Hiring Engineering Managers
By Christian Uhl- 16 minutes read - 3333 words
I hired a few excellent Engineering Managers who I’m very happy with last year. I obviously also had to interview a whole bunch more to find them. In this article, I’ll summarize how I would build the best hiring process with my current knowledge after this journey to fill future open positions quickly with excellent candidates. We will move from understanding the role in the first place to building a performant funnel and ultimately closing the candidates we really want.
If you only take one thing from this: All through this journey, your Talent Acquisition peer is your best friend1: They can help you move through this playbook and provide valuable input and feedback from the market out there to adapt your process. Collaborate frequently with them, and maybe help them sourcing.
Also please note the usual disclaimer: This is not 100% the way Personio hires Engineering Managers - I of course took heavy inspiration because we’re doing things rather well, but it is still my personal take.
I learned to approach any hiring with the perspective of a funnel, not as a one-and-done project. This allows you to slice your hiring process into stages and measure conversion rates (or dropoff rates) and, if you hire enough people, allows you some predictability over the future. For example, after a while, we could say “We have 30 People in Stage X, so we can predict that we will make two offers in the next 20 days”.
Understanding the Role
No two Engineering Managers (EMs) are the same, and the same goes for the Team you are hiring for. EMs come in various shapes and sizes in regard to experience, technical aptitude, and leadership approach. So to make a successful hire, you need to understand what challenges are ahead in the next 6 to 12 months.
Some questions I would ask myself when trying to understand who I need:
Is there an existing team with people that you are hiring for? Or will this be a new team that the new EM will be hiring new people for? How much prior hiring experience does that person need to bring?
If it’s an existing team (or a split from a large team) - was it working well with the previous Engineering Manager? Do you want a similar type of Person or change things up?
How mature is the team and how formed is it? Do you need an experienced team builder? Are there large conflicts that you need to manage right away before you get around to doing a solid onboarding?
Has the team enough technical leadership (e.g. a Tech Lead type of person), or would the Engineering Manager fill a gap here? Should they be contributing code? 2 The same goes for the Product and Design Peers - are strong Peers there present or do you need the Engineering Manager to fill some gaps?
What else is “on fire” that you would expect this person to work on right away? Is the team shipping high-quality? Are they reliable business partners or are their estimates not trustworthy and everything is slipping all the time?
And one last thing on experience: I see exclusively job ads with “needs 5+ years of experience”. Chances are - you don’t, you need someone who cares about people and who wants to grow as a leader. New leaders don’t fall from trees with experience, and very few organizations have an “Acting Engineering Manager” Program3 where people could safely grow into the role. Especially if you have some coaching capacity, I would suggest also lifting up some people who have been working in some way as team leads, maybe without getting recognition in their job title. I stumbled into a leadership role myself head-first, so I am a bit biased toward that.
Once you have your “wishlist” you can start tuning your outreach to get the right kind of candidates in:
Most of the recruiter messages I get are very close to “Hey I see you are working as an Engineering Manager, do you want to do the exact same thing, just over here? For maybe a little less money?”. And then I don’t answer, and silently curse at this person.
Remember the times you have answered a recruiter message before, I think it always falls into these two categories:
- a very generic message from a company you are excited about
- a very well-tailored message with a good match at the very right time
Inbound Candidates: The job ad
Depending on how popular your company is, you can get a lot of inbound applications by just posting your job ad on your Applicant Tracking System 4
I would start out with an individualized role description and not use a generic company-wide one if your policy allows that. Realistically, you can still take parts of the general Job Ad (like the company introduction) to make your life easier.
What I would always include:
- Name, Mission, and Vision statement of the team you are hiring for.
- Some hint at the next large challenge for the team Of course, you don’t air any dirty laundry here - but is the team embarking on a larger migration project? or launching a big new product line? Is the team freshly formed or largely established?
- How technical do you expect this EM to be, e.g. will they be moderating architecture discussions? Do they need to coach junior Engineers on a tech level? Do you expect them to contribute code?
- Is this a remote, on-site, or hybrid role? Where can candidates work from?
- Can you offer relocation and Visa Support?
- If you can, post a salary range. This will increase the number of applications by a lot, I promise. You’ll also get a bunch more unqualified spam, so you’ll have to sort through more CVs 5
This information is important for the applicant to self-select. You might get fewer applications, but better-fitting ones and spend less time in later funnel stages.
Outbound Candidates: Active Sourcing
As with many of the highly sought-after professions, people are not on the market for very long. You can improve your odds by actively reaching out to people because you can tap into the pool of people who are on the verge of changing jobs, but not actively looking yet.
By this, you can also consciously influence the distribution of applicants - For example, if you have too few women in your applicant pool, you can focus your active sourcing efforts on this to balance it out a bit. You can tune the job ad as well (e.g. make the wording more inclusive and dial down the unnecessary demands), but with active sourcing, you have a bigger lever.
The “traditional” way is to have dedicated People who do active sourcing - these are the people who show up in your LinkedIn Inbox a lot. Since they are usually not very technical, the quality of their outreach and the candidates they bring depends a lot on how well you can brief them. Most Hiring Managers don’t talk to them much, which I find is quite a mistake - Set up some inital briefing, and give them regular feedback about the candidates that they bring, so that you both get better at sourcing.
If you want to increase your odds even more, you can also do active sourcing yourself: Get yourself a LinkedIn Recruiting Account or similar tools (I don’t endorse any network, this is just what I used before) and start pinging candidates. You can tell candidates why you think they’re a good fit for the role. Since your job title suggests you know very well what you are looking for, people are more likely to answer6
If your hiring demand is fluctuating a lot, or you haven’t built up an internal team yet it’s quite reasonable to hire an external agency for this. Especially if it’s for a special role or a one-off hire. They are pricy, but the good ones are worth it. In my mind, this is just an outsourced version of your internal active sourcing and filtering: The “Network” that these companies claim to have is usually vastly overstated. They are professionals at searching and getting people into the funnel though, and they can do the first filtering step. They might also coach you on writing good job descriptions, but you won’t need that after this article ;-)
Interviewing: The Interview Funnel
I am currently leaning towards a longer funnel with more Interview steps. While this is to a degree painful for candidates (and costly for the organization), it allows for a pretty balanced view of the candidate and gives them enough opportunities to shine, and maybe balance one weakness with a strength. It includes no “async” type of work, so it can be theoretically batched into one full day - but that will be quite straining on the candidate, they’ll likely be toast by the last interview. If you have to do this for travel reasons, plan plenty of real breaks for recharging.7
If you follow the pass rates of each stage, you will get a result of 1,x % hires for everyone starting the pipeline, meaning you need 100 candidates inbound to fill one position. This math depends a lot on the quality of your pipeline - if you have a lot of actively sourced candidates it might work, if you get a lot of inbound applications your initial filtering will likely be a lot higher.
The point of this is to move the low-probability interviews to the left for interviews that can dedicate a lot of time towards interviews, and as you progress in the funnel the interview partners have less time and you should pass them candidates with a higher success chance. You of course need to tweak that for your own org, but it’s a start.
1. CV Screening and HR Screening:
This is a very filtering-heavy step, very frequently done by your friends from Talent Acquisition / HR / People Team, who have this as their primary role expectation. The goal of this stage is to reduce the candidate pool significantly in a shallow way - you want to filter out people who are obviously not a good fit to protect the interviewers in the later stages. Usually, someone will batch-screen CVs for general fit, and then invite people to a ~30-minute interview to have a broad call about their professional past and future goals:
- People plainly not fitting the job description/requirements.
- People without motivation to actually join, who are just interviewing for fun.
- People who can’t communicate in a polite and professional way.
- Some technical reasons people could not join, e.g. Salary expectations way off from what you could offer or Visa / Work permission issues,
It’s also the first opportunity to pitch to the candidate in person and hype them up for the role, so you need to avoid a bureaucratic and unempathetic feeling for the candidates. They are interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them.
2. Hiring Manager Interview
The second interview is done by the person that hires for this Role and to whom the candidate would report (I think this is frequently called the hiring manager). It’s the person who knows the role best because they have performed Step 1: Understanding the role. This interview is still a broad one, but it evaluates if the candidate has the right skill set and mindset for the specific role.
To evaluate that, I like to split the interview into two parts:
First, we will have a conversation around the candidate’s CV and dig down on every interesting aspect of this - what got delivered by their team? Who had great growth? what were their hurdles?
Second, I like to move through the typical Engineering Management “toolbox” and ask for STAR Framework Answers around hiring, promoting, working on the team, and managing stakeholders. The STAR Framework means the candidate describes the Situation they were in, the Task they wanted to achieve, the Actions they took, and the Result they got from their actions. Most candidates know this, but it’s also quickly explained if you need to.
3. Tech and Leadership Interview
These two interviews are more of a role-play/scenario style and not based on the candidate’s CV at all. You would do one hypothetical people-heavy scenario (e.g. You have an underperforming team, which doesn’t ship frequently. There are fights between the more senior developers, the PM can’t get through to them and you have a bunch of quality issues), and one system design case interview (e.g. build a new product for our main product line).
These interviews can (and should) be run by any of your peers to get a broader look, and you should have some sort of evaluation rubric to get comparable results. An evaluation template for Interviews helps a ton here, as it allows to enter Data and thoughts during the interview and reduces the post-processing for everyone.
4. Values Interview
You don’t just want a great Manager, you want somebody who is aligned with how your company ticks - This will ultimately determine how successful they can become in your ecosystem. Will they continuously go against the flow and get caught up in useless fights? Or do they agree with how you do things and what you find important so that they can focus on their core work?
For this, you can also use the STAR Framework for questions about everyday situations that align with your company’s Values. For example, if one of your values is “transparency”, were there any situations where the candidate had to make a choice about sharing something, and chose to be pushing the idea of transparency? Ever had to tell their team something about an embarrassing mistake they made?
With this you can also combine neatly the “C-Level sniff test” that a lot of executives want to do: Such value interviews fit what Senior leadership is looking for (they couldn’t judge if the candidate has the right skills, even if they tried, they are too far detached) - but they know what kind of Values and Actions they want to see in the company.
This interview should be more of a confirmation and proof of your earlier suspicions that the candidate is a good fit, and as such yield a high acceptance rate. It also helps to hype up the candidates future peers about who’s joining - It’s always great seeing
Time is key, because good candidates are not on the market for very long, and they will likely be in other interview processes with other companies as well. So if you want to raise your conversion rate, I would suggest going fast and getting a candidate through in < 2 weeks after the first screening call.
How can you do that? You can either go full panic and harass everyone to interview whenever it fits the candidate (don’t recommend that if you don’t want to burn people out). The better approach is to have everyone commit to specific interview Slots that are known and constant. For example, I have a Slot at 8:30 AM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a 4 PM Slot on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can then use tools like Calendly for easy self-service scheduling
The cool thing is if you know your conversion rates, you can predict the number of interviews you need, and compare that with the available slots. This way, you’ll quickly see a mismatch between interview capacity
Deciding to offer
You should know who is really, really the one making the final hiring decision. It’s probably best if the Hiring Manager / new Supervisor can make this call - after all, they have skin in the game and need to live with this person from here on. But sometimes it’s the CTO / VP of Engineering who signs off all offers. In any way, you want to know the chain of command beforehand, because sometimes it’s just a matter of hours before deciding between an accepted or rejected offer.
Every interviewer should write their evaluation and a concrete recommendation (hire or not hire) down without being influenced by their peer’s opinions. I would also recommend removing “neutral” ratings8
I am partial to hiring panels, where all interviewers get together to discuss: Very often people just re-state what they wrote in their evals (because no one ever reads), and then everyone looks at the decision maker with a puzzled face. I’d suggest not having them by default, but only when there is a chance to change the decision by digging deeper into one concrete concern. If somebody puts in a “reject” I usually reach out to them in a 1:1 fashion to see if it’s a strong reject:
- If yes, we decline the candidate. We respect our interviewers, even if I really liked the candidate.
- If no, and somebody else saw some signals that could balance the observation out, we continue after discussion with the rejecting interviewer
There is also the idea of hiring only if at least somebody is willing to fight for this candidate to join, not just okay with it. I like the idea, but I wouldn’t require it for more than one person to be really excited - it’s not a popularity contest.
The offer call
I learned that I can improve the offer acceptance rate substantially by just being on the offer call as a Hiring Manager, pitching the team once more, and highlighting what we really liked about the candidate. A little bit of flattering goes a long way here, and since this interview process is quite expensive, you really want to close here.
A little bit of negotiation is just a sign of a healthy business transaction, so we expect candidates to push their luck a little. I usually leave that to my Talent Acquisition friend, by giving them some leeway: We offer the candidate X, but we can go up to Y. Still, the X amount is a competitive offer, and the negotiation is mostly for show. I would love to just offer the very best I can do right away - but since it’s the game we all play, there’s no point in avoiding it. People feel cheated if they can’t push it a little. For what it’s worth, I see traditionally underrepresented groups (especially women) negotiating way harder than anyone else nowadays, which is probably a good sign.
This could be an internal TAM person, a whole team or an external agency. The point still stands, the better you treat your peers and the more information you give them. here the higher the quality of the hire will be. ↩︎
This also obviously depends on your company’s understanding of Engineering Management, and how technical these people need to be ↩︎
Given the abysmal level of training and education in our field, such a program is probably the very best you can get through. ↩︎
Of course only if it’s a competitive salary. But maybe you need a reality check. ↩︎
Shady recruiters are getting very creative with their advertised job titles, so it’s a matter of time how long that will work. But so far I haven’t had a fake Engineering Manager messaging me. ↩︎
Even if it sounds mean, in the time of the great layoffs we can probably be a bit more demanding towards candidates, than during the hyper-hiring in ‘22 ↩︎
A good exception would be for new interviewers shadowing: They can practice writing evaluations, without fully understanding the nuances of what you look for yet, and don’t “spoil” the ratings with an uncalibrated yes/no ↩︎