Shawn Axsom
Practically Leading

Practically Leading

Building your Engineering Management Craft in the Community

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Shawn Axsom
·Mar 20, 2022·

6 min read

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The State of Affairs of Engineering Management

Engineering Management is ripe for growth as a craft.

After a decade of leadership, I've felt mostly alone.

For such a people-focused profession, it's a surprise that I see more community engagement from software developers than from those that lead people.

I see little share of voice from Engineering Managers and their craft.

While some of this may be in part from there being less managers in organizations than devs, and that social media augments the loudest (most numerous) voices, I've seen enough to believe Engineering Management is a craft many are less compelled to discuss. When I made a Twitter List of 2000+ Engineering Managers, I couldn't have guessed the profession based on the tweets.

And this matches the number of resources I find for Engineering Management. I recently created a The Big List of Engineering Management Resources, with quite a few resources, but in the grand scheme of things, it's quite small for such an important profession.

So I thought I'd write about my experiences in the community, what I've gotten out of it, what I'm doing to support it, and where I would like to see the craft go.

Resources

Before jumping into the discussion below, I'd like to highlight resources for getting involved.

I previously shared a large list of books, blogs, and more:

Here are particular community-based resources for Engineering Managers:

Now, onto some discussion!

A short overview of my recent virtual community involvement

My journey started in 2021 when I first saw the value.

I had 300 followers mid-2021 (now 6000). I was mostly just lurking.

But after spending considerable effort trying to find engineers in Mexico (where Docker was expanding hiring into), my former Director tweeted once and had 10 applicants overnight, 10 more the next day.

So I started tweeting and enjoying it.

I then formed Here To Help. After helping others on Twitter with resumes, portfolios, mock interviews, I found others willing and wanting to do the same.

This year, I started Coffee Chats. I jumped in feet first with a tweet that resulted in 56 scheduled coffee chats within hours:

The majority of those have been with the 100Devs cohort. I've since shared that I'd also love to engage with other Engineering Managers, and I've had a few of those.

Finally, I've created a Practically Leading Discord channel to spur some more real-time Engineering Manager discussions.

About Coffee Chats - my latest obsession

"Coffee chats" are en vogue, yet still unfamiliar to many.

While it originated as a term in more professional settings, like an informal interview (I believe), it's become more casual.

Coffee chats, for me, are 15-minute chats scheduled on my Calendly, where I get to meet you and answer any questions you might have.

I've been doing coffee chats (and "office hours" – 5-person coffee chats) for over a month now. Yesterday I spoke about the experience in a Twitter Space:

I most often field questions like "How did you get your start?" or "What do Directors of Engineering do?" or "What is it like to work at Docker?".

But I've also had some deeper conversations, such as partnership opportunities, brainstorming how a new developer could apply her skills to her former profession, medical research, and more.

Coming with the right questions makes all the difference. One developer, Saira, had some of the best questions from a new developer, I've shared some of them in a tweet here:

What's in it for me?

Engineering Managers have a lot to gain from the community, which many might not appreciate or realize.

What's in it for me, individually?

First, if you're an Engineering Manager/Director like me, you may be an introvert.

Introvert doesn't mean anti-social or recluse. And introverts still have a need to connect.

Some conversation topics (small talk) and communication formats (large social gatherings) can be more draining and difficult.

I've realized I am energized by people, like extroverts, but more through purposeful conversation and connections that make a difference.

I find coffee chats and connections that help others extremely rewarding. Especially when I see impact:

Besides being rewarding, it is also a great way to practice my soft skills, including on-the-job.

Twitter and Discord help me get better at using Slack at work.

Coffee chats help do better 1 on 1s and practice meeting strangers.

Twitter Spaces help practice for company-wide and community presentations.

What's in it for me and my company?

Docker is hiring and growing quickly, for one.

I've hired multiple people I've sourced on Twitter, including an excellent Engineering Manager after I had an impressive coffee chat.

At Docker, we also want to be connected to our users and the community.

Coffee chats have led to 4+ people that may appear soon on our Docker YouTube account. And have helped make connections with other outstanding community members, like Eddie Jaoude:

I've also been on podcasts, interviews, and we're doing a case study with well-known book authors (keep an eye out at DockerCon where you may hear more).

But this isn't about Docker.

You could benefit from the same at your company. You or your leadership should consider getting engaged if you haven't.

Where I'd like to see the craft evolve

I'd love to see Engineering Management memes, honestly.

And good ones, from EMs, not from ICs making fun of their managers.

Why is "Tell me the top 10 things you love about JavaScript and why you are wrong?" a meme?

Why does "Let's schedule a meeting to find out why you're not doing 1 on 1s" feel like a corny topic?

It would be great to see people wanting to take the craft to a new level, like engineers do, and have more discord on how we can do better.

And I've been identifying key members in the Engineering Management community that love to push their craft and engage with mentoring new EMs and ICs. I haven't found enough of those individuals.

I'd love to see or start other initiatives, like a free Leadership Circle:

But I received little traction.

Maybe that's because it's not a well-known concept. Maybe that's because we need to do more to spread concepts and engage with others within our community.

Getting Involved: Here To Help

Here To Help is a Notion page I put together last year where others can indicate they are willing to help others in need, for free.

It originally started as a Twitter List, for those open to DMs. Now it's expanded to include coffee chats as well, and has been shared across the 100Devs cohort, especially for that purpose.

Getting Involved: Practically Leading Discord

Practically Leading Discord is what I wish I had when I first became a team lead.

Management is a lonely road, especially without a mentor.

We've just started, but we've already had great conversations, including about performance reviews, retaining employees, coaching engineers on communication, and more.

 
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