Hiring engineering managers is difficult, and many companies struggle with it. It’s a challenge to establish an effective interview loop. It’s tricky to convince candidates about your company’s opportunity. It can be hard to even get candidates to talk to you. Solving these issues takes time, but it’s fairly well understood work. What confuses many companies is that they solve all of these issues, and they still can’t hire engineering managers.
Companies struggling here often start to manufacture explanations about what’s going wrong: the candidates aren’t good enough, managers aren’t empathetic, managers aren’t technical enough, and so on. I’ve labeled this the “getting to yes” hiring problem, and encountered it at both Uber and Stripe when I first joined.
The underlying problem tends to be that the organization hasn’t agreed on what their engineering management role entails. Instead, each interviewer relies on their personal preferences or previous experiences to assess candidates. Some interviewers will come from Google with its emphasis on engineering managers writing code. Others will come from small startups where engineering management was a part-time role filled by the founders. A panel with these mixed perspectives will reject most candidates; any candidates it does hire will be hired by accident based on attributes that are only loosely related to the role itself.
You can self-assess your organization’s alignment on the engineering management role by asking interviewers what they value, but it’s easier to just go to the metrics. If you’re giving offers to less than 20% of folks coming onsite, something’s wrong. Spend a few weeks incorporating frequent rejection reasons into your upstream phone screen. If your rejection rate remains low afterwards, it’s quite unlikely you don’t have internal alignment on what you need from engineering managers.
As an aside, this is also why it’s so helpful to work with an experienced recruiting team. A good recruiting team is watching these numbers and will flag this sort of issue with a broken hiring loop. They may not specifically identify the underlying cause, but they’ll point out that the loop needs some attention.
Once you’ve established this as a problem:
- Think about what you need engineering managers to do
- Refine those tasks into four or five key skills for the role
- Create an interview to evaluate each of those skills
- Create a rubric to score each of those interviews
- Train the interviewing team on the new interviews and rubrics
- Remove interviewers from the loop if they refuse to use the rubric
The first five steps are the fundamentals of creating an environment where candidates and interviewers can succeed, but my experience is that the sixth step is equally important even though it’s rarely discussed openly. Some interviewers simply won’t align with your organization’s vision for engineering management, and they’ll undermine your loop until you remove them.
Before removing them, you should–of course!–give clear feedback and work with them on why the vision is important. At some point, the organizational need for engineering managers will surpass your time to foster alignment with folks who reject the vision. That’s when you ought to remove them from the interviewing process. There’s a broader topic around whether folks who are persistently misaligned with your organization ought to be part of your organization: it probably depends on the details, and I’ll leave that to a separate discussion.
As a closing thought, this happens particularly frequently for engineering managers as it’s a particularly broad role, but it happens for other roles as well. It’s particularly common for executive roles which span such scope and suffer from varied expectations across a varied set of stakeholders. The above playbook works there, too.