Throughout this series of interviews you will be discovering that Engineering Managers have a common set of paint points to tackle; but also that every leader has its own perspective and way to overcome difficulties.

This is what we believe we are depicting through our Q&As with some great Engineering Managers, Directors, VPs and CTOs like Sergio, Swarup, Vevek, Will, Glenn, Prashant, and many more!

Every Engineering Leader has its own interpretation of what key factors can help you become a good manager. Empathy however is a common denominator, it's what can inspire your team(s) of software engineers.

In today’s interview, we’re thrilled to share with you the conversation we had with Sarah Vang Nøhr, currently Engineering Manger at TrustPilot. Enjoy!

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional journey?

I’ve loved tech since I was a little girl. It was a way for me to escape the real world and its complications for a little while, and enter this beautiful place where everything was possible and you could interact with people around the world.

When I looked for what I wanted to do, it was always pretty clear that it would be in tech, but I wasn’t sure exactly which direction was the right one for me. I picked what was touted as the toughest theoretical IT education in Denmark, as a way to make sure I could take any direction I wanted once I got out on the other side (and because math is fun!).

After I graduated, I took some development jobs, but it never really fully clicked for me. While it was fun, I didn’t feel really motivated and engaged. It took switching jobs a few times before I found the right way to find out what I was passionate about: helping people achieve their full potential.

The big change came when I took a project management role that evolved into a role as Head of Engineering due to the impact I had. I realized just how much I love managing people, how important it is for me to see other people thrive.

When I left that role, a friendly recruiter pointed me in the direction of the Engineering Manager role, understanding exactly what I wanted to do. I am forever thankful of her guiding me in the right direction!

What made you decide to become an Engineering Manager?

I kind of dropped into it, to be honest. I originally thought that the right step for me was to become a Project Manager, since I love systemizing and planning for efficiency.

I still do, and think of it as part of my job, but as my role grew to include people management, I began to understand that the positive impact I have in people’s lives is what drives me forward, even through tough times. Seeing someone get to the next step in their personal or professional life is a thrill that can’t be matched by anything else.

Technology has given me the ability to create something out of nothing and change peoples’ life from afar. As an Engineering Manager, I get to not only do that but also create and feel the positive difference in the people I work with and manage. That feeling is incredible.

Has the current COVD-19 pandemic changed something drastically in the way you view your job as an Engineering Manager?

The way I work with people. I try to pay attention to them a lot, using my empathy skills to notice things before they become an issue. Immediately after the lockdown, I was at a loss at how I would handle the uncertainty of how people were doing. I spent a lot of energy (and worried too much) about my teams, on top of the general worries of COVID-19 we all had.

Going from this, I really learned to believe that if you create trusting bonds with your teammates, they will come to you if they need you. You don’t have to always be on the lookout, as long as you have done your groundwork. It’s not my job to fix everything - it’s my job to trust people to reach out when they need it.

While it won’t go away from it completely (I don’t think I ever can), it has made a huge difference in not just how I view my job, but how I view my interactions with people in general.

What advice(s) would you give to a Software Engineer considering becoming an Engineering Manager?

Understand your motivation and values. You’re working with people and that’s honestly hard. You will need an understanding of what you want to achieve for other people because you will need to put yourself aside most of the time. That can not only be draining for you, but also lead to some really bad outcomes if you don’t understand why you do things and how it impacts others.

Be ready to doubt yourself and grow in ways you could never imagine - because that’s both the hard and the fun part of the job.

As an Engineering Manager, how do you delegate effectively?

Delegation is one of those things people are generally really awful at. We don’t want to give away control and we don’t want to become obsolete. No wonder it so often fails.

The best way to delegate is to understand the importance of two things: trust and growth.

Trust works in both directions. You need to put away your fears and believe that another person will be able to do a good job even though they won't do it exactly as you would. The one you delegate to needs to feel confident that they can trust you to give guidance when needed, without rushing in to take over at the smallest sign of trouble or fuss over the details.

As for growth, you should always strive to delegate to someone who can gain something from the opportunity. If you have a report that’s looking to be better at public speaking, give them an opportunity to explain a project proposal where you normally would. If you have someone who wants to get better at organizing and hosting meetings, let them take over a meeting and spar with you on ideas on how to improve it.

The more you delegate as an Engineering Manager, the more engaged your team will be, and the more you will have time to look towards the future as well.

What is the hardest lesson you have learned as an engineering manager?

You can’t help everyone. Sometimes, no matter how well-meaning you are, how much guidance you get from others and how well-prepared you are, you will make a mistake and it will mess something up and you might not be able to fix it because the trust has been broken.

You might not understand exactly where you went wrong or how to make it better, and that sticks with you and feels really, truly awful. But you still have to continue working for that person, and everyone else in the team, because that’s what a manager does - a manager works to create the best for their team, no matter what.

How do you know if someone will be a good manager? Are there key indicators/skills?

There needs to be a certain amount of curiosity and willingness to listen and learn. You will never know everything, but you need to want to understand more.

Because both people and technology are complex and ever-evolving, if you’re not willing to question yourself and learn something new (from others and yourself), you will quickly gridlock yourself. Your team will suffer, as will you. If you believe you’re right about something, be ready to be proven wrong.

You also need to be willing to take action. You can’t wait for others to make decisions or ask questions, so you need to shed some of that fear of failure. One of the clear warning signs of a bad manager, on the other hand, is someone who jumps in too fast and wants to do everything, the cowboys of the group. You really need to find the balance between trusting your peers and pushing them towards greater things.

How do you structure 1:1 conversations and how often do you have them?

I have weekly 1:1s with people who are remote, and bi-weekly with people I’m co-located with, as a standard - but it depends highly on the person’s needs. In particular, when someone has just started reporting to me, when someone is working towards a big milestone, or if something big has happened in their (personal or professional) life, I tend to add in extra 1-on-1s as needed.

I keep a running agenda in a document with notes from past 1-on-1s, with the person’s current goals at the top so that we always have it fresh in mind. Each weekly section is structured in 4 parts: Agenda, Notes, Action Items and Done. I will generally add things to the agenda, but I expect it to primarily be driven by the person I’m having 1-on-1s with - they should always own their own development.

Aside from this, I always make sure to just have a casual chit-chat with people. 1-on-1s are one of the best ways to get a feel for how people are doing, and sometimes, what they really need is not on the agenda. Also, I love learning more about them. It’s a great way to build trust.

Finally, and this is something I probably shouldn’t say in the open - but if I can tell they are tired or troubled by something, I sometimes tell them to take the 1-on-1 time and use it to relax or fix whatever is bothering them if they can. I would much rather have a motivated teammate later than someone who drags themself through the present just because the clock says work.

Would you encourage teams to include tech debt in their backlogs and make it visible to POs, etc.?

Yes. We need to be able to have these discussions with our stakeholders and to do that we need to have clarity. The best way to build trusting relationships with people outside your core team is with open communication, and that includes talks about tech debt. Otherwise, you’re just going to create frustration when it pops up and people can’t understand why something takes long.

About our Q&As with Engineering Leaders
We are lucky to have a vibrant and dynamic community and it would be a shame not to share these experiences and insights with the growing world of Software Engineers and Engineering leaders! Every two weeks we will be sharing a personal interview with some great Engineering Managers, Directors, VPs, and CTOs.

If you’re looking to join our weekly intimate roundtables, or if you’re interested in sharing your perspective on the topics we’re covering, click here. See you soon!