Engineering Managers (EMs) are sometimes said to be “shit umbrellas”. They are supposed to keep all the distractions away from the team: the short-lived whims and fancies of various stakeholders, vague plans that are going to change several times before being solidified — all that stuff. Distractions are poisonous to good software, so hiding them should help the team deliver more and better software. A large part of this is true.
However, I would like to argue here that behaving like an umbrella is probably not a good thing. Umbrellas are shields that block rain. And what are these EMs blocking? Hopefully distractions, but also information and reality.
My first complaint is that hiding distractions may not even be an effective way to improve the output of an engineering team. How exactly do you classify what is a distraction, and what isn’t? And even if it is a distraction, how can you be sure that hiding it is a net positive? Typically more information leads to better decisions, so it makes sense that a team provided with less information is likely to make worse decisions. It’s not too hard to see how umbrella-ing can backfire.
My second complaint is an ethical one: it’s kinda shady. The field of psychology has a word for the act of withholding information in order to influence the behaviour of another person, and that word is “manipulation”. Even if it’s done with the purest of intentions, if it turns out to have a negative impact on a team member then the EM is morally culpable. And even if one EM manipulates with the benevolence of a saint, it creates a power dynamic that a different, less-scrupulous EM could step into and exploit.
I’d like to propose a better metaphor: sunnies (a.k.a. “sunglasses” outside of Australia). Sunnies don’t block light in the same way an umbrella blocks rain. Light still passes through, otherwise the wearer wouldn’t be able to see. Sunnies just soften the light, making the wearer comfortable when the light is overly harsh, and protecting them from harmful ultraviolet radiation.
That’s what EMs should be doing — not blocking reality from the team, but softening it. Instead of hiding harsh realities, make them more comfortable to be in. Strip out any unecessary harm, but still let the information through. Ditch the umbrella and grab some sunnies.