I’ve been a software engineer since I started building games in C when I was 14. For the past 16 years, I’ve been on a journey from Individual Contributor to VP of Engineering, leading one of the fastest-growing tech companies in the world, and now VP of Engineering Success at Athenian.
I’ve worked and spoken to hundreds of engineering leaders who have been on similar journeys to mine. Many of us share the same frustration: There’s a shortage of professional engineering leaders. This is not only harming our industry now. It will snowball on future engineering leaders. We must ensure that future leaders don’t go through the same struggles we had to go through.
It’s no one’s fault. Software engineering has been around for less than 80 years, and only in the last decade did we stop seeing it as a cost center. But today, tech is king, and the demand for great engineering leaders is growing exponentially. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough pros to fill those positions. So what can we do about it?
Today I will explore:
- What is professional engineering leadership, by drawing parallels with other industries
- What do pro engineering leaders look like vs. non-pros
- How data, metrics, and engineering success can enable pros
The professionalization of engineering leadership requires constant learning and adaptation, good practices, standards, and definitions that can help us become more effective as we work. It’s not something we can solve overnight or with a blog post, but hopefully, we can start planting some seeds to get us on our way to success.
But let’s back up.
What do I mean by Professional Engineering Leadership?
Everyone knows Hell's Kitchen and Masterchef. It's mesmerizing to watch young amateur chefs become Michelin star cooks. But how do they make this leap?
Professional chefs don't focus exclusively on the final dish. They optimize for efficiency by working on their skills and processes and constantly test new techniques from other cuisines and chefs - they learn from the best to become better than the best. And this is what ultimately improves the final dish.
Software engineering can follow the same laws. After all, it's a creative, problem-solving trade. However, here's a big difference: There are tens of thousands of cookbooks out there, some only dedicated to specific techniques. There's a lady that owns more than 7,000 of them. But if you ask an engineering leader which books they read to succeed at their job, you will get a list of three or four.
To move to professional engineering leadership, we need more cookbooks, more deep dives into processes, more experimentation on how we work, better communication, more questions, and a better understanding of data. We need to build cultures of continuous improvement.
🎯 We have very few industry standards and barely scratch the surface on processes. Seeds bloom here and there with Scrum, Agile, DevOps, and Lean. But we are not professionals yet, like architects, chefs, and other professions that have been around for thousands of years.
Feeling Like a Pro vs. a Non-Pro
Being and feeling like a professional will depend on your company's stage. You might not be playing in the big leagues, but you can feel like a professional. As you move up, you need to step up your game, become a pro in that league, and so on.
The difference between Software Engineering and other trades, let’s say, professional basketball, is that the speed of the tech industry makes these transitions happen faster. This means you must constantly redefine what it means to be a pro - that's why we go on about Continuous Improvement.
I like to segment professionals based on the size of their team because this will require different skills. However, there are three essential questions pro leaders need to answer for every stage:
- How can we create proper goal-setting mechanisms?
- How can we define principles and constraints to guide our work?
- How can we create adequate validation for the effectiveness of our organization to make better decisions?
Here’s a quick overview of what pros vs non-pros look like independent of their stage:
💡 From Builder to Enabler: Most engineering leaders (hopefully) started out as engineers, and it’s hard but essential to get out of the “build trap” once you move into a leadership position. Pros shift their mindset from being builders to being managers.
Continuous Improvement: The Key for Pro Engineering Leadership
I'm a big believer in 1% improvements. Organizations need to constantly adapt and improve as they scale. Real progress comes from tasting your dish, trying a new flavor, testing, failing, succeeding, and continuously reflecting on this journey.
Athenian's continuous improvement formula taps into how we can help professionalize engineering leaders. The formula is simple:
End-to-end visibility + No individual metrics + Engineering Success = Continuous improvement
Athenian provides end-to-end visibility to your engineering organization's pipeline. Visibility is critical as you scale. As your organization grows, it's like zooming out on google maps, you start missing the details, so we provide that level of visibility that helps maintain trust and confidence as teams grow. It helps to identify traffic jams, so that you figure out alternative routes - as long as you approach data with the right context.
Athenian does not measure individual data from developers. We believe that individual-level metrics will harm the developer's experience and culture. Engineers should never feel tracked. Our philosophy is to stick to a higher granularity to make engineering organizations improve as a team. Team is the most important organizational construct.
Our clients' success is our success. Hence, we provide our customers unlimited help and guidance at any stage (from onboarding to decision-making) and have former engineering leaders who know the challenges of scaling engineering organizations at the forefront of this.