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Hiring good engineering managers remains a challenge in the current economic and recruiting climate, but finding the right person for the role is worth the effort.

There just aren’t enough good software engineers to go around. Even when you’ve pulled together a solid team, it’s a constant battle for engineering managers to keep the train on the tracks, deliver value, and retain the best talent. This is why the role is so vital today, but finding the right person for the job is anything but straightforward.

The first port of call is often to look inwards, to identify engineers within your existing teams to promote. But not every great engineer is a great manager, and promotions create new vacancies to fill.

Sometimes it is necessary to look outwards, finding engineering managers who bring fresh perspectives and a wealth of experience to their team. 

Engineering management responsibilities

Engineering management is a complex discipline. It requires a range of skills that go beyond coding and systems design.

An engineering manager’s responsibilities will include people, projects, and budgets. Swati Raju, head of engineering for Confluence Cloud at Atlassian, describes engineering management as a “craft [which] combines three primary skills: a passion for growing other engineers' skills; excellence in planning, management, and delivery of components and services; and the ability to set a technical strategy that achieves desired customer or business impact.”

The role clearly assumes a broad range of technical and operational knowledge – the engineering manager has to understand what the team is working on and ensure it’s delivered on time. But it’s the interpersonal aspect that can be the biggest challenge.

Brian Osborn, CEO of Linux New Media, parent company of Open Source JobHub, says, “The engineering managers’ skills are more about understanding the individual team members and bringing out the best in them. That makes the team stronger as a whole and conflict resolution is key. As is recruiting people who fit well into the team.”

This means empathy, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness are all key attributes. “A great engineering manager blends strong people management skills with the ability to drive business impact and engineering strategy,” says Raju.

However, this all means the pressures on an engineering manager are bigger than they are on an individual software developer, says John Lynes, managing director of UK recruitment firm, Ashdown Group. “They've got to keep the team engaged. That's quite a big challenge,” he says. This is particularly true in a tight jobs market, where rival organizations will be constantly aiming to tempt away your best engineers.

As well as managing team members, an engineering manager must also tactfully navigate input from the wider organization, at least to a degree. As Osborn points out, “You have to manage your managers and the people that are putting pressure and demands on your team to deliver. You have to manage their expectations. You have to know how to get what you need out of the organization to make your team successful.” 

It might be asking too much for a good developer to cultivate these skills only to emphasize them over their development or technical abilities, Osborn adds. “You can’t put all your best engineers into management and expect that things get better.”

Rather, companies should think carefully about how they provide a way forward for engineers without automatically funneling them into management. “At Atlassian, we have both the engineering management and individual contributor tracks (principal engineers, architects) for senior engineers,” Raju says.

The big short

Finding the optimal combination of tech expertise and people skills would be a challenge at any time. It’s even harder in today’s jobs market. Manpower Group’s most recent hiring report showed that even after the recent wave of tech layoffs, 76% of tech organizations are struggling to recruit workers with all of the skills they want.

Research by Korn Ferry predicted that the tech sector as a whole will be short around 4.3 million workers by 2030, with India being the only country showing a surplus.

This inevitably feeds through to demand for engineering managers. Adam Sznajder, director of engineering at Sumo Logic, believes it’s good practice to have one engineering manager take care of a team of five to ten individual contributors. “As a result, the demand for engineering managers is linearly proportional to the overall demand for engineers, which has been huge in recent years.”

Sznajder adds that teams without any engineering managers, or those too big for one engineering manager to handle, usually end up having low productivity or high attrition in the long term. “You can definitely call it a candidate-driven market,” he surmises.

Look outside

So where does this leave organizations looking to fill engineering management roles?

Organizations should avoid simply elevating existing engineers to fill gaps, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find candidates internally. Companies could think about upskilling existing employees, but this is best done as part of a long-term strategy focused on future skills and employee development. 

As with many roles, personal networks and recommendations can play a crucial part in identifying likely candidates – and unsuitable ones. As Sumo Logic’s Sznajder says, “If you get a good recommendation from engineers, PMs, or other engineering managers in your organization, that somebody worked with a given engineering manager and had a positive experience, it's highly probable that this engineering manager might be a good fit.”

Nevertheless, recruiters will often have to look beyond their existing organization for the right candidate, and they certainly shouldn’t be afraid to consider recruiting beyond their own sector.  It’s also important to remember that attracting the right employee means showing you’re the right employer for them.

Lynes says, “If you're going to a marketplace with a role in a difficult job market, then standing out is going to be one of the most difficult things. If someone’s got five job offers, they're going to choose the one that looks the most appealing, both in terms of financials and the actual role itself.”

Recruiters should consider working across multiple recruitment channels and allocate budget accordingly. They should additionally consider working closely with human resources (HR) to ensure that the employer value proposition is right.

Screen, test

Once you have a shortlist of suitable candidates, the screening and interview stages should not automatically resemble the process for recruiting engineers or developers.

Identifying suitable candidates on resumè alone will be difficult. Using something like the CliftonStrengths Assessment can help identify whether candidates have the appropriate skills. This might also be appropriate for engineers wondering if they’re a good fit for this management role.

Most companies introduce the candidate to the team before hiring so that team members can evaluate the candidate's skills. These interviews also provide room for scenario-based situations that applicants can resolve or talk through, highlighting their approach and skillset. Sznajder says, “On the technical side, most often engineering managers are asked to design some system on a whiteboard. It makes perfect sense since engineering managers are going very often to review team members’ design documents and should be capable of critically evaluating the proposed design decisions.”

Raju says Atlassian’s technical interviews don’t focus on coding skills but do aim to assess system design and the candidates' approach to solving larger technical problems. “We also assess their expertise in daily aspects of engineering management including balancing technical debt, effectively leveraging DevOps, delivery and shipping incrementally, and managing the performance, reliability, and scale of our systems.”

When it comes to non-technical skills, Sznajder believes the most important thing is to ensure a strong cultural fit. Get this wrong and good team members might leave, while cross-team cooperation could also suffer. 

Just rewards

This is clearly a demanding role with an equally demanding recruitment process. But the rewards should make it worthwhile.

In the UK, Lynes says, “A development manager or software engineering manager would earn, depending on the size of the organization, and size of the team, and the complexity of what they're doing, anything from £90,000 to £140,000.” The upper figure would be for a big financial firm, he says.

Osborn reports that, in US terms, the range is between $100,000 to $200,000, with $150,000 as a reasonable average. But, he says, “It depends on many factors, some of which are really volatile right now.”

Other variables, including location, do come into play, and Sznajder suggests specialist websites such as levels.fyi as a good way to get a detailed overview of salaries. In February 2023, this showed a median salary of $405,000 for engineering management roles in San Francisco and the Bay Area, while Chicago showed a median of $215,000.

Clearly, this can be a rewarding role for people with the right skills. But there is a big benefit for the employer too. Because the right engineering manager will not just ensure that your applications and services are delivered on time and on budget, they will also help retain your current key engineers and help attract new team members. In a challenging economic and recruitment climate, that sort of stability is worth its weight in gold.