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Give engineers the power to solve problems they know actually exist.

Give engineers the power to solve problems they know actually exist.

Kay Jones is the former CEO of Codeup and COO of Mac IT Solutions, and previously spent 11 years at Rackspace, where she led SMB, enterprise support, and engineering teams. Kay was responsible for the storage engineering business unit performance, product releases, and support practices, before taking a role in the engineering group to guide their learning & development strategies. Kay is now the Founder & CEO of Moxie Professional Development, where she’s offering leadership coaching, business and engagement strategy coaching, and career transition support.

Short on time? Here are 4 key takeaways from Kay on how leaders can better motivate their engineering teams:

  • Connect business goals to motivation for engineers. Leaders need to translate business goals into goals and motivation that are a bit closer to home for them. If they focus on the measured business metrics, engineers will not solve the underlying problems that keep the team from achieving the goals.
  • Learn by asking questions. Leaders should never be afraid of “why.” It’s something engineers ask to clarify purpose. The right questions uncover trends that can then be converted to team and individual goals.
  • Bring empathy to the team. Engineers often struggle with emotional intelligence. Leaders need to lead with strong empathy and other tools to build trust and understanding with the technical staff.
  • Know the difference between true and relevant. A capable team must focus on issues that are true and relevant. Engineers tend to want to work on all true problems. If they are not relevant to business needs, table those issues for later.
What follows is a long-form write up of the key topics we discussed in our interview.


For Kay, learning how to lead engineers started with a question.

During a meeting with the senior management at Rackspace, a discussion centered around the poor performance of one engineering group, a team of 75 engineers that had an engagement score of -44. After listening for a while, Kay asked the executives, “how can 75 people be wrong?” No one knew the answer, and she soon found herself with a new job helping the leadership of the struggling team figure out what the problems were and fixing them.

Kay started her career at Rackspace in customer service.Although she’s not an engineer, she was “… attracted to the engineering mindset and their problem-solving skills, and their analysis.” Asked to assist with turning the struggling group around, she jumped at  the opportunity to explore how to engage with engineers.

As she worked with that team to improve their engagement, she learned many lessons about how to communicate with engineers and what motivates them. That knowledge turned into a career change focused on providing leadership coaching, training, and development.

Connect business goals to motivation for engineers

Kay found was that the leaders’ focus on specific business metrics caused the engineers to focus on those metrics instead of looking for solutions. The team focused on achieving the outcomes that leadership was looking at, and not solving problems holding them back from it. So she tried measuring different things to see if that shifted the focus towards problem-solving. And it worked.

“I just started noticing that the engineers were so dedicated to outcomes, and dedicated to delivering … and making sure it was done in a way that it didn’t have to be done again.”

By changing from overall business goals to outcomes that engineers had control over, this dedication would be focused on making changes that mattered.

She also found that negative versus positive metrics made a difference. As an example, keeping track of downtime was not motivating the engineers because it was so negative. However, when the goal shifted to maximizing uptime, everyone worked harder, and things started to improve.

The same was true of dealing with customer satisfaction. The original metric was keeping track of customer complaints. When the metric shifted to tracking positive feedback, “it was great, they wanted to compete over compliments, the best solutions, and making the customer satisfied.” By changing to a positive goal, she found it was “unbelievable what these teams can do.”

Build comfort and trust, then ask questions

A surprising discovery that Kay made early in the process of turning the organization around was the importance of asking questions of the leaders and the engineering teams. She found that there was a strong desire to be helpful, and it was important for the engineers to know what was going on.

“I can’t stress enough to people that are wanting to go into that engineering space, how important it is to be Socratic.”

She has learned that asking why “ is not an adversarial statement. Why is not something engineers say to ruin your day. Why is something engineers say to clarify purpose… and so many [other] things that engineers think about.” She taught engineering leaders to ask questions to understand what motivates, distracts, and frustrates their team. They then used those responses to extrapolate trends, set both group and individual goals. The result was not only higher productivity, but a clear career path for the employees.

Bring empathy to the team

Engineers have a high intelligence quota (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) was lower. To deal with this, leadership must bring their empathy forward, teaching engineers to do the same. By opening up to emotional understanding, engineers will then understand the goals and realities of the business.

“You are not likely to be in a room full of empathic engineers. So, you as a leader need to bring more of that to your team.”

To assist herself and her clients in communicating well with engineers, Kay has developed an EQ Matrix. It helps leaders understand what to say and what questions to engage engineers “in a way that will make them feel more safe, more comfortable, more heard, [and] more listened to.” Clear communication leads to more efficient discussions and thus access to more actionable information.

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Know the difference between true and relevant

Any business person working with engineers needs to recognize the difference between true and relevant. “Things that are true, are not always relevant. Engineers have a hard time separating true and relevant.” Therefore, it is up to leaders to make that distinction and communicate when concerns are true but not relevant to the task at hand. Those non-relevant tasks need to be sidelined as to not be a distraction.

When a problem is sidelined, leaders must come back to it and address it at the appropriate time. “You have to come back. You have to fulfill your word to your engineers, or you are going to lose them forever.” By doing so you ease the anxiety of the engineers and make them comfortable with moving on to the tasks that are currently relevant.

“ Engineers want to think, they want to solve. So, if something is relevant, let them solve it.”

Some tips for leading engineering teams

Here are five simple actions leaders can take:

  •  Spend your break time with the engineers. Too many leaders spend their break time away from their teams. Engage with them 100%, learn, and listen.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of commiserating with your team. It is far too easy to agree with complaints. This only magnifies the problem and takes engineers away from what they like to do—solve problems.
  • Give engineers the power to make decisions, but draw clearly defined lines. Engineers like to be trusted with making decisions, but they need to know what decisions they can or can’t make. By giving them clearly defined lines they can again focus on problem-solving, and not worry about whether they are allowed to make a decision.
  • Involve engineers in discussions about the impact of their work. Engineers care deeply about the impact of what they are working on. The impact on their co-workers, the company, and the world. Listen to them and provide them with feedback.
  • Don’t cut engineers off, listen to what they have to say. If leaders cut off engineers, they lose trust and the engineers no longer feel comfortable sharing information that could be crucial in achieving goals that those same leaders have been assigned.

Engineers are problem solvers at heart and by trade — and that makes them a huge asset. Give them the right problem to solve, define the parameters, and listen to what they have to say, and you’ll get results.

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