Considering a move from individual contributor to engineering manager? Here’s what you need to know, from whether the role is right for you, to what to expect in the first few months.
There’s a little joke we make every time a former individual contributor (IC) comes into the engineering manager (EM) Slack channel for the first time: ‘Welcome to the dark side.’
We make this tongue-in-cheek joke because, well, it’s funny, but also to signpost that things are different in management. You will be exposed to a side of business that was previously unknown. You will encounter situations that you wouldn’t have anticipated or been responsible for. And, the skills that made you successful as an IC will take a backseat, and sometimes even hold you back. At least this was my experience.
With all that foreboding preamble, why move into an engineering manager role? What can you expect in your first few weeks on the job? And how can you set yourself up for success? Perhaps I can shed some light on these questions, having recently become an EM myself.
Is transitioning from IC to EM right for you?
From my experience, making the move to management begins with a curiosity to learn new skills. We all know by now that management is a career change, not a promotion, and should be thought of such.
For me, the reasons to take the plunge mostly rested on these factors:
- I was always curious to learn new management skills and increase my leadership skills.
- I was given the opportunity to lead my current team with senior engineers I knew and trusted, in a domain I knew.
- I had the encouragement and safety net of my current manager to support me.
- There was an escape hatch, if I needed one.
Becoming a manager is a very personal decision, and it’s worth having an honest conversation with yourself about whether and why you want to do it. As women engineers, for example, we can go our whole careers with people telling us that we’d make great managers because we might be able to communicate clearly, empathize with people, and build social connections (or, at least, that’s the expectation). This can make it hard to differentiate between whether you are actually interested and would be good in the role, or if society is just telling you that you should be.
What to expect in the first couple of months as an engineering manager
It’s likely that no one feels confident at a new job straight away. But that’s okay, because your ingrained engineer instincts to keep learning and improving will serve you well. As well as lots of frequent and honest feedback.
However, there are a few aspects of the role that you’ll probably find challenging when first transitioning from IC to EM: managing your friends, being responsible for hiring wins and losses, and worrying about your place in the team.
Let’s break these challenges down.
1. Managing your (ex-)peers
If you’ve moved into a management role in your current team, the chances are you will be managing and leading engineers who were your former peers, and have the same (or even more) technical experience than you. Some of these peers might also be your friends.
This can feel like a pretty weird social dynamic, because it is. You now have influence over what they work on, who they work with, promotions, and so much more.
One thing I’ve found that works is calling a spade a spade and admitting to your direct report: ‘Hey, this is a bit awkward isn’t it? We were engineers on the same team, and now I’m your boss.’ See how they respond. Everyone will be different, but it’s always worth being transparent and vulnerable with your team.
Having more structure in your first couple of 1:1s can also help build that muscle for treating the working relationship like one between an engineer and a manager, not just two peers or friends.
2. Being responsible for hiring successes and failures
One of the best parts of being an engineering manager is the opportunity to build out a high performing team, starting with hiring decisions. If you’re switched on to what the team needs, you get to scout for the strengths that round out the team’s weaknesses. You get to be a champion for diversity at all levels, including gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion, neurodiversity, and more. For a woman LGBTQ+ engineer like me, this is really important, and it can foster a sense of belonging.
The downside of this is you are now the arbiter of hiring decisions, which is a huge responsibility. Teams are like the body’s immune response system, and introducing a newcomer to your nice cozy team can be disruptive for everyone. If the group doesn’t adapt and evolve to accommodate the new hire, it can be a challenging situation.
There’s no way to know 100% if someone will be successful at your company and in your team, but here are several good tips I learned when I was building out my own:
- Look for strengths, experience and expertise that round out the gaps in your current team.
- Focus on diversity and intersectionality. Gender is just one aspect of a diverse team.
- A whole team of senior engineers can be counter-productive, as can a team of all junior engineers. You need all levels to help everyone on the team grow.
- Don’t hire jerks! Even if they’re brilliant engineers, hiring employees who are team-oriented and inclusive is just as critical for your team’s success.
Making a new hire is still a leap of faith. But if you have robust and inclusive interviewing practices at your company, you should have confidence that people who come through will be A+.
3. Worrying about your place on the team
Lastly, one of the hardest things you might encounter is worrying about your place on the team. Once you gain that manager title, there’s an invisible divide, no matter how much you were a core part of the engineering team as an IC previously.
This is natural, and is okay. Although it might sting a bit.
As much as you want to keep the same relationship with your team as you had before, there will come a time where you have to handle a HR situation, give someone critical career feedback, or settle a personal dispute between two members.
You must also be cognisant of the fact that your behavior and words now have an outsized impact from where you were before. While it can be difficult to remember at first, titles matter. Your blast radius if you’re having a bad day and lash out at someone or say something silly is magnified.
One thing that’s also important to remember though is that you have new peers now – the other EMs in your organization.
They will be there for you but you need to build some new relationships first. I advise you to network with the other managers in your sphere because those relationships will be invaluable, whether you’re navigating new challenges or collaborating on projects that impact how your teams work together.
So, should you make the jump to engineering manager?
If you’re keen on becoming an EM, I would still highly recommend trying it out for two years before you commit to it long term. Two years is enough to develop new skills, while also retaining the engineering strengths that helped get you where you are. If you decide you don’t like it, it’s easy enough to transition back. That is always a possibility and shouldn’t be seen as a step back – it’s a sideways movement.
There are a lot of resources out there that I’ve used to speed up my learning and development, including LeadDev. But to be honest, a lot of it is just time, experience, and learning from mistakes. There are no shortcuts here. Good luck!