From Problem Describers to Solution Seekers: The Pitfall of Engineering Managers
The Owl and The Beetle: Thursday Memo
Imagine yourself as the captain of a ship, sailing through turbulent waters toward a distant destination. Your crew, a skilled and dedicated group, is responsible for navigating the ship safely to its intended port. As a captain, it is essential to trust your team, but it is equally important to verify their improvement.
This essay explores how engineers transitioning into managerial roles often struggle to shift their mindset from problem description to solution-oriented management.
For a few years, I was directing five teams of engineers, working on a complex software solution. The five teams were working like a clock, shipping excellent code, on time, with the overall satisfaction of the top leadership of our business unit.
At some point, I noticed that one of the teams started missing deadlines. In addition, their quality was decreasing significantly. I had just adopted that team in my division and could not rely on my knowledge of their performance. I decided to dig into the records to find out where the problem was.
I noticed something fishy: the whole team had an excellent track record regarding the individual performance reviews filed by their manager. Something peculiar stood out to me: every time someone had a performance issue, it was perfectly highlighted in their performance review, and the issue was resolved in the following instance.
Every single person on the team had a 100% recovery rate. And this gave me a hunch about where the problem was. Let’s see why, and by the end of this essay, I’ll tell you what happened to the team and its manager.
In engineering, individuals often possess an exceptional ability to identify problems. They have a keen eye for detecting even the most minor glitches within complex systems.
Engineers are elegant problem-describers. When a customer reports that they could not process their payment, a typical engineer will tell you all about the payment processor, the exact API call that failed, and all the intricate alignment of libraries that prevented that customer from using their credit card in that particular case. However, if that effort were put in place to fix the problem, we would have one more happy customer, more money in the bank, and one less frustrated manager (me).
When these problem-describing geniuses become managers, they often struggle to adapt. Instead of focusing on implementing solutions, they keep on describing problems as their primary approach to the issues they face.
Imagine yourself as a captain entrusted with guiding your ship through treacherous waters. You rely on your crew's expertise to navigate safely, but would you trust them blindly?
No, you would periodically verify their progress, ensuring you stay on the right course.
Similarly, as a manager, it is not enough to identify issues and provide feedback to your team. You must go beyond and verify if fundamental change is taking place.
Consider your team as a garden. You plant the seeds of feedback, nurturing them with trust and guidance. However, the seeds may not grow into thriving plants without proper care and attention.
By verifying their improvement, you ensure your team receives the necessary support to flourish. As a gardener tends to their plants, you must actively engage with your team, providing them with the tools and resources they need for success.
The manager I was telling you about was making a fundamental mistake…