The complete guide to 1:1s for software engineers

The complete guide to 1:1s for software engineers

Posted byAlex Hepworth on

engineeringmanaging a team

We all know we should be having them, but do you actually know how to have a good 1:1?

In this guide, we’ll explain how engineering managers can get the most out of 1:1s with their team, and share the approach we follow here at Progression.

And if you’re a software engineer looking to improve the 1:1 conversations you have with your boss, we’ve got some suggestions to help you do just that.

Why do 1:1s matter?

The engineer’s time is sacred, and carving out half an hour to ‘just’ talk might feel unnecessary, impossible or even a little indulgent. But one-to-ones are an essential part of the manager/team member relationship.

1:1s are great for:

  • Developing relationships and trust
  • Keeping everyone up to speed
  • Identifying where extra support is needed
  • Having an open and honest conversation
  • Looking beyond the sprint
  • Supporting your software engineer to grow
  • Getting to know each other on a more human level.

For engineers

1:1s are your time, and you should feel confident steering the conversation in the direction you need it to go.

Here’s how software engineers can get more out of their 1:1

1. Draft an agenda

Time is precious, and you’ll likely only have half an hour set aside for your 1:1 — make every minute count by thinking about what you’d like to cover ahead of the meeting.

2. Ask questions

It works both ways. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Equally, don’t try to save up all your questions for your 1:1, especially the work ones. This is your time to talk more broadly about your passions, pain points and plans for the future. If you find that the only opportunity to ask questions and get clarity on your work is during your 1:1, ask for that to change.

3. Don’t just focus on the doing

On a similar note, try not to let your 1:1 be derailed by the nitty gritty. Yes, there’ll be things you need to cover, but try to zoom out a little to the projects and themes.

4. Note down actions

Make a conscious effort to note down any actions that come about from your conversation — these might be for you or your manager. Your manager should be making a note of actions too, and it’s a good idea to cross-reference these to ensure you’re both on the same page and that expectations are clear.

5. Be honest

News flash! Your manager is human too. And they want the best for you. If you’re feeling low, if something outside of work is affecting your ability to do your job, for whatever reason, speak up. They can’t start to help you if you don’t let them know that something’s wrong.

6. Breathe

Sometimes, conversations with your manager can feel scary. Maybe you just don’t like one-to-one conversations — many people don’t. If you start to feel that rising sense of panic, breathe. It’s easier said than done, I know, but taking a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth can really help. Relax your jaw, lower your shoulders, and if you need it, ask for a break.

Read more: How to have a tricky conversation with your manager >

5 Questions to ask your manager in your software engineer 1:1

1. Do you have any feedback for me?

Give your manager a nudge and show that you welcome constructive feedback by asking for it.

2. What are my skills gaps? Where do I need to improve?

While positive feedback is super important, there’s a place for feedback that focuses on areas for improvement, too. Sometimes, managers can find it hard giving constructive feedback — it can be emotionally draining — but by actively inviting it, you can show them that they don’t need to stress about giving it.

3. How are you getting on? What’s on your mind?

Your manager might be a bit taken aback the first time you ask, but checking in with them shows that you’re interested in and have an awareness of things outside your immediate remit.

4. Can I take anything off your plate?

A follow-up to question two. Show your manager you’re open to taking on more responsibility.

5. What skills should I be focusing on right now to help me progress within our organisation?

Not only does this give you some clarity on areas of focus, but it also demonstrates to your boss that you’re thinking about how you can grow within the company. Progression comes in super handy here — once you’re clear on what you should be focusing on, add Focus Skills and Actions to stay on track.

For Managers

So, we know that 1:1s are important, but how can you get the most out of the conversation? Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that one size fits all, but there are things you can do to improve your 1:1 meetings.

Establish a cadence

Consistency is key. So get into a rhythm with a recurring invite. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the length of the meeting — perhaps a longer conversation is more beneficial, less often. Or maybe your direct report appreciates a shorter check-in every week.

Avoid cancelling or skipping 1:1s — this sends the wrong message. And try to factor in some buffer time at the end of the meeting. It often takes time for people to warm up, and the last thing you want to do is shoo them out the door or hang up the call when they’re just starting to open up to you.

Try changing up your location as well — take your conversation outside. Sometimes it’s much easier to talk when you’re not looking one another straight in the eye. Spending time in nature also reduces stress, so it’s a win win.

Plan ahead

Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. 1:1s tend to be short, and every minute counts. So just as you would for a team update, workshop or big meeting, spend some time before the 1:1 to get yourself ready — make sure you’re up to date and have all your questions prepared. Review your notes from previous 1:1s and put together a draft agenda. This shouldn’t be too prescriptive though, remember this is the engineer’s time, and they should steer the direction.

Build trust

Your 1:1s should always be held in private. If you’re in the office, try to find a meeting room, rather than a ‘quiet corner’. And it goes without saying that what you discuss should be kept confidential.

Identify where you can help

Your role here is to identify and clear obstacles, rather than focusing on the specifics. It’s fine to talk about work and some more technical bits, but avoid opening up code or trying to debug something.

Make notes

Always capture what’s been said and agreed — it’ll help avoid misunderstandings, and come in handy when you’re looking back. Keep your notes consistent with our free Notion 1:1 meeting template.

Read more: 1:1s: Our tried and tested meeting template >


Always end your 1:1 meeting with a recap of what’s been discussed and what you’ll both do next. Check if there’s anything your report had wanted to cover that wasn’t, and add this to your agenda for next time.

Keep your promises

Actions really do speak louder than words. When your team member asks for something, or offers you feedback, make sure you act on it and follow up. They’re far more likely to open up to you more in the future.

Progression’s six step approach to 1:1s with software engineers

Our Co-Founder and CTO Neil manages our team of engineers here at Progression. Here’s the themes and associated questions he likes to ask, in priority order. Think of these as conversation starters — ultimately it’s for the engineer to steer the direction of conversation.

1. Wellbeing

  • Are you feeling OK?
  • Is anything happening at home that’s affecting your work life?
  • Are there any big interpersonal issues I need to be aware of?
  • Are there any individual welfare issues you need to share? This might include overwhelm or imposter syndrome

2. Quick work update

  • How’s your week?
  • What are you working on?
  • What have you learnt?
  • Are you enjoying it?

3. Feedback

Both positive and constructive.

4. Growth

Refer to your team member’s Focus Skills and Actions in Progression here to see how they’re progressing, what they’ve worked on in the last week and what they need to focus on moving forward.

5. Organisation updates

Cover off company news and anything interesting you’ve read.

6. Over to you

Invite your team member to share any thoughts, ideas, feedback or concerns they have before wrapping up. Then note down any actions for next time.

More questions to ask in your software engineering 1:1

One thing that you definitely don’t want to do is make your 1:1s repetitive. So while you might follow our suggestions, you’ll want to mix up the way you approach your meetings too. And we’ve got an article already that’ll help you do just that.

Here’s 26 Questions to ask your team in their next 1:1.

How to improve your 1:1 conversations with Progression

Progression is free for small teams

Empower your team to track and grow their skills, and give them crystal clear clarity on where they are and how they can get where they want to be with Progression.

First, create a rich, interactive progression framework in minutes, utilising our extensive library of skills and templates. Use this as the foundation for conversations around your team’s development.

Identified an area for improvement in your 1:1? Your team can prioritise their development with Focus Skills, and then capture the work they’re doing towards them to demonstrate their growth.

Next, celebrate everyone’s hard work (and your own) by adding Wins quickly and easily with our Slack app.

When it’s time for your next 1:1 or quarterly Check-in, your team will have everything they need to evidence their hard work, and you’ll be confident about their next step, whether that’s more training, a promotion or a pay rise.

Ultimately, 1:1s take work. It takes time to build up a rapport and the trust needed to get the most out of the conversation. But when you get it right, the benefits are huge.

Picture of Alex Hepworth

Posted by Alex Hepworth

Content Writer at Progression

Alex on LinkedIn

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