Software engineers thrive on problem solving. So why do we so often give them a list of tasks to check off?

I fell into this trap myself, the PMs in my teams used to attend meetings alone, document the requirements and break out tasks for engineers. I told myself we were “protecting” our engineers from dealing with all that pesky client communication, saving their time for the real engineering work. But I was very wrong. An engineer with a blinkered view of a problem cannot solve the problem, they can only do what they were told to do. They also are not really responsible for the result.

To get the best out of engineers, I’ve learnt they need to be involved from the beginning. They need to hear firsthand from the client what problem we are solving and why. They need the chance to ask the questions which come up in these conversations, and they need all that contextual information which is always watered down on secondhand meeting minutes.

It’s also not true that engineers can’t do this more analytical work, in my opinion it’s actually a fundamental skill of a great engineer. Trust your engineers to analyse and they will deliver. This is has been an important learning in my leadership journey. I also think it is an especially big problem in my home country of Mexico, where the management culture is very top-down. Many Mexican managers want control, they want to micro-manage, and they expect their staff to ask for permission on almost every decision. We often have to re-calibrate these expectations with new hires, because our culture is now one of individual responsibility and not manager-lead.

I use to work at Morgan Stanley in London, and back then they didn’t really have PMs. Just PMOs who would meet with one team member weekly to get the latest updates and manage a high-level view of the project. With hindsight I can see this forced us to self-organise by making their own decisions on what work was required and in what order.

To me, trust is large part of this. Trust that your team can deliver without you holding their hands, and they will. It will take some coaching / mentoring work to get there, but it’s worth it in the end. Who wants to work countless hours managing every detail of their team’s work? Wouldn’t you rather spend your time elsewhere?

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