The jump from engineer to engineering manager is a big one. Here's what you need to know before making the transition.
Top-performing software engineers are often the first to be considered for management positions inside their organizations. These are people who’ve demonstrated a high level of technical and people leadership skills combined with great technical execution. Feels like a natural progression, right?
But the transition between software engineering and engineering management is more complex than one might think. This is because the roles and responsibilities are fundamentally different. I know this because I’ve gone through this career change myself.
Here are five things I wish I knew before jumping from software engineer to engineering manager.
1. Prepare for changes to your dopamine cycles
As developers, our work is often rewarded with frequent dopamine cycles. From the first ‘hello world’ in the terminal, to finally fixing the unresolvable bug after checking variables line by line, our work presents frequent opportunities for us to feel good after completing small tasks.
This usually isn’t the case in engineering management. As a manager, success is no longer measured by your work alone. Instead, it’s about your teams. Their success is your success. This means it can take much more time and many more hands for you to experience that same feeling of accomplishment. It might take weeks, months, or even full quarters for you to see the impact you’ve had on your team.
At first, this change might make you feel a bit lost in your new management position, especially if, like me, you’re used to those frequent successes throughout the day. So, in the same way that software engineers chase after those short dopamine cycles by debugging variable values, you’ll need to find ways to navigate longer ones.
2. Transitioning within the same organization comes with its challenges
It’s common for the transition from engineer to manager to happen within a single organization. If you’ve been there for a few years and the leadership team has taken note of your skillset, they may very well offer you the position.
In this case, you can’t expect an overnight transition. You, your peers, and even your employer might not know what to expect from you right away as a manager, especially if you’ve been an individual contributor for a few years. So, it’s important to acknowledge that this uncertainty could lead to some frustration.
There’ll likely be times when all you want to do is jump in and use your legacy technical knowledge to manage your old tasks. But stick with it, and remember that you and your team are adjusting to these changes together, and it will take time. And by focussing on your new responsibilities as an engineering manager, you’re more effectively supporting your team’s future success.
3. Strategy comes before preference
Every company has a business to run and timely decisions to make. Sometimes, the decisions won’t fully align with your own preferences. There’ll be instances where you just want to work on A instead of B, but aren’t able to for whatever reason, and times when you have to make choices based on strategy, rather than preference.
Engineering management requires a strategic mindset, one that understands company goals and makes decisions that align with them. Of course, you’ll never be able to please everyone, but making a decision and committing to it is key. After that, it’s on you to ensure your team understands the impact and knows how to move forward.
4. Expect far less predictability in your calendar
My calendar was usually 70-80% meeting-free as a software engineer. This way I had the time and flexibility to focus on my tasks, sprint goals, bugs, and incidents. As an engineering manager, your calendar will be your best friend. From my own experience, I can say that my days are no longer predictable. So, I use my calendar to plan my work, block focus times, and plan team meetings. Between defining OKRs, meeting with your team, and discussing performance reviews, it’ll be critical for you to learn how to manage your time more effectively.
5. Trust is your best friend
From my experience, building and maintaining trust is key to a successful transition into management. It’s critical to have a team and employer that trust you and your capabilities. The level of trust they have will be telling. If your team trusts you, they’ll be comfortable giving you open feedback that could help you (and them) improve.
It’ll also be important to establish further trust with senior leadership. Even though your transition into the new role is already a good sign that they trust you, you’ll want to continue to nurture and expand these relationships. As an engineering manager, you’ll be in a position to grow your influence. Use your time to connect with the leadership team and those around you. It’ll be crucial for you to understand their goals, motivations, and frustrations they may have. Here are a couple of easy steps to build trust:
Be vulnerable. Showing your true self is not a weakness, it’s a signal of trust. It makes it clear that you trust someone enough to put your guard down around them. Vulnerability can be inspiring and have a great impact on how much your team trusts you. They need to know that you’re still a human.
Proactively discover shared interests. Get to know your team and be willing to share your preferences and interests outside of work. This will help them get to know you better and understand you as a person, not just their manager.
Wrapping it up
Engineering management is all about finding a balance between people management and technical strategy. At the end of the day, your success depends on the success of your team, and nothing more. It’s a big transition, but a rewarding one. Good luck!