Hiring Engineering Managers: Screening for Potential

I have been in many discussions on the best way to interview and hire engineering managers. Here are my thoughts, having done this both successfully and less successfully, including some things that I have looked for in the past when being interviewed. 

First: Be thoughtful about what you are looking for. There are people out there who are looking for the opportunity to go into management. Lots of them, in my experience. These are good people to hire, because many of them will turn out to be good, thoughtful managers. Most of the time I hired this sort of person into a senior engineering role that quickly became a tech lead role. I was explicit at hiring that we didn’t have a team to give them immediately but that I would be expecting that as the overall team grew they would move into such a role when it became available.

Now, I should be clear, this exchange requires a lot of trust on both parties, as well as the possibly unspoken assumption that they still have to prove themselves capable of doing the job once on the team. I have turned down jobs that asked me to make this bet, and I would not hold it against anyone who felt that it was too risky. But on the flip side, if you really want to grow your management from within, hiring people who both want to be eventually moving to leadership roles but are comfortable coming in as individual contributors first is pretty essential to making that work. If you want to grow management from within but don’t bother to look for people who want to grow into management roles when you’re hiring, you may end up with mostly people who just want to code, and that is not good for anyone.

OK, so you’re hiring a specific management position. What do you look for?

There are two camps here. The first camp is that you look for incredibly smart tech lead-level developers who may have had limited management experience and put them in the role. They will easily pass whatever technical screens you put in front of them, but hiring is a risk because they may not really be good managers. If this is the way you want to go about hiring managers, you need to spend a good deal of time focused on screening for management potential. Screening for potential is different than screening for experience. Right now, I’m going to talk about screening for potential; in part 2, I’ll talk about experience.

Questions to tease out potential: 

Tell me about a project where you have acted as the tech lead. What was your role like, as tech lead? What were things you did that were different from the rest of the team? How did you ensure that the project was successful?

What you are looking for: Someone who answers with more than just “I designed the architecture, chose the libraries, and wrote the most technically challenging pieces of the code.” They should have taken an active role in the project management, even if there was another person explicitly or implicitly in that role. They should have contributed to predicting problems with the delivery and working with the people on the team or cross-team to ensure success.

When you bring a new team member onto your team, what kinds of things do you personally do as part of their onboarding? Have you ever been a mentor to a new hire or intern? What was that like, what did you learn from it?

What you are looking for: Someone who is actively engaged in the work of bringing on new people, and thoughtful about making that process better. Someone who respected the work of mentoring, who isn’t just trying to shed human interactions quickly to get back to code.

Tell me about some things you have done to make the process of writing or delivering code in your organization better.

What you are looking for: Some strong examples of seeing process/people/systems problems and raising their hand to suggest improvements.

One suggestion I have heard, but not tried, is to do a role-playing exercise with the candidate. Set up a circumstance that might happen, such as, an employee is unhappy that they did not get promoted. Provide an overview to the candidate and give the interviewer some details that may include information that the manager doesn’t necessarily know. Have a third party observe the interaction, and then at the end of the role play all three talk about what went well and didn’t. This could be an interesting tool for hiring either the experienced manager or the potential-driven manager, but I also suspect it is easy on the flip side for it to go poorly if the interviewer isn’t good at guiding the roleplay and knowing what to look for. (Credit to Marc Hedlund for this idea!)

Finally, when hiring this type of candidate, you are probably going to get (and maybe even should be intentionally seeking out) someone who is going to not only manage people but drive technical decision-making. Make sure that the people who currently drive technical direction (if they exist) are aligned on that front with the candidate. If the candidate is gung-ho about functional programming and microservices and you are happy in a more conservative technical space, you may end up with someone who wants to make big technical changes that you might not agree with. The team should feel a general alignment to their technical perspective, and ideally people are excited about working for this person because they feel that they will learn something, but don’t just hire them as a manager because people are excited about their technical chops.

Overall, when screening for potential, look for signs of stepping up, caring about the people on the team, and thoughtfulness about the processes. In general you should also be looking for excellent communication skills, and everyone who interviews the person should feel pretty comfortable with the idea of working for them. Be wise to potential bias here. The best managers are often overlooked because they don’t pattern match to certain characteristics, whether they are “tall and male” or “forceful personality” or whatever. Talk to the team before the interview and give them examples of great managers who sit outside of those stereotypes to reset their stereotype bias a little bit.

When you mishire on potential, it tends to come from overvaluing technical skills + pattern matching on “what a leader looks like”, and the failure mode is managers who just don’t deliver coherent teams and/or can’t deliver projects effectively. Never ever hire a person you feel is overly ego-driven.

One final word on this candidate: If you hire someone for potential, be prepared to train them. They are going to need help. Whether it is formal training or a lot of mentorship from you or a mix of both, no one is born knowing how to manage. I think it is worth sometimes taking a risk on people like this (I’m glad someone did that for me once!) but they will struggle if they have to do it all alone.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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