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This Is What Impactful Engineering Leadership Looks Like

By John Lafleur 3 minutes read

TL;DR: Jessica McKellar’s been a team lead, a founder, a technical leader at a massive corporation, and today, is the manager of dozens at a rapidly growing global startup, Dropbox. “When engineering management is done right, you’re focusing on three big things,” she says. “You’re directly supporting the people on your team; you’re managing execution and coordination across teams; and you’re stepping back to observe and evolve the broader organization and its processes as it grows.”

What It Means to Directly Support a Team

  • “There are two things you should always be thinking about: People’s day-to-day and their year-to-year.”
  • You need to balance the efficiency of a structured weekly routine against having the unallocated time to give and receive feedback about the work in real-time.
  • The greater challenge is helping people devise a long-term plan for happy productivity at your company. The really difficult thing is that not very many people have a clear sense of what they want from their job, and even when they do, they aren’t forthcoming about it with their managers. Good leaders are experts at surfacing this kind of data and making it actionable. Once a quarter, I’ll say, ‘Okay next week is career growth week,’ and that’s what we’ll talk about during one-on-ones.
  • In addition to transparent discussions, having an explicit framework for how people can grow at your company helps individuals envision their future and how you can help them get there. “Dropbox has gone through this exercise, and we do have two explicit, fully parallel tracks: One for technical contributors and one for people interested in management.”

Your Team’s Capacity = Your Executional Ability

  • There’s an inflection point when someone moves from engineer to manager, and it can feel very uncomfortable — like you’re only in meetings and not getting anything done. Keep this truth top of mind: If you can help the people on your team grow their individual capacity, you’ll be able to get exponentially more done.
  • To recognize high-caliber people who want to stick closer to the code, McKellar makes a point of empowering her tech leads to make decisions on their own. You need to develop local experts within teams, projects and platforms who can think deeply and guide architectural discussions.
  • “You really need to hand over a lot of trust in order to be as effective and efficient as possible. You have to trust your tech leads to do what they need to do to scope and architect and break down and execute on complex projects.”
  • Maintain a balance between more experienced and less experienced engineers working together and regularly sharing knowledge.

Accelerate People with the Right Tools and Process

  • “Ideally, you want to help everyone stretch their skill sets in a really positive way all the time. You want to find a way to assign them projects that require them to learn something new or do something differently or take on a bit more responsibility,” she says. “This can give people a ton of momentum if they have the right guardrails.”
  • In this context, guardrails come in the form of the right environment, regular check-ins, and organic motivation.
  • You want systems that both catch when a comma is missing and get people to think more broadly about what good architecture looks like.
  • To keep people charging hard toward goals and deadlines, managers should help engineers see their work through the lens of their impact on the company.
  • A thoughtful engineering manager recognizes all hard work, especially if it’s not super flashy.


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