Engineering Managers at Google

Before exploring the choices for engineers between the technical track and managerial track, let’s look at an evolution at Google. The leaders of this organization went from doubting that managers were even needed at Google, to utilizing data and analytics to discover the traits of good engineering managers and the influence these managers exert on their teams.

In 2002, Google’s technocratic culture led to an experiment. Engineering managers were eliminated, and the company hierarchy became completely flat. Google’s leaders theorized that barriers to idea development would therefore be removed and a collegial atmosphere would ensue.

But it didn’t work out that way. After a few months, managers were reinstated after founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had to field questions on interpersonal conflicts and expense reports.

Engineering Managers and Project Oxygen

As a result of this experiment demonstrating that managers were indeed needed, in 2009 Google decided to do something interesting. They resolved to find out what made a good manager. This plan was called Project Oxygen.

The Project Oxygen researchers gathered and analyzed over 10,000 observations about managers in the organization, including performance reviews, surveys, and nominations for top manager awards. The conclusions that emerged surprised many, including Google’s former senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock.

What could be termed the Eight Habits of Effective Managers were:

  • Be a good coach;
  • empower your team and don’t micromanage;
  • express interest in employee’s success and well-being;
  • be productive and results-oriented;
  • be a good communicator and listen to your team;
  • help your employees with career development;
  • have a clear vision and strategy for the team; and
  • have key technical skills, so you can help advise the team.

These habits may seem like obvious managerial metrics. But it was how employees within Google ranked the habits that produced much food for thought.

The Traits of Good Engineering Managers

Bock noted that previously, Google usually hired managers and promoted people who demonstrated higher technical proficiency. The managerial philosophy was that employees would raise their hand and ask for help from their technically proficient managers if needed – otherwise, employees were generally left alone so they could work.

But in the ranking of the eight behaviors managers needed, technical expertise placed last.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Bock said. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing…. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

The managerial behaviors rated the highest by employees were the most people-oriented ones: making time for one-on-one meetings, showing interest in employees’ personal lives, and helping employees puzzle through problems.

People-oriented behaviors, in other words, not technical expertise, were rated the highest. And at Google, Project Oxygen demonstrated through solid data that managers who were scored higher in these types of behaviors had teams who performed better and stayed with the company longer.

In fact, Google found that employee retention was tied to manager quality more than any other factor, including seniority and promotions.

Good Engineering Managers Are Key to Google’s Success

This data also gave Google a path forward to demonstrate to lower-performing managers the ways that their behavior could change. Project Oxygen researchers actually built a training program around their findings.

And Google hasn’t stopped there. In 2018 the company announced that in continuing their investigation, Project Oxygen researchers had discovered two more key managerial skills: collaborating across the organization and decision making.

Managers who did these things well increased employee satisfaction and performance and reduced turnover. Plus, in tracking employees who switched managers, Project Oxygen researchers were able to prove the worth of managers who did well on their now ten recommended metrics.

Clearly, Google proved how key engineering management is.

In our next post, we’ll further explore the technical track vs. managerial track decision for engineers.