Starting as an Engineering Manager


I joined Cloudflare last week as an Engineering Manager, having previously spent 4 years working as the head of the software engineering community in the UK Government’s Digital Service (GDS). You only get one chance to be a new starter at each new place, so it’s important to make the most of the experience. Also, the job of Engineering Manager is different in every organisation, so it’s important to understand what the expectations and need for the role is in Cloudflare.

To help with this, I started by sketching out some objectives for my first week.

  • Meet all my team members in a 1 to 1 meeting
  • Know the skills and motivations of each team member
  • Write down the expectations of my manager and team
  • Write down the scope of the job
  • Write a list of technologies to get an understanding of
  • Be mentored by one of the team in one of these technologies
  • Review what I can do to help with diversity and inclusion
  • Understand the management structure – draw a diagram of it
  • Spend 30 minutes with the most senior person I can to understand their aims
  • Play with the product myself

Some of these are a bit of a stretch to do fully in the first week, but I find objectives often work best for me if they’re a bit challenging.

I also made a short list of more organisational todos, such as understanding which tools have been accredited for use, getting all my accounts and kit working and setting up a todo list.

Other opinions

I worried that this was lacking in review and would benefit from other people’s perspectives. I’m lucky to have access to a network of people with technical and management experience, so I put the question to them on Twitter:

You can read the responses yourself, but I got a lot of very good advice there.

Principles

Quite a few of the suggestions are good principles to follow, rather than measurable objectives, and I’d summarise them as:

  • Listen, don’t tell. (You don’t know what you’re talking about yet.)
  • Capture, write down first impressions. (You won’t remember them the same way.)
  • Reserve judgement, don’t bring baggage from your last role. (Things that look similar at first may be very different.)

I wrote down the list of suggestions from twitter to see what I’d missed – there were 25 suggestions, though several were close duplicates. I ended up adding the following to my list:

  • Be able to articulate the vision for the company as a whole and the place of the engineering team in delivering that vision
  • Know who the non technical critical stakeholders are
  • Get an idea of the 5 best and worst things about the place
  • Projects: what’s ongoing, what state are they in, why?
  • Emergencies and fires: how are they tackled, what’s your role, what makes them harder to solve?

And finally, I added “Discuss what the comms policy is. What is it okay to blog about publically?”, which has resulted in me writing this post!

How did it go?

Well, as a result of this, I made a long list of tasks that I wanted to get done – and even managed to do most of them! I had some great one-to-one sessions with the team, and got to watch how they approached their work, and was struck by the very high level of technical skill and commitment to making the best system they can. I also got to spend time with various senior leaders and get their view on the company, and also began to get an understanding of what the product requirements are that depend on the team.

I found keeping the principles listed above in mind was incredibly helpful, particularly in keeping me from leaping to try to present solutions to issues before I understand the situation properly.

I’ve ended the week with more questions than I’ve answered, but thanks to some excellent guidance and support from my manager, and many other people’s generosity with their time, I’m confident they’re the right questions.

Further reading

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of literature to read about how to approach being an Engineering Manager. Unfortunately, while you’re doing it, there never seems to be enough time to read a lot. I’ve found that Camille Fournier’s book “The Managers Path” is a very good starting point which doesn’t take too long to read, with lots of practical advice based on her experiences. “The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, Updated and Expanded” is also recommended.

I’ll be reviewing how useful these objectives and principles have been in helping me to get up to speed over the coming weeks. If you have thoughts or experiences you’d like to share, please leave a comment.



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