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Becoming an Engineering Manager does not Mean You are just People Managing

Siwei Shen

Director of Software Engineering at Lyft

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Problem

Often, when I talk to junior managers, I will hear them say that they don't enjoy people management much and that they're more technical. However, in my mind, these two facets of management aren't in conflict. Therefore, when someone says this it suggests that they don't fully understand what management consists of.

"These two facets of management aren't in conflict."

If, as a manager, you have a technical background, you can continue contributing to the technical challenges that your team faces, but in a different way to purely just coding.

Actions taken

Today, as a manager at Lyft, I oversee payments, fraud, internal tools, and enterprise, which are very diverse areas. At any time, my personal challenge is to identify one or at most two areas where I'm needed, and where I need to dive in to figure out what is broken and what needs fixing. My role will vary – it could be fixing technical direction, the product roadmap, or the problem could just be not having the right people on the team.

Most recently, in Payments, we got into a situation where we were constantly falling behind. There were a lot of product asks being sent to the Payments platform team. While we were able to address most of them, we felt like our strategy and roadmap were being dictated by the product asks.

Some senior executives asked about what would happen if our payment volume were to double, and whether we had the right architecture in place to handle payments at that scale. This was worrying as for the past years we had just been focusing on responding to product requests, but didn't have time to build and invest in a more long-term strategy. This was clearly a gap I needed to help patch.

Because of this, I decided to dive deep. I helped kickoff a workgroup with the few senior engineers on the Payments team to discuss where we'd like to be (architecturally) in 12 months and 18 months. Then we worked backwards and figured out a concrete plan with milestones.

Lessons learned

A lot of this work requires a technical understanding of the current system. While I wasn't writing code, it really required my technical savviness. This is what I see my job as being. Today it could be payments, tomorrow it could be fraud, next week it could be something else.

"A lot of this work requires a technical understanding of the current system."

I can't go deep into all of the areas I manage, but at any one time, I try to pick the "right" one that demands my attention. Sometimes this will be due to business impact; other times it will be due to an aggressive deadline. In this particular case above, it was because of a lack of future vision.

Managers will often find themselves in situations where they need to examine a problem in depth. You should be able to keep your technical know-how. If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot do that for any of your teams, then you are acting just as a people manager.


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Siwei Shen

Director of Software Engineering at Lyft


Engineering ManagementTechnical ExpertiseLeadership Roles

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