There’s a misconception in the tech industry that you should follow a traditional path to become an engineering manager.
The story goes that developers progress up the IC ladder to the point where they have to decide whether to move into engineering management or keep pursuing deeper technical skills in order to become a senior or staff engineer.
But for me, the path to management didn’t follow this traditional straight line. In fact, when I was a developer, I decided to leave the realm of engineering. A big reason for leaving was that I felt I just couldn’t compare to the skill level of my peers. But I left knowing that I wanted to explore the possibility of becoming an engineering manager one day.
As it turned out, it was by leaving engineering that I discovered how much I wanted to lead and help developers grow. My non-traditional path also helped me gain the experience I needed to be a great manager. Now I’m here to tell you how with the right mindset and cross-functional work, your path to engineering management can be untraditional too. Here I’ll share a bit more about my story, before walking you through my three steps to getting started on your own journey.
My untraditional path to engineering management
When I left my role as a front-end developer, I joined Mailchimp as a digital producer on the marketing team. The role was perfect because it utilized some development skills and also worked cross-functionally with many other teams through projects for the website.
Three and a half years later, I’d experienced many roles from project management, product management, design, and engineering. From designing comps to building some front-end solutions, I got to wear many hats. I worked with various teams such as engineering, marketing, design, legal, technical content, content strategy, and many more.
I realized how much I loved working with the engineering team for dotcom, which confirmed to me how much I wanted to be an engineering manager. So, I went out of my way to meet with engineering leaders across the company to better understand their roles and how I could start to implement certain pieces of their roles into my own.
Within a year or so I was promoted to digital production manager, which allowed me to gain even more experience working with cross-functional teams and with engineering. I had many conversations with my own manager, who was supportive of my aspirations, and other engineering managers that I’d been working with closely to understand what it was going to take and if this path made sense for me. After a couple of years, I successfully made the jump – I was finally an engineering manager!
If you’re considering an untraditional path to engineering management, here are my three steps for getting started:
Step 1: Is engineering management right for you?
The first step is figuring out whether you really want to get into engineering management. Spend some time researching the following questions:
- What does success look like for engineering managers?
- What are the day-to-day activities?
- What is it like to lead engineers?
But the ultimate question to consider is: are you passionate about helping developers grow and build amazing things with them?
This is not a question to take lightly. The growth of engineers is extremely important and takes a lot of care. Management, in general, is not for everyone. And we shouldn’t put that pressure on anyone to be in management that doesn’t want to be. But if your answer to that question is ‘yes’, congratulations! You’ve just made an exciting decision that could lead to a greater purpose for yourself as well as the team and individuals you will lead along the way.
Step 2: Overcoming imposter syndrome
When I made the decision that I definitely wanted to pursue engineering management, I immediately started experiencing imposter syndrome. You will certainly wonder if you are qualified for this. To combat these thoughts, I recommend running through two exercises:
- Talk with engineering leaders about their backgrounds and ask those in your cross-functional team for their honest feedback on the idea of you becoming a manager. I talked with people I worked with every day, people I trusted deeply but who also understand the space and work in tech.
- If you don’t have people like that in your life, start networking with people in your company to get the conversation started. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes a lot of time and experience. You should feel confident in your decision if this is a move you want to make.
From talking to other engineering leaders about their backgrounds, I realized that they’re all vastly different! Some came up through the traditional lens, while some have no coding experience whatsoever. I was completely shocked and humbled when I learned this! Every company has different needs for the engineering manager role but I learned that being a good manager who cares for their team is the top priority. You can learn the skills needed to understand development with time and practice. But the drive to grow developers is the foundation for success.
When I spoke with my coworkers about my idea of becoming a manager, I was instantly met with a wave of positive feedback and encouragement. Because I’d been demonstrating leadership, working with cross-functional leadership, and being mentored by engineering leaders, it was clear to my coworkers that the move made sense and the alignment was ideal. I will say that for me, the imposter syndrome never left but it definitely didn’t have the weight that it did when I started to ask myself these questions.
Step 3: Getting started on your journey
Okay, so you’ve made the decision you want to become an engineering manager, and you’ve taken steps to overcome your imposter syndrome. Now you can start building towards the next exciting stage of your career!
There are a few important things you can work on to build the skills and experience you need to become a manager:
If you can, work with a cross-functional team as a leader or participate in your cross-functional projects while paying close attention to how the leaders work. Ask them questions if something doesn’t make sense. Learn from their mistakes and their wins.
Work with engineering teams
Work with an engineering team to understand what they do. Learning technical concepts and code can be daunting but that knowledge has helped me bridge gaps between many teams time and time again. Do you necessarily need to code? No. But understanding the concepts, architecture, and themes is important if you’re going to talk about technical work daily with the larger team.
Get management experience
Being a manager isn’t always necessary before getting into engineering management but it certainly helps. It will allow you to learn more soft skills and gain valuable leadership experience. This may not be an option for you currently, but if you can, talk with your manager or others that you trust to learn what they do and if you feel called to it.
Find a coach or mentor
Having a coach or mentor that you trust is invaluable when trying to get to the next level of your career. I had multiple mentors over the course of three years who really pushed me and guided me. Without these people, I don’t know that I would’ve felt ready for the challenge.
Read books and articles
Read, read, read! The articles on LeadDev gave me more perspective in addition to my mentors because there are hundreds of people contributing and providing valuable information. I’ve also read a number of books on engineering management but also management in general.
Making the decision to get into engineering management is awesome when you know what it takes and you’re willing to take it on. You’ll be helping developers grow and fostering a positive environment for your team. Every day will bring different challenges and opportunities to push yourself. If you’re ready to start this journey, do it! Personally, I feel like I’ve found my purpose. I couldn’t be happier with my choice, and knowing how I’m helping others along the way.