Leading senior engineers: lessons learned

As an engineering manager I’ve been fortunate to manage some extraordinary senior engineers: folks I personally looked up to prior to managing, recruiting, and hiring. (I’m not naming names in this post, but you can check my LinkedIn for ideas.) Over the years I’ve learned a few lessons about how to support them. It’s different in some key ways, but familiar and constant in others.

This blog post is for engineering managers who find themselves managing very senior engineers and want direction on how to be more effective. Read on for a compassionate dose of reality and actionable advice. 

Senior engineers are humble… but they still appreciate appreciation. 

In my experience, some of the most senior folks you will work with are also the least showy. You’ll rarely hear them crow about their accomplishments, despite the fact that they have accomplished a lot. And some may even seem to shy from the spotlight.

None of this exempts you from making sure they hear that their contributions matter. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to thanks, so take time to learn their appreciation style and communicate in a way that is meaningful to them. Ask how they feel valued, make note of it, and follow up. Some senior engineers need to hear “thank you” and a few words about how they made a difference. Others feel appreciated when you take something off their plate or take time to break down a big project with them. You won’t know unless you ask.

They do NOT expect you to be the smartest engineer in the room… but they do expect you to show up for them. 

Very senior engineers know better than to expect that you’re the smartest engineer in the room. You’re not the first EM they’ve had, and they’ve already seen how hard it is to balance contributing code and managing a team and how badly that can go (and likely, they’ve had to do it before, too). Their long career means they’ve seen a lot of dysfunction and have a keen sense of what they will and won’t tolerate on a team.

This means they expect you to be a strong leader for the team and address issues as they come up. Support your seniors by leveraging your strong communication skills to address and heal team dysfunctions and increase collaboration and alignment toward shared goals. Behave ethically and communicate transparently. Use your 1:1s to let them know what’s going on with the company and the team. Ask for their expertise and take their concerns to heart. 

And when they make a request of you, take them seriously. As I said, they’ve been around the block and know what they want. This is awesome because your senior is where she is because she is flexible, adaptable, great to work with, and has made a great name for herself through collaboration and excellence in her work. She’s a delight to work with and she doesn’t make too many demands. So when she does make a (rare) request, take it really seriously and show the heck up. 

Senior engineers know their work style… support it, even if it challenges your ideas about “how work gets done”. 

Senior engineers have been in the game for a while and know their work style and preferences. For example, one senior engineer I managed stressed the importance of Deep Work time. (I even read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work for better ideas of how to support them!) Another very senior engineer said they needed meetings to be scheduled, rather than ad hoc. When your engineers share their work style with them, it’s important to take them seriously. Remember, they know these things because they are accomplished professionals who have figured out how to be effective.

Managing exceptional individuals means expanding your ideas about how work gets done. It may mean flexibility on hours, location, co-working spaces, blocks of time unavailable, etc. When recruiting these folks, be realistic about what your company can and cannot offer in this area. (Don’t pitch your team as flexible if it isn’t.) This may mean challenging your preconceived notions about “how work gets done”. Allow yourself to be challenged. The trust you build in the process will be your reward. 

Senior engineers have seen some stuff… promote safety on your team by encouraging them to share their stories.

If you’re working on a team of mixed levels (very senior and very junior) it’s very common for the junior folks to be nervous about making mistakes in front of the very senior folks. This is not weird or unusual: most people don’t want to look stupid or careless in front of people they respect. And while this isn’t obvious to more junior folks, senior engineers know in their bones that they got to where they are by trying lots of things… and making lots of mistakes! Honor your senior engineer’s experience and humanity by encouraging them to get real with the team and tell their stories.

Build safety into your team by inviting your senior engineers to talk about their own growth path. When they share how they deleted the prod db (that didn’t have backups) it helps your team by humanizing them and making them more relatable. It reminds those junior folks that seniors are not infallible, and that making a mistake is an occasion for growth, not punishment or shame. It also helps the senior engineer by driving home that this is a team where it’s still safe to grow–where learning and experimentation is actively encouraged and rewarded. Taken together, this means a better connected, authentic team. 

Senior engineers have a LOT going on outside of work… make room for it on your team.

Senior engineers often get to where they are not only by excelling in their paid work, but by cultivating relationships and opportunities in our field outside of their day job. They’re mentors, board members, keynote speakers, authors, and open source contributors. No kidding: one developer I managed wrote Essential SQLAlchemy and taught courses for an online platform, while another served on both the Python and Jupyter Steering Councils. Supporting your senior means knowing them as a whole person, being aware of these commitments, and finding ways to make room for their passion at work. 

Why? Engagement. Cultivating a rewarding career or advancement path for very senior engineers can be a challenge for a lot of managers, and so often they just don’t do it… or they do it poorly. But seniors deserve better from us–they deserve the same kind of support we’d offer someone early- or mid-career. 

The thing is, it just looks different. Don’t just take advantage of their decade + experience by only having them cut code. Take seriously how they spend their time outside of work and find ways for them to make an impact on your team doing similar work: mentoring, teaching, writing, leading deep dives, and beyond. If FOSS is important to them and your company allows, support them in open-sourcing and sharing their work. And don’t ever forget that your senior engineer’s dedication to non-profit and open source work outside of their daily routine enriches the whole ecosystem that you live and work in. When they give, everybody wins. 

Related: remember, they’ve got options. 

If you’ve got a highly senior engineer working for you, they’re probably highly sought after. And if their inbox isn’t filled with recruiters, they’re definitely already well-connected. You need to make sure you’re providing an environment where they want to work: where they feel heard, respected, and like they’re growing, too.

That said:

Senior engineers are just like you and me… foster a team where they feel safe to fail, learn, and grow.

The danger of focusing on how senior engineers are different is that it will turn into hero worship, or will paint them as this precious object who needs to be protected and catered to. It will obscure this crucial point: that senior engineers deserve to be treated like everyone else on the team. This means creating a safe place to fail, learn, and grow. As much as you may respect and look up to them professionally, this highly motivated, successful, generous senior engineer you’re managing is still a human.

Being human means doing human things, like making mistakes, saying confusing things and getting frustrated. Your exceptional senior is going to screw up. They’re going to make annoying and obscure remarks. They’re going to have days where they don’t really look very productive.

Just because they’ve had a decorated career or gave six keynotes last year or were Engineering Hire 1 at your org doesn’t mean they don’t still want or deserve the same level of care and engagement you’d give others on your team. This means giving context, coaching, and feedback. I know what you’re thinking: really?! They care what I think? Yes! I can’t tell you how many times senior engineers said they learned something from me: a new way of approaching a problem, a different perspective, important context, etc. (And yes: it feels amazing every time.)

Your seniors are where they are because they have committed to their own growth. Don’t put them on a pedestal or expect them to be self-maintaining. I know a manager who said “I don’t need to do 1:1s with my seniors” because he felt this way. What a missed opportunity. Senior engineers need and deserve dedicated 1:1 time, career conversations, and a place to hear and share feedback. Make sure you are providing an environment where they still feel like they’re learning and growing.

By sharing feedback and context, appreciating their contributions, taking their work style and concerns seriously, and looking for ways to authentically support them, you can create an environment where senior engineers grow and thrive.

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