Good Engineering Managers Don't Weaponize Metrics

Often that dynamic plays out in metrics and misguided attempts at fostering engineer productivity, usually by measuring the wrong things and offering the wrong incentives. Fortunately, there are better ways to use metrics to genuinely empower engineers to accomplish more.

ScatterSpoke Team

November 29, 2022
3 mins

“Last month you deployed 18 times but this month you’ve only deployed 12 times, what gives? Why is your productivity going down?”

These are the kind of questions that drive engineers insane, obliterating trust and good relationships between them and their managers.

There’s sadly no shortage of harmful engineer-manager dynamics out there. Too often, there’s just a disconnect between the two, with managers failing to understand the real motivations and concerns of engineers while engineers don’t appreciate the pressures managers face.

Often that dynamic plays out in metrics and misguided attempts at fostering engineer productivity, usually by measuring the wrong things and offering the wrong incentives. Fortunately, there are better ways to use metrics to genuinely empower engineers to accomplish more.

How to Be a Good Engineering Manager

Ultimately, being the best possible manager of a team of engineers is more about the engineers than you. That’s why the advice below focuses on showing how you can support your engineers where it genuinely helps them and stay out of the way when you’re not helping.

After all, no engineer wants the managerial equivalent of a helicopter parent hovering over their shoulder and reminding them to “try harder” all the time. Most engineers genuinely enjoy being productive and doing great work. That’s why their managers should figure out how to empower them to do just that.

Collect the Right Metrics

Just because many engineering managers weaponize the metrics they collect in harmful ways doesn't mean metrics themselves are useless or harmful. But the reality is that any time you’re collecting data and creating incentives, it’s vital to put yourself in the shoes of your engineers and ask yourself “what am I actually incentivizing?”

For example, if you define engineering productivity based on lines of code, you’re incentivizing engineers to write sloppier code with more errors because the more they churn out the better. You’re also incentivizing them to write something that could be done in 4 lines of code in 6.

Or, perhaps you define productivity based on deployment frequency. Now you’re telling your engineers to deploy more often even when it may not be necessary. Again, you’re not incentivizing genuine productivity, you’re incentivizing more deployment.

This is why the best approach is to collect a series of related metrics. This ensures you’re not pushing your engineers to prioritize one metric over all others. They know that if they go 100% in on optimizing one metric, it will hurt the others, so the negative incentives we just mentioned are largely avoided.

But which combination of metrics makes the most sense? There’s no single perfect answer here, but the good news is that researchers have developed several useful frameworks like DORA and SPACE which enable managers to get a holistic view of genuine engineer productivity.

Focus on Empowering Engineers Instead of Controlling Them

This gets more to the general mindset of how managers approach engineering teams. The fact is, most engineers absolutely despise feeling like they’re being controlled or worse, treated like children. Starting with the assumption that your engineers don’t want to be productive so you need to find ways to force them is at the root of the worst manager-engineer dynamics.

But when you begin from the perspective of “my engineers want to be productive and effective so I need to find out what’s stopping them” you end up with a markedly different dynamic. Here, you need to talk with engineers, listen to what their challenges are and become a person who helps them overcome those challenges.

Now, instead of feeling they need to hide mistakes from their managers, engineers know their managers will simply work to help them avoid those mistakes in the future. This dynamic is the foundation for a genuinely productive relationship built on mutual trust. Of course, all of this is necessarily built on good communication.

Find Ways to Involve Everyone

The kind of communication that the previous point highlighted often comes in meetings like retrospectives. However, another common challenge in leading engineering teams is getting everyone to participate in meetings like retros. Some engineers might tend to dominate such meetings while others will basically never say a word.

One key way to encourage more participation is to involve everyone in setting meeting agendas. For example, tools like ScatterSpoke enable everyone to anonymously propose topics for discussion by writing them down, instead of forcing anyone who wants to participate to raise a hand and speak up.

Another key tactic is to hold occasional one-on-one meetings with your engineers. These can help you identify issues that may not come up in full-team meetings and take more time to listen to individuals discuss their challenges. Combining regular retrospectives with one-on-ones is an excellent way to keep your finger on the pulse of your team and continuously find ways to empower them.

Minimize Everything Unnecessary

We may have discussed how vital communication and meetings like retros are, but the benefits they bring have real limits. The trick is to know when to stop.

In our experience, the best way to identify whether anything from a meeting to a metric is really needed is to use this mantra: if it’s not adding value, then it’s taking value away.

In other words, anything you or your team is doing that’s not actively creating value for your stakeholders should be eliminated. This kind of thinking is designed to help you identify processes or habits which continue more or less out of habit without anyone questioning whether they should. 

One helpful benefit of this approach is that it’s generally well-received by engineers. Lean and Agile, two massively popular approaches to managing software development are both in part built on the notion of eliminating unnecessary waste.

Unfortunately, too many engineering managers are viewed as endless sources of unnecessary work. If you’re viewed this way, your engineers are unlikely to react well to a new process or system you propose even if it’s a good idea. The dynamic you’ve created will probably lead them to assume that whatever you ask them to do will simply be another waste of their time.

But knowing when something is necessary and when it isn’t also comes down to the same thing: communication. Something might seem absolutely useless to you but be incredibly valuable to one or more of your engineers, or vice versa. The only way to consistently identify and eliminate waste is through good communication.

The Right Tools Make It Easier

There’s no getting around it, engineering managers don’t have an easy job. They need to juggle all kinds of metrics, identify and eliminate waste, and all while using meetings to maintain communication without dragging the team down with too many of them. It’s a lot.

But the right tools make an incredible difference. ScatterSpoke is a single tool which helps you address all four of the elements listed above. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for collecting and analyzing metrics, empowers engineers to define priorities and set goals, makes it easy to get everyone’s input, and helps teams identify and eliminate waste.

Ready to empower your engineers, scale up your retros and make better changes? Sign up for free today. Have more questions instead? Send us an email or contact us, and a team member will reach out to you as soon as possible.

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