It’s Lonely At The Top

Posted on March 3rd, 2021
Written by Andrew Lau | Team Management

Life as an engineering leader

Take yourself back for a moment to the day before you became an engineering leader. You’ve finally made it to the top. Woot! You’ve managed teams before, but now you can finally bring real change to your org. You call the shots, you make the decisions, and you can finally build the culture you’ve always envisioned for the perfect engineering team. Things are going to be different moving forward.

Fast forward a few months into the job, and guess what, it’s just not playing out the way you thought it would. Your CEO is on you to ship something by an unreasonable date, and your team instead insists that something needs to be re-architected first – long overdue tech debt that is piling up. You have to break it to the team that we need to do what the CEO wants because the business needs it, period. You just became “the business” in the eyes of your own team and the glorified “order taker” to the business.  

That might be fine if it were the only issue. The CFO says the headcount is frozen, and promoting your overperforming engineer is no longer in the budget. The Head of Success is on you about a feature that just doesn’t work. Your Head of Sales is passive-aggressively questioning why your team is working on a specific feature and not what they hear about from sales calls. And to put the cherry on top, the CEO is asking you for a list of every engineer working on a specific project…do I not have a day job?! 

The Engineering Leadership Paradox

You’re “the business” in the eyes of your team and “those coders” in the eyes of your executives. You’re directly in the center of the tension between the technical and business sides of the company. In theory, engineering exists to build the strategic priorities of the business. However, the reality is that the control you once thought the engineering leadership slot would give you was greatly exaggerated.   

And to top it all off – there’s no one to talk to about it. You can’t go to the Head of Sales to say the CEO is on your case and that your team doesn’t want to build stuff.  You can’t go to the CEO and say the team is refusing to develop a feature. You knew the job wasn’t going to be easy, but no one told you it would be so lonely.  

Sadly, as soon as you become this engineering leader, you no longer have a peer group you can turn to. When you were an engineer, you could go through code with someone you work with or find the help you needed on StackOverflow. When you were a manager, you could talk to the other team leads and managers and compare notes. You used to have multiple people you worked with to turn to. As soon as you become THE engineering leader, there is no one to help you. The more engineering leaders I speak to, the more I realize that this is the unspoken feeling that most engineering leaders go through. 

While this may be a bit of a caricture of the challenges of the embattled engineering leader, I’m sure many of us have seen at least some version of these challenges.  I’m here to say it does not have to be this way.  We can solve it!

Before we jump to the solution though, we need to look at how we got here. How come none of the other leaders of other functions talk about this? Why is this just an engineering leader issue? What makes engineering unique in this situation?  In my next post, let’s discuss the factors that got us here and why the technical and business leadership roles diverge.