When I was a rookie software developer, I remember this one moment that really opened my eyes to the world of engineering leadership. Actually, I still hear my former engineering manager’s voice in my ears whenever I think back to those days.
“I already told you where - it’s in the ‘Testing Instructions’ in the ‘Requirements File’!”
It’s not so much what he said, but how he said it.
What appeared to be a harmless and innocent question on how to start my very first code review turned out to be a symptom of a much bigger problem. How much my boss was a d*ckhead? Yes, that too, but also of his inability to lead a software engineering team to success. I also realized I was in the presence of a great engineering manager who quickly lost interest in the project and in his people.
Despite it being a harsh reality check and a forewarning of future conflicts, it did serve as a pivotal moment in my career. I learned that software is built by people for people. This eye-opening moment also motivated me to learn how to become a great engineering manager (EM).
Why Do Software Engineers Leave Their Engineering Managers?
I’ve always believed that software engineers don’t leave their companies, they leave their engineering managers. Apologies for co-opting the original phrase in corporate leadership, but this is true in the tech world.
The reason software developers quit their jobs is that their engineering managers do little or nothing to ensure that they are happy, comfortable, and motivated. To put it simply, their bosses are toxic, and toxic bosses build dysfunctional teams. They fail to inspire meaning and purpose in their engineers. It boils down to the engineering managers treating their developers as mere cogs in the wheel rather than valued contributors to the project.
What I’m saying does seem to have some merit. In a study conducted by Gallup, it was discovered that 20% of employees are actively disengaged from their work. That means these employees “have bosses from hell that make them miserable,” says Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup.
Jim also said that that the biggest decision leaders have to make at their jobs is who to select as manager. If leaders of companies choose the right people, everything goes well. But when leaders choose the wrong person as manager, nothing can fix that bad decision.
The 7 Telltale Signs of a Toxic Engineering Manager ☣️
There are many more, but these quickly come to mind. Here are 7 common signs that can indicate an engineering manager may be struggling with managing his or her dev team:
Your engineering manager lacks communication skills
I’d like to think of communication as a dance where both partners gracefully move in sync, exchanging steps and rhythms to create a harmonious flow of understanding and connection. The idea of “exchanging steps” for me is like exchanging ideas - it’s two-way, and it needs to be an ongoing conversation.
But if your engineering manager’s communication style is limited to 👍 or 👎 on Slack, or perhaps other vague emojis or memes, then your dance looks more like a pair of mismatched marionettes whose strings had gotten tangled.
I’ve had an EM like this before. The way he communicated with me created so much frustration that I wanted to punch my monitor. I can’t say that I didn’t secretly desire to nuke our project’s codebase 🤯
Once during a standup that very same EM talked about a different kind of bug, one he discovered while camping last weekend. “The Godzilla of bugs!” for which he had to do some impromptu bug debugging, if you know what I mean.
Instead of that time filled with useful forward-focused insights or project updates, I was left with gaps in my understanding of where we were heading. In one such scenario, I was even blamed for having poor listening skills.
What about constructive feedback or lack thereof? If your boss sucks at communicating, then chances are the feedback you’re getting also isn’t clear. During your one-on-one meetings, you may walk away not knowing about the specific areas you need to improve on, and you might not get the appreciation you deserve either.
The goal of well-communicated feedback is supposed to motivate and engage developers. It’s supposed to acknowledge their strengths and guide them toward growth. When that doesn’t happen, developers are left without clear expectations and guidance, leading to confusion and inefficiencies. The problem pushes forward to the next sprint, but a few sprints later, the disaster scenario of having to walk back a great deal of code becomes a reality.
Your engineering manager doesn’t care about you or your wellbeing
Have you ever experienced the awkward situation of commuting with your engineering manager on the same subway line, even seeing each other in the same wagon, every morning? Perhaps he actively avoids engaging with you, but once you arrive at work, there's a sudden change in his behavior, and he becomes somewhat sociable, but in a professional sense.
It's undeniable that this situation can be uncomfortable, but it also says that he probably doesn’t care about you outside of work hours.
Here are some other ways you’ll know if your EM doesn’t care about you:
- Need a comfy chair? Forget about it! It seems like your EM may not prioritize your wellbeing if they fail to provide you with the necessary resources and support to excel in your job. This could indicate a lack of value placed on your responsibilities, as they may not consider them worthy of investment.
- Work-life balance? Never mind that! Your EM may work long hours, but he shouldn’t expect you to do the same. You need to put your foot down, or maybe share with him some interesting facts. For example, several studies have shown that a lack of respect for a proper work-life balance by managers leads to more mistakes committed on the job. What’s more, this pressure may cause burnout and quite literally make you sick. According to a study, 77% of employees reported experiencing physical symptoms due to strained relationships with their bosses.
- Only calls or messages you to give you hell 🔥 👿 A good engineering manager recognizes the importance of providing feedback, both good and bad. If your EM only schedules meetings to give you a good scolding without acknowledging your strengths or offering guidance for improvement, then that is a sure sign of having a d*ckhead boss. If your EM is worth his weight in gold, then he will understand the importance of providing a balanced approach to feedback, highlighting your wins as much as your losses.
Your engineering manager doesn’t want to mentor you
Mentoring requires time, effort, and a genuine interest in helping someone grow. If your engineering manager is unwilling to invest in mentoring you, it might mean they don’t see value in your development or have a vested interest in your success. This can create a stagnant environment where you miss out on valuable learning opportunities.
The decision to not help you through career roadblocks might also be caused by a lack of trust in your abilities. Your EM may be withholding valuable insights, guidance, or resources that could help you excel. Without their support, it becomes challenging for you to reach your full potential. I mean, do they not understand that if you thrive in your position, then everyone thrives, including the EM?!
Your engineering manager doesn’t take your opinions, ideas, or feedback seriously
Dealing with a boss who refuses to listen to you can be incredibly frustrating. It creates a sense of being unheard and as a result, you feel worthless and unappreciated. Your engagement drops dramatically and over time you become resentful and unhappy.
Couple that with one of the many heartless ways an EM could convey their lack of concern for their developers. If you’ve ever had an EM that told you any of the following things while you’re trying to make an important point about something, then I’m sorry to say, they don’t have your best interests at heart.
- "That's just how things are around here."
- "We've always done it this way, and it's worked fine."
- "I don't see the problem you're talking about."
- "You're overreacting. It's not that big of a deal."
- "We have more important things to focus on right now."
- "I don't have time to discuss this with you."
- "You're being too sensitive. Toughen up."
- "You're the only one who feels that way."
- "Stop complaining and get back to work."
- "I'm the boss, and I know what's best."
- “Leave pity city” - my favorite one! 😂
A recent study called "The Risks Of Ignoring Employee Feedback" sheds some light on this very broken work relationship. Out of 27,048 executives, managers, and employees, only 23% of people say that when they share their work problems with their leaders, they always responded constructively, while 17% say their leader never responded constructively.
Another startling fact: too few leaders are open to hearing suggestions that could lead to an improvement of processes or team dynamics. Only 24% of people say that their leader ‘Always’ encourages and recognizes such suggestions for improvement, while 16% say their leader ‘Never’ does.
When EMs actively listen to their developers’ ideas, concerns, and feedback, it promotes engagement and satisfaction by addressing their needs and aligning organizational goals with individual aspirations.
Listening can also unearth valuable insights, innovative ideas, and untapped potential, leading to spikes in creativity, productivity, and problem-solving within the organization.
Your engineering manager has little or no technical understanding of what’s going on
When an engineering manager lacks technical understanding of the job, it can really bring down the entire team, if not hinder the project’s progress altogether. One of the biggest critical moments that might be telling of your EMs low tech know-how is when he or she has to make a critical decision about project planning, trade-offs, and resource allocation. Without this understanding, the engineering manager may struggle to make effective choices, leading to inefficiencies and suboptimal outcomes.
Another area where a lack of technical knowledge can be detrimental is when providing guidance and support to the engineering team. If the EM lacks a solid technical background, they may struggle to offer helpful guidance, resulting in frustration and decreased productivity for the team.
In an ideal world 🌍 an engineering manager should possess both technical skills and managerial acumen. However, if a manager lacks technical expertise, they can still mitigate the consequences by seeking input from a technical team lead. This allows for open communication and even creates an opportunity for mentorship or professional development.
Your engineering manager micromanages you
Have you ever had an en engineering manager who looks over your shoulder to see what you’re doing? It can be a real buzz killer, right?
Managers micromanage because they’re 1) trying to connect with their direct reports or 2) because they feel nostalgic about their old tasks. What they’re really doing is showing overwhelming signs of fear that things will go astray and that the project will fail.
In my early days as a coder, I was once micromanaged. It bothered me because our EM didn’t trust our dev team’s expertise. The result? It demotivated us and limited our autonomy, not to mention inhibited our creativity and innovation.
That same engineering manager would use our developer performance platforms not as a tool of empowerment but of oppression - he would investigate our commits and pull requests and then send us messages on Slack asking why we did so little. Little did he know but I was less active with our code because I was doing a lot of documentation work and helping out with reviews.
Your engineering manager doesn’t have your back
An engineering manager who isn’t in your corner or doesn’t fight for your team can be a huge problem. As your superior, you’d expect him or her to do so, but that’s not always the case.
Because most advocating happens behind closed doors, you may not ever find out that your boss doesn’t bring up your name when discussing promotions. He may also not be giving you the feedback that you deserve to be a better engineer.
Few things to consider here: You could actually be the problem. In other words, you’re just not there yet skill-wise. In this case, observe the others on your team and do your best to get better. Get feedback to earn his support and advocacy.
However, if your boss isn't advocating for you despite you being a strong performer who exceeds expectations, the issue likely lies with them. It may not be your fault, but it’s now your problem and you need to find a solution.
Here are three things you can do:
- Don’t expect your EM to fight for you 🥊 It’s unfair and frustrating when your EM isn’t in your corner, but don’t take it personally. There could be many reasons behind his behavior. For starters, your EM might see you as somebody looking to take his position. He may also be battling with his own insecurities. Also, your EM might have an unconscious bias that could lead to unfair evaluations of your performance and suitability for higher roles. It's also possible that your EM lacks the influence and credibility needed to advocate effectively for anyone. Regardless of the reasons, attempting to force, manipulate, or shame someone into being your advocate is unlikely to succeed. Just let go of any anger or hurt you may have developed due to your EM's actions.
- Try self-advocacy: Forget your EM and take charge of advocating for yourself. You know your own value and accomplishments, so try communicating that to other important stakeholders. However, I would strongly advise against advocating way too much - you’re not in PR but in software development, right? Too much shameless self-promotion in the workplace can backfire and make you out to be a narcissistic, egotistical, career-obsessed bulldozer who is ultimately unconcerned about the company.
- Prove your worth: Seek out opportunities to showcase your skills and take on projects that highlight what you’re capable of doing. Network within and outside your organization to build relationships that can support your career growth. By actively promoting yourself and seeking out opportunities, you can increase your visibility and create new avenues for advancement.
- Seek support from allies: Look for mentors and allies within your organization who can provide guidance and who can advocate on your behalf. These individuals may have the influence and credibility necessary to amplify your accomplishments and help you get around certain obstacles. Building strong relationships with trusted colleagues can create a supportive network that enhances your career prospects.
Conclusion: Embrace the situation as a chance for personal growth and development
For one second, forget about how bad your EM is and take it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and be a better person. After all, the default path to promotion for a developer is an engineering manager and you might find yourself in his position one day. We can’t handpick our bosses, but we can certainly choose how to react when confronted with a d*ckhead boss. With the right mindset and approach, you can make it work 🪀