Top Tools for Engineering Managers

I often hear the question, “What are tools I can use as an Engineering Manager?” so here is a post answering this question. Before I share this list, I want to detail a few notes about how I put it together. This list doesn’t include tools used by the wider team such as team tracking tools (e.g. Jira) or team communication tools (e.g. Slack/Teams). This list also isn’t intended to be exhaustive. Instead, I’m sharing the most frequently mentioned tools grouped into common EM activities. Where I link to commercial tools, I do not include affiliate links, and I do not get any kickbacks for mentioning them. Where I mention more than one tool, I endeavour to list them alphabetically as it seems the fairest approach.

If you feel this page is missing something, then please send an email, and I’ll consider your recommendation. Let’s get started.

One to Ones

Tools for 1-1s

All EM archetypes have the common responsibility of conducting 1-1s with their direct reports. Other leaders such as CTOs, VPs or Directors might additionally run skip 1-1s. During 1-1s, an EM might cover various topics, from setting goals or personal growth areas to sharing feedback, coaching through challenging situations, and answering questions. While a direct report might have a single 1-1 with their manager, an EM will have many more. Most EMs find it helpful to write notes to capture shared discussions and to aid with context-switching and jogging memories around specific conversations. Some EMs like to have a shared document where everyone can see the notes, action items and topics of conversation. Others also keep a private document/note for more confidential information. Some of the tools below not only help with capturing/sharing information from 1-1s but also help structure the 1-1 conversation with agendas or questions in advance.

Some common tools for 1-1s include:

Note Taking

Tools for Note-Taking

Look into any EM’s calendar; you might notice they have many meetings compared to an individual contributor on the team. Each EM needs to keep track of conversations, ideas and comments, context switching through various topics such as product/project progress, planning sessions, interviews, HR topics, 1-1s, team-related topics and other general observations. While some EMs work without writing notes (I don’t know how!), the more effective EMs I see diligently make notes and review their notes daily and weekly. Each EM has a different note-taking system because each person captures, categorises and processes information differently. Newer EMs often have several note-taking systems as they experiment with the best approach for them. EMs use some of the tools mentioned in the previous section for general note-taking so I won’t repeat them here.

Similar to 1-1s, note-taking also falls into two categories – public and private. Public notes often capture helpful information to share with others, such as their team, an engineering department or a whole company. Private notes capture private thoughts, observations and other random bits of information that are too sensitive or confidential to share with others.

Since public notes are best shared, EMs use their team’s or company’s preferred tool for sharing information. Typically this means:

Since private notes include confidential information, opinions, and rough/incorrect data, these tools are different from the tool used for public notes. Some common examples include:

  • A private instance or workspace of a team/company tool (e.g. a private Notion account)
  • Physical journals and books
  • A private set of text/markdown files
  • Apps built into operating systems (such as Apple Notes or Microsoft’s OneNote)
  • Web-based note-taking tools like Google Keep
  • Personal knowledge management tools such as RoamResearch or Obsidian
  • Other note-taking apps such as Bear, Evernote, Joplin, and SimpleNote
Task Tracking

Tools for Task-Tracking

Note-taking tools capture a lot of data. A small subset of that captured data might include action items or tasks for an EM. As an EM reviews their notes from the day, week or a specific meeting, they often think about new action items or tasks. An EM requires a system for managing their own priorities and work items. Otherwise, it’s too easy to forget about or complete a task too late. Some note-taking apps include task-tracking capabilities/features, so some EMs use the in-built task-tracking features.

An EM’s task-tracking system is often different from (or at least a separate instance/workspace of) their team’s task-tracking system such as Asana, Basecamp, Jira, or Shortcut. One example might be a separate instance of a Trello board representing the personal Kanban board of the EM. Some EMs might choose to include their tasks in their team tracking tool for visibility, but an EM’s task list often includes highly irrelevant or confidential tasks. Examples might include delivering difficult feedback to a specific team member (confidential), planning for an all EMs-offsite (less team relevant), or negotiating a vendor contract (less team relevant).

In addition to some of the tools previously covered, other popular task-tracking tools include:

Metrics

Tools for Team Measurement

I was a bit hesitant to include this section because our industry is still exploring the best ways to measure teams. If you are going to use these tools, I encourage you to read an older article of mine, “An Appropriate Use of Metrics“. EMs use team measurement tools that can be categorised into two main groups:

  1. Team Engagement
  2. Team Productivity

Tools for Team Engagement

Team engagement tools aim to answer questions like, “How happy/engaged are team members?” or “What’s bothering team members?” Common tools in this category include:

Some of the previously mentioned HR tools (see Tools For 1-1s) also include tools for engagement surveys.

Tools for Team Productivity

I am putting an extra disclaimer around this section, referring to Martin Fowler’s article, “Cannot Measure Productivity,” regarding software. I like to remind myself that more effort does not mean better outcomes when it comes to software. Working smarter, having slack and communicating with end users and stakeholders are all vital in reaching better outcomes. These activities do not reflect in lines of code or the number of commits/pull requests in a source control system. A few helpful questions to reflect on include, “Are we focused on the system bottleneck?”, “Are we building the wrong thing faster?” and “Are we measuring the right thing right now?”

I include these tools here, not necessarily because I fully support each of their approaches, but because I know many EMs and organisations actively use them (YMMV!).

Tools for Team-Building

A lot of great team-building activities don’t need tools if your team can meet in person, but with more teams being fully remote, or a hybrid, it makes sense to have some tools for team-building activities:

  • Donut – Many organisations use this for setting up ad hoc 1-1s with people across and organisation to simulate the “kitchen conversations” would have if they spent more time in the office.
  • Gather – This tool can take some time to set up, but its pixel-based art and unique style simulate a less structured way for your team to interact with each other. Moving your avatar closer/further away from conversations, like in real life, is fun.
  • Heytaco – A lighthearted Slack add-in to encourage people to recognise and thank others by gifting virtual tacos 🌮.
  • Kahoot – A lot of teams use this for fun quizzes and polls and can create some customisable quizzes too.
  • Skribbl – A drawing/pictionary game that’s lo-fi and accurate given drawings via mouse are even worse than by hand 😅

Tools Are Not a Substitute for Thinking

Tools can be an excellent aid for Engineering Managers to support how you want to work. But be careful these tools don’t start to drive, dictate or restrict your style or preferences. The best EMs are context-aware; they decide which tool works best in the right situation and don’t simply use the same tool without considering the context. For example, it might be quicker for an EM to capture notes in a meeting in a notebook and then transcribe them onto a public wiki later because no one wants to stare at someone struggling with wiki permissions, syntax and network connectivity. Similarly, a tool might generate some great questions about long-term personal growth goals, but the timing may be completely inappropriate if a company is going through redundancies for some staff.

Experiment with tools that aid you with tasks you want to do. Don’t let these tools substitute for deep thought.

Have a tool you’d recommend? Drop me an email, and I’ll consider adding it to this article.


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