So, You Want to Become an Engineering Manager

A guide for engineers who are considering transitioning into an engineering management role. It outlines the necessary skills and attributes, growth path, and potential challenges that come with the role, along with a step-by-step guide for making the transition.

As an engineer turned engineering manager, I understand the appeal of making the switch to management. However, before you take the leap, there are a few things to consider. In this post, I’ll share some of the most important factors you should weigh as you contemplate a career move into engineering management.

What Does It Mean to Be an Engineering Manager?

First, let’s define what we mean by “engineering manager.” In this post, I’m referring specifically to someone who manages other engineers or engineering managers. While some of the advice here may apply to other professions, my experience is limited to managing software engineers.

To be an effective engineering manager, you’ll need to have several key skills and attributes. These include:

  • Technical judgment: This is the ability to make sound technical decisions and to guide your team in making them. While you can continue to develop your technical judgment as a manager, it’s much harder to grow this skill from scratch.
  • Influential management style: In modern organizations, effective management often relies on the ability to persuade and influence others. This is in contrast to coercive or transactional management styles, which are often less effective. As a manager, you’ll need to appeal to the rational side of your team members and peers to be successful.
  • Communication skills: You’ll need to be able to express yourself clearly and succinctly, both in written and verbal form. This includes communicating with your team, peers, and management chain.
  • Objectivity and fairness: You’ll need to be able to measure your team’s performance objectively and consistently, using fair and transparent criteria.
  • People focus: The most rewarding part of your job as a manager will be helping your team members grow and develop. However, this can also be the most challenging aspect of the job.
  • Genuine care for people: As a manager, your primary responsibility will be to your team members, as well as other stakeholders like customers, investors, and anyone else impacted by your team’s work. It’s important to care about these people and balance their needs and desires.
  • Business impact: You should understand that you will be responsible for the business outcomes of your team. You will need to be able to delegate, keep people accountable, build impactful engineering roadmaps, resolve conflicts, make effective decisions, and set strategies. Ultimately, you will be successful not because you can employ different skills but because your team (not you) can consistently deliver value in areas important to the business.
  • Empathy: This attribute can help you in almost every aspect of your job as a manager.

With these building blocks, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle the challenges of engineering management, no matter the project or team.

What’s the Growth Path for Engineering Managers?

As an engineering manager, you’ll manage a team responsible for an important business function. Your growth path will likely involve managing larger and more complex scopes. This doesn’t always mean managing larger teams, but it’s often correlated. At some point, you may start managing other managers, which brings its own set of challenges.

Managing through other managers requires you to establish organization-wide processes, design successful organizations, and develop strategies for managing at scale. These skills are crucial for managers who want to continue growing in their roles and making significant contributions to their organizations.

When Should You Not Become an Engineering Manager?

There are a few situations in which becoming an engineering manager may not be the right move for you. Here are two:

  • You’re not interested in management: If you’re not interested in the day-to-day responsibilities of managing a team, then becoming an engineering manager probably isn’t the right move for you. Don’t let external pressure or expectations push you into a role that doesn’t align with your interests and goals.
  • You haven’t built the core skill set yet: Technical judgment is a core skill for engineering managers, and you’ll need to have a solid foundation in this area to be successful. Take the time to develop your technical skills and build a strong reputation as a senior or staff engineer before considering a move into management.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an Engineering Manager

If you’ve decided that you want to become an engineering manager and have the necessary skill set, there are several steps you can take to make the transition:

  • Make sure that you would like to become a manager and that you have the skillset:
    • Talk to people in your organization who have made the transition, especially those who tried management and decided to stop doing it. This can give you a better understanding of the challenges and rewards of the role.
    • Read books or blogs on management to gain different perspectives. The Manager’s Path, especially the first five chapters, is an excellent resource for this stage.
    • Talk to your manager and ask about their expectations for the role.
  • Find the opportunity by identifying managers who have the most scope and need help with managing. For example, an experienced manager but new to the company, a manager with too many direct reports, or a manager whose team is addressing multiple simultaneous pressing issues might need your help. These people should ideally be one level above you in their career.
    • Use your technical skills to help them. This would come most naturally to you. Provide support in a technical lead capacity, helping the team address challenging technical problems.
    • Help with people and grow your coaching and mentoring skills. Offer to mentor people who are struggling, provide suggestions for projects that align with their career goals, help people in the team recruiter and mentor interns, and offer to help with hiring.
    • Show ownership, by identifying friction points that can be addressed with process or policy suggestions. Most teams and organizations will have problems that negatively impact teams at large but are not owned by any single individual. Addressing those problems by designing a system (and not by heroism) is the skill you would like to build.
  • Evaluate the opportunity and establish an exit path. Determine if the team and project will be successful and if you can go back to your current role after a year if you don’t enjoy the management role.
  • Make the transition: This could be the topic of another blog post.

In conclusion, becoming a manager is a rewarding career path for those who are both interested and at the right level of their careers to make the transition. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, following the steps outlined in this guide can help you prepare for the role and stand out as a strong candidate.

Hope you will find this guide useful. If you have any questions or suggestions please contact me.

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