Managing Engineers with Ron Lichty

“Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance. To make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.” That quote is from Peter Drucker.

It is one of the many useful quotes collected in Ron Lichty’s book “Managing the Unmanageable”—and it illustrates why we work in teams. When we collaborate with each other, we make each other’s strengths effective, and our weaknesses become irrelevant.

To collaborate effectively, we need leaders. We need management.

Ron Lichty spent 6 years managing engineers at Apple, and many more years in management and director roles elsewhere. In his book, Ron lays out the lessons he learned in 30 years of engineering management. Ron also describes concrete strategies for how to manage engineers productively.

An engineer who becomes a manager needs to learn new skills. And the hardest skills to master have nothing to do with technology.

Prioritizing the right projects, allocating engineering resources, making architectural decisions—all of those skills are important. But the art of relationships—of diplomacy and language—is harder to learn than any technical skill.

How do you motivate an engineer to do something that is boring? How do you have a difficult conversation with an engineer who needs to improve?  When a conflict between engineers comes up, do you confront the conflict head-on, or do you wait for those engineers to resolve it among themselves?

These questions do not have easy answers. The best way to learn how to react to these situations is to live through them. The second best way to learn is to read and listen to people who have seen so much of the management dynamic that they can distill it into anecdotes and aphorisms.

In today’s show, Ron shares several stories that changed how I think about management.

Ron and I did not have time to discuss everything I wanted to, and I recommend checking out his podcast episode on Software Engineering Radio for more detail. And also check out his book—Managing the Unmanageable.


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