Pitch Me on Why You Want to be a Manager

Adam Surak

Head of Platform at BeReal.



I was an engineer working on infrastructure at a startup when one day the CEO asked me to go out for a hot chocolate. We took a walk, ordered our drinks, and sat down. He then told me that he wanted me to take on a new role and asked me if I would accept to be the director of infrastructure. I had joined the company two years prior at the age of 25 so I naively thought sure, why not. There were only two of us on the team, myself and another junior engineer, so I anticipated that I could direct the whole thing. On the contrary, I had no idea what I was agreeing to.

Actions taken

A few months later, the CEO further explained to me that I would now be managing the team. It dawned on me that I would be managing people and not writing code. I knew there was no going back so I ramped myself up to fit into the role.

Now, when individual contributors come to me and say that they want to be a manager, my implicit and reflective response is to refute their statement. I oppose their idea until they can convince me otherwise. I will appeal, then debate with them up till the point that they indisputably and confidently know why they want to be manager. I want to ensure they understand what they are asking for.

In asking these questions I am looking for a few things. I want them to understand how their day is going to be structured. What is going to be expected of them from their own manager. And the scope of what they need to take care of. Furthermore, I want to know if that person loves writing code. Do they get excited about doing beautifully crafted code on a hundred lines that is viewed by others as elegant? Well I’m sorry to inform them that they won’t have the opportunity to do that anymore (or at least not as often). As a manager you’re no longer in the trenches with the code. Your focus is now on the people.

That’s another thing I’m looking for, does this person actually want to work with people. People are in a completely different arena than code. People don’t behave like software or systems. They’re difficult to reboot. They’re difficult to reinstall. They’re difficult to update. They’re difficult to patch. Needless to say, I want them to understand what is waiting for them if they become a manager. They will need to embrace all the fuzziness that comes with working with people.

A final aspect that ICs need to understand is that being a manager means serving the business. The position is business-driven as well as the career ladder that goes along with it. As an IC, you can become a distinguished engineer that is recognized in the industry for your contributions to computer science. You can start at the junior level, move up to mid-level, become part of the senior staff, and then go on to be a principal engineer. As an IC you can lead and drive your own career path. But as a manager you are subject to the business. Most managers will never be a VP of Engineering because there’s simply not enough demand. I once spoke with the Director of Engineering at a large corporation. He told me that he had 400 reports in his structure. That’s one director for every 400 people. To get to that next level on the management career ladder there has to be a business need for it. So I want people to be aware that they are at the mercy of the business and understand where they can add value and proceed further with this information in mind.

Lessons learned

  • I had very few expectations in regards to what I was getting myself into when I agreed to be the Director of Infrastructure. My father was a manager and I saw his endeavors but he worked for an industrial company. His was a very different management style from what we’re used to in software engineering. So it wasn’t clear to me what would happen and what it would mean for my career to become a manager. I’ve found that ICs have a similar preconceived vision of what it’s like to be a manager, but often the reality of it is very different. That’s why I ask people to sell me on their decision, why they think they’re going to be a good manager, and why they think they’ll enjoy it.
  • It’s easy to learn and be an engineer in your free time. You can code at night and custom tailor systems to your liking. Less so with management. Perhaps you could manage your family or friends, but that surely will become a bit complicated. It’s important to realize that managing takes practice and that skill can’t be built over night. It’s not something you can work on at home on your own.
  • If you want to be a manager, look for role models. Who do you want to be like? Search for people who have a lot of experience and are in a place that you’d like to be at down the road. Then identify why you look up to them and what characteristics they have that make them a good manager.

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Adam Surak

Head of Platform at BeReal.

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