Treat your engineers like human beings

Published 07/07/2020
Author: David Crandall

Newsflash: engineers are people

One of my biggest grievances and pet peeves in the tech industry is this notion that engineers are magicians, or have some unlimited amount of time, or that the work is easy and does not take time, simply because it involves sitting in front of a computer, versus heavy labor.

Too often, engineers are:

  • Working 12+ hour days, every day
  • Sacrificing weekends
  • Paying for their stakeholders' poor planning
  • Get zero support from management when bringing forth critical workflow, process, or cultural concerns
  • Get compared to other engineers, that these engineers are 'better than you'
  • Told their work is 'just this' or 'just that' -- completely negating any concerns or feelings an engineer may have

This. Is. Bullshit.

Especially now, when people are working from home with little collaboration, it is imperative businesses treat their employees like the people they are. Every person deserves time with their families, a lunch break, time to make up for management's constant 'shifts in strategy'...aka poor planning.

How to fix the problem

Something like this is cultural, and needs to be not only exercised but enforced by management. It is my belief the following shows respect, provides employees with opportunities for self care, and mitigates stress.

Define and respect boundaries

Everyone has their limits, but I believe basic boundaries that should be respected are:

  • Calling an employee off normal work hours
  • Forcing an employee to work through lunch
  • Overloading teams with work such that they can only meet stringent deadlines by sacrificing weekends
  • Texting or calling people to do things that are not critical to the success of the business
  • Texting or calling employees off hours without first agreeing on that kind of relationship

Further, each person has their own family and lives which need respecting.

  • Do not disrupt vacations
  • Give people the time they need to attend their family events/childrens' performances/etc., and don't penalize them with a bigger backlog
  • Don't force people to take time off, or approve a vacation, and ask them to join a call
  • Ask your employee what their home hours are like, and respect the time people need for self care and to take care of their family.

Don't alienate your employees

I've had myriad jobs and have gone through a number of onboarding processes. Nothing is more frustrating than asking your manager for help and being told, "You should know this already" or "I already told you this" or "It is not a good use of my time to teach you these things" or "This is ok, just get used to it."

When you discard peoples' concerns, you immediately lose their trust. You are no longer their source of information, and it will be harder for you to manage them. Further, because you are not putting yourself as an educator and leader for them, you force them to find that elsewhere -- that could be another employee, but will most likely be another company.

When someone comes to you asking for help, even if you think it is redundant, maybe write a quick guide and give it to everyone, or do a video conference that can be shared for others who may have the same question later.

When someone is concerned about morale, take it seriously, because they are telling you they are unhappy and their coworkers are unhappy, and as a manager - it is critical that your team of talented engineers is motivated to do their job.

Foster ownership and learning

When I work with a team, I expect my engineers to own their work. They should be able to execute, test, and make decisions as necessary that will best suit the goal of the project or the business. They should know enough about the product, app, and/or business to not just make decisions, but have the freedom to speak up when they have concerns.

This can only happen when your leadership team positions themselves as leaders and teachers.

In other words, if I get presented a project, and I know one of my engineers could probably handle the project, the wrong thing to do is:

  • Write down a story in Jira or whatever it is you use to track projects
  • Assign it to them
  • Give them a deadline
  • Bother them every day until it's done
  • Act as liasone between stakeholder and engineer

This almost never works.

The right way:

  • Create your story
  • Kick it off with your stakeholders and the engineer you intend to assign
    • Give your engineer an opportunity to understand the objective and the business impact
    • Introduce your engineer to the business units/departments so they understand the impact
    • Give your engineer the authority to call out caveats, and/or represent your team and their concerns
    • Designate sources of truth in both process and people - ensure there is a single place to go for information, and a single person to go for directional questions

Why is this so difficult?

I've found, in my own experience, this comes down to the numbers and politics.

In fact, in my experience, what often happens is, executive teams are promised something by upper management, and upper management simply barks orders down at middle management and employees, and in an effort to maintain their image of success in their boss's eyes, they create a wall between the worker and management, preventing employee concerns and troubles from bubbling up, while allowing the middle manager to remain in good standing with the execs. In other words, for many folks in this industry, it is a political game.

The problem with this, though, is it leaves businesses without good people to build the products needed for the business to succeed. It looses tenured employees, which can cause a loss in business history, productivity, innovation, and overall positive office morale.

The good people they have see many around them leaving from frustration, and it snowballs such that the business is now faced with replacing what was once a fully functioning organization. Or, the org will be replaced and all initiatives will in turn be slowed/delayed, due to having to onboard myriad new faces.

How do you fix it

Executives need to be held responsible for keeping toxic leaders in place and not listening to their employees.

Managers who engage in political games, gossip, manipulation, and secrecy do not belong in a modern, thriving company. These attitudes and behaviors ultimately will bring suffrage to the entire business, not just the department or set of employees at hand.

Leaders should take steps to ensure they do not abuse their employees homelives or disrupt healthy work-life balances. Better yet, executives should define a healthy worklife balance, respect those boundaries, and reward employees who they force to break these boundaries.

Businesses should not force employees to use their paid time off balance for company-wide shutdowns. I've seen many businesses enforce a company-wide shutdown, then seemingly penalize their employees by deducting that time from their PTO. Nothing says, "I do not value your time," than stealing PTO.

In conclusion

All of this seems very simple, very basic, but you'd be surprised in today's tech industry just how toxic and mentally unhealthy workplaces are, and just how little is done about it.

Sure, there are politics in every business to an extent -- you have to sell ideas, get people on board, all that good stuff. But you do not need to alienate, disrespect, or manipulate your employees.

Instead, give people an opportunity to do their work, own up to poor planning and adjust strategy, and for fuck's sake - treat people with respect. As the tech industry booms and jobs become available, and work-culture becomes a competetive selling point for potential employees, businesses do not have room to do otherwise.

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