Over the last year, we have made some critical shifts in our understanding of what we believe makes a great engineering manager at CircleCI, and learned a lot about our needs and values as an organization along the way. We’ve changed our hiring process substantially, and through these efforts we’ve hired some fabulous people, doubling our engineering management team. Today, we want to share all these learnings with you.
Hiring engineering managers like we hire engineers
Last year, we shared “How we interview engineers”. This was our process at the time, which we used for both engineers and engineering managers. Overall in 2018, we had hundreds of candidates pass through our engineering hiring process. Our process for hiring engineers worked as follows:
Applicant Review > Hiring Manager Phone Screen > Kata > Macro Skills > Final Round (Collaborative Exercise, CTO Conversation, Product Interview) For more details about this process, see this blog post.
At the start of 2018, we used the same hiring process for both engineers and engineering managers. At the time, our job postings for engineering managers were heavily focused on alignment between their technical background and the technical work of their team. As we wrote in our original post, “we include a coding problem because it’s so important to find out if the candidate’s values and priorities align with those of the team they will be managing.” We went through this hiring process with a few engineering manager applicants, and realized that we frequently got to the onsite stage, and only found out during pairing that their management skills weren’t matching our expectations – far too late to find this out.
This shone a light onto a bigger issue: it made us realize that our attempt to align all our hiring processes had led us to focusing on, and optimizing for, the wrong skill set. There was a time when we thought having very technical managers would be a good thing. We were going for an adaptation of the Spotify model, where we’d have delivery teams and managers across different teams aligned by discipline. As our take on this organizational model evolved to align with our needs as a distributed engineering organization, we realized we wanted to distribute leadership more.
We introduced additional roles to support our teams in different areas: team leads, responsible for their team’s delivery, and tech leads, responsible for facilitating technical work. With our new Engineering Competency Matrix, we also codified our expectation of leadership from all engineers, across all levels. The early successes we witnessed from these changes encouraged us to continue evolving our understanding of what makes a good engineering manager.
Better support for our engineers
Management is not engineering. Engineering management is a fundamentally different job that necessitates different skills, and we need to treat it as such. Engineering managers at CircleCI are now dedicated to people management: focused on development of a set of engineers, tech leads, and team leads. They hold regular 1:1s and career growth conversations with the engineers who report to them, and are responsible for goal setting, feedback, coaching, and mentoring for them. They also work across a set of teams to ensure team health, knowledge sharing, business value delivery and alignment across teams. This means that our engineers have managers who have great interest and investment in their personal and professional growth, and teams have someone to coach them through the product delivery process.
Adapting our process to our re-focused values
As a result of learning what really matters to us in engineering management, we adapted our open positions to roles focused on both people and business value delivery. We also changed our hiring process and the design of each interview stage to explore these areas earlier in the interview process. At the same time, we moved to a more structured, behavior-based interview process for all applicants.
This is what our hiring process for engineering managers looks like now:
Applicant Review > Hiring Manager Phone Screen > Pairing Exercise > Product Thinking & Work Breakdown Discussion > Final Round (Engineering Team Member Interview, Management Skills Deep Dive, Product Interview) Note: we’re always looking for ways to improve our processes, so be aware that these stages may change
Using the new process, which puts emphasis on people management and business value delivery, we assess for these skills as follows:
1. Hiring manager phone screen: The hiring manager for this role talks with the candidate about their management experience across different areas.
2. Collaborative exercise: This is a collaborative interview, in which the candidate is paired with one of our engineering managers. Together, they work through two challenges that we faced as an organization in the past, and which could still occur again today. Like with our technical pairing exercises, we want to make sure to reflect the actual work we’re doing – and talking through challenges and developing solutions together as an engineering management team is very important to our daily work together. This interview helps us understand a bit more the candidate’s approach to organizational challenges, and how they’d collaborate with a peer.
3. Product thinking and work breakdown discussion: In this interview, the candidate and another member of our engineering management team discuss some questions related to their ability to understand work and delivery, and guide discussions from a customer value perspective.
4. Engineering team member interview: This is a conversation with a senior engineer with whom the candidate would be working. Together, they discuss collaboration challenges that our teams have faced in the past. We look for candidates’ ability to mentor and add value to technical discussions while understanding their own limitations, supporting a technical decision without acting as a decision-maker.
5. Management skills deep dive: This conversation is usually with a senior member of the engineering management team, and a deeper discussion of important leadership skills and the candidate’s management experience.
6. Product interview: This last interview is with a member of our product team, and focuses on the candidate’s perspective on product, process, and building healthy engineering teams.
Changing our process this way has helped us screen for the right values and skills, and determine which candidates align with them early on. Ultimately, it has enabled us to hire great managers who care, whose values align with ours as an organization, and who can help us take our engineering organization through its next growth phases.
At the moment, we’re working on ensuring full alignment of this process with our newly-adopted Engineering Management Competency Matrix (this matrix is not public yet, but we’re aiming to share it soon).
If our values and the role of an engineering manager sound like something you’d enjoy, please get in touch – we’re hiring engineering managers in Europe and North America! And if working with a great team and a manager who’s invested in your growth is interesting to you, join us as an engineer!
Do you have feedback about our process? I’d love to hear your comments. Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org