What do you talk about during your one-on-one meetings with your engineering (or other) manager?

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As much as I love chatting with my manager, sometimes I worry that I walk into our weekly one-on-ones woefully underprepared. My question in the discussion title says it all, but here are some related questions that I have about one-on-ones:

What subjects are typically discussed during one-on-ones?

What are your goals going into a one-on-one meeting?

What can I – a new full-time software engineer – do to get the most out of my one-on-ones?

I'd love to hear about any and all of your experiences. Thank you!

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I think this really depends on the manager. My 1:1s tend to be more personal, where I want to know about your general well-being, both at work and at home. This is also the time where I'm trying to figure out what each individual needs: how we can be more supportive, facilitate effective communication, and eliminate bottlenecks. These are pretty typical questions I'll ask:

  • How are you feeling?
  • If they're not jumping into discussion immediately, more specifically, how are you feeling about a specific project/task?
  • What can I do to be helpful to you?
  • If nothing comes to mind, more specifically, are you blocked on anything?
  • How do you feel about the xyz change we implemented?

We all work out of one room so there isn't much 'water cooler' time. I view 1:1s as an opportunity to catch up and don't really expect anyone to be 'prepared' with anything.

 

At my company, we start off with a template for 1:1s (but people can customize it as they see fit). This is the structure that I've been using with my manager:

1. Wins
    - what have I accomplished since the last time I met with my manager? This is a good way for us to go over what I've done and it lets me take a step back and see all of the things I've worked on. 
2. Flex Agenda
    - anything that I have concerns about (changes in the company/team, conferences I want to attend, education resources, pairing)
3. Career Development
    - Everyone has 3 goals for each quarter. Here, I talk about my progress for each goal and if I have any blockers as well as bring up any questions I may have to make sure I'm moving in the right direction.

I've heard some people go to these 1:1s without anything prepared, but I think it's best to treat it like a real meeting and have all of your bullet points prepared so that you can make the most of your time with your manager.

 

I think frameworks like this make sense. That way there's less mental overhead with coming up with things to say. Whatever you need to say has a good chance at coming out through this.

 

This an excellent framework!I am going to propose this approach to my new manager.
Thanks for sharing

 

A one-on-one is a time for you to talk to your manager about whatever is on your mind. Wins, concerns, career development, your cat, your hobbies, something that is bothering you at work, ideas (even crazy ones), anything! If it is important to you at that moment, and you have a good manager, then it is a good topic. At least, that’s how I see it. Different managers might have different philosophies, so it is good to check with them.

If one day you have nothing to talk about, and your manager doesn’t either, you can ask to cancel for that day, especially if you already had a chance to talk not too long ago.

 

It's really up to you and your manager, but I think it's nice to have a running list of topics that I update during the week, and then I make sure to bring them all up at my weekly 1-1s. With my current manager, it's mostly "how is work going?" and "is there anything I want to be more involved in?". My job (SDET) is pretty self-directed so my goals are to share what I'm thinking about, what's challenging me this week, and any feedback I have for him specifically or for our whole team.

With other managers, it can be anything from a conversation over slack to a "lets go for a walk around san francisco and talk about our lives", but it's generally still focused on those two questions - how are things going and what do I want to do next.

 

I've come from both sides of the coin. My last job I was a senior developer turned Group Leader. At one point I had monthly 1:1 with 12 direct reports. I tailored my conversations to the individuals. Although I was much like Jess Lee, some people didn't want to speak of things outside of the workplace.

Normal work-related questions:

  • How is your project going?
  • Do you need me to help with any roadblocks?
  • Are you happy with the work you're currently doing? If not, what would you like to try?
  • Depending on where they are in their career we'll skim over their high-end career goals or deep dive into the final few things needed to move forward from associate to consultant, to senior, etc.
  • Outside of those, it's mainly more open-ended life questions. How's the work-life balance? Is there anything I can help to give you more personal time? How's the wife/husband and kids, etc.

Current 1:1 - I'm a developer again (Here are things I'm asked and also say)

  • Is there anything you want to talk about work-related?
  • How is your project going?
  • Do you have anything to report on your extra-curricular (non-developer) work?
  • Have you watched any good movies/music (my boss and I are both music/movie buffs)?
  • We talk about the kids/wives, etc.

So I think it depends on what you want from your 1:1s. Do you want your 1:1s to be more formal, informal, etc.? What is your career goal with the 1:1s and plan accordingly. Personally, I like to have a personal report and enjoy a boss who isn't a micro-manager, but that's me.

 

I conduct regular 1-1s with my teams and here are some ideas specifically for a new full-time software engineer:
1) What are your general expectations of me?
It's surprising how many people come to work not knowing what they are being evaluated on at the end of the year. Closing your stories before the end of the sprint is often only a small part of what you're expected to do.

  1. What are your specific expectations of me? Everyone has development areas and as a new software engineer they are likely to be numerous and diverse (not judging, we've all been there). Find out what you specifically can do better. More documentation? Clearer non-technical communication with the help desk?
  2. Did you know I did X? As well as knowing what's expected of you, you want to make sure your manager is aware when you meet and exceed those expectations. Sadly your manager won't see everything you do, so ensure that you celebrate your successes and analyse your failures.
  3. What are some soft skills that I can improve? Software Engineering is far more than just coding. Clear communication is key, whether this is verbal or written. Presentation skills will always come in handy as does time management. Find out what you should work on to become a better engineer.
  4. What career opportunities are there for me? It's never too early to start talking about career development, even if what you're envisaging will take five years to achieve. More importantly, your plans will change and you should be open to that. I've had several people declare their intent to always "remain entirely technical" and then become excellent technical project managers. Your manager can open opportunities to try different facets of your job.
  5. What training is available to me? A good engineering department will have a number of training and shadowing opportunities. From technical to soft skills to subject matter training. Do what you can without affecting your core job responsibilities
  6. How can I get more involved? There's more to your job than just coding. Managers are always looking for good interviewers for example. Mentoring interns or other new hires, representing the department at careers fairs, taking part in volunteering, contributing publicly to open source projects are all excellent way of raising your profile and that of your department.
  7. Here are some things blocking me Your manager is not a mind reader, if there's something that's holding you back, let them know. Nine times out of ten, I can do something about it and if I can't, we can at least talk it through and find alternatives. From missing documentation to working remotely for a week to a PITA tool you want to rewrite.
  8. I have some ideas on how to improve X Occasionally I have someone who just spends their 1-1 complaining and I get it, sometimes it's necessary to vent and that's OK. Coming to me with a proposed solution, however, will actually do something about it and means I don't have twenty engineers all waiting for me to fix something for them.
  9. I want to know more about our vision Engineers build better products when they know how they'll be used and why they are needed. Take this a step further and make sure you understand where your product roadmap is headed and why. This stuff isn't (usually) secret and will give you an opportunity to plan your work ahead, knowing what's coming down the line. That throw-away prototype you just built? It's about to become a corner-stone application. The infinitely-extensible template class you just created? Being replaced next year.

Hope this helps!

 

I'm a manager, and I use an adapted version of this framework with my reports. My one-on-ones with my manager tend to be a bit looser and free-form though, and sometimes I come to them fairly unprepared!

 

First and foremost, you should feel at liberty to ask your manager if there's anything more you can do to be prepared.


Something you might have found already is that there tend to be better resources out there for being a manager than for being managed. As it turns out, reading resources for becoming a better manager will help you become a better direct report. :)

You'll have no trouble finding posts about how to conduct good 1-on-1 meetings from a manager's perspective. A popular one is The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster. 18F also has a nice writeup in their handbook. And The Manager's Path is a very accessible primer on engineering management. Even though these are resources meant for managers to read, I bet you'll find them very helpful.


One final note, to actually give you a specific answer:

In addition to their other roles, consider also treating your manager as a general career counselor. They might be ideally suited to this role, since they know your skills and qualities so intimately. If you want to broaden your skill set to include front-end development, they can discuss options with you. If your long term goal is to be a manager yourself, they can talk through that path with you and help you compare it to a path where you stay primarily in development.

 

I can give you my practical experience - I have been reporting to my manager for almost 3 years now, and I have had 1 person report to me for about a year.

At the beginning of my employment - I would ask my manager for feedback about my work - specific issues - say something took too long or if I found something odd - I'd discuss that.

Over time, we have come to know each other better - I generally don't have as many performance related questions - although every 2 or 3 months, I do check in with the general direction of both the project and my work - so that I don't become complacent.

We do discuss family and other things that are going on in our lives - but that is generally kept at a high level.

The person reporting to me is also similar - only roles reversed.

Feel free to ask if you have specific questions.

 

We have some set topics that we talk about every time just to get a sense for how things are going over time—for example, some things we have on our regular schedule are what I feel like I'm wasting time on, if there's any sticking points in the dev process or if things are going well, what my favorite projects have been, and so on.

I've also brought up questions about how I can work on professional advancement within the company, ideas I've had to improve the dev process, and thoughts about the kinds of technologies/types of projects I'd like the chance to work on if they come up.

It might be useful to keep a notes file of things you'd like to talk about in a 1:1 so that none of those thoughts get lost when it actually comes time to have the meeting? It might also be worth just asking your manager what kinds of things they're interested in hearing about in advance, since every manager can be different on that. At our office we use this plugin for slack called "Good Talk" or something similar to collaboratively generate our list of topics, which I think has worked pretty well and allows me to get a sense of the agenda in advance.

 

I have worked in software for about 10 years, and never had a 1-to-1 with my manager. I am often unaware of who my manager is suppose to be.

 

I meet 1:1 twice a month with my manager. I go over all projects that I've worked on and new technologies or projects I've been reading about. Sometimes talk about Open Source work as well.

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Alaina Kafkes profile image
Wordsmith & online-world-smith. Engineer. Alumna @NorthwesternU. I like long runs, literature, languages, and lemons.