Navigating Your Role Change: From IC to Engineering Manager
Senior Engineering Manager at Carta
The Path from Individual Contributor to Manager
I joined Carta as an engineer. Within approximately a year, my manager changed roles to lead a big initiative. I applied for the position of Engineering Manager (EM) and was happy to be offered this leadership role.
It was an exciting period for the company. There was a lot of change going on:
- We were undergoing a continuous reorganization.
- The company's mission and vision changed; this also affected our team charter.
- We were establishing new hiring processes, during which I had to scale our team and hire new talent.
I felt like an amateur captain navigating a ship in the midst of a thunderstorm.
Navigating Your First Few Months in a Leadership Position
As an IC, your primary sources of knowledge are books, blogs, and code written by more senior engineers. This changes when you become a manager. External resources are still valuable, but the biggest lessons come from personal experience and mentorship from experienced leaders.
Here are a few pieces of advice that I find helpful for first-time managers:
- Have a thorough understanding of your new job expectations within the context of your organization. (For example, some companies expect EMs to spend a portion of their time coding. Others don't.)
- Acquire a couple of mentors or sponsors that you can rely on. This will help you visualize problems through the lens of more experienced leaders.
- Come to terms that your output is no longer measured by your individual accomplishments. It's all about your team's output. I eased into this transition by gradually relinquishing my IC duties while ramping up my managerial responsibilities over a few months.
- Steer your team in the right direction by asking strategic questions(ex: How would the design handle X, Y, Z scenarios). Personally, I'm like a fly on the wall during our architectural design meetings.
- Learn to run effective meetings, 1-1s, and career conversations. There’s no cookie-cutter answer here but talk to the senior leaders at the company who do this well so you don’t have to start from a clean slate.
- Start delegating sooner rather than later. Specify the tasks you're delegating completely, the ones you'll be supervising, and the ones you'll contribute to.
- Give actionable feedback. There’s a mental model called the “Ladder of Inference” that describes how and why we make assumptions. I recommend listening to Adam Grant's WorkLife podcast to understand the thinking process behind it. This will help you lead productive conversations and give constructive feedback without conflict.
- Trust, but verify. As a manager, trusting your team is important. Nonetheless, make sure to have inspection tools that help you verify something when needed. (A common scenario I run into is disagreements between engineers on their approach to implementing code.)
Insights for First-Time Managers
- There’s no "right style" of management. Adapt your leadership approach based on the situation at hand.
- In a rapidly scaling company, priorities and goals may change. Align your team around a shared strategy; establish milestones and a tactical execution plan. Be transparent with your leaders by facilitating effective communication. One example is setting up bi-weekly or monthly syncs with your leaders with sections on Inform, Discuss and Risks/Dependencies.
- Poor performance from reports results from a mismatch between your expectations and the other party’s skillset. When this happens, have an open conversation about what you expect. If it doesn’t seem feasible, a transferral to another team can be an option worth exploring.
- As an EM you’re in charge of a lot of decisions, especially if you work at a startup. Sometimes, you only have a minimal amount of information to go on. Your decisions may or may not be reversible— usually they fall somewhere in between. Be deliberate and conservative when evaluating the impact of these. Remember that there’s a cost associated with changing your mind, so weigh the pros and cons carefully.
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