My engineering career spans 14 years. Over the years I have seen and worked for a number of truly great managers and leaders. I became an engineering manager early on in my career. This was a primarily due to two really good managers (Ed Harris & Hugh Williams) I worked for, who identified, nurtured and presented me with this opportunity.
I got a chance to work directly under many excellent managers and leaders. Each one of them run big organizations at top tech companies. Each of them presented some unique traits that I wish I could exhibit someday. Here is a list that exemplifies engineering managers and leaders based on my observations.
Energy and Optimism
This is one quality that I can say is common to everyone mentioned above. Somehow they seem to be extremely positive under any circumstance. Excellent managers do not buckle under pressure or at least they do not show it in front of their team. They can convince you that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When you are feeling down, their presence and energy can pick you up. Their energy is contagious. You catch on to it and you decide to move on to the next step as well.
Humble & Confident
I had a misconception that these two qualities cannot coexist. Top leaders are extremely confident in what they are doing, but at the same time able to maintain their composure and humility. We have all seen folks who are confident but somehow do not come out as humble. I personally look up to someone who can show humility.
Irrespective of the size of organizations they run, some leaders are able to maintain their domain expertise. They are able to quickly latch onto ideas and concepts and get to the core of the issue. They also learn to ask the right questions without offending others in order to learn the domain as fast as possible. Some of them are truly technical experts. Few times, I was fortunate to observe some leaders who had extreme domain depth and the ability to delegate decision making. This is very difficult to achieve. If you are an expert, your natural inclination is to be involved in the details.
First time I heard the word empathy in a professional setting was from Satya Nadella. (current CEO of Microsoft). This was probably 8 years ago, when I was listening to a speech from him. He recalled an incident from his interviewing experience when one of the questions was on what he would do if he sees a baby crying on the road. As a true engineer, he was trying to answer it by breaking the problem into steps and having to call in the right folks etc. But the interviewer responded by saying that the first thing to do would be to pick up the baby and calm the baby. A manager who shows genuine empathy will be appreciated more than fighting for promotion or a pay raise. Showing empathy is something that should be encouraged in a professional setting.
Being a friend and your boss
Of all the managers that I have worked with there was exactly one person who was able achieve this to perfection. Being a friend while still being your boss is just something that is extremely difficult. At the end of the day, you as a manager need to make hard decisions. At the same time you also want to be part of the team and have fun. I wish I know exactly how to balance this.
Engineering management is a lot about getting the mix right. Above is a list of traits that I have observed in various leaders and managers that I would like to emulate. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to get the mix exactly right, but I will keep trying. And for all those who have worked with me and worked for me, thanks for being patient with me and helping me become a better person!