The Piano Scales of Engineering Management

What is deliberate practice for engineering leaders?

Tyler Cowen, economist and prolific blogger/podcaster/internet thinker, frequently poses a question to his podcast guests:

“What do you do every day that’s the equivalent of a musician practicing their scales?”

The list of his podcast guests spans a wide variety of industries and domains, from business leaders to authors to tech workers to philosophers. The premise of his question is rooted in the idea that like athletes, knowledge workers should train. A quote from that blog post (via David Perell):

Athletes train. Musicians train. Performers train. But knowledge workers don’t.

Knowledge workers should train like LeBron, and implement strict “learning plans.” To be sure, intellectual life is different from basketball. Success is harder to measure and the metrics for improvement aren’t quite as clear. Even then, there’s a lot to learn from the way top athletes train. They are clear in their objectives and deliberate in their pursuit of improvement.

Knowledge workers should imitate them.

This begs the question: can you “train” to become a better engineering leader?

What is there to train?

As an Engineering Director I view my primary responsibilities to include:

  1. Sponsor career growth for my managers and their ICs
  2. Establish the incentives and behaviors of a just and equitable culture
  3. Help create and evangelize the narratives of our work
  4. Align and communicate the work of my teams Up, Down, and Across
    1. Up through the senior/executive levels of the organization
    2. Down through the teams in my organization
    3. Across through the PED (Product/Engineering/Design) triad and other sub-organizations within Engineering

None of these skills are imminently “trainable” like an athlete running on a treadmill. When I zoom out from that list of responsibilities, I see a few themes: coaching, building culture, and understanding the mechanics of how companies execute. My “training” goals are less for repetition or practice and more seeking inspiration: stories I can learn from and share, strategies that have proven successful in other contexts, and lessons I can internalize to make performance in my job more sustainable.

General James Mattis 1 has a famous quote that I like:

“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you. Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.”

A pretty hot take. I’m happy to work a job at lower stakes than General Mattis.

But the message he’s making here is that even his challenges on the battlefield, while infinitely contextual, are by no means “new.” Humans have been learning the lessons of leadership for thousands of years. It feels ludicrous to him to rely on “learning lessons the hard way” rather than investing time to learn from the similar experiences of others.

In this season of my life I have some constraints (see: two young kids) that eliminate time-intensive alternatives like academic coursework or outside-of-work professional development programs. But in the scope of my bandwidth I’ve found a few sustainable means of investing in my own growth.

A recent list:

  • I loved Good Strategy / Bad Strategy so much that I’m reading through it again with my reporting managers. It’s a surprisingly approachable and easy read given its subject matter, and I find Richard Rumelt’s transparent critiques of bad strategies hilarious. I’d like to write a blog post about my takeaways from this book, but if I had to summarize it in a single sentence: “true strategy is not a statement of your ambitions, but an outflow of how you’re actually going to get there given the reality of what’s holding you back.”
  • Because they allow me to multitask during chores (note: my non-work life is chores), I like to fill the empty headspace of rote work with podcasts. One of my podcast life hacks is to search Spotify for interviews from authors / leaders that I admire. The best thing about author interviews is that they inevitably summarize and expand on the critical takeaways from their books. Some interviews I recently enjoyed:
  • I subscribe to a select set of email newsletters that I actually read:
  • Earlier this year I was fortunate to participate in an Director Studio, which was a small (in my case, five person) manager den of Director-level leaders across tech companies. We met once a week for five weeks to discuss challenges, strategies, wins and losses. My group was lovely, and we’ve even met after our program’s conclusion to check back in on each other.

I’m surprised how often I speak to managers that don’t look for external sources to improve their performance on the job. I suppose the alternative is to rely on personal experience or coaching from their manager. But in the spirit of one of my favorite pieces of management writing, it feels like a loss to constrict your growth to circumstance. What if your role is limited? What if your managing relationship is poor? Neither are good reasons to limit your personal development.


  1. General James Mattis, who is well-known to be a voracious reader, has an unfortunate association with the Trump administration because of his brief and doomed appointment as Trump’s Secretary of Defense from 2017-2019. I say unfortunate because the more I’ve learned about James Mattis’ life, the further he is from the behaviors commonly associated with Trump. It’s hard to shake the vibe that he probably answered a call for his country despite a significant set of reservations. 

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