Transitioning from an individual contributor to an engineering manager can be daunting.
In fact, many people agree that moving into a managerial role is one of the biggest challenges you can face in your career.
While the transition offers a chance to start fresh and make needed changes in an organization, it also places technical leaders in a vulnerable position, taking on a new role without much experience or knowledge.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the blueprint for ensuring a successful breakthrough into management, listing out helpful resources for making the big leap, identifying the common pitfalls, and busting some myths.
The blueprint for success in engineering management
Navigating people, processes, and technology challenges as a new manager might feel overwhelming. Here are my tips for getting it right.
As you begin your transition:
- Do your homework: There are many great books explaining the how and why of engineering management such as The Manager’s Path, High Output Management,andBiting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager. Also, check out online resources like LeadDev to gain knowledge around management best practices.
- Find a mentor: You can do this either in your organization or outside of it. Reach out to someone you respect and want to learn from. For more on becoming a mentee, check out this post.
- Attend school and complete management courses: In my experience, executive programs in business management can help you get a bigger picture of the organizational turf and up your management game significantly.
Once you’ve started the role:
- Hone your communication skills: Ponder and deliberate before you make a move. Asking good questions is the simplest but most effective way to learn.
- Don’t rush: Mistakes are costlier as you go up the ladder and the effects will boomerang, so it's always better to invest more time in planning and double-checking the details.
- Delegate deliberately: Identify the key resources on your team for any feature development. This will help you not only in sprints but also in times of production support.
- Hire smart: A team is only as good as the weakest link, so feel free to go a little slow and thorough on the hiring front.
Numbers speak louder than words: Define your KPI for success and be an evangelist about it.
Common struggles for the first-time managers
Bruises and falls are common when learning to ride a bicycle, and the road to management can seem equally rocky at the start. New managers often struggle with these three areas in particular:
- Resisting the urge to dive deep into code: It's perfectly fine to dabble with code, but you need to organize your time blocks and priorities. An engineering manager who can set up an HA database is as useful as a fireman who can play chess. It’s all well and good, but it doesn’t add value to the management of the team. Additionally, you don’t want to be the person whose code check-in is blocking the team's progress.
- 1:1s and feedback: Communication is the backbone of management. Most new managers are comfortable giving technical feedback since that’s what they’ve been doing for years. But many are uncomfortable giving other kinds of feedback. They don’t challenge their team members on other non-technical growth areas like collaboration, communication style, or ownership. This usually results in the impression that being a manager is the way to have technical authority over a group, which makes individual contributors wonder what the technical career track is even for.
Another issue with giving only tech-related feedback is that the growth of your direct reports is hindered by this on all levels. Technical skills are important but there are other aspects that are equally crucial. A group of engineers, however amazing they might be, won’t ever work as a real team if theircommunication skillsare not there, for example. Your job now, as an engineering manager, is to keep a holistic watch over your team.
- Expectation management: Expectation setting and management will go a long way in delivering value as a manager. This could include expectations around delivery, appraisals, timelines, budget, and processes.
Busting some common myths
When I moved to management, I had preconceived notions about the role, many of which turned out to be very wrong. Here are some of the common ones:
- I’ll have more power as a manager
Power can be very subjective in corporate settings and I've realized that with ‘great power, comes great responsibility'. More importantly, you need to consistently balance the power triangle with your team members, peers, and managers.
- I’ll just need to talk a lot in the meetings
You’ll need to be hard and soft at the same time in your new role, so talking should always follow listening.
- I’ll have a lot more freedom
An engineering manager definitely has freedom, but within a bubble of people, processes, and technology. Newbies often picture management as an isolated silo, when in truth it’s about overseeing a web of projects.
- I’ll learn management through training
This is subjective to the organization but I’ve found you can learn about most things on the job.
- My technical career will come to an end
A move to management definitely doesn't put a full stop to an individual’s technical career! Engineering managers are often more respected if they continue to go deeper in the technical areas.
Many people may think of their careers as a single ladder where the goal is always to climb to the next rung, but this is only partly right. Career development may be more effectively visualized as a forest where you're generally trying to climb up the trees, but you may also find yourself swinging between trees (like transitioning between EM and IC roles) or starting the climb over again from the forest floor (like switching to a different track entirely, such as engineering and product management). The trick is to be passionate about the role at hand and follow your gut instinct above all.