Three Pillars

Posted on Wed 14 July 2021 in leadership

Recently an old friend, with great experience as an IC, PM and EM, called me to ask for some advice. He had been running his business for a while and took up a new role as an engineering manager after some time. "What areas do you focus on as an EM?, particularly when joining a new team".

I divided the conversation into three pillars: strategy & inventory, technical (aka going deep) and career / personal

Any given day, week or month will include some of these. Some periods will emphasize one or the other more heavily.


Strategy is about helping the team intuitively navigate an ambigious space . I like to visualize it like cartography. Imagine being lost in the wilderness with no map. Build the map. Where are you? What is around you? Where do you need to go next? How will you navigate there?

Start with assessing the inventory of assets and liabilities the team has. Assets include the team members--their skills and trajectories; software components; services; datasets; partnerships; team budget,etc. Liabilities are the commitments you have: goals for the quarter, partner support commitments, ongoing support cost (oncalls), operating expenditures.

Once you have the inventory, you can now map your path from the present into the future. This means visualizing and illustrating what the future looks like for the team. What new customers do you want? What old customers will you jettison (and how to migrate them gracefully)? What new components and services will be built? Which ones should be deprecated and sunsetted (and how to manage that )?

Once you have an idea, you'll define a vision, which will be typically be a set of goals and vision documents, along with a series of milestones planned for the team, roughly on a monthly basis. It also helps to define each team member's role, in a matrix of responsbilities, so everyone's position is clear.

Technical / Going Deep

Since many EMs were ICs, this one is the most natural and intuitive. But as an EM, prioritizing which areas to go deep into is key. There are many pitfalls, like toe stepping, distraction, confusion & blocking

In general it's best to identify a lead for each area, and go deep where you see gaps or where you think it will help build your relationship & trust.

It can help to go deep to keep yourself accountable, e.g. when you are getting to far removed from the technical responsibilities (usually due to too much HR work). Practical ways to do this are taking oncall duties and performing hackathons out of band (that don't block the product development).

Career / Personal

This is often maligned by young EMs, but is the most rewarding part of leadership. I bucket all personal growth aspects, including personal challenges, interpersonal conflict and performance support in this bucket.

Your ICs expect you to have a solid plan for their growth, and for their work life balance. The best way to do this is to have a formal doc with goals. Even using placeholders where the future is uncertain is better than lacking a plan altogether. It shows the IC that you are putting thought and dedication into their growth, even if some parts are to be determined.

Where to Spend Your Time?

It's impossible to prescribe a forumula for time mangement. The best approach is to set goals in each area, along with using an equitable system for the team. Using matrices to manage each workstream, team & topic can help give each topic, workstream & resource adequate attention.

What's Unique About Joining a New Team?

The three pillars don't change, but start off by sowing seeds in each pillar.

For strategy, start by taking inventory and assessing existing strategy, while preparing for gradual and palatable change.

For technical topics, researching documentation and engaging in junior-engineer tasks will help in building confidence and familiarity with the tech stack.

On the career/ personal side, start by asking a lot of questions in 1:1 meetings, and kicking off the career conversation early. Even saying "it's very early, but can you share your career goals, so we don't lose any wall time while I'm getting up to speed" can build trust early on to show that you care about their growth despite your inability to make change in the short term.

In short, for all three pillars, do a lot of listening and research. Then vocalize your plans and make changes gradually to build trust.