Product Family


Engineering Manager at Automatti

The following article was written by Cate Huston, engineering manager at Automattic, the people behind websites and applications such as, WooCommerce, Jetpack, Simplenote, and Longreads. You can read more of Huston’s writing at

When I was a new manager, I struggled to find a sense of accomplishment. As I’ve moved on to manage managers, I’ve seen this become a challenge for them, too. It’s hard to find the right success metrics for judging our work because our goal is to make the team better. It’s only natural that we spend more time crediting our teams rather than ourselves.Some managers deal with this predicament by viewing their success metric as being available to their teams 24/7 (unsustainable), or by lines of code (which would be like editors focusing on the number of words—absurd). Others “perform good manager” in one-on-one meetings, team meetings and feedback cycles, but it doesn’t really make them feel that elusive sense of accomplishment. To that end, I’ve compiled the following list of questions I use myself and when coaching other managers to reflect on management style and team effectiveness:

1. Can I take a week off?

A rough one to start with if you lean toward constant availability as your metric, but there’s nothing like a week off (or more!) to show which of your responsibilities has the most impact. When you return, pay attention to what you find. What’s surprising to you? What did people miss? What did they not need you for?If your team is in a tough spot, and you don’t feel you can completely disconnect, try designating one trusted person to check in with each day.

2. Can problems be handled without me?

The engineering groups I lead have infrastructure teams dedicated to building and releasing software. Recently, one of our team leads was away when an unplanned release was required. His team, on their own, pushed a new version and compiled a detailed account of what had gone wrong, with next steps.This is huge—you’ll never get away from using constant availability as your metric if every emergency must come to you. Ensuring that everyone on the team feels a sense of responsibility and ownership, and designating a directly responsible individual (DRI) are key.

3. Does my team consistently deliver?

Healthy teams ship consistently and keep shipping over time. We all have projects that become unexpectedly complex, and every one may have a reasonable explanation, but if you look at the overall picture, is the team delivering more often than not?

4. Do people tell me what they think?

One thing every new leader needs to learn is that people are less candid with them. We especially need to make ourselves available to people who may not presume we want to hear from them—otherwise you just hear the loudest voices. It’s also important to note how people give you critical feedback. Do they wait until it’s something that really frustrates them or is it an ongoing conversation? Will people tell you what they are worried or insecure about?

5. Do people on my team treat each other well?

Effective teams are inclusive teams. As a leader, it’s up to you to cultivate a respectful team environment and to make it clear that you won’t tolerate discriminatory language or behavior. Beyond that, you can set some values around reward and advancement that make it clear that success on your team is something that happens interdependently, not as a competition.

6. Is the team self-improving?

Self-improving teams critique and change things as part of their process. They’re not afraid to discuss what worked and what didn’t, make suggestions and implement changes knowing that some changes will fail.It can be really hard to get teams reflecting on what went right and wrong with a project, because the process is scary. But getting to a place where these “postmortems” are a matter of course is the outcome of a self-improving team.

Having put our own teams in order and building strong support within them makes it possible for us to provide more support to those above and around us.

7. Can I give my direct reports meaningful, in-depth feedback?

The way I think about feedback is this: it is a person’s work reflected in a way that helps them take pride in their accomplishments in some areas and take actions to improve in others. This means having enough insight into their work, accomplishments, and struggles to be able to do that. A lot of feedback happens as we go, but about every six months I make a point to get feedback from an individual’s teammates and peers so I can put together a bigger picture of how that person is doing.

8. What kind of things can I delegate?

Do you feel like you can hand off pieces of work or problems to people on your team? Are those projects getting bigger over time? This allows you to take on more responsibility from your boss.It’s just not possible to operate effectively at that scale without the shock absorption of people being able to take things off your plate and handle them. If you don’t have it, you need to build it, because your workload will become unmanageable.

9. Who are taking on bigger roles?

Two years after joining Automattic, it’s gratifying to see members of my team moving on to more significant roles. Delegating to managers forces them to delegate to people on their teams, developing new leaders in the process. As much as we might adore everyone on our team, and want to keep them together, having a strong team means it’s our responsibility to help them prepare for bigger roles. We do that by giving them constructive feedback, trusting them with additional responsibilities and delegating more significant projects to them. It’s not only critical for their future success, it’s also a great metric of a manager’s own success.

10. Can I take on work outside of my immediate scope?

Having put our own teams in order and building strong support within them makes it possible for us to provide more support to those above and around us. What could you take on that would most help your boss or your peers? Can that role grow over time? When I joined Automattic, the mobile team really wanted a bigger role in the organization. One way we achieved that was for me to take a bigger role in the organization, to do more to support other teams, to share our practices and get invited into more conversations.

11. Do my peers value my perspective and come to me for advice?

Every organization has its own set of quirks, and the people who best understand the stress under which we operate are our peers. If we have a functional environment, with a minimum of petty competition, then who respects whom in a peer group says a lot. Pay attention to the topics people seem to value your opinion about. It shows what they notice—which are often the things we take for granted.

To contact the author of this story, please complete the below form

Invalid First Name
Invalid Last Name
Country is required
Invalid email
Invalid Captcha

Global Asset Protection Services, LLC, and its affiliates (“AXA XL Risk Consulting”) provides risk assessment reports and other loss prevention services, as requested. This document shall not be construed as indicating the existence or availability under any policy of coverage for any particular type of loss or damage. AXA XL Risk. We specifically disclaim any warranty or representation that compliance with any advice or recommendation in any publication will make a facility or operation safe or healthful, or put it in compliance with any standard, code, law, rule or regulation. Save where expressly agreed in writing, AXA XL Risk Consulting and its related and affiliated companies disclaim all liability for loss or damage suffered by any party arising out of or in connection with this publication, including indirect or consequential loss or damage, howsoever arising. Any party who chooses to rely in any way on the contents of this document does so at their own risk.

US- and Canada-Issued Insurance Policies

In the US, the AXA XL insurance companies are: AXA Insurance Company, Catlin Insurance Company, Inc., Greenwich Insurance Company, Indian Harbor Insurance Company, XL Insurance America, Inc., XL Specialty Insurance Company and T.H.E. Insurance Company. In Canada, coverages are underwritten by XL Specialty Insurance Company - Canadian Branch and AXA Insurance Company - Canadian branch. Coverages may also be underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003. Coverages underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003 are placed on behalf of the member of Syndicate #2003 by Catlin Canada Inc. Lloyd’s ratings are independent of AXA XL.
US domiciled insurance policies can be written by the following AXA XL surplus lines insurers: XL Catlin Insurance Company UK Limited, Syndicates managed by Catlin Underwriting Agencies Limited and Indian Harbor Insurance Company. Enquires from US residents should be directed to a local insurance agent or broker permitted to write business in the relevant state.