What does an EM do in a small team if they don't code?

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Recently, someone asked me, “What does an Engineering Manager (EM) even do in a small team if they don’t code?”


Let’s discuss why non-coding EMs can be an immense value add that drives success across engineering.

Legit Real World Example

Let’s look at an example of two EMs with about 50% capacity each week after handling the essential day-to-day activities. Both run a team of five engineers in an engineering department with 6 teams that have to work together on projects.

Alex has been an engineer for almost 15 years and recently became the Engineering Manager.

Robyn has a strong Scrum Master background and has worked in tech teams for over a decade, converting to engineering management two years ago.

Version 1: Alex

Alex finds themself in a dilemma about which path to take.

Either they spend their time on more minor bug fixes, maintenance tasks, and writing automated tests acknowledging their lack of capacity for critical path activities.

Or they choose to work on the critical path, potentially sacrificing team health by having to drop management duties for their heightened coding responsibilities.

Regardless of Alex’s path, their impact is constrained to their immediate team, and an engineer could do the work.

Version 2: Robyn

Contrast this with Robyn, an EM who focuses on non-coding activities:

Boosting the confidence and skills of team members across engineering by coaching them on career progression.

Fostering a culture of continuous improvement and high performance by facilitating shared learning sessions with their peers on leadership topics.

Improving the company’s reputation and attracting top talent by contributing to the company blog on the importance of psychological safety in tech teams.

Streamlining the incident management process and reducing average resolution time by 30%.

Robyn’s efforts have a ripple effect, benefiting the entire engineering function and broader company by improving team culture, enhancing the company’s reputation, and boosting engineering throughput.

Robyn’s work far exceeds the impact of Alex and, most importantly, could not be carried out by an engineer.

It’s work that only a skilled manager can do.

Non-Coding EMs Lead Even Small Teams to Big Wins

It’s possible to get away with having a bunch of EMs who are essentially engineers doing line management if there is only one small, low-complexity engineering team.

However, the minute there are multiple, even smaller, teams investing in a non-coding EM layer allows for greater impact on cross-engineering concerns and longer-term strategic plays.

Work that only skilled managers can do.

Now, if I ask you if you’ve witnessed the magic of a non-coding EM, you will likely say no. Not because they didn’t have an impact but because, tragically, we seldom hire for these roles.

P.S if you want to learn more about the role of an engineering manager, come check out my course “Holy Shit I’m a Manager! Engineering Management First Aid”

Original LinkedIn post here.