3 Books Every New Engineering Manager Should Read

Written BY

Josh Colter
October 21, 2021

If you're an engineering manager, congratulations! That means you’ve taken on one of the most challenging jobs in business.

You may start off feeling like you’re drowning, but there's hope. Others have been where you are… and some of them wrote amazing books about management that will help you get up to speed. Listen to them. Apply their wisdom. Then next year when someone asks, "What would YOU do?" You'll know exactly how to answer.

Here are three great reads for new engineering managers.

An Elegant Puzzle

Engineers typically enjoy solving puzzles, so they’re motivated by challenges and find it satisfying when you give them time to think through their solution. An Elegant Puzzle by Will Larson is a short read that focuses on how to manage people in engineering. The author offers four principles:

  1. be clear about the work
  2. provide feedback
  3. help them solve problems
  4. create accountability

Want to motivate your engineers to take ownership of their tasks? Then show them the bigger picture, help with problems, and let them know what's expected of them.

Start with a positive. Instead of beginning your interactions with problems, lead off with what's going well. This creates ownership by encouraging them to think about how their work is having a direct impact on the bigger picture. It also gives you an opportunity to provide genuine feedback.

Another key principle of managing engineers is to offer timely and specific feedback so they can continuously improve. To make this easier, be specific about what you want to see in your feedback and give them your success criteria so they know when they did something right.

Remember that not everyone is motivated by the same things. Some people like solving puzzles while others would rather just get it done quickly. As you work with engineers and adapt to their needs you will learn the unique ways they are motivated.

Accelerate

For engineering managers who are transitioning their team to agile practices, Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations is an excellent resource.

This book is about the ever-changing way we work and how teams should respond to such change. A key takeaway: one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to building high-performance technology organizations.

The authors give examples of how common tools used during software development have become ineffective over time due to changing customer needs. They also use data collected from many different companies about what works for building an effective software development team, giving practical advice on how to effectively manage a team.

The data shows that teams who practice agile experience less problems and are able to fix those problems faster than those who do not use these techniques, especially when it comes to deployments and releasing software. Using this information we can see why engineering managers should encourage their team members to follow practices like TDD and CI.

Accelerate also explains how to take a self organizing team and make it an effective team by identifying what really matters to the organization. For instance, one company kept their managers in charge of releasing software but gave all product decisions to the engineers on the ground working with their customers, which lead to more innovation and better products.

Another example is a company that made sure everyone knew why they were building software and not just writing code. When engineers know why they are doing something, motivation rises, and so does success.

The Manager's Path

The Manager's Path teaches us that our job is not to manage projects, but instead to manage people who complete projects. Teams are made up of individuals with different personalities and motivations, not machines that do exactly what we tell them to.

Every project is different in some way, so there are no blanket rules on how managers should behave. This book covers the full spectrum of being a manager, from finding your own path to creating followership among your team. It also emphasizes that you should not be a dictator, but instead work with your team on what they want to achieve and how they will accomplish it.

As engineers themselves, the authors understand we have very specific ways of approaching problems and the things we are passionate about. Your engineers might be motivated by recognition or wanting to contribute their own ideas, so it's important to take these factors into account when managing them. Teams are composed of different types of employees including "builders", "superstars", and "wrappers". Identify what motivates each one and you can use this knowledge to your advantage.

The Manager's Path also covers how to deal with people who resist change. Since agile is all about continuous improvement it can be frustrating for those who resist change because they will need to make mistakes before they realize their original approach was flawed. This is a normal part of the learning process for many engineers, so it's important to focus on how to handle it.

Finally, it’s important to understand that people's motivation levels change over time, so you need to manage your team accordingly. Overly controlling managers might crush their teams' motivation and creativity, but if they’re too hands-off, people will lose interest and not receive adequate feedback. The best managers are often described as being "on the same side" with their employees since they are seen as helpers who are simply there to guide their team members by creating a path for them.

The End of the Beginning

For new managers in the engineering industry, it can be difficult to know where to start. We recommend these three books for their wide range of insight into what you can do as an engineering manager. They'll help elevate you from a regular manager to an exceptional one. Just remember that the path to success never follows a straight line. New challenges and opportunities are always ahead.