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The growth journey of an Engineering Manager at Asana

Asana Engineering TeamEngineering Team
July 14th, 2021
8 min read
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Hello future manager, it’s nice to meet you! I’m Bella, the Core Features Engineering Pillar Lead at Asana. I grew up to be a manager in my nearly 10 years here so far. I started out as a Product Engineer, and have since experienced many different leadership roles, and hired and supported lots of new and experienced managers. I’m here to let you in on what’s in store for you as you embark on your people management journey.

Your first manager role

Your first management role at Asana will likely be Program Lead / Manager (PLM). In this role, you are responsible for the success of the team. You ensure that the team is thriving, engineers are growing in their careers, and the team is delivering on its commitments.

As a PLM, you are also a Program Lead (PL), so you spend at least half your time setting the technical direction for the team and planning execution. This means that you have the other half of your time to dedicate to people management. As such, you’ll likely have a smaller team of about three or four engineers.

You get to ease into having 1:1s with your reports, coaching them through challenges, and your manager will help guide you if you run into any issues. Over time, you’ll grow more comfortable with management responsibilities and processes as you gain more experience with new situations for you and your reports. With three or four reports, management work likely will not take a majority of your energy, though the work can be erratic. You’ll see your core job as an engineer who does some management work.

For an example of what this looks like, read about Justin Churchill’s experience of being both an engineer and a manager. 

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The Engineering Manager’s journey can be quite the evolution: You start out developing code, then coaching people who develop code, then supporting people who coach people who develop code. The journey, combined with Asana’s culture, is the reason why I’ve stayed here for almost 10 years. ”

Becoming a full-time people manager

Let’s say you’ve been a PLM, successfully managing people for some time, and it turns out you like it. At the same time, your team is clearly delivering business impact, so we need it to grow. This is when you start transitioning to managing full-time.

Scaling the team

At this point, you’ll be responsible for a team of six to eight engineers. Managing this many people really is a full-time job in and of itself. If four people presented an occasional management challenge to work through, now it happens every other week. You are really getting to hone your management craft, but this means you don’t have as much time for technical work.

At times early on as a full-time manager, you may feel overloaded. Consider taking some of my favorite management advice from Will Larson’s An Elegant Puzzle: prioritize the work that will give you back time fastest. So the first thing you should do is hire a PL.

Hiring is a big part of management. Your job now is building a high-performing team, and hiring is naturally a large component in that. Hiring the PL may mean going outside the team and partnering with the Talent Acquisition team—you should become good friends, by the way—or it may mean using the second tool in your toolbox, growing someone on your team into the PL role. 

Coaching your team

Coaching and growing people will likely be your focus both in one-on-ones with reports and when you are assigning people to projects. A person’s growth is good for both the company and the individual.

On a large team, you will have a wide variety of reports. In fact, you will likely intentionally seek out this variety to have a well balanced team. Your goal here is to have a high-functioning team by growing leaders who are at different stages in their careers.

You will learn how to coach different kinds of reports. Some of your reports will be junior and high-growth, and you’ll be figuring out which stretch opportunities to give them to take full advantage of their high growth potential. Your other reports will be more senior and you will learn how to support them and help them have more and more impact when they are better at their craft than you are. To me, this is probably the most intimidating part of being a manager, and Will Larson has great tips on managing Staff-plus engineers

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On a large team, you will have a wide variety of reports. In fact, you will likely intentionally seek out this variety to have a well balanced team. Your goal here is to have a high-functioning team by growing leaders who are at different stages in their careers.”

Ensuring the success of the team

After hiring a PL, you may be wondering what your job is when someone else is responsible for the delivery of the team. We’ve already covered building the team by hiring and growing your reports—but there is still more!

You are now the person responsible for the overall success of the team. This means you are coaching and guiding the PL; working with stakeholders to agree on the team’s commitments; delivering value to the business and customers while also making sure your team is balanced and thriving.

On a product-focused team, you work closely with a Product Manager (PM) and Design partners on big-picture thinking like your team’s vision and how the team prioritizes work. On an infrastructure-focused team, you likely won’t have a Design partner, and may not have a full-time PM, so you will be the one responsible for defining the team’s vision and strategy.

You will encounter several other initiatives that you’ll need to take on in order to ensure the success of your team. These will likely include distributing responsibilities, staffing toward the team’s commitments, and resolving people issues.

Making an impact outside the team

Let’s say you’ve been doing this for a while and your team is performing well. Your reports are happy, aligned, productive, and growing. Your stakeholders are getting what they need, and even when they are not, they understand why. What do you do next?

It’s time to look outside the team to how you can help build the Engineering organization more broadly. You could lead the Early Career hiring program, create an onboarding bootcamp, or take on actioning feedback from the company’s engagement survey to help us to do great things, fast. Often, your ownership of these initiatives will come from having solved the problem well within your team, and you (or others) identifying a bigger version of the problem beyond your team.

Look at all you’ve accomplished! Your team is doing well, and you are working with other managers and ICs in the organization to make the company better and allow it to scale. There are several ways you can continue to increase your impact from here: You can commit to delivering more complex and impactful projects with your team, dive into setting broader technical and/or product strategy for your and nearby teams, coordinate delivery of programs that span multiple projects, and/or take on management responsibility for a multiple-team group.  

Hiring and growing other managers

Okay, so now your team has grown beyond what one manager can support, or you were asked to take on another related team. It’s time to find another manager to share responsibilities with you. You look around to see whether someone in your team or within Asana is ready to take on the challenge. If not, you’ll be looking to hire. It’s a good thing you became good friends with your Talent Acquisition Partner, because you’ll now be working closely with them on hiring managers for you to delegate to. First, read how Asana thinks about hiring engineering managers.

You’ll need to determine the profile of the manager you are looking to hire. Based on that, you’ll create a rubric of how you will be evaluating candidates. Is the team small and best suited for a PLM? Does the team need more technical support through the hiring of a PLM? Or maybe the team has managerial challenges, so you are OK with someone who has much stronger management skills like delivering hard feedback than technical skills like designing a release process?

When hiring this manager, what are your plans for their growth path? You want to make sure they won’t feel stagnant after 6 months, so plan for how they will grow with the team.

If you hire a more junior manager, don’t worry, there are lots of ways Asana supports managers. The first line of support would be you, their manager. They also have a People Partner who can guide them through tricky situations. In addition, there is the Asana Manager community, and even an Engineering Manager community with Manager Circles, where a small group of Engineering Managers of varying degrees of experience meet weekly and talk about their challenges.

You can take advantage of Asana-wide initiatives like Manager Town Halls, which create a space to discuss and get guidance about topics like avoiding burnout, as well as regular Outstanding Manager Bootcamps focused on core management topics like leading effective one-on-ones. Anyone can sign up for free individual coaching from a roster of diverse career coaches, which is useful for anyone whether you’re a brand new or seasoned managers. 

Managing multiple teams

Now you’ve hired your managers and they are building their teams. What does your role look like now?

Overall, you are now responsible for the success of your group of teams. At Asana Engineering, we often call such a group an “Area”, though we might also have sub-groups of teams within an Area. You’ll need to establish the Area’s vision and strategy. You’ll work on these with relevant cross-functional partners of your teams (often including PM and Design). Using this high-level strategy, you and the managers of your Area’s teams will make sure that the teams’ roadmaps align with this plan.

You are ultimately accountable for the delivery towards this mission, as well as the health of your Area. As you start looking forward and plan how you’ll accomplish your Area’s mission, you’ll need to think about what new teams you want to create, and how you’ll work with leadership to make that happen. This is quite a bit of work, so you will need to start thinking about how to scale yourself.

Managing multiple teams means delegating single-team ownership to the leaders on those teams. Your role becomes supporting and coaching these leaders in making sure their teams are doing well. In some cases you’ll be coaching your managers in their craft; in other cases you’ll be focused more on unblocking and enabling them.

In supporting the managers that report to you, one of your focus areas will be making sure that your managers understand and adopt the company culture. Camille Fournier has an insightful chapter on managing experienced managers in The Manager’s Path.

You can read more about being a manager-of-managers in Rachael Stedman’s description of what her role looks like.

Maintaining a mission-first focus

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Keep in mind that we are here for the success of the mission, not of an individual team.”

As you progress in your management career, remember that team size and team count are a means to an end. Your ultimate goal is to enable the organization to move fast toward our mission. Sometimes this means hiring more people, and other times it means restructuring your team and combining forces with another area, or even moving some of your teams to a new area in order for them to be closer with teams they are strategically aligned with. 

Your growth as a manager will not be linear. You may be part of a reorganization where you end up with an early-stage team that needs to grow. Bonus points if you initiate this reorganization because you know it’s the best thing to do for the business. At other times, your team may suddenly double in size and you will find yourself on a hiring spree. Being able to adjust to and influence the ebbs and flows of the Engineering organization is part of growth as a manager. Keep in mind that we are here for the success of the mission, not of an individual team. 

Want to join me on this path?

The manager’s journey can be quite the evolution. You can start out developing code, then coaching people who develop code, and may end up supporting people who coach people who develop code. It can be fun and give you the new and interesting career change you desire. The journey, combined with Asana’s culture, is the reason why I’ve stayed at Asana for almost 10 years. 

At the same time, you may decide that you like your current role and want to deepen your skills there. The nice thing about the management path is it’s not one-directional, and management is not an end-state. You may even decide that you really want to focus on the code, and become an individual contributor (IC) again (check out Eric Pelz’s path from manager to IC). I’ve seen many people at Asana successfully moving in all directions on this journey and it’s most important to find the role that you enjoy doing today.

How does this sound? Would you like to join me on this path? If so, come work with me and the rest of Team Asana.

Special thanks to Steve Landey

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