2023 in review
One of the reasons I wanted to become an engineering manager was to see if I could build a team, or at least shape an existing one, to deliver value to a business whilst keeping team happiness, engagement and sense of belonging at a high level. I have always wanted to see first-hand how individuals and their interactions shape team dynamics and how much my vision of what an engineering manager should do solves some of the common issues I saw throughout my career.
2022 was my first year as an engineering manager, and it could not have been more challenging. The company had significant staff and culture changes in product and engineering that inevitably caused disruptions throughout the year. For example, the team I managed changed responsibility, focus and domain ownership a few times during the year. Fortunately, in the end, most engineering teams ended up in a (solid) dedicated product-focus ownership ahead of 2023.
My team, however, was slightly different.
I started the year with the same few engineers I line managed before, but now the team had new responsibilities and a new focus. It became a complicated subsystem team, and a platform team (see Key Concepts in Team Topologies).
When onboarded into this new complicated subsystem domain, it was clear to me that some of the missed deadlines and misalignment with stakeholders in the recent past were communication issues.
I believed that to achieve the path to profitability the business had planned for 2023, we needed to change our communication methods. The complicated subsystem team, which was also a profit centre, had to move conversations from private groups to public slack channels to reduce miscommunication and misalignment, and all tasks in our project management tool had to be up-to-date and visible to all stakeholders at all times. Status updates on these (profitable) tasks had to be (automatically) shared in open Slack channels.
These communication changes seemed small but have changed how stakeholders looked at the engineering team in the medium to long term. They became more comfortable and confident in the engineering ability to deliver and act as a reliable business partner even when we made mistakes. As a result, stakeholders could communicate more swiftly with their teams and the business’s external partners.
As the year went on, we started to look more into the platform responsibilities and pick up some of the much-needed developer experience improvements that had (necessarily) been put on hold the year before.
One of the fundamental differences between a platform team and other teams is that a platform team’s customers are the other engineers in the company. This simple focus change meant that engineers had to upskill themselves by learning how to interview their peers and understand their challenges.
Interviewing also requires engineers to listen without leading their peers into a pre-conceived solution and to focus on formulating the problem statement instead of falling into the trap of doing what other engineers say we should do.
As engineers, most of us tend to be solution-focused. This mindset should be praised and encouraged in engineering teams. But I have observed time and time again, colleagues, and honestly me as well, talking eloquently about solutions but forgetting the problem they had in the first place.
If we don’t know what problem we are solving and what conditions or behaviours caused it, there is a high likelihood that the solution we apply will not prevent or solve it at all. And even if it does, there was possibly a quicker and more efficient way from the start.
Being clear on what problem we are trying to solve became crucial.
Another fascinating, though very hard, part of 2023 was seeing my team grow from 2 engineers to 7. In 2022, I worked on a project with a similar amount of engineers, but it is a different challenge to line manage that team size in the long term.
As I have written in cultural context matters, I believe we should shape the team to the people it is composed of in order to work best. As we grew and onboarded new people with different temperaments and personalities, we revisited our processes and ways of working to what seemed best at any given time.
But it should come as no surprise that different individuals can sometimes propose extreme opposite ways of working that a team has in place. In these rare moments, it was always paramount to listen but still optimise for the team, even if it meant disappointing specific individuals. Team balance, communication and delivery should always come first.
In this team of 7 engineers, we had five different disciplines (backend, iOS, Android, full-stack and cloud), with almost all engineers running different projects for different departments in parallel. These conditions make it extremely difficult to oversee all projects from a technical point of view.
I had to become comfortable with not knowing how all our projects and tasks were in code. What I could do, nonetheless, was focus my limited time on contributing more to the technical specifications of each solution before they got implemented.
This way, besides providing engineers with an opportunity to get early feedback on their work, technical specifications became essential to help me know and understand our solutions from a technical level whilst putting me in a position of other teams that also want to have visibility over what we do.
Having no technical specification for a project/task my team is working on, now becomes a bigger problem.
So yes, 2023 was full of challenges I plan to write about in the upcoming months. But above all, it was incredibly satisfying to see the team grow, adapt and directly contribute to achieving the sustainable profitability the business needed.