Friday, May 20, 2011

Tips for coaching engineers (3/3)

Boy, coaching is hard but coaching engineers gets more interesting.   Engineers are extremely logical and they sometimes view the world black and white, right and wrong; engineers can be so coin-driven at times yet they don’t mind spending nights and weekends to contribute to open source projects with free labor.

I have had the luxury to mange some of the best software engineers and some tough ones over the years, and the biggest lesson I learned is actually engineers are no different beasts -- they are as human as anyone else.

Engineers need to feel they master some critical skillset, they need to feel they are improving the skillset constantly, and they need to feel whatever they are working on is connected with the world (internal employees, external partners, or customers), and they need acknowledgement for all of the above -- no different from any other professional people with cognitive skillset requirements for their jobs.

That being said, there are a couple of emotional intelligence (EI) traits that have resonated with me during my engineering management career: 


Engineers sometimes look down on “business fluffy stuff”.   However I think managers should not giving up leveraging and communicating the “business connection” effectively.   At least, I always want my engineers to know they are working on a product that is unique, disruptive, and having massive real user impact.

I once had an engineer telling me that he didn’t want to go to the all-hands because he could not get connected with the CEO’s intangible PowerPoint slides.   After spending some time explaining the company direction, the impact we are making to our customers, he is connected with the CEO’s message again and even better he is excited about it.  I believe his conviction of the company’s future is a big reason why he is so motivated every day even to this date.   This is an example of inspiration in the works.

Often time, engineers resign due to “an offer hard to resist”, say with a huge pay raise or an extremely interesting project.   The funny thing is when they started looking for a job, they would have no idea about the huge pay raise or interesting aspects of the new project, and frankly all they knew was they were not connected enough with the existing project.     

So for all practical purposes, really inspired engineers are a lot less “vulnerable” for retention purpose.  Don’t be afraid of communicating the corporate direction, again and again, and again and again.  If the message gets boring, examine the content and delivery of the message, but NOT whether to deliver it!

          Conflict Management
My observation is “typical engineers” are often not good at conflict management.

The unfortunate part is conflict management requires a different skillset that engineers are often not trained.  Engineers do not realize conflict management has a formula and a framework just like there is one for solving a math problem.

The fortunate part is engineers are smart enough to deal the problem once they understand and appreciate the framework.   Engineers make a lot of tough tradeoff during the architecture and design work every day, and conflict management is no different except the target is the human being.

By now, I have shared the following perspectives, would love to hear other's viewpoints too!
  1. “only the coaching leader survives” 
  2. “coaching by listening not teaching” 
  3. “coaching engineers takes unique EI”

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