Thinking of Engineering Management? These Great Books Help You Make the Move
Have you been considering the move from engineering to management? It’s a transition that many have made, including me. And as a new manager, I have found it important to get the perspectives and experience of people who’ve started out with technical backgrounds, and gone on to be effective and successful in management. I’m hoping that this article on books that I’ve found helpful will, in turn, assist new engineering and technical managers to make the transition.
I began writing this post as a follow-up to a talk I presented last year about learning how to be a manager after being a developer. One of the unfortunate truths of our industry is that the move from individual contributor to manager rarely comes with explicit training or clear expectations. Those who excel at engineering and even at small-team technical leadership are often ill-prepared to assume all of the “people management” duties of a manager. Based on my own history in making this transition, the talk highlighted some of my management mistakes and realizations.
This move from individual contributor to manager and then back again has also been an interesting way for me to find ways to improve in both roles, and reading was a key way for me to learn and evaluate myself. Titled “Developer to Manager (and Back, and Back Again),” here is the video of the talk and the slides. I ended the talk with a brief reading list which is expanded upon here, with a few other books that I think contain some great related insights.
Lots of the books in the “additions” section are decidedly not management books. Still, they all contain valuable lessons, many parallels, and possible mental models that are worth considering as we try to be better teammates and managers.
I have included links directly to author or publisher sites when available and to unaffiliated Amazon links when not.
The Original List
The “original list” consists of the books that I included in the talk I described previously.
As I said in my talk, if you read only one book from this list, please make it Nonviolent Communication, initially recommended to me by Tyler Weir. Reading this was initially a challenge, and I think I struggled with it mostly because of my own ego issues. But it’s worth the read. It describes extremely effective ways of working with others to find core needs and challenges that aren’t being met, in both professional and personal contexts. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone can benefit from the ideas in this book.
The Manager’s Path
I wish The Manager’s Path had been written before I began my first management role. It’s packed with great information about the entire journey from individual contributor through many levels of management, with a lot of good insights for individual contributors who want to stay technical as well. High Output Management (next up) is also great, but start with this one especially if you’re working anywhere in the tech industry. I learned about this book from the author’s Twitter account, and you should definitely follow her on Twitter, too.
High Output Management
High Output Management can feel a bit dated, but it’s hard to overstate how much good stuff is in here. I learned about this book from Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which is in the expanded list at the end of this blog. I’m not doing the book justice, but I particularly appreciate how Andy Grove got into the details of management duties such as:
- Identifying high-leverage activities
- Explaining fully both the importance of one-on-one meetings, and how to run them
- Managing effectively in dual-reporting situations, where one person reports to two managers
Ego Is The Enemy
Ego is the Enemy is another book that Tyler recommended to me. It includes tools and techniques for self-awareness, and it’s a good distillation of a lot of different sources. It also pairs very well with Nonviolent Communication.
Additions to My Original List
At 55 pages, Managing Oneself is quite short, but eye-opening. It should have been in the original list for my talk, since it helps us understand how to build personal feedback systems and really come to grips with what we individually value (self-awareness again). I’m still in the aspirational stage with this one (unevenly applied, working on more discipline). Thanks to Lisa for reminding me about this book and to Tyler for the initial recommendation.
I learned about Meditations from Farnam Street’s stoic reading list. This particular translation is great. Reading Aurelius as a struggling manager is like finding someone else with a bunch of the same problems, except he had a whole empire to run.
If I had to pick a reading order for personal growth out of everything here it would be:
- Nonviolent Communication
- Ego Is The Enemy
- Managing Oneself
- Nonviolent Communication (Yes, read it again!)
And then, I suggest you reread Meditations every couple of years.
Another question I’m still trying to wrap my head around is this: what’s the difference between the leaders of effective vs. ineffective teams? What are their common characteristics, and which basic habits should we adopt for high-performing teams? What I really appreciate about Multipliers is that Liz Wiseman didn’t make this an all-or-nothing proposition. She includes a set of techniques, and explicitly acknowledges that we have to gradually apply a select few at a time. Thanks, Vince, for recommending this to me.
The March of Folly
My mother gets credit for introducing me to Barbara Tuchman, who wrote The March of Folly. It’s not really a management book, but it still attempts to answer some interesting questions that managers should think about. Why do organizations (in this case nation states) act against their own self interest, especially when there are reasonable alternatives?
The ETTO Principle
As I recall, I learned about this one from one of John Allspaw’s tweets. The Efficiency Thoroughness Trade Off Principle prompts a significant change in how we approach organizations that combine people and technology, and sources of error. Particularly eye-opening for me was the explicit recognition that people almost always value efficiency, mostly in the pursuit of higher quality results. The author argues that “Performance variability is the reason why things most of the time go right, as well as the reason why things sometimes go wrong.” From what I understand, this book is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Collapse of Complex Societies
Why do organizations (in this case, previous nation states again and civilizations) collapse and disappear? That’s the theme explored in The Collapse of Complex Societies. I suspect the idea of diminishing marginal returns may have merit as a mental model, but I have to confess that I’m still digesting the ideas in this book. Thanks to Omar for suggesting this one.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
I started reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things around the time I first moved to management, partly to understand what I was getting into, and partly because I wanted to know what’s involved in starting and running a company. I generally enjoyed this one, and three things really struck me:
- The importance he placed on one-on-one meetings was like a breath of fresh air.
- How he approached hiring a head of sales, and what made that person the right hire. I think there are huge parallels in how we could be hiring, training, and evaluating engineering managers.
- How influential Andy Grove’s High Output Management was, and how before reading this, most of the companies around Silicon Valley didn’t really know how to run themselves. Ben Horowitz’ book was the first time I heard about Grove’s.
I mentioned in my talk that I disagree with Mr. Horowitz on some things, but it should also be noted that I have never been faced with the same decisions and constraints that he was. It’s extremely easy to disagree with someone from a position of great relative safety and low risk.
Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon
I hesitate to add anything military-oriented on a management list; we’re often overly enthusiastic in our use of terminology and metaphors from war. That said, Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon is a great study of a historical figure who demonstrated the value of both meticulous preparation (read The ETTO Principle) and the handling of high-pressure, rapidly changing situations.
I can’t recall exactly where I first heard about this book, but it was probably either The Farnam Street Blog or Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast.
The Unread Queue
I haven’t gotten to these other management-related books currently in my queue, but they came recommended by various parties I respect. They’ll make great “aspirational reading,” both for me and for anyone else interested in management, in no particular order:
- The Innovator’s Dilemma
- Managing the Unmanageable
- Managing Humans
- The Effective Executive
- Turn the Ship Around!
- Crucial Conversations
- Radical Candor
I hope you find these resources as helpful as I did as you grow professionally and personally.