the delivery, we can look at the quality metrices. For software development, we look at code review data and unit level test as an example. As data is obtained form defects, we are able to perform root cause analysis and fix the issue at the source. All these methodology needs to be adopted and embraced by the team. It should not be seen as overhead and the team is well aware of the value the methodology brings. The leader need to install these values into the team to improve our efficiency and quality, to a point that the team can be self driven to automatically iterate process improvements among themselves.

3. Your Presentation

Both mentors continue to tell me that how I present myself is important to the team. It may be a cliche that a leaders needs have a certain aura or charisma, as much as one wants to be different, it is an expectations by the team. The people look to the leader to mimic his behaviour and to judge the climate. Firstly is to show excitement when talking to people, that helps to lift up their mood. Speak with a clarity and a bit higher pitch in the first few mins of the conversation instead of the dull low tone. Be curious and interested when talking to people, when they say something that you want to reinforce, give positive commendation. And finally, be present. Focus on the discussion, ask questions and be there with the team. I always make it a point to attend meetings where the team is presenting to external parties to show that I am with them when they do something out of the comfort zone.

It has been almost 18 months that I took up this job. The first year was tough and I almost gave up to go back to an individual contributor role. However the team is doing well and I would let them down if I had moved on. So I kept going and now I am starting to enjoy the leadership role. I have to keep pushing the team forward as we take on new project and new roles, however the 3 key things I need to do as a leader in an engineering organisation continue to be the same. I have to check on the vision alignment with the company’s strategy. Then I need to continue messaging the vision to the team so that they can connect their work to the company’s strategy. The team now comes together on efficiency. I always need to remind myself and find ways to be present with the team, and watch out for how I present myself to the people around me, even though it’s now all virtual.

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