How non-technical managers can successfully oversee engineers

Main illustration: Andrea Manzati

Conventional wisdom suggests that engineers reporting to non-technical managers can wind up being a disastrous situation.

When I joined Intercom, that thought weighed on me as until then, I had only managed non-technical support representatives. Now I’m overseeing a mixed team of both non-engineer representatives and technical Support Engineers. Initially I was concerned my lack of an engineering background would be a disservice to half of my team.

Even though it’s challenging managing Support Engineers as a non-technical manager, the reality is that both sides really benefit from the relationship.

Here are some benefits my team of Support Engineers and I discovered while working together:

Focus on personal growth

Non-technical managers don’t understand all the technical issues their Support Engineers face – this means that more focus is put on other growth areas, such as time management, professionalism, values, mentorship, strengths, weaknesses etc. One of my engineers once told me:

“It is easier to talk about your general goals without falling into technical traps (e.g. ‘Why are you interested in building this, and what has driven you to come up with the idea?’ Instead of, ‘How are you going to build this and what frameworks do you plan to use?’).”

A very human relationship

Most 1:1 meetings between managers and Support Engineers are not focused on solving deeply technical issues. Instead, focus is very much on the person; their overall performance, their growth trajectory and their career aspirations. This makes the relationship very human and personal. The same engineer on my team put it this way:

“I find that having a non-technical manager gives you more of an opportunity to talk about yourself rather than what you are working on. If I am feeling overwhelmed or overworked with something, my manager can look past the technical aspects of my issue and will treat the problem, not the symptom…”

Trust trumps all else in professional relationships.

As an engineer continues to grow in their role and becomes a master in time management, the amount of guidance you give them on tone, goal setting and cross functional collaboration from week to week declines. However, if you keep challenging them to continuously improve themselves and the team, your 1:1s can become brainstorming sessions, or sometimes a place to have a good rant about their tough day. Always having someone to trust and speak to on a personal level trumps all else in long-term professional relationships.

Customer conversations are still about tone and empathy, not technical prowess

Customer conversation reviews are focused on tone, empathy and time management rather than technical ability – though the latter certainly needs to be addressed elsewhere. Bear in mind, however, that what might sound like a perfect answer to a manager who is focused on tone, for instance, might not be the most technically accurate answer for the customer.

Great trust is built

The great trust you can foster by not understanding your reports’ day to day work is surprising. It’s so important to have trust in your engineers to spend their time wisely. You don’t really understand how long their tasks take to work on. Building this trust leads to strong relationships, but you need to hire the right people who will use this trust wisely.

For example, one day one of my Support Engineers had a much lower number of conversations dealt with than usual. When I asked why, they explained they had a number of very tricky investigations they needed to wrap up. Instead of coming down hard on the numbers, I empathised and asked for more details so I could better understand the tough day. This also gave them an opportunity to explain some technical concepts in an easily understandable way (a very important skill to foster in Support Engineers).

Honesty and escalation paths are key

Be honest about what you don’t know and can’t help with. Make sure you set these expectations from day one. Admit what you don’t know and play to the strengths of what you do know. Your team will appreciate the honesty and respect you more for it.

If you’re not technical, it’s important to have a support network of senior technical teammates to help with this side of their job who can mentor your reports. An added benefit here is that this senior role/responsibility is perfect for technical leaders who love mentoring, but don’t want to be people managers. If you can make a new role for these mentors, even better! It fosters extra growth and career progression within your org. We did this with our Senior Customer Support Engineers.

One party benefiting from the manager-engineer relationship: your customers.

They are people who deliver consistent top quality work with customers within our support team and cross functionally across the company. They can deal with any technical conversation, recognize Intercom’s limitations in supporting certain integrations, handle escalations from teammates, create technical content and lead by example. They are mentors and teachers to their teammates. I lean on our seniors heavily to review my engineers’ technical investigations and pair with them on their workflows for digging into our codebase or submitting Github issues.

The manager, the employee and the customer benefit

While my advice applies to Support Engineers, it can vary for those in other areas. This relationship could be very different for engineers whose focus is not support – the core mutual focus (customers) ties the non-technical manager and the Support Engineer together.

To those non-technical managers taking on engineering reports for the first time: Don’t be afraid! Once you ensure you have a good support base around you for technical issues/guidance, your strengths in people management will flourish.

To Support Engineers worried about non-technical managers: also don’t be afraid! Despite the conventional wisdom, it can work really well when done right, and help grow both parties. Managers can get insight, experience and become more technical themselves. Engineers’ non-technical skills are fostered in ways that may be missed when all focus is technical.

Finally, a third (and very important) party also benefits from this manager-engineer relationship: your customers. When focus is put on interpersonal skills, tone and time management, a super technical investigation and resolution turns into something much more – a very personal customer interaction. The kind our customers love our Support Engineers so much for. Ask us anything about Intercom via our messenger and see for yourself.

If you’re interested in joining the R&D team to help build Intercom, check out our current openings here.