Training, Coaching, and Mentoring as An Engineering Manager
A big part of your job as an engineering manager is to figure out who to spend time with, what role to play in a relationship with that person, and how to support them best.
Whether you're an individual contributor, a team lead, or a manager, you'll have plenty of opportunities to work in each of these roles.
Training your hires to do their job is usually a part of their onboarding process. Training applies to the basic building blocks of what the person does in their role, and sets up the core knowledge about the tools they are using. You can run training programs to get folks up to speed with the frameworks and tech stack you're using; you can train folks to use shipit to deploy the code to production, use datadog to see what's happening with that code in production. Training brings the knowledge of where the knobs and buttons are.
Usually, you would not train each of your new hires individually. Instead, you build onboarding documentation, projects, and delegate some training to onboarding buddies — other folks on the team who know their way around your stack.
Coaching is the second layer: the person knows the technology and the tools, now you show them how to get things done using those tools. The part that's not in the manual.
Coaching is like training: you're teaching folks to be successful in their role. You're still setting the agenda, the coaching plan, and highlighting the areas they need to cover, based on how you see the person show up. But, coaching applies to aspects of the role that require more creative thinking:
- You coach your senior engineers to lead a project, if you're grooming them to become a team lead.
- You coach your engineers in working with folks in product and design teams to get things done faster.
- You coach your engineers in asking the right questions when they are design the system, so they don't have to rewrite it from scratch a year from the initial release.
- You coach your engineers to improve their communication and people skills, especially in remote work environment: when and how to ask for help? How to check-in with others? How to keep folks updated on what you're working on?
The more you coach people on the team, the more they form intuitions and "gut checks" in a wide range of possible work situations. Coaching lifts people, and levels up your team.
You need to lift others to grow as an engineering leader. If you find yourself jumping into code often, because "no one has the gut check to jump into the right area and fix things quickly", and you want to be the safety net for your team — you're effectively spending time on a one-off problem, instead of coaching your team on how to deal with problems like that in general.
If you don't coach people on your team well, you will not see a whole lot of progress. Sure, your team will ship projects, but they won't gain velocity and experience at the pace that they could. And you're going to be stuck. It just makes you a bad manager.
My regular self-assessment questions:
- Does everyone on my team have a clear, written growth path and a plan for this year?
- What are the specific things that I'm doing to help them progress in their plan this month?
- If I want to scale things up, what are the patterns or commonalities that I see in the plans for members of my team?
- What am I doing to put systems in place that would support people with similar milestones, instead of coaching "from scratch" every time?
Mentorship is like coaching, but it's driven by the mentee. They set the agenda. As a mentor, you help someone navigate situations that are new, curious, or tricky for them. You help them see what happens next, align their goals, and learn from the situations. Your help as a mentor spans wider than their immediate role in your team.
Be very intentional about your commitments to mentor people. You can't mentor everyone — you will meet people in your career who you're fine working with on your team, but you just can't be their mentor.
Being someone's manager, you have the power to define their path and career trajectory. If someone's long-term career goals are not aligned with what you think you need on your team in the next year, you don't have the immediate incentive to mentor them.
Put people first. Always. Mentoring folks on your team towards their personal, career goals, is what creates strong relationships that ascend beyond companies.
- If someone on your team wants to work towards a new skill that you might not immediately need in your current org — be upfront about it, and see if you have the energy and time to mentor them towards it.
- If someone asks for more mentorship than you can give — reach out to your network and help them find the right people to support them, outside your organization.
- Building the right mentoring relationships always pays off. It makes all the difference between you being an average manager (for that person), and you being the best manager they've ever had. If you're an early stage startup that relies on referrals in sourcing candidates, you better be an excellent mentor.
Learning to be a better leader
You don't expect a new manager to excel at training, coaching, AND mentorship, all in their first year of managing a team, the same way as you don't expect your intermediate software engineer to lead a complex project that spans across 4 teams.
- Even as an individual contributor, you will have opportunities to train people on your team.
- As an individual contributor, your training is focused on one person, not a full team.
- Maybe you train others as an onboarding buddy.
- Or maybe you mentor engineers from other teams in your tech stack that they're curious about, if your company has a dedicated mentorship rotation program.
- Once you become a people manager, your job is to support your team, and be accountable for delivery.
- Yes, if the projects are not shipping on time, you're in trouble. But you also have your first year to figure out the coaching piece.
- Unlike in an IC role, you're now responsible for training and coaching your full team.
- Coaching intermediate engineers is more straightforward, because you have a clear direction — they're expected to advance in the career leveling ladder, and you're expected to help them.
- Coaching senior engineers takes more time and attention, but has much bigger impact.
- Once you get more experience as a manager, you'll get to build coaching and mentoring relationships, and partnerships with your senior and staff engineers.
Hopefully, while all that is happening, your manager is coaching you to be a better leader for your team. Once you soak up enough experience, you'll be ready to coach team leads and managers of your own.