The journey from individual contributor to engineering manager isn’t always straightforward. Today, I’ll share what it means to become an engineering manager from my point of view, and a few important points to be aware of before making this transition.
Your priorities shift drastically. As a contributor, I was focused on your code and tasks, then help my team when possible, then maybe other teams after that. That’s not the case anymore as a manager. We put the organization’s needs first, the team second, and the individual last. This is to build alignment between the organization’s goals and the individual ones.
You have to let go of coding. At least, to some level. I met many engineering managers, some still do code a bit, and some haven’t written a line of code in years. The main reason why points back to the manager’s responsibilities: we are focused on people first, we’re not meant to contribute anymore. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay sharp on your technical knowledge: your engineer background is useful daily to help understand your team’s challenges, gauge workload, prioritize work, and so on. If you still want to code, it should be the last of your priorities, only after all the other team’s problems got resolved. In that case, I recommend picking up small tasks outside of your team sprint, so you never become a blocker for them.
The feedback loop gets longer. As an engineer, the feedback loop is pretty fast, in hours or days: you release a bug fix, and you see the latest feature on production. As a manager, the feedback loop could take weeks, months, or even longer. For instance, if you’re working on improving your team performance by hiring somebody, it won’t be on the first day the joiner starts you’ll see improvements. In the same way, knowing you’re successful (or not) as a manager takes longer.
Don’t expect praise. In most organizations, I worked with, feedback and praise are shared with software engineers: “Great work on this project John! Amazing effort Jane and team!” This doesn’t happen anymore as you become a manager. The simplest reason is you’re not executing the vision, contributors do, and praising your team is to acknowledge the work and keep them motivated: the effort is recognized. Managers on the other end define the vision and we trust their decisions on how to move forward.
It can become lonely. As your role and responsibilities change, your relationship with your peers may change too. For instance, you may manage a team of engineers you used to be close to, and they might not be as transparent or friendly now that you became their manager. On the other hand, if you use to share your worries and challenges with your colleagues as a contributor, it’s unlikely you will keep sharing with the same people after making the transition, because they are your reports now, or maybe because only managers could relate to those problems.
You will be more invested emotionally in work. A good manager needs to deeply care about people, for their growth, success, and well-being. As you know, everybody has their own life and challenges, outside of their work life too, and a day might come they share it with you for support. Good news or bad news, you should be available to support them when you can. In some cases, it’s hard to not be emotionally involved, so it’s important to draw the line and not make all problems yours.
The Engineering Manager role is not a promotion. Many organizations have different career paths between Individual Contributor and Management roles. Do not think of this new role as a promotion but a path change, as you would do towards Design or Product Management. You start from (almost) scratch and have a lot to learn, so staying humble along the way is the best way to approach it.
Career evolution slows down. If you were quickly promoted over years as an engineer, the management path will slow the pace, and the same for your salary. There is a good chance some report will make more money than you. My advice is to not stress about your promotion cycle, and trust the process because there is a lot to learn along the way.
It might sound negative, but that’s not the case. All those points aren’t to stop you from becoming an Engineering Manager, but they can be insightful to manage your expectations.
The role comes also with the opportunity to have a wider impact on a company by solving a different kind of problems. The ability to see people evolve and grow over time is very rewarding too.
Photo credits Matt Duncan