Engineering Leadership – The Key Ingredient That’s Always Forgotten

Posted on March 30th, 2020
Written by Andrew Lau | Strategy & Planning

There’s no doubt that software has become the foundation of modern business. Every company in the world is now a software company, and every business depends on that software for its success. And yet, the software engineering organization is often still relegated to “other” status, a resource for the business people to use. There’s a solution that’s slowly making itself known – we need engineering leaders that understand the business of engineering and can guide the team to help the business succeed. What does a great engineering leader look like?

Generally, I think of engineering leadership in three main dimensions, which come together to form great leaders. An engineering leader is, of course, a leader of people, and she is also responsible for the execution, both technology and delivery, of the engineering team. These two dimensions are fairly well understood and there is a wealth of information about them. However there is a third dimension which often goes unrecognized, and that is that great engineering executives must also be great business leaders; they help drive alignment with other executives and shape the strategy and direction of the business itself. It is this forgotten element which I will endeavor to elaborate.

The First Two Ingredients: A Leader of People & An Execution Guru

Engineering leadership is often naively thought of as being simply a great architect or engineer, but you already know it’s more than that. Traditionally, most executives will start off by talking about the importance of people leadership. Team leadership usually involves some combination of team building, culture, leadership development, and performance management. It’s important to note that management comes with questions you can engineer too.

Think about metrics to measure individual and team performance; how to best allocate people to maximize productivity and minimize financial burden; what to measure to make smart headcount decisions; and how to collect all these metrics and convey them to non-engineering executives.

The second dimension is usually the one that’s most top-of-mind when you speak with other members of the executive team. Engineering execution means ensuring the engineering organization delivers high quality requirements meeting software, efficiently and on time. That may involve organizational design decisions, technology decisions, enabling teams with proper skills and tooling, implementing the right processes, and methods for measuring these tasks. This area is usually a comfort zone for rising engineering leaders. But one of the hardest things for most engineering leaders as we scale is to continue having an accurate forecast of when products and features will be delivered – what the business always asks for. That is partially because this bleeds into the third, and least recognized dimension of engineering leadership.

The Forgotten Ingredient: A Business Strategist

Engineering leadership isn’t just about delivering software faster, or making engineers more productive. It’s about guiding the team in the same direction as the business, about continuously improving, and it’s about being the voice of engineering as a part of the decision-making process of the executive team. Of course, these are all dependent on our ability to understand the work our engineering teams are doing and how it aligns to business goals.

The third dimension – business alignment – is often overlooked or made difficult by other executives, but is necessary for the management of a successful engineering organization. This is the strategic practice of engineering management, and all operational decisions depend on it. Business alignment means ensuring your organization is focused on the right projects that align with the business’s goals. The engineering organization can build as many widgets as it wants, but if those are not the right widgets, what does it matter? Business alignment involves the right allocation of resources that supports business objectives, and helping to drive those business decisions of which projects are strategically important in the first place.

Engineering Leadership: Putting It All Together

Engineering leadership is going through an awakening. At companies around the world, software engineering leaders and executives are being pushed to understand the importance of business alignment. We need to influence and contribute to the strategic direction and have a say in business decisions. We need to influence what projects we are able to fund and how headcount and compensation decisions are made. We as engineering leaders need to reject some very embedded practices:

  • Estimating engineering efforts by gut feel or by asking our favorite engineer to make it work
  • Manual, ad-hoc infrequent data gathering and self-reported stats
  • Asking team members to manually log work or fill out time cards
  • Traffic lights, bullet points and mistrust at executive meetings
  • Other executives deciding what engineering should deliver without our input

And trade those in for the future of engineering management:

  • The science of measuring, visualizing, and accurately forecasting
  • Programmatically collecting and analyzing existing engineering data exhaust
  • Data-driven insights, business metrics, and executive buy-in
  • Driving business decisions and the direction of our teams

We believe that engineering executives are more than up to the task – we just need to decide to do it. Then we just need a better way to understand and optimize their engineering teams. We need better data and a shared framework for that data to drive business decisions with the executive team. Software engineering has become the core of modern business. It’s time we manage it that way.

This doesn’t have to be done in a vacuum. Some of the most impressive engineering leaders have help. Tools that aggregate engineering signals, or better yet, ones that can layer on the context of business information, like Engineering Management Platforms, can reveal where your organization is focusing and how it executes. This provides leaders managing engineering orgs with the visibility needed at every level, from the productivity of a single engineer to the progress or impediments of roadmap items.

At Jellyfish, we’re defining the future of engineering leadership. To learn more about Jellyfish Engineering Management Platform (or if you just want to chat engineering leadership), check out Jellyfish.co.