Are Non-Technical Engineering Leaders Common?
I recently saw a question on Reddit asking how common it is to have non-technical engineering leaders. The person who asked the question works in a company with an engineering leader, either a CTO or director, who has good communication and presentation skills but uses lots of buzzwords.
The answer to this question isn’t straightforward. Some primary considerations are the company, its stage, and what the engineering organization needs. There are various types of engineering leaders, including:
Technical founding CTOs who write code with their team and set up the foundation for the entire company, along with its architecture and key decisions.
Growth-oriented engineering leaders who focus on onboarding, career development, interviewing, and hiring. They are more process-driven and less technical than founding CTOs (this is where I see myself most often).
Architectural-driven leaders who have strong opinions about the tech stack and how things should be built. They don’t get into the nitty-gritty details but provide broad guidance on the direction of the codebase.
Extremely non-technical leaders who may have never written code but understand how the organization functions and work well across groups.
In the last case, you hope these leaders trust you and your experience as an engineer to make the right decisions. They might be a Chief Product Officer (CPO) who is more product-focused but relies on you and your teams for technical expertise.
So, having a non-technical engineering leader is not unusual; it just depends on the company’s needs and its stage of growth.
To make things happen, it’s important to consider the relationship between two groups: technical and non-technical leaders. I’ve worked with various leaders in different companies, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Ideally, a leader should grow and evolve with the organization, meeting its needs at every stage.
An organization that is heavily deadline-driven and always pushing for speed can drain you, leading to burnout and dissatisfaction. Especially when the needs and estimates of engineering was never taken into account. Think about your current work environment, identify the main challenges, and consider if your leader can help address them.
Is your CTO collaborating with other leaders to tackle these issues? Are they allowing experts to make decisions? If so, that’s a good sign. However, if they’re making all the decisions without proper information or background, that’s a dangerous situation.
If You Have a Non-Technical Engineering Leader
Don’t dismiss a non-technical leader just because they lack a technical background. Instead, focus on their actions and decisions. Ask yourself if your engineering team has a voice in the decision-making process. If not, that’s when you have a problem.
Evaluate your situation and find ways to grow together with your manager. Remember that communication and teamwork are essential for success in any organization.
Me personally, when presented with options from the team, I’ll make the final call and take responsibility for the outcome. If things go well, the team gets credit. If not, I’ll take the blame and protect my team because I trust them and want to prevent the stifling of future ideas.
Even if I’m not an expert in coding or architecture, I trust my engineers and engineering managers to talk things through with me. I’m good at understanding concepts and working together, but I won’t make decisions alone.
I trust the teams I work with. So, think about the best manager for you. If they’re non-technical, consider the benefits they bring to your organization. Don’t just see it as a checklist or a line item. If they need certain skills, think about how they got into that position.
Sometimes, they might be hired without engineering qualifications because that’s not what the company needs or wants. Many factors play a role in this decision. So, give it some thought and I’m eager to hear your opinions too.
Is your technical organization meeting its standards? Are things getting done? These are important questions to ask, rather than focusing on whether it’s common to have a non-technical engineering leader.
If you’re an engineer looking to grow your career with a non-technical leader, finding a mentor is crucial. You can use websites like Plato to connect with experienced engineering leaders. If your manager doesn’t have coding experience or isn’t open to learning, you’ll need to figure out how to work with them and grow together. If you look at the situation objectively and there’s nothing they can help you with, it might be time to talk to their supervisor about your concerns.
In conclusion, the answer depends on your company’s stage, needs, and what the leader is doing for you. Always remember to focus on their actions and how they support your team in making important decisions.
Remove your ego and ask yourself: Can this person help me in any way?
Be honest about the answer. Let me know below where else you might be struggling.