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Staying Technical as a Mobile Engineering Manager

Julius Uy

Chief Technology Officer at Zillearn

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Problem

As mobile technologies are rapidly evolving, staying technical as a mobile engineering manager is a real challenge. Every engineer in the mobile industry, either Android or iOS, can testify to that. Once they transition from an engineer to a manager their perspective will change and it will be very difficult for them to catch up on the new technologies. This is a rather common problem for engineers in their 30s who have been in the industry for some time and have recently moved to leadership positions.

Many engineers, especially Android engineers, often feel flooded with all the new technologies emerging at an explosive rate. Not being able to catch up is something that should be accepted and become comfortable with. Instead, mobile engineering managers should become more realistic and aim for a less lofty goal -- to become familiar with the latest developments on the surface level (what features and tools are available) -- and only when needed, dive deep in the specifics of a particular problem.

Actions taken

One of the best ways to keep up to date is to read technical blogs. Those blogs often detail how things are implemented which should give you a general idea of things and enable you to have a productive conversation with your engineers. In addition to blogs, you could find words of wisdom at forums, online groups and communities.

You should follow closely the latest developments presented at Google I/O and Apple WWDC as key conferences that bring together engineers across the industry and where the new technologies are announced and presented. Android Developers Summit is yet another conference by Google where new technologies and tools are talked about but at a much deeper level. Attending community conferences like Droidcon is particularly useful as those grass-root events are places where the community shares how different companies solve different problems. Community organizations like Google Developers Group also organize their own conferences and it is very beneficial to speak there, attend some sessions or even just volunteer.

In addition, you should be familiar with recent trends in software engineering. For example, one of the recent trends is functional programming that makes data processing much easier. As a manager, you will be less hands-on, but knowing on the surface level what functional programming does and how you can use it would be sufficient. In your role as a manager, you should be able to ask the rights questions and facilitate the discussion that would drive people to the right solutions. For example, there is a feature by Google called App Bundle that makes your app size smaller and allows people with limited phone’s capacity to download apps. As a manager, you need to know about it, how Google suggests being implemented, learn about challenges from people who tried to implement it, and based on that you should create a plan for your team.

Lessons learned

  • While the most general answer to the question of whether a mobile engineering manager can stay technical is both yes and no, I would lean more toward no. For you to grow as a manager, staying technical shouldn’t be a priority itself. You don’t need to know all the tiniest details but to be able to discuss technical matters, develop a plan for your team and bridge a gap between product and engineering on one side and customers on the other. If you stay all the way into the code, you will miss out on all other things.
  • As a leader, you have to develop a shared context between different departments and create a synergy that will bring value to the business. That requires having a broad perspective that will encompass horizontally different contexts which contradicts a narrow focus on specifics of any kind.
  • Some managers love engineering and going down to details and that has its own benefits especially in larger companies that can allow each team to focus on a very specific problem. That is how some managers could stay technical while also helping junior engineers and still coding on their own.

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Julius Uy

Chief Technology Officer at Zillearn


Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementTechnical ExpertiseTechnical SkillsCareer GrowthCareer Progression

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