What Interviewing Software Engineers Taught Me About Managing Up

You need to prioritize and communicate your message with your target audience in mind.
shannon
Shannon Hogue
Expert Columnist
September 17, 2020
Updated: September 18, 2020
shannon
Shannon Hogue
Expert Columnist
September 17, 2020
Updated: September 18, 2020

In August, I shared some tips for making the business case to hire software engineers, and it got me thinking about the overall business planning process — which is looming large as we barrel toward Q4 and the end of 2020 ... I hope. It kinda feels like this year might last forever, but I digress.

The point is, tying projects to business objectives and bottom-line ROI isn’t just about hiring — it’s something that strong team players can do every day by successfully managing up with smart prioritization and good communication.

Prioritization and good communication are abilities that we see strong interview candidates demonstrate all the time. In an interview, you get to decide where to shine a light by determining the information that is most relevant to the person you’re talking to.

Say you’re interviewing with a future cloud or networking infrastructure peer, or a startup team manager, or a customer-facing product manager — would you approach each of those conversations the same way?

When asked to share an interesting project, the peer might want to know we were technically competent and pleasant to work with. The manager might want to know we took both initiative and feedback. The product manager might want to know we are able to communicate cross-functionally and support important business decisions. The strongest candidates are able to prioritize what they want to cover and communicate it in a way that makes sense to the individual interviewer.

The same principle follows for managing up during a meeting, where you need to decide what content to share with your manager, or engineering leader, or executive leadership team.

 

Prioritizing

At my level, that often means making my case to the leadership team for more resources, but it’s something that’s valuable throughout the course of your career.

Early in your career, it might seem like you have endless conversations with managers. But over time, as people become more self-sufficient, weekly 1:1s turn into bi-weekly meetings, which turn into monthly leadership team meetings, and eventually quarterly board meetings.

Prioritizing what you cover in each of those becomes increasingly important, and is a microcosm for how to “manage up” more broadly.

Go into each meeting with a plan of action, and identify the primary takeaway you want your audience to have. Lead with it. Not only does this help your manager know where you’re going (and redirect you early if they want to go somewhere else), but if you get interrupted or sidetracked, you have a north star to guide you back.

If it’s a situation like I outlined last month, I might open a leadership team planning meeting with “we’re here today to talk about engineering resources and how they will impact our product roadmap and revenue goals.” From there, I’ll clearly outline the roadmap, the ROI of each project, and give my leaders the context around any interdependencies.

We should leave that meeting with clear alignment on my team’s goals, resources, timetables, and budget requests, as well as what will need to be deprioritized if we cut budgets.

Early career managing up is the same thing. If you’re feeling overworked, ask your manager to help create a list of priorities that you’ll review each week — that way as new projects get added to your to-do list, there’s a clear understanding of what will get bumped. If you’re feeling underutilized, be explicit about why you have time (and give them time to congratulate you on being super-efficient) and suggest some areas where you might be able to help. This not only shows you’re being proactive, but it gives you more agency in picking the types of experiences you get to have and the skills you get to build.

Pro tip: Since we’re on the cusp of review season, think about how you can frame your contributions in the sense of how you helped your manager achieve their goals — it’s a great way to highlight the value you’re adding to your team and company!

 

Communicating

Once you’re armed with your goals and objectives, managing up is about giving regular enough status updates so that your manager can help unblock obstacles or reprioritize projects in real-time.

This will also help you learn where future blockers might appear and plan ahead. For instance, if you find yourself continually asking your boss to nudge one of their colleagues for some kind of review or approval, build that into future workback schedules (i.e. “I’ll give them two days for review and make sure to send a heads up the day before it’s ready, as well as a reminder after they’ve been sitting on it for 24 hours”).

By setting clear expectations and communicating through your management chain, you can keep all of the people and teams who depend on you in balance, and you can push back when and where it’s warranted if there are competing priorities.

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