Engineering Manager to Director: what it takes?

Engineering manager to director

There is an excellent article on this topic: https://www.brendanreid.com/blog-1/4-tips-to-jump-from-manager-to-director. I truly enjoyed it and learned. Now that I crossed the bridge, I would like to share a few thoughts myself.

The focus of this article is how to get ready for a director level as much as possible when you are in an engineering manager role.

Signs that you are not very ready

You got surprise now and then

Long before something might become a surprise, you should already know, communicate to your manager and take actions, either to prevent it or prepare for its consequence. If you often hear the news from someone else, your peers or manager finds it before you, get blindsighted, time to retrospect why and what should change.

Examples:

People issue

  • Some engineer becomes disengaged
  • Someone is resigning soon
  • Morale decreases
  • Some conflict between X and Y
  • Someone is expecting a promotion
  • Someone is bored with current assignment
  • The team is too stressed by workload

Project issue

  • Project is not going on well
  • Likely to miss deadline
  • A squad team does not have the chemistry
  • A squad team lacks something: tech experience, planning, a leader in a group,…
  • This is a wrong project to start

You are too busy

A good test is that you can comfortably take one month off and the team performs equally well if not better when you were around.

This may sound scary: what is my value if the team can do everything without me? Actually this is exactly a leader’s role: empower the team to the level that they do not need you, and you can move on to take a bigger role.

When you are not so busy, you will naturally have time to expand your responsibility to help other teams, lead cross team efforts, think long term, share some workload from your manager. In other words, take on better training toward a director role.

Your team is still small

A new director’s challenges

Hiring

Do you have a strong network that you can tap into? Do you master LinkedIn InMail and have a high response rate? Can you close a candidate against odds? Can you summarize your learnings as the best practices that are repeatable and applicable to a bigger team?

You will need these to succeed.

Coach managers

So it will be important that you form best practices how to be a great manager in a way that you can teach someone else. For instance, how can a manager do the following effectively? Not just general but concrete and actionable advice.

  • 1:1 with engineers at different levels, personalities…
  • Prioritization
  • Build roadmap
  • Project planning
  • Team building
  • Balance new features with tech debt and support
  • Communicate up, down, laterally, within and across groups and orgs
  • Set and exceed goals
  • Career development
  • ….

Write these down, iterate and make it easy to understand and follow. This will be great preparation for your director role.

Broader, more abstract, more ambiguity, longer term, higher pressure

A manager may plan for a quarter. For a director, it is 6 months to 1 year. The challenge is that there is often not enough data to make a perfect decision. Asking right questions to clarify ambiguity and priority is key.

The stake for success and failure is higher, as your team is bigger. Correspondingly, pressure is higher but you have to look more in control :).

Higher requirements for communication, prioritization, multitasking, empathy

Conclusion

The first part is about covering the base, making less mistakes, exceeding the current role of a manager. The second part is a peek into a director’s main challenges, so you can prepare earlier. And when you become a director, the transition is smoother.

Everyone’s journey is different. That is the fun of life. I hope the article is helpful. Love to hear your thoughts and experience.

VP Engineering