I was given this questionnaire a few years ago as I began my journey into software engineering management, and answered it for my own sake. I don’t think I ever shared my answers with anybody. Recently, I dug it up and found it cathartic, albeit somewhat naive as well. Below are my original answers, with minimal editing (aside from spelling, etc.), intended for both self-reflection and posterity. Any additions I’ve added are indicated by brackets — used mainly for clarification, but there are some comments peppered in there as well. I might take another stab at this as a follow up, perhaps with lessons learned, but we’ll see. It’s probably too soon for that now.

In any case, I hope this is useful to somebody somehow. Thanks for reading.

Engineering Management Questionnaire

How is leadership different from management? Which one of these comes more naturally to you? How do you intend to perform your job in both respects?

Management is being a task master. Leadership is being a beacon of stability and success that your team can look up to and trust to follow. Leadership comes more naturally to me than management. I am much more driven to drive my team to success than other aspects of management. In my job, I intend to lead by example.

What have you learned in your time as a team lead that is a surprise to you?

People are generally more approachable and productive in person than remotely, or via chat/email/calls/whatever. I previously underestimated the power of being in the same room together.

[Another thing I’ve since learned is teammates can and will respect you, regardless of any age/experience difference, if you treat them with mutual respect, elevate them at every opportunity, aren’t afraid to delegate, and exemplify ownership. Thinking inwards, these are qualities I expect of good leaders as well.]

What new skills have you formed during this time?

Making executive decisions. In a leadership role, people look to you to make the call on things. This is very much a work in progress but it is certainly a newly formed skill, if you can call it that.

[This is still an extremely important skill that I continue to refine. You CANNOT wait to understand every decision fully before you make it. Willingness to take calculated risks is required.]

Say a few things about each of your reports regarding their top five strengths. How do you plan to take advantage of each member’s individual strengths to achieve the goals of your team?

All of the team members had at least one (and many multiple) strengths in strategic thinking, including myself [At this point, I was leading a team of six developers ranging from entry-level to ~10 years senior. I had been leading the team for about a year]. That seems like the obvious target to focus on, and much of that will be around learning and problem solving. Our knowledge transfer sessions is one approach [The team conducted bi-weekly knowledge transfer sessions to work on de-siloing]. Another approach is prompting every team member to commit to full ownership of something they’re passionate about. When finding this “ownership of something”, we’ll focus on each individual’s strength to hone in on something worthwhile to devote energy to.

Give an example of an area of weakness in yourself how you plan to overcome it by focusing on a strength.

I can be blunt, and perhaps sharp at times — however, when I look at all the successful people around me, I notice a similar, more refined style. Nobody becomes truly successful by being a yes man. Obviously, there is a trait here that can be honed into something powerful with the right effort. According to [StrenghtsFinder 2.0], my top strength is “achiever”, followed closely by “learner” and “analytical”. I consider myself fairly successful thus far, but if any weakness is holding me back in any way, I need to focus on my achievement strength to propel past this, using introspection from my analytical side to learn what needs to change and how to change it, without completely altering my personality (which would be impossible anyway). Sounds sappy, but I buy into it.

[I still generally believe this about myself, and it is a constant area of my attention. It comes with the turf of being opinionated and having strong personal aspirations. Good leaders must never be satisfied. However, as a leader, your personal ego constantly needs to be checked for the benefit of your team, realizing there is a big difference between confidence and cockiness. Understand not everybody will agree with you in the journey, or maybe not even like you for it, but that’s OK. What matters is getting the job done at the end of the day. You are not always right. Your teammates are not always right. Your boss is not always right. Their boss is not always right. And so on. All of these egos can be just as difficult to deal with as your own. However, when the overall goal is the mission at hand, and all egos need to be checked and eyes need to remain on target.]

In what ways should your team be treated uniformly and consistently, and in what ways should they be treated individually and differently?

Everybody should be treated with the same, high level of respect and fairness. Of course, the Golden Rule always applies. Individually, people should be addressed towards their strengths [e.g. with respect to delegation of tasks]. For example, [entry-level engineer] might be more suited to solving a tough technical problem than [mid-level engineer], however [mid-level engineer] might be better suited to solving a complex architectural problem. However, neither would ever be treated as superior to the other.

[A good leader understands their team’s strengths, and plays to them.]

What does this mean to you: “People don’t change much. Don’t waste your time trying to put in what can be left out. Try to draw out what was left in - that is hard enough”. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

I agree with this, to an extent. Overall in my experience, people’s beliefs and personalities are largely static. Perhaps this is cynical, but it reflects my personal observations. Of course there are always the occasions where people have experiences that influence dramatic change in them, but those occasions are infrequent on a whole. If your goal is to influence somebody, or help drive them to success, you need to focus on what they are rather than what they aren’t. If you have a difference of opinion, while definitely a cliché, it’s much more productive to find common ground rather than to try to bring the person to your side (because no matter how good of a debater you are, you will never persuade somebody on personal opinion alone).

Where is your team on the progression of engagement (starting with detached and ending with fully engaged). Where are you personally on this journey?

My team is engaged, but not fully. I know some folks don’t quite see a clear mission purpose, from [previous organization] as a whole.

[This is relatable, even today, in a completely different setting with a completely different team.]

Personally, I am at the growth stage of the engagement progression scale; perhaps not quite fully engaged, but proactively working on broadening my engagement. I see purpose in our work, and I want to focus on growth so we will win. Growing our team’s skills, growing our company’s skills, and growing our product. We have a unique market opportunity, but it will not be seized without people with this type of attitude.

[Again, even in a completely different setting, this rings true as ever]

What does it mean to hire for talent (as opposed to skill and knowledge)? Do you think we have done a good job at that?

Skills can be learned, knowledge can be acquired. Talent permits all of that innately.

We’ve done a good job. The [company I worked for at the time]’s hiring strategy is dead on. I feel like we’ve personally hired some of the best people in the company onto our team.

[I’m not quite as confident in my recent hiring endeavors, partly because the market is sparse, and partly because I’ve personally lost some focus on hiring talent as opposed to skills. This light bulb recently went off even before reading this, but it is fresh in my mind now as an area of improvement.]

What talents do you believe are key to having a super successful team (your particular team)?

Focus, analysis, and input are key. Focus for getting things done, and analysis for getting things done the right way. Input, so we take others’ views into consideration. [My team at the time] isn’t there yet (“super successful”), but I believe that is key.

Give an example of a talent you have noticed in an individual of your team and present an idea about how to fit that person into a role where that talent is required. What would that look like? It can be a real or hypothetical role that does not yet exist.

[Entry level engineer] seems to have a talent and innate desire to do meaningful work. He’s shown that he’s willing to jump right into something if he thinks it would be a worthwhile effort. I think an eventual role focusing on this would be somewhat of an innovator. Somebody to come up with ideas and implement them while being open to feedback from others. I’m not sure if I can precisely define such a role at this point, but it would look something like a self-motivated engineer.

Give an example of how you can define an outcome for an employee and let them figure out how to get there, as opposed to defining how to get there. Are there situations where defining methods is the right approach?

Defining an outcome can be as simple as saying “we want to commit to having X done by Y in Z fashion”, and then instructing the employee to take ownership of accomplishing the goal, instead of providing a well-defined set of steps to the outcome. This takes a self-motivated individual. On the other hand, yes, I believe that sometimes it is the correct approach to define methods, especially where there are multiple, discrete ways to solve a problem. Sometimes the best approach is to lay out the paths and pick one organically as a team.

[“When you come to a fork in the road, take it” - Yogi Berra]

Using any advice you’ve absorbed in your career, how would you deal with an under-performing employee? Use a real or imaginary example to illustrate.

I would start with one-on-one meetings to get to the root of the problem. Once we know that, the advice given is to re-focus the employee on their strengths. Example: an employee is constantly working but seemingly not delivering any final products. First we would want to understand “why” they’re getting stuck. Perhaps in this example, they’re constantly context switching, which is killing their productivity but still forcing them to work long hours. And perhaps this individual has a strength of “focus”. We would then come up with a plan together on how to get the employee to focus — perhaps they disconnect for a few hours per day (or week), or maybe they work early in the morning and take the afternoon off. Whatever helps them focus would be the goal here. Build towards their strengths.

[This is one question I continue to ask myself, and have been asked of by others as well. I’ve done some reflecting on it over the years and have shifted my initial reaction to instead START WITH MYSELF (introspection) rather than start with the individual. For example, asking myself, “What am I doing that is causing this individual to under-perform?”. “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”]

What do you do when someone asks for a promotion?

I would do what I would want my boss to do to me — take the request seriously. If the employee presents a good case why they deserve a promotion, and we both agree that they’ve done good work, then they should certainly be given the opportunity for a promotion. If there is, for whatever reason, no way the employee could get a promotion at that time, I would expect myself to be able to explain clearly why it is not possible.

[I see this is a somewhat naive response in hindsight, which makes sense since I hadn’t handled any promotions at the time of answering this originally. The general premise is fine, and this is how I’ve largely handled promotions, but reading this makes me realize I missed a key point - become an advocate for the promotee. Promotions almost always need to be approved by my boss, or his boss, so recommending the employee is usually not enough. You need to be in their corner until the promotion is complete, and clearly articulate every step of the process to the promotee. If a promotion is not possible, I better have a darn good answer why, especially if the person deserves it. Sometimes this involves ruffling feathers higher up, but it is necessary for maintaining a strong team, where trust and transparency is paramount.]

Can you think of an example of when moving “up the ladder” is actually not right for a person, even when that person is exceptionally talented? How do you retain such a person?

Absolutely. Some “ladders” are structured in such a way that they involve shifting responsibilities. For example, if an engineer wants to move up the ladder and the next role is manager, they might be an exceptionally talented engineer but lack the interpersonal skills to effectively manage a team. I would attempt to retain this employee by offering other potential solutions. Perhaps they simply want more money. Maybe they want to work on a different project. Maybe they want additional responsibilities, which we could find in their areas of expertise, rather than whatever the current corporate ladder defines.

[Being a leader means empowering your team members. Work to their strengths, and provide growth opportunities for them wherever, whenever, and however you can.]

What is your approach to setting individual goals for your employees? How is that working so far?

My approach has been to align their goals with the overall team’s goals, as well as focus on ownership at the individual level. Each person sets a goal that they’re confident they can fully commit to owning throughout. So far I’ve gotten positive feedback on this approach, but I haven’t had much opportunity to assess this.

[I’ve now had opportunities to assess this strategy, and I still follow this largely. One big difference is that I’ve found it’s key to also focus on strengths when setting goals. Ownership remains a key part of the process.]

What value do you place on trust in your team? What ideas do you have to foster a trust-based environment?

Trust is key. It is perhaps one of, if not THE MOST VALUED traits in a good team. Fostering trust is simple – lead by example, and take ownership. A leader must take full responsibility for their team. Finish the things you say you’re going to. Keep promises and follow up on them. Have individualized conversations with your teammates. Stand up for your teammates when they’re under fire (cover and move). Do what you say you’re going to do, don’t just say it. Do not talk behind their backs. Show mutual respect for the entire team. If you can prove you’re trustworthy yourself, it will naturally radiate to the rest of your teammates.