This fulfilling role takes you a step beyond a lead engineer. Here's how to best showcase your skills to land it.
The tension – and excitement – of a job as an engineering manager is right there in the name: you straddle the worlds of both software engineering and management.
This position requires you to lead a team of engineers to accomplish their goals; you'll need the technical skills to understand how to solve engineering problems, the interpersonal savvy to motivate the team, and coordination abilities to get the rest of the organization to achieve business goals.
The role can be the first step for someone in an individual contributor role who wants to move up the ladder into management. To start that journey, you will need to hold on to your engineering talents and work on a slew of new skills to complement them.
What does an engineering manager do?
An engineering manager is someone who ensures that the engineering projects they’ve been assigned are completed and general engineering duties are fulfilled. An engineering manager is themselves an engineer and will sometimes need to get their hands dirty, but in general they fulfill their role by directing the work of the engineers who report to them.
They support their team by delegating tasks to those best suited to complete them, and by coordinating with other teams within the company and more senior managers to clear away obstacles and get the resources their team needs to succeed.
Key roles and responsibilities
That’s a high-level view. But what does it mean in practice? How do engineering managers spend their time?
First thing’s first: jobs with the same title can vary widely from company to company, or even across groups within the same company. Not every management job is created equal.
That said, most involve the tasks outlined in the job description above. An engineering manager is in charge of a relatively small team (on the order of five to ten direct reports) and must direct that team in solving the problems and achieving the goals they’ve been tasked with. In some smaller teams or organizations, that can mean that they may do some coding or other hands-on work themselves. But more often than not, an engineering manager uses their technical knowledge to decide how a problem should be solved, and then directs the team to solve it in the most effective way.
To solve the problems their teams face, engineering managers need to know how to delegate. That involves a whole suite of people skills: the ability to motivate engineers, and, just as important, to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are to determine where they fit on a team. Engineering managers need to know how to be a technical resource for their direct reports as well. A good engineering manager should have a deep engineering background, with knowledge that can help the team, but needs to know how to pass on that knowledge effectively through mentoring and training, rather than taking on a lot of direct engineering work themselves.
The people skills necessary in this role aren't just for managing direct reports. They also need to be deployed upwards to higher-level management, who must be kept in the loop on progress and team needs. That means communications skills are a must, as technical information has to be imparted in an accurate way to those who aren’t necessarily technically savvy. And those people skills must go outwards as well, to other teams both technical and non-technical within the company, as projects are inevitably coordinated with other initiatives.
Finally, an engineering manager is in charge of ongoing activities beyond specific projects to support and grow their team. They may be involved in the hiring process, or at least in the process by which engineers within the organization are brought on board to the team. That means that those in this position need to be able to assess new talent and help new hires feel at home. They should be a coach and mentor for the direct reports. They may also be involved in ensuring their team has access to training and other professional development, and be responsible for their group’s budget.
Engineering manager vs. lead engineer: What's the difference?
A good way to clarify the nature of the engineering manager’s job is to compare it to another role that is sometimes conflated with it: that of the lead engineer, sometimes called a tech lead. The distinction is twofold. First, an engineering manager is someone with a distinct job title. A tech lead, on the other hand, is a senior engineer who has taken on a set of responsibilities within a team in recognition of their specific skills or talents.
For instance, a programming team might have a security tech lead who takes charge of all security-related coding problems and advises other engineers on security issues. But they might not manage those other engineers directly, and in most of their work responsibilities remain one engineer among many. Think of a tech lead as an engineer who’s taking on extra duties, whereas an engineering manager is an engineer who has been promoted to a whole new job.
The second distinction follows from the first. A lead engineer’s focus is on technology: they’ve taken on duties related to a specific technical area of mastery. An engineering manager, on the other hand, is focused on people, and how people can work together to achieve technical goals.
How to make the step up to engineering manager
While tech leads and engineering managers are distinct, an engineer who’s interested in becoming an engineering manager may find a role as a tech lead to be a useful stepping stone. A tech lead isn’t a direct supervisory position, but filling that role does offer an opportunity to both demonstrate technical knowledge and act as a leader within a team. However, being a tech lead isn’t a necessary prerequisite to becoming an engineering manager, and not all tech leads have ambitions for promotion along that track.
If you’re interested in making the jump from engineer to engineering manager, there are a number of qualifications and skills you must master – and you’ll need to be able to properly convey that mastery both on a résumé (even if you’re seeking a promotion within your own organization) and in a job interview.
Engineering manager qualifications
Most of the skills you’ll need to succeed in this position have probably come into focus from the job description you’ve read so far. But if you’re assessing your own qualifications, you can group them into four distinct areas.
- Technical qualifications: Remember, you can’t take the “engineer” out of an engineering manager; this isn’t a job that someone with a business background can expect to come into with no subject area knowledge and succeed. Most engineering manager jobs require at least five years of professional experience in the target engineering discipline, and often a related bachelor’s degree as well. (A master’s degree may help you stand out from other candidates but is generally not necessary.) You’ll need not only technical depth but also a strategic understanding of where the technologies your team works with fit into the larger industry.
- Project management skills: An engineering manager may spend more time with a GANTT chart than they do with circuit diagrams. You’ll need to understand how to shepherd a complex project to completion, taking care of everything along the way from setting realistic deadlines to tracking budgets.
- Communications skills: An engineering manager outlines goals to their teams, explains progress to their bosses, and convinces peers and customers of the importance of their projects. You need a talent for conveying technical information to laypeople, with the right amount of detail for your intended audience, as well as translating management-speak for engineers.
- Leadership: This is probably the squishiest of the four categories, but it’s still a crucial one. Can you boost morale, resolve conflicts, and figure out where and how team members will thrive?
Engineering manager résumé requirements
Of course, it’s not enough to just be qualified: you have to let people know that you’re qualified, and your résumé is your best starting point. Here’s our advice for putting together a CV that truly showcases your engineering management potential:
- Showcase technical and non-technical skills: Remember, this job is a mix of the technical and the people-oriented. Even for past jobs that might have been primarily about engineering, try to come up with at least one bullet point showcasing what you learned about communication or project management in that role.
- Tout your teamwork: Much of an engineering manager’s role involves interfacing with other groups within the company. If you’ve had experience working outside your silo, especially with non-engineers, be sure to include that in your job history.
- Deliver the numbers: Did your work in a previous role result in a specific and quantifiable boost in user engagement or corporate revenue? Be sure to include those numbers. An engineering manager is judged by that kind of data, so it’s best to show that you can already think in those terms.
- We, not me: Remember, you’re applying for a team-oriented role. The experience you want to showcase shouldn’t just be cases where you learned something or achieved great things; you’ll also want to show that you understand what made the teams you worked on successful, and how your contributions to that success helped your company and your teammates. Think less “I did this” and more “I had this impact on others.”
Engineering manager interview questions
Once you’ve landed an interview, you have to show that you can fulfill the promise of your skills. Expect as a baseline to be quizzed on the technical nature of the job, and come ready to show that you’re up to date on the latest technologies you expect to use in the target position.
The questions you can expect about the non-technical skills side are going to be trickier. Here are some potential examples that fit into the categories we discussed above. Remember, the goal is to give you a chance to talk about your own background and potential leadership style, rather than giving a definitive “correct” answer.
- How do you break down a complicated project into definable tasks?
- How do you prioritize projects? This question might be explored with a series of example tasks that will allow you to explain your prioritization process.
- How do you ensure a project is on schedule?
- Have you worked with product managers, C-suite execs, or other non-technical staff? How did you convey your goals and priorities to them?
- How would you explain to the executive team that your project is running behind schedule?
- How would you divide tasks among team members? This question might be explored with example team members with particular skills.
- How and why would you promote an engineer – or fire one?
- Have you ever coached or mentored anyone?
- What would you do if an engineer disagreed with your choice of technology?
- Can you tell us about a workplace conflict you successfully resolved?
Finally, a popular interview technique is to try to pull all of these skills, plus your technical knowledge, together with a broad-based scenario, such as, “Tell us how your team would design TikTok.” Obviously, you wouldn't be expected to actually design a TikTok clone right there in the conference room, but the goal is to see how you’d tackle a big problem and break it down into manageable chunks.
Engineering managers are generally well compensated, though, as always, you can expect a wide range of salaries depending on experience, industry, and geographic location. Pulling from some publicly available sources, here’s what you can expect in terms of pay in 2022:
- According to Glassdoor, in the United States, the average compensation for an engineering manager is around $213,000, with around $142,000 of that being base salary and the rest additional pay in the form of bonuses, stock grants, and so on. That average is part of a typical range that can go from $167,000 on the lower end to $277,000 on the high end.
- In the United Kingdom, compensation is lower, according to Salary.com: the median pay is around £70,000, in a band that ranges from £50,000 to £90,000.
- That's not too far off from what you'd make in Germany: Glassdoor pegs the average there at €106,000, with an expected band ranging from €96,000 to €120,000.
- If you’re looking for engineering manager work down under, the average pay in Australia in this role is A$185,000, according to Glassdoor. That can dip as low as A$164,000 and go up to A$212,000.
- If you’re interested in an engineering management job in India’s burgeoning tech industry, Glassdoor says you can expect an average pay of around ₹4,000,000, but that’s part of a wide typical range that can run from ₹2,000,000 to ₹5,000,000.
An engineering management job can be rewarding both monetarily and in job satisfaction. Good luck in making this move in your career.