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Introducing EM building blocks

Asana Engineering TeamEngineering Team
May 9th, 2022
8 min read
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At Asana, we have found using Will Larson’s staff engineer archetypes helpful for thinking about and discussing experienced engineer career growth. And the question arose: could we do something similar for Engineering Managers?

Similar to individual contributors, engineering managers (EMs) also have different shapes of impact. It’s valuable to illustrate the variety of growth opportunities EMs  have to grow their impact beyond growing their team’s size or creating more hierarchies — paths that are not always available due to business needs.

Our goal became to provide a resource for engineering managers to identify possible investment areas for advancing their skills and their career. Managers, even more than ICs, are responsible for carving their own career path and finding the right shape to support their team – use these building blocks as a tool to better identify patterns of impact in your own work and areas you can increase impact.

Why building blocks instead of archetypes?

We wanted to emphasize that for managers, it’s more important to be versatile in multiple shapes. While both EM and IC shapes are dictated by team & business needs, managers have an even greater need to remain versatile since team needs can evolve rapidly. We talk more about this in “common patterns”.

How does this relate to a career ladder or levels?

Most companies have a career ladder or leveling guide that describes the scope of work and impact expected at that level. The concept of building blocks or shapes is complimentary. You can demonstrate any level of scope and impact with a particular shape. That is, an EM shape does not imply level, as it can exist at multiple levels.

Building Blocks

EM Building Blocks represent a form of impact that EMs can make. EM Shapes are the combinations of those building blocks that we bring to our engineering management practice. These shapes can be motivated by business needs or by the needs of the team. You almost never use all building blocks at once, but as you grow in your career, it’s important to grow a mastery in multiple shapes as the flexibility will allow you to serve many types of teams and in a variety of circumstances.

New Engineering Manager" with five bars. People, product, and brand are short; technology and execution are tall.
Experienced Engineering Manager" with five bars. People and product are tall; technology, brand, and execution are medium height.

People: Grows & coaches others (note: not always direct reports!) and knows how to find roles for individuals that best utilize their strengths. Fosters environments where people can thrive and solves impactful organizational problems. Foundational skills are centered around the people management craft (staffing, coaching & growth).

Product: Influences the roadmap for business impact (note: can be internal or external product), enables cross-functional collaboration & alignment. Foundational skills include working effectively with your product manager and ensuring your team tackles impactful opportunities.

Technology: Identifies technical opportunities, coaches on technical design & execution, and solves hard technical problems. Foundational skills including understanding enough about your team’s technology to advocate for needed technical investments and ensuring your team has needed technical expertise.

Brand: Builds company or employer reputation and acts as a talent magnet. Foundational skills include being a hiring manager and being able to recruit for your team.

Execution: Enables teams to deliver value reliably, effectively, and efficiently. Builds, removes, or evolves processes that allow the business to deliver value faster or at a higher quality. Foundational skills include setting up your immediate team to successfully & reliably deliver value to the business.

Examples of EM Shapes

People + Technology Shape

As strong technical leaders, these EMs will often work closely with tech leads, mentoring them in making strategic technical architecture decisions. They are not necessarily putting proposals or design docs together themselves, but they have a way of asking the right questions to ensure important perspectives & risks are considered. They use their coaching chops to level up the technical decision-making of those around them and bring value to the organization by ensuring we make sound technical investments both for now and in the future. They identify leveraged technical opportunities – anything from critical technical debt to how the adoption of a new technology or approach would serve the organization as a business, especially anything spanning team boundaries in need of an advocate/owner. They will use their technical expertise to understand the potential of various solutions and paint a vision of the impact to get alignment with others. These EMs are particularly impactful on teams with large technical questions and where technical decisions have a broad impact.

Very tall bars for people and technology; tall bar for product; medium bars for brand and execution

Product + Execution Shape

EMs in this shape combine their ability to impact Execution with their Product building block to deliver pointed and more impactful product solutions. These EMs either use their direct product understanding to contribute innovative solutions or they utilize a deep understanding of how our business works (market trends, go-to-market strategies, etc). EMs operating in this shape have good judgment around what scope can be cut while still delivering user value. They leverage their product know-how to bring product ideas to conversations with cross-functional partners and often help translate between product and engineering. 

In this shape, EMs are able to lean into product planning activities which leads their team to executing on the leanest vertical to deliver value for users. If there is a PM on their team, EMs of this shape are often partnering closely with them. If there is no product function on the team, EMs of this shape are likely wearing the product hat.

This shape is particularly impactful for teams that spike in solving and can be highly leveraged the more their teams’ are aligned with nearby teams.

Very tall bars for product and execution; tall bar for people; medium bars for technology and brand

People + Execution Shape

EMs in this shape utilize their people management skills to get a thorough understanding of blockers in the team’s operations. They are then able to get buy-in on solutions and rollout processes to enable the team to execute faster and/or improve their ability to get into a flow state. They are able to help the team reach its full potential by identifying and taking advantage of individuals’ strengths, matching folks with growth opportunities, and appropriately delegating.

They know that fostering a psychologically-safe environment for all team members is key to execution. A high-performing team generally is one where team members trust each other, and as a result, they are able to resolve conflict and decisions (during execution) much more autonomously and quickly.

In this shape, EMs are leaning into information gathering with their team, building trust to uncover deeper issues, and setting themselves up to solve bigger and more complex process problems.

This shape is particularly impactful for teams that are still forming and norming and/or for teams that are composed of engineers that have less experience in the various ways teams can operate.

Very tall bar for people; tall bar for execution; medium bars for product, technology, and brand

Technology + Brand Shape

EMs in this shape combine their technical expertise with their industry relationships to produce and distribute valuable content for the broader technical community. EMs in this shape spend their time on a longer feedback loop of building the engineering brand that in turn attracts talent to Asana over time.

These EMs are likely prolific blog post writers, conference speakers, social media thought leaders, and they might even author books. They are often building their network in-person or virtually — wherever engineers and talent are. They are building a following that matches Asana’s values and ultimately attracts engineers that could help Asana achieve their mission.

This shape is particularly impactful for teams that are doing long-horizon work where there is space for the organization to emerge as an industry leader. This shape is also particularly impactful when the industry is considered an engineering specialization (e.g. security, mobile, etc).

Very tall bar for brand; tall bars for product and technology; medium bars for people and execution

Execution Shape

EMs of this shape are experts at running a well-executed program. Whether working with a single team or coordinating across multiple teams, these EMs can be trusted to work with teams to set reasonable deadlines and reliably ship against them. EMs of this shape are adept at helping get a delayed project back on track — diagnosing the core bottlenecks & challenges, navigating stakeholder alignment, rigorously prioritizing scope or being creative with staffing solutions.

EMs of this shape might also help convert a team that’s overwhelmed with reactive work to a team that is managing their reactive work and moving forward with strategic investments. Execution is often paired with process, because tweaking and evolving processes is often a key way EMs of this shape improve the execution muscle of their teams.

This shape is particularly impactful for teams that have many external deadlines or need to manage significant reactive work.

Very tall bar for execution; tall bars for people and technology; medium bars for people and brand

How to make the most of EM Building Blocks

Here’s examples of how you can use this:

  • As an EM, when you are building a relationship with your manager, you can use this guide to discuss shapes and which ones resonate with your strengths and growth areas.

  • As an EM, when you are mapping out their career, you can track which building blocks you have gotten more or less experience in.

  • As an EM, when you have a career conversation with your manager, you and your manager can discuss far future career aspirations and arrive at a shape of impact that the EM should consider exploring now to be in a better position for their future goals.

  • As a manager of managers doing strategic planning, you can use shapes to describe the impact an EM should consider to best support an upcoming project.

  • As a manager of managers, you can assess patterns of public recognition to ensure the organization is recognizing the shapes it needs.

Common patterns

  • Develop a strong foundation before you specialize: Similar to staff engineer archetypes, it is best to get some experience and strength in each of the various building blocks before specializing. This means developing in all the blocks first before building up. Be careful about prematurely pursuing shapes. All engineering managers are expected to be masters of the basics of their craft and versatile managers to a certain level of impact.

  • Evolve your shape to match your team’s changing needs: While both EM and IC shapes are dictated by team & business needs, managers have an even greater need to remain versatile since team needs can evolve rapidly.

  • Get good at multiple shapes: The more flexible an EM is in their shape of impact, the more they are likely to be able to match their team needs. One aspect of growing as an engineering leader is being able to navigate a greater variety of situations. We recommend that EMs don’t lean into a single building block but instead develop competencies across all building blocks and spike in 2-3 building blocks. It is more common for staff+ engineers to be able to focus on one staff eng archetype and meet business needs whereas it is more difficult for managers to focus on one shape and meet business needs:

    • An IC solver can travel across their org to where a “solver” is needed whereas it’s expensive to swap out EMs (we don’t like changing folks’ managers <1 year)

    • There are more ICs than managers, so odds are higher that other ICs will have a complementary set of skills and impact. For example if an IC wants to be a solver, odds are someone else is excited about being an architect. While a manager can hire folks to complement their shape, this is a more timely operation.

Common Pitfalls

  • Leaning into a shape that doesn’t match team needs

  • Trying to do all “shapes” at once and being overwhelmed. Building a strong foundation in all building blocks doesn’t mean you do it all at once. Each building block is fairly substantial and it’s recommended to grow one or two at a time.

  • Focusing on only one building block and leaving other building blocks under-developed (e.g. overly identifying with a particular building block or shape). Be careful of associating someone too strongly with a shape! An individual’s shape may evolve over time. (e.g., experience an EM as one shape and don’t believe they have the ability to successfully evolve/demonstrate another shape)

  • Not soliciting feedback or input from others. Understanding one’s shape requires both self awareness as well as gathering feedback from others. I have seen people make mistakes in assuming that they are really good at something without calibrating well.

Hope you find these EM building blocks useful for navigating your own growth path as a manager!

If any of this is exciting to you, we’re hiring for engineering manager roles across multiple teams. Check out our open roles. Special thanks to Jean Hsu, Jeff Ammons, and Will Larson.

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