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What It’s Like to Be an Engineering Manager on a Product-Oriented Team

Updated on December 9, 2020Team

Our engineering blog covers the work that goes into making Grammarly’s product. From time to time, we also talk about the non-technical side of engineering. We already covered the importance of one-on-one meetings. This time, we dig into details about what it’s like to be an engineering manager on a product-oriented team at Grammarly. Below is an edited version of an interview with Anna Glukhova, one of our engineering managers, who has managed the teams behind the Grammarly Editor, the Microsoft Office add-in, and more.

When people ask what I do at Grammarly, the answer seems simple enough: I’m an engineering manager leading several product-oriented teams. 

But while none of those words are particularly exotic on their own, to the uninitiated, the combination sometimes elicits blank stares. So here’s what engineering managers like me actually do—and how we succeed.

I’ll give an overview and some background information, as well as my own experience, then focus on four of my key responsibilities.

What does an engineering manager do?

As someone who manages engineers, my role is to set each engineer on my team up for success. This means everything from communicating a clear plan as we continually improve our products to ensuring each team member sees a path forward for their individual career development.

Michelle Kung, an engineering manager at AWS, put it this way:

An EM’s primary concern and responsibility are to the individual. They are dealing with each member of the team on a personal level. They are in a unique position to understand the dynamic of the team, how it constantly evolves over time with new hires, changes in team structures, and varying degrees of pressure. They are ‘in the trenches’ and very much attached to day-to-day trials and tribulations.

It’s worth noting our industry has a few overlapping names for this job, and it can mean different things at different companies, occasionally blurring at startups with roles like Delivery Manager or CTO. I’m closer to the action than these broad titles imply, leading all of the Interfaces teams in our Kyiv office—specifically, the Grammarly Editor, Grammarly Keyboard for iOS, and Desktop Integrations teams.

At Grammarly, the scope of an engineering manager’s tasks depends on the team’s focus, which means whether they’re product-oriented, service-oriented, or infrastructure-oriented. But they all have a few things in common—we will get into that later.

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What was your path to engineering management?

I have more than 14 years of experience in information technology, and have spent over half of those years in managerial roles. I hold a degree in computer science and started my IT career in test automation.

I’ve always liked working with people, improving my team’s processes, and helping navigate the team’s roadmap. Over time, I began developing my leadership skills—first as a team lead, thanks to a manager who recognized I was ready to take on more responsibility. 

What followed was an organic development toward engineering management. During this transition, I dedicated about half my time to my own individual contributions, and half to continually expanding the scope of my leadership tasks. 

What are your job’s responsibilities?

In my experience, an engineering manager in a product-oriented team generally focuses on four key things. Again, the specifics can vary, but what follows is common across engineering management positions at Grammarly.

1 Driving impact

2 Managing people

3 Supporting the team’s overall health

4 Improving communication and collaboration

Let’s give each of them more context and unpack what these tasks mean for me.

1 Driving impact

Grammarly’s product offerings impact millions of people’s communication around the world each day. To me, that’s both a hefty responsibility and a big source of motivation.

The teams I manage need me to identify and deliver important work to focus on, so no one has to wonder what’s next or why it matters. This means I’m driving our technical roadmap—our plan for what we’re building and how all its pieces fit together—to ensure high technical quality for our projects. It also means keeping an eye on our objectives and key results (OKRs). 

I’m not thinking just in terms of what we’re getting done in a given week, but how that work builds toward the larger goal of solving user problems in the most optimal way. This means keeping an eye on how our immediate work all fits into a broader plan extending over several quarters, through streamlining our processes and leaving room to adapt. 

At the beginning of each quarter, we start with a set of initiatives, and my teams split up into sub-teams that each work independently toward one initiative. Each smaller team has its own lead, who shares daily updates on their progress. This way, the whole team can move toward our common goals efficiently and effectively.

My fellow managers and I encourage an ownership mindset in our reports because we want each member of the team to feel involved in every stage of the project, and to wield direct influence during the product’s development—from planning alongside the design and product teams to testing and supporting the product after release. That means the people who work here have a lot of autonomy—and a lot of responsibility.

While us managers rarely do the engineering ourselves, we need a thorough technical understanding of our team’s work in terms of performance, quality, and development. This is where having a background in engineering allows an EM to shine—because without technical experience, driving the technical roadmap would be a tall order indeed.

The CEO of Plato, a mentorship platform for engineering managers, puts that aspect this way:

You obviously won’t need to know the inner workings of each technology, but it’s important that you are up-to-date in the languages, technologies, services, etc. you will need in your day-to-day job.

As being an engineering manager means taking informed decisions, you’ll at least need to be aware of what works best in each situation. Senior software engineers in your team will obviously share their opinion, but being knowledgeable — though not an expert — will prevent you from turning a blind eye to important decisions.

2 People management

To set up the engineers I manage for success, I provide a clear and meaningful path forward not just for the team’s work but for each individual. An important part of showing my dedication as a manager is having regular 1:1 meetings—which, as my colleague Dmytro Mindra has written, can be quite powerful. I like to do this on a regular cadence, and try to let each team member drive the conversation. 

In these meetings, I invest heavily in the career growth of each team member—helping them find avenues to develop in their roles, become more knowledgeable, plot out their career path, and communicate about potential opportunities within the company. I firmly believe it’s important to discuss these opportunities more often than during a single dedicated meeting each quarter. 

A staple on the agenda for regular 1:1s is affording room to exchange mutual feedback, along with time to answer questions, discuss new opportunities, and check in on their overall well-being. (In the interest of cultivating the most talented team, one great tool is Gallup’s Q12 engagement survey, a set of 12 questions featured in the book First, Break All the Rules.)

Team members need the right challenges in order to stay engaged and motivated, so my task is to create an environment where everyone can work effectively toward common goals and develop based on their own talents, skills, and knowledge. The key here is building trust-based relationships with my team members where both parties feel free to speak openly. 

3 Supporting the team’s overall health

Team health consists of everything from team cohesion to general morale. 

In terms of morale, I strive to consistently communicate our EAGER values: ethical, adaptable, gritty, empathetic, and remarkable. I try to lead by example here, and encourage my team members to use our values as the basis of our daily interactions and team culture.

To ensure a healthy and collaborative atmosphere within the team sharing the same values, I also work to communicate that it’s normal to make mistakes. Each mistake presents a chance to learn so we know how to avoid doing the same thing going forward.

Lately, the team has had to communicate exclusively on Zoom or online. Digital interaction tends to demand more preparation and concentration and makes it harder to really know what’s going on with team members. Since many of us found ourselves missing the chance to connect less formally, I introduced additional optional meetings for the team, where we can discuss stuff that’s not strictly work-related. This helps morale a lot! 

Team health also includes planning the team’s structure, both short- and long-term, as our timeline for growth has to align with Grammarly’s goals. Some of this is hiring—planning the team’s scaling and capacity, and taking part in the interview process—but a lot of it is more strategic and cross-functional.

For example, as we were developing features for the Grammarly Editor, we knew we’d want those features to appear in other product offerings in order to provide a consistent user experience—and that this would need to happen quickly and effectively, and could potentially affect the work of other teams. To achieve this, we needed to create an independent platform those features could live on, which our other engineering teams could easily reuse. So we divided the Grammarly Editor engineering team into two subteams, with one focused on new feature development while the other worked to make those features available in our other product offerings.

It’s also important to make sure all team members know what’s going on at the company level, especially since we’re now working remotely, and may continue doing so through the summer of 2021. This shift has affected both engineers and engineering managers like me, especially because our communication channels are now strictly digital. 

4 Improving communication and collaboration

An engineering manager has to be a strong partner cross-functionally and within their teams. 

A lot of that collaboration happens as we sketch out plans quarterly or yearly—this is when we brainstorm, discuss future quarterly goals, ask questions, and set priorities. An engineering manager’s role is not only to ensure the team carries out the tasks developed on the product side, but also to help shape those tasks and ask questions of cross-functional partners in order to better understand motivations and key success metrics. 

Here, the engineering manager has to again lead by example, setting the tone in a mutually beneficial cross-team discussion. And a similar dynamic plays out in collaborations with other engineering teams—an example from Grammarly would be the efforts supporting our Security Champions initiative

Engineering managers are also responsible for gathering ideas and feedback from their team, and advocating for those ideas with company leadership. This helps make sure the team’s ideas are being heard and helps team members feel a greater sense of ownership.

Finally, to get the most value out of the information that engineering managers gather, we convey that knowledge through reports and presentations. This is yet another way you can communicate and advocate for your teams’ work. 

A balancing act

All four of the above items are vital to the work of a successful engineering manager—and each part complements the others. 

In other words, to do any of them well, you have to be doing all of them. The quality of a team’s output hinges on making sure everyone feels like they’re growing and being challenged in worthwhile ways, both individually and as a unit. For that to happen, you need a clear plan, which in turn hinges on collaboration and communication. 

Fine-tuning this balance takes constant adjustment—that is, the balance is usually dynamic. It’s hard work, but I’m rewarded every time I see our product improve, and every time I see our teams and individual people succeed.

If you’re interested in bringing your engineering talent, collaborative skills, and ownership mindset to Grammarly, check out our open roles!

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