May 6, 2022

What the heck is engineering management like at Atlassian? - Fernando Bordallo

Fernando Bordallo
What the heck is engineering management like at Atlassian? - Fernando Bordallo

When being introduced to new people we commonly share the same details: our name, and what we do for a living. “Hi! I’m Fernando and I’m a manager at Atlassian”. I usually get squinting eyes or blank faces staring back with a follow-up question: “A manager … what exactly do you do?” 😅

My job as an engineering manager encompasses many day-to-day tasks, varying from coordinating and guiding engineering projects to supporting individuals on a personal level. Throughout a year I will surely do all the following, mixed with plenty of other miscellaneous things:

  • interview and hire new employees
  • prepare and present updates to bosses and customers
  • coach others to grow professionally
  • formally assess individuals' performance and promote them when ready
  • connect experts to problems we need to solve, coordinating planning efforts
  • collaborate on ruthless prioritization of work
  • define and monitor key metrics for success

All this said, ultimately I only have one goal and that is to ensure our work environments, projects, and individuals are set up for success in a way that aligns with the companies goals and values. To make this happen I work side by side with a team of managers, experience designers (UX), and product managers (PM), anchoring my work on three main pillars:

  • people
  • understand and communicate
  • make the right things happen

💙 People

Behind every effort, there is a person or a group of them. As a manager, regardless of the job market you work in, your team’s engagement with their goals, their sense of belonging to the group, and well-being are critical pillars to cater for. To build high-performing teams, people need to trust one another and be able to communicate their thinking and debate when conflicts are met. We are, first and foremost, human! Acknowledging this fact and all it brings is essential.

To ensure teams are engaged with their work on a personal level, managers need to make sure individuals feel proud of their work and how it is done. To make this happen, the team should have:

  • a shared goal they believe in
  • metrics that evolve towards a target and tell a story as they change
  • input from the team to define the goal itself and the strategy to meet it

These will require managers to delegate decisions to the team, placing trust and accountability on them. This empowerment is possibly the most important thing a manager must do. There are few things as powerful as trusting others to bolster an individual's spirit and unleash a team’s potential.

Together with trust and delegation, coaching is a critical aspect of a manager’s job and one of the most important for those that report to you. People want to be told what they are doing well and, more importantly, what they need to do to improve. Coaching, however, is not about writing down a checklist of things for people to do but a conversational effort where self-reflection and self-awareness are the main drivers. As a coach, I guide individuals through these exercises and seek to help them build muscles around them.

🗣 Understand and communicate

Managers are connectors inside any enterprise. We act as information hubs and how we gather and use this information can have a great impact. This sets a strong need for managers to heavily invest in actively listening to individuals and environmental signals to understand the opportunities and threats that need to be actioned on.

Building these mental models presents only half the problem for managers. What we do with the information we hold defines our outcomes. Keep in mind that managers “don’t do anything”! 🤣 At least do, in the sense of creating or executing on work. Managers work through other people. Effective communication up, down, sideways, inside and outside the organization is another of the day-to-day tasks we are involved in. This is one of the reasons why many managers can end up saying they “spend most of their time in meetings”! The content and goal of the meetings however if often the same. We seek to align people’s mental models of the environment, problems, and solutions so that everyone knows where the ship is going and why.

🎳 Make the right things happen

So say you have an effective team that knows what their goals are, believes in their value, and has a plan to action them. You have managed to align stakeholders and teams on the vision and plans. Now you are off into the wild! What’s next?

While plans are great and key to getting people in motion towards an agreed direction, reality needs to be faced on a daily basis. Surprises will come your way, represented as new findings, high-priority incidents, illness of team members, new requests or requirements, etc … While effective planning will de-risk your future as much as possible there will always be uncertainty ahead. Managers play a key role in ensuring that people stay aligned on the goals and that uncertainty is managed while value continues to be regularly delivered.

I recall a lecture I attended in uni, where an external speaker came to talk about their company. I can’t remember what it was they did, but I do remember a saying their CEO stood behind: “Get it right, at the right time”. This speaks to the heart of management where prioritization of what is most valuable and the timing of execution define your company’s success.

👣 Closing words

Engineering management is an extremely engaging and challenging job where people, dreams, and progress fill your days. It’s sometimes scary and painful. Other times easy-going and full of celebrations. If you like discovering yourself and joining others on their journey, this might be a role you want to consider.

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