How I Learn As An Engineering Manager
Last time, I wrote on my learning methodology, Scatter and Sweep. In this approach, I “scatter” my learning through solving different problems and researching where needed and I “sweep” by picking a topic and going deep on it. By combining these two approaches, I am able to increase my chances of having the knowledge I need the first time I see the problem and give an extra boost to retaining the knowledge I learned the first time when I see a problem again. When I apply this methodology with my preferred ways of learning, I end up with my learning practice as an Engineering Manager.
As an Engineering Manager, I’m faced with a variety of different challenges that run at different cadences. In the day-to-day, I work closely with teams and the engineers on them to help them improve both their team practices and their individual skillsets. Over longer cadences, I’m helping strategize and goal set, participating in biannual reviews, and contributing to compensation reviews. Both of these give me a chance to research and connect with other folks to help me solve problems.
When I’m facing engineering problems in the day-to-day, they’re usually on the architecture scale or in the planning phases. I’m a big fan of turning to well-known engineering teams’ blogs for research. A lot of tech problems are what I like to refer to as “solved problems”. Someone else has solved this, so let’s draft off of their research and knowledge. Uber, Slack, and, of course, Asana are some of my favorite engineering team’s blogs.
When I’m facing people issues in the day-to-day, I’ll reach out to my network. I have a few friends and former colleagues in the space, and a quick email or even a call can help me sort out my problem pretty quickly. There are a few colleagues that I catch up with regularly which eliminates the need to schedule for one-off problems. I also belong to a few Slack groups dedicated to Engineering Management. Given the topic and the amount of anonymity needed, I can reach out to members of these groups with a particular conundrum and get some advice. I also do my best to journal a few times a week, and this gives me a nice record of things I’ve done or tried. If you’re in need of mentorship or colleagues outside of your org, I recommend different learning platforms such as Merit (disclaimer: I am a coach on Merit) or Plato.
Regardless of the topic, I’m also able to research through highlights I’ve made in books and blog posts I’ve read. I read most of my books through Amazon Kindle and I read most of my blog posts through Instapaper. As I’m reading, I’ll highlight passages that I know I’ll want to revisit. If something in my day-to-day resonates with something I’ve previously read, I’ll do a search through these highlights and bring up the passage from the book.
The biggest source of my “sweeping” learning comes from books. I subscribe to David Cancel’s school of thought that books are, somehow, an underrated wealth of knowledge. They tend to cost between $10-20 which is a nice price point to ensure you’re picking out good ones without feeling committed to finishing. And the time, effort, and research that goes into a book is generally well-vetted and done so my numerous parties.
I generally pick up a book when it’s recommended multiple times or otherwise coming from a highly-respected source. I struggled for a while to make progress in more dense books. I found a groove in reading an engineering management book for 30 minutes every morning. When I took the subway into work, my 30 minutes on the F train worked perfectly for this. These days, I try and sneak in a few minutes as I finish my coffee and before I log in in the morning. One other tool that helps me lock in my learning is Readwise. When I’m reading books, I’ll highlight a passage that I found particularly insightful. Readwise takes all my highlights and surfaces five random highlights a day for me to review. This is a tremendous tool as it forces me to think through what I want to remember as I’m reading, and it surfaces up these highlights for review.
Since I get a lot out of reading, I also try and make it a point to read blog posts and articles. Blog posts get published faster than book does, so I’m usually reading blog posts that are more timely. There’s also not a publishing industry behind these blog posts, so I find I get a different perspective from reading these self-published works. I collect blog posts from newsletters and Twitter, and I store them on Instapaper. A lot of the time they end up piling up here, so I started instituting a rule that if I think I can read the article in under 5 minutes, I’ll read it on the spot.
Ultimately, I put a lot less of my time into blog posts when compared to books. I hear a lot of criticism about management and leadership books. Typically, the critics comment on their perception that these books are full of fluff. They suggest that these books would be better served as five thousand word blog posts. There are so many sources competing for our attention. For me, picking up a book and dedicating a few hours over a few weeks is an exercise in focus. If I spend that much time with a subject, I’m more likely to retain the material.
My next most used form of learning is through audio — namely, podcasts. I subscribe to a handful of podcasts to help me improve in my craft. Seeking Wisdom out of Drift is a great listen for management, leadership, and self-improvement. I listen to a handful of the Thoughtbot podcasts to stay on top of software practices and opinions. And The Art of Product is fantastic for keeping customer-first solutions top-of-mind. Similarly, I tend to queue these up on my commute into the office. When I’m not on the train with a book open, I’m listening to a podcast.
I prefer reading over watching, so I don’t tend to watch many videos. I find the latency of videos to be slower than my reading, my attention drifts more with video than with a book, and I just don’t have a great system for recalling and revisiting what I’ve learned from videos. However, I’ve had success watching videos with peers. Watching videos over lunch with a team is a great way to learn through watching. If I spend some time during and after the video discussing takeaways and applications, I find I’m more likely to retain learnings from the video.
Sharpening the Saw
All of this is a journey. This is not a finished product. I’ve gotten here over a few years of trial and error. The biggest change I encountered in my learning journey was in my move from engineering to management. My days changed, and so I found myself more motivated by different forms of learning. I also had to find new sources for my new practice. All of this is what’s working for me now.
What’s next? Will Clubhouse become a part of my learning regimen? Will the move to remote work change the way conferences and conference videos are shared? And how do you learn? Send me a line at dan.ubilla [at] gmail.com or find me on Twitter at @dubilla, and let me know!