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

Before you get ready for a director role, you have to do an outstanding job as a manager. The reasoning is simple: if you are not a great manager yourself, how can you lead and coach other managers? If any of the following situations exists, it may indicate that you are not very ready yet.

There will always be some surprise from your team. But it should be rare, before others could deem you as a director level. In other words, this is a test of level of management maturity.

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

This sounds counter intuitive. Shouldn’t a great manager be working hard thus busy? Actually no. Being too busy often indicates that you have not fully mastered the skills at a manager level, that often manifests as your team is not built/structured/empowered enough to work effectively yet. That leads to that you have to be busy by contributing as an engineer or making the decisions for the team.

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.

A manager can effectively manage 8 direct reports, sometimes to 10 or 12. If your team is at the size of 4 or 5, you will need some patience and time to grow the current team bigger first.

A new director’s challenges

Now we look from a different angle. A new director has some typical challenges. If you are a manager but particularly strong in these areas, that puts you in a strong position as a director candidate.

Hiring top talents is almost the most important job for a leader, and a measurement for her/his performance. If you are a manager, the expectation is lower. When you are a director, the expectation is a lot higher.

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.

It is not about how you can do it excellently. It is about if you can teach it to someone else to do it excellently.

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.

You will head 2+ teams. It is no longer practical to be a 100% domain expert to every little detail. Your ownership areas will be broader. You have to figure out which are the important areas that you have to go deeper.

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 :).

You work with more people with bigger responsibilities. The requirements for the soft skills will reach a new scale.

Conclusion

I wrote down some of my learnings from an engineering manager to a director.

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

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