The tech industry is on fire right now. People are moving jobs, companies are hiring at a furious pace, and this roiling change is hitting all of us.
In the middle of this, many senior engineers are being asked to step into the role of manager for the first time.
Given the challenges in hiring, and especially the challenge in hiring experienced managers, it’s not a surprise that we’re seeing so many companies turn to reluctant but willing senior engineers to fill their manager gaps.
I was once that reluctant but willing senior engineer-turned-manager. My first management job was as a tech lead/manager for a small engineering team that supported the core infrastructure of a larger product area. At the time, my intention was to remain an individual contributor, but it was useful for my career at that particular company to do a short stint as a manager. To put it in perspective, I managed for about a year or so, and then went back to being an individual contributor for another couple of years before switching companies and making a career shift into management.
If you find yourself in this ‘reluctant new manager’ situation, here is some advice for getting through the next year:
1:1s are awkward starting out.
Maybe there are people with high emotional intelligence who can jump right into management and have no problems holding 1:1s, but for me, they were awkward for the entire year of my temporary management stint. There are now a lot of resources out there on how to hold a 1:1, but it’s worth reiterating that they will be awkward starting out, especially for those of you put into the position of managing your former teammates. The most important thing is to push through the awkwardness and regularly show up to these meetings.
Figure out the most important things that your team members need from a manager, and don’t neglect them.
One area that I paid close attention to was helping a colleague get a promotion. I was lucky that my manager was an amazing mentor and coach, and guided me through these processes so that we were successful in the promotion. You won’t start out as the wise leader of your team, but you owe it to them to pay attention to the things that are critical to their careers. And don’t be shy about asking for feedback from your team! Be open with them that you are learning how to do this job, and give them the chance to tell you what they need.
Use this opportunity to learn skills that will help you whatever you do.
I think that most people can benefit from a stint managing if they’re willing to do the work and their manager is willing to give them enough support. A lot of basic management skills are valuable supporting skills for senior individual contributors, such as knowing how to run a meeting, how to manage a project, how to present plans to senior managers, and how to get someone promoted. There are other ways to learn these skills but if you find yourself in the reluctant manager position, focus on the opportunity to spend time developing these skills without having to balance that with a full load of individual engineering responsibilities.
Balance your workload.
Speaking of balance, unless you’ve inherited a huge team, you should expect to continue with some hands-on technical responsibilities. Figuring out how much to take on while managing the team is tricky. If you take on too much, you’ll either fail at your management responsibilities, slow the team down because you aren’t able to meet your engineering commitments, or burn yourself out working two jobs. If you take on nothing at all, you may find yourself bored, overdoing the process, generating pointless meetings, or just letting your team struggle with a workload that needs your contributions.
Some of these activities, like project and product management, are important to take on as needed and should be the first place you go to find hands-on work. Try to scope the engineering work that you take on to an area that’s slightly off the critical path, and scratch your itch for coding by helping with things like bugs, performance testing, or automation, so that if you take on too much, you don’t end up becoming a bottleneck.
Feedback loops in management are much slower than you’re used to. You can’t just make a change and see the impact immediately the way you can when you’re writing code. The management change cycle is on the order of weeks to months, and if you try to make too many changes at once it’s very hard to figure out which ones were good and which ones were bad. So go slowly with the process and team structure changes, and burn off that extra energy with some of the hands-on work I suggested above.
You don’t have to manage forever, so set boundaries for yourself.
Ideally, you’re going to have open conversations with your manager about how things are going and whether this is the right path for you. If you want this to be temporary, talk to your manager about what the plan for hiring or transferring a new manager looks like. Set explicit timeframes up front, for example:
I will manage for six months, and if I don’t enjoy it at that point we’ll start the search for a new manager. Whatever happens, I’ll go back to an individual contributor role within three months of deciding I want to move.
You owe it to yourself and your manager to set these boundaries. As I said above, the tech industry is very hot right now and unlikely to cool down much any time soon, so you’re in a good position to negotiate and set these expectations up front.
Finally, a word of caution.
If you’re early in your career and really not interested in managing yet, please don’t let yourself get pressured into it. One of the worst habits of strapped engineering teams is that they lean on early-career engineers who happen to have good leadership skills when they need to fill management gaps. Moving permanently into management before you’ve gained fluency as an engineer is dangerous, because it often causes you to miss out on important technical skills that you’ll need later in your management career. Plus, when you’re most excited about building systems and writing code, an early management move can burn you out faster than someone who is equally interested in the human and organizational side of work.
So, to our new reluctant managers, thank you for your service and don’t despair. Use this time to learn some useful new skills, try your best to do right by your team, and hold your own manager accountable for providing you the support you need and getting you out of the job if you decide it’s not for you. Good luck!