The Engineering Manager is part of team

The more I talk with engineering managers around me - in my own company, during interviews or around a beer - the more I see tow patterns, two different ways to talk about their team: those who say “they” about people they manage and those who included themselves in a global “we”.

I first thought that the difference was the result of different skills. I thought that engineering managers that used to be engineers tends to include their selves in the team. Especially when management is a part time job. But then, I started to identify other patterns, similarities between those who see them as part of the team on other elements, outside of technical skills. The same way, I heard and saw some behaviour letting me think that there also is similarities between managers using “they” to talk about their team.

Also, I recently discussed with one of my colleague about either the scrum master should be considered as part of the (development) team or not. In other words: should we consider the oil we inject inside an engine as part of the engine?

My thoughts about that bring me another question: Would the engine have worked if we hadn’t put oil in it? Probably not. Then, yes, technically speaking the engine may still be an engine even if it is not working. But who cares?

A similar approach may be considered about the role of engineering manager.

Successes and failures of a team

In a cultural point of view, choosing to include the engineering manager as part of the team or, at the contrary, choosing to see him/her as an external stakeholder brings many questions about reward and accountability.

The role and responsibilities of the manager in an Agile context is not yet clear even if the Management 3.0 practices tend to clarify it. In many cases, the manager is considered as an external influencer who is in charge of making people individually improve themselves while the team, with the help of a coach, is in charge of making the whole team improve itself.

From this point of view, using “they” when talking about the team you manage may make sense. But most of the time it is not the case. Managers are still much more considered as know-how people and tends to be expected as senior engineers. Thus, the assumption making the manager an external influencer is false and what could have made sense in this situation shouldn’t be applied in another one.

In the other hand, including the manager (or not) in the team leads to considering his/her actions as a part of the success or the failure of the team (or not?).

As you may already guess, successes and failures are not treated the same way by managers not including themselves in the team. Most of the time, this kind of behavior leads the manager to consider success as their own and failure as the responsibility of their team. This is where the culture start to be nauseous, where people start feeling they are not considered enough, where the team enter in a world of stress without any chance to escape with a feeling of accomplishment brought by success

The manager output

To find out the answer to either the manager is or is not part of the team, we need to define the manager output: what a manager is accountable for.

First of all, we should consider managers of two kinds. Manager of a team, who are the one you may have in mind. And know-how engineer, who has an experience, some kind of expertise, and spread his knowledge across multiple teams. This last may not have to actually manage people. But his/her actions have the same objective than the first one: make a group of people achieve their goal, succeed, or improve their selves.

Thus, the manager output is the output of the group of people under his/her influence. It may be its own team, it may be people across different teams.

This output is what the manager should be accountable for. When someone fails in the team, the team may fail and the manager should take his/her own responsibility in the root cause of the failure.

In the same way, success should be shared between the team and the manager. The first is responsible for the achievement. But the last is responsible for the culture leading to success.

“they” vs “we”

Considering the output of the manager, failures of the team obviously find its root cause in the managerial actions or lack of actions and the same logic apply for successes. People - engineering managers - talking about their team as if they were not part of it miss the key point of their role.

If the manager is not part of the team, what is he/she part of? Is there really a manager role which should be considered differently than the engineering team? Should we consider, for example, a team of managers? Does it even make sense? Or course not.

Bullshit start when the manager excluded herself/himself from the team.

I often hear people considering being a manager is a bullshit job.

I first mostly agreed with that. From this point of view, what you actually do, the impact you have, is what makes sense and all other work that doesn’t produce value is a bullshit job.

This is the kind of opinion people develop when they don’t understand the output of their manager. Mostly because, most of the time, the manager excluded himself/herself from the team either by using demonstrative pronouns or by making the failures of the team as the team responsibility and not its own.

Thus, in my point of view, a manager stop to be a manager when he/she start to exclude himself/herself from the team. Words have a sense and using inclusive pronouns is a good indicator showing the team that the actions of the manager take their place in the team actions.

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