A Day in the Life of 4 Engineering Managers

Written by Alton Zenon III
Published on Mar. 12, 2020
A Day in the Life of 4 Engineering Managers
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For some engineering managers, leadership felt like a natural stepping stone in their career path. For others, like Clearcover Engineering Manager Joey Sabani, the path wasn’t quite so linear. 

Sabani managed a restaurant in college, where the business acumen he acquired launched his journey toward management. Meanwhile, Reverb Director of Engineering Kyle Crum longed to find a role where he could provide the kind of guidance and support he gave while teaching English in Myanmar, so he eventually stepped into tech leadership.

Becoming an effective leader doesn’t happen overnight. People management requires developing soft skills and learning hard lessons from time spent as an individual contributor.

Tech team leads across Chicago agree that one of the key traits successful engineering managers have is the ability to listen. Managers should get to know their direct reports outside of their position, and keep an open ear to their concerns, challenges and ideas. Managers can use empathy and open communication to create healthy environments that empower their engineers to do their best work, feel valued and advance their skill sets. 

“It is important to listen to anyone and everyone,” Nielsen Global Connect VP of Technology Vamsidhar Guntamukkala said. “Employees should be encouraged by managers to bring their insights, experiences and opinions to the table.”


Vamsidhar Guntamukkala
VP of technology • NielsenIQ

Part of leading any successful team means ensuring that direct reports feel valued and heard, which motivates them to do their best work. By listening closely and establishing trust, Guntamukkala said managers are able to build a work environment where team members feel safe speaking up and sharing ideas.


How did you become an engineering manager?

I joined Nielsen in the summer of 2012 as a software engineer. Prior to becoming vice president of technology, I worked in several engineering roles, such as software lead and principal architect until the summer of 2016. Then I was handpicked for a two-year program in Nielsen geared toward establishing a center of excellence. Once the program ended, I became a director of technology and was promoted to VP in February 2020.


What are your responsibilities on a typical day? 

A typical day starts with me joining the daily 15-minute stand-ups for a couple of my teams. However, I cannot join stand-ups for all my teams every day, so I have a “scrum of scrums” call with my leads. I get a report of what was accomplished the day before and what will be worked on that day, as well as notice of any blockers that the team is facing so that I can help unblock them.

For an hour each day, I meet with the core platform architecture team and we try to come up with end-to-end technical solutions for critical program initiatives. 

I try to block a two-hour time window to work solo each day. I will sometimes write performance reviews, work on action items from my one-on-ones, do code reviews, find opportunities to improve processes and read up on best practices. I also attend the tech and product manager program review call with the leadership team where we discuss the status of various programs, key risks and call outs. 


What makes a good engineering manager?

Building trust within the team is essential for success, which a good engineering manager can create by showing emotional intelligence and making themselves readily available for questions. Leaders should form personal connections that promote open and honest communication both within the team and with the manager. It is important to listen to anyone and everyone. Employees should be encouraged by managers to bring their insights, experiences and opinions to the table. If the manager has to veto a call or make a different decision, it is important to explain the reasons behind it in order to ensure the trust in the team is intact. 

It is also important to treat the engineers the way they would want to be treated and not the way you would want to be treated. Some of your staff may excel when given specific instructions and tasks, while others may be more free-spirited and enjoy being left to accomplish tasks on their own. Efficient managers should understand these differences and manage their staff accordingly. 


Joey Sabani
Engineering Manager • Clearcover

Sabani got a taste for leadership working as a restauranteur while attending college. After that experience, he learned the importance of encouraging his team members to chase their goals. 


How did you become an engineering manager?

Prior to joining Clearcover, I consulted at organizations to help them build and scale their engineering organizations. The work really embodied parts of personal and organizational growth that I always sought in my career. Eventually, it shaped my understanding of the organizational needs within engineering. 

I’ve worked as a manager throughout my career but not always in engineering. While at university, I opened a restaurant and ran it for a year while maintaining a full credit workload. I learned a lot about building and managing a business that are applicable to any industry. That experience was the turning point that eventually led me down the path to becoming an engineering manager.


What are your responsibilities on a typical day? 

My schedule is driven by my responsibilities, so my day-to-day routine changes frequently. I’m an advisor for technical practices and responsibilities within the engineering group as a whole. I work closely with the technical leads of our engineering teams and ensure we are working to build the right thing, the right way, while also pushing our business objectives forward. At Clearcover, this collaboration means building a modern tech stack and designing digital experiences to deliver convenient, reliable and affordable car insurance.


What makes a good engineering manager?

In my opinion, good leadership comes by empowering reports to do their job to the best of their ability. Organizations focus on hiring smart, dedicated people and an engineering manager should help expose and highlight those strengths. Managers should continuously work with their team to improve anything that needs development. A good engineering lead exists to help members of their team achieve their professional and personal goals.


Kyle Crum
Director of Engineering • Reverb

A major component of any leader’s role is ensuring their direct reports are set up for success by providing them with the resources and departmental connections they need to reach their goals. However, what’s just as important is making sure reports aren’t overburdened with work and can go home at a decent time. Crum keeps these two ideas in mind as he not only opens channels for his team to collaborate with other departments, but also prioritizes giving employees a healthy work-life balance.


How did you become an engineering manager?

A decade ago, I took a short break from technology and taught post-secondary students English and civics in Myanmar for just under two years. After getting back into the technology world, I missed the rewards of teaching, like supporting, coaching and advocating for others. 

As a musician, I joined Reverb because I saw an opportunity to work on a tech platform that was making a difference in the lives of musicians and business owners. When Reverb gave me the opportunity to transition from an individual contributor to a manager, it fit perfectly with my passion for developing people.


What are your responsibilities on a typical day? 

A typical day for me is primarily spent making sure that people are aligned, including teammates on the product and engineering teams and stakeholders across Reverb. Facilitating this alignment means keeping my ear to the ground and connecting the right people so they can collaborate. 

Another important element of my day is unblocking, which could mean pairing with someone on a technical issue or working through a roadblock with a product manager. The best parts of my day are my one-on-one meetings with team members where we talk through how they’re doing on a personal level and in what areas they may need help, support or advocacy.


What makes a good engineering manager? 

I was once told about a military leadership manual that says the job of a leader is two-fold: ensure the success of the mission and maintain the health of the troops. That’s how I view my job. 

First, I have to ensure that our team is productive and doing work that advances our mission to make the world more musical by making it easy to buy and sell musical instruments. Second, I have to make sure that our work environment is a healthy one that offers both a work-life balance and professional development opportunities. An engineering manager doesn’t want to have a team that performs well but feels burned out, and conversely, a team that feels great but isn’t doing their job. There’s a delicate balance that great managers help find and navigate.


Courtnie Takata-Lee
software engineering manager • Relativity

Takata-Lee’s managerial path at Relativity took her from not knowing what a team’s function was, to eventually helping lead release management as a software engineering manager. When she isn’t coordinating product releases with her international team, she said her attention is focused on ensuring her direct reports are happy, empowered and motivated.


How did you become an engineering manager?

I spent the majority of my early years as a web developer. Midway through my career, I evolved into a business analyst and later a project manager, which utilized my people skills. At Relativity, I joined the release management team as a project manager. I hadn’t heard of release management, but ended up loving the cadence and continuous improvement aspects of the work. This passion is what led me to manage the team.


What are your responsibilities on a typical day? 

I’m responsible for ensuring the delivery and quality of our RelativityOne releases by creating and enforcing deployment and development processes. My job is highly collaborative, so I spend most of my time in meetings with various departments in the organization like engineering, service delivery, content management and support.

My team consists of members in both Chicago and Krakow, Poland. So we sync on status updates and have brainstorming and design sessions in the mornings. When I’m not in meetings, I have one-on-ones with my direct reports and document processes.


What makes a good engineering manager?

Putting people first. Ensuring that my direct reports feel valuable, happy and productive is my top priority. It’s also important to give them the autonomy to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. Listen and ask good questions to guide people toward effective actions. It’s also imperative to stay calm through any situation, no matter how big or pressing the situation might be.


Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies.

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