Engineer To Manager: should you? how?

For a software engineer, as your career progresses, sooner or later, you will face a question: should I become an engineering manager?

When I was there, I googled, read many articles, books and consulted with people, it stayed mysterious until I finally got it myself. This article is kind of a letter to my younger self in 2015 to demystify this topic.

Mysteries

Google returns many articles for this question. A lot focus on motivation: good vs bad. When you talk with your manager on this topic, or interview for a manager position, they always ask for your motivation.

Of course you have good motivations. Even for those who have bad motivation, they will not admit. So this is not the right criteria for the answer.

Some articles list what a manager does day to day, which is obviously different from what an engineer does. It does not help with the answer.

The right questions to ask yourself

  • Am I going to be competent as a manager?

I will elaborate one by one.

Am I going to be competent as a manager?

The manager role is the same as any job position, you have to be competent to survive and thrive. A lot of things can be learned at the job. However, the following is important for a manager’s competency but in my opinion, it is not easy for a person to change suddenly.

Like to work with people

Manager works with people day in and day out: candidates, peers, managers, engineers, customers, cross orgs… You need to be comfortable working with various people.

Communicate

Manager talks a lot, wearing different hats. For example, when a manager makes an offer and tries to convince a candidate to accept, it is essentially a sales pitch.

Empathy

Do you believe that you are very good at reading people’s minds? When you speak, do you pay attention to the other people’s response? Do you know when to hold the tongue and listen? When someone is talking to you, can you easily get her/his true emotion/intention? This is a critical skill of a manager.

Can deal with pressure and conflict

Manager handles a lot of pressure and conflicts now and then. Some duties like firing an employee are not for a faint heart.

Multitasking

Manager deals with many tasks in parallel.

Okay to be disrupted

Engineers often do not like being disrupted. Manager is disrupted often and it is expected. A manager’s calendar is often very fragmented.

Accept this is a new career path, and a new start.

A lot of things that you have learned as an engineer won’t help. It is essentially a fresh start of a new career, and you are now a junior. It doesn’t really matter if you used to be a principal engineer. You have to be patient, work hard to gain experience and climb the career ladder from the start. This sometimes feels very hard to accept: for example, “I have 10+ years of engineering experience and now I have 0 year of management experience?”

Okay to distant from the ground

You will probably code less. You will often no longer be the tech decision maker. If you were an engineer, you make decisions for your owner area or your peers and manager make decisions for their areas. In other words, you were not directly responsible for another person’s decision.

Now you are a manager, engineers who report to you will make decisions while you are still responsible for the result. Basically you will be responsible for other people’s decisions. This could feel very different and uncomfortable.

If you check all or most of the list above, Congrats! With good motivation, very likely you will have a smooth transition to a manager role from an engineer, if you choose so.

Is this job enjoyable to me?

Besides things listed above, a manager does a lot recruiting, planning, project management, writing and more. It is important that you feel these tasks are enjoyable. The journey will be more fun.

How far can I make in this career path?

Similar to an engineer career path, not everyone can make it to the top. For the management path, the slope is steeper. Many engineering leaders peak at director level. Only very few make it to VP level. Some managers even never break into a director level.

Overall, there are many more engineer positions on this market than management positions. It is just a fact.

Before you decide to take this path, understand what this choice means, so you won’t feel bad if you happen to end up somewhere middle of the ladder, despite working very hard.

How?

Assume you decide that you want to become a manager from an engineer, then you wonder how to do it.

Think of this way, how did you find the first junior software engineer job? It is very similiar. You have trained yourself in colleague for algorithm, coding, math… now you apply for an opening. The manager role is often open to internal candidate first, called “promote from within”. I suggest you improve your “manager” competency by training in your current engineer position and get as ready as possible when an opportunity surfaces.

Be a strong engineer

Do your engineer job really well: coding, review, design, project management, task tracking… This puts you in a strong position to be considered for a manager role. When you actually become a manager, the engineer background will help you.

I suggest you at least reach to a senior engineer level, ideally a principal engineer level, before becoming a manager. As a manager, you will eventually manage very senior engineer like principals. It is very helpful that you were a principal engineer yourself before.

Like to work with people, communicate, empathy

Work well with peers, managers, people out of your team. Use every interpersonal opportunities to train for the above.

Meetings, design discussion, project management and anything cross groups are the best chances.

When possible, choose the communication methods in this order: in person, video chat, phone call, email/message.

Can deal with pressure and conflict

There are many chances that you can train yourself: deadline pressure, sudden scope change, team change, manager change, process change, conflict of opinion and team members.

Do not run away from those. Think how to handle them in the best way, constructively, if you were the manager.

Multitasking

Besides engineer work, purposely mix it with some other tasks, such as phone interview, driving some virtual group activities.

Track deadlines, schedule, progress really well. Always on top of it. Mutitask to a level that the other people do not notice that you are multitasking.

Okay to be disrupted

Reflect a bit. Do people around you always feel easy to approach you, even when you are busy? If not, what can you do to change that?

When being disrupted, always smile. If you are not busy, engage immediately. If you are busy, politely ask if the thing is urgent, if not, “can I get back to you at date/time …?”

Okay to distant from the ground

If you lead a virtual group, try to let people make some decision, even if you feel it might not be the best, or exactly the one in your mind.

If you are a tech lead, try to do same to your team members. Encourage them to make some tech decision, project schedule decision, task assignment decisions…

You will notice that you oversee these activities than being the direct decision maker.

When you do need to step in, rather that giving order(make final decision directly), try to “influence without power”. Use this as a coaching/mentoring opportunity.

If you keep training yourself in the above areas, very soon your manager/skip level manager will notice. When an manager opening is available, you will be a top candidate.

Conclusion

I shared some thoughts about what I wish I would know before I entered the management career. I am sure that my younger self in 2015 would love to read this article and clap hands.

I hope you feel it is helpful too. Love to hear your thoughts and experience.

VP Engineering