Identifing the Strengths of Engineers

One of the best skills of talented managers is the ability to identify the strengths of the members of their team and to create environments where these strengths are allowed to flourish. It is easy to focus on the technical skills of an individual, but the strongest managers are able to identify a much wider range of important and valuable skills within each of their team members. Some of these skills are going to be technical but many are not. Focusing solely on technical ability is not only shortsighted but can lead to overlooking people that have valuable talent to provide to the team.

In a following article I will be diving more into how to think about utilizing the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses within your team members. In this article I’ll focus on what types of things to look for when identifying the strengths within your team members.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the strengths different people can exhibit:

Focus & Perseverance: This person is particularly skilled at taking challenging tasks and systematically working through the problem. These individuals are often good at making progress without much supervision - they tend to not get stuck, or if they do they know how to identify it and ask for assistance. They do not get easily frustrated when problems are difficult to solve.

Joy & Positive Outlook: This person is always able to bring a positive light to any situation. The energy they bring radiates to others and uplifts the group. These are the folks that are easily able to inspire others to become excited about something. They might be the people that create and cultivate "fun" within the team.

Written Documentation: This person ensures that there is appropriate written documentation for everything they build. They may even write documentation for things outside their direct responsibility. They are good at structuring written content into logical components. Some people are better at some types of documentation than others -- commits, pull requests, internal documentation, external customer-facing documentation.

Respectful Communication: This person excels at having constructive and conscientious discussions on topics that have the potential to erupt into conflict. This may be focused on face-to-face communication or they might be particularly good at communication in a public setting, such as reviewing pull requests that have issues that need to be resolved without upsetting the engineer that wrote the code.

Deep & Specific Knowledge: This person is a certified domain expert. They have a specific area of interest and have spent years gaining an incredible amount of information and experience on this topic. They may know very little or care very little about areas outside of their domain.

Broad Knowledge: Individuals with broad knowledge know a lot about a wide variety of technical areas. They might not be deep experts at anything but they have a curiosity and constant drive for learning that means that they are often on the forefront of knowing what’s happening.

Product Area Knowledge: This person enjoys learning about the product domain -- who are the customers/users, what problems do they have, how does this software make lives easier. Sometimes this requires additional deep domain knowledge (banking, medical, devops etc), and people that have already gained this type of product knowledge are very valuable to companies within that domain.

Meeting Facilitation: This person is innately skilled at facilitating or running meetings. Setting the tone, encouraging interaction, making it fun for everyone. They might have a unique talent that helps balance the communication of others within a meeting - politely directing folks that take up a lot of time to wind up their thoughts and encouraging the quieter team members to share theirs. This person might not be the person officially facilitating the meeting, sometimes they are just "regular" members of the meeting but they have an outsized impact on meetings functioning well.

Teaching & Mentoring: This person is very good at teaching others. They enjoy spending time explaining things to people new to the domain and they do not get frustrated if people need more time to understand something. They may be able to explain things in a few different ways depending on what resonates with a particular person. Note that this skill does not have to be tightly coupled with having the most knowledge on the topic. They enjoy and value the collaborative process of mentorship or pair programming.

Calm Demeanor: Some people are just unflappable. No matter what sort of chaos is happening within the company / department / team, they remain calm. These team members can be the rocks that help the whole team weather uncertain times.

Trustworthiness: This person forms strong personal bonds with teammates. They are a person others trust, and might be the team member that people go to when they are struggling. As a manager, this is a skill you should be attempting to cultivate for yourself, but if you have a person like this on your team you can (respectfully) utilize their information to improve things for specific people or the entire team.

Curious Attitude: This person is able to bring curiosity to discussions. This can manifest as being able to have compassion and understanding that people make the best decisions they can at the moment, and wanting to know what led to things being the way they are. They are skilled at leading with probing questions.

As you read through these skills, hopefully it is clear that many of them are somewhat antithetical to each other. It is often that the person radiating joy and positive outlook is different than the person that always has the calm demeanor. Similarly the person with broad technical interests is often different than the person with deep and specific technical knowledge. Once you start connecting that strength can look different, that helps you look for and find the strengths inherent in everyone.

It can be very important as a manager to be thinking about the holistic impact of your team members during performance review time. Focusing too specifically on technical knowledge when performing evaluations can mean that you miss out on understanding the additional ways your team members have had positive impact on your team and company. Ensuring you are highlighting and recognizing all of the talents of your team members helps in a multitude of ways. Not only does this recognition have the potential for positive impact on their career advancement, but it helps strengthen your relationships with your team members as well. Feeling seen and validated for their strengths is a fantastic way to build trust and strengthen your relationships with your team members.