The Journey Into Management
Engineering Manager at Box
One of the first big decisions that I’ve dealt with as a professional was deciding whether or not to become a manager in the first place.
The transition between individual contributor and first-time manager is usually a pivotal juncture in a person’s career. I think that a lot of software engineers get to a point where, after a few years of technical work, they get promoted to a senior-level or staff position. These types are generally very comfortable when it comes to the technical side of things.
As you lean more toward a staff position, you start to take on minor duties that can be considered managerial to some extent. More important is the dimension of leadership that these duties bring to your daily routine. You’re a lead now. It’s an exciting move to make.
Every company handles this intersection differently. Some companies have a formal transitional position called Tech Lead Manager that lets you ( and the company ) evaluate if this role is right for you. During this time you execute some of the day-to-day responsibilities of an engineering manager such as sprint planning, running the team stand-up meets, holding 1:1s etc. If your company does not have this position, you can still get similar exposure by taking on a tech lead role for a specific project or the scrum master role on your team.
This is where people get exposed to some aspects of the engineering manager role. Obviously, the role itself is a separate track entirely, one that focuses much more on people management. But some of the responsibilities that come with being a tech lead or a scrum master provide a window into the life of a manager.
There will likely be many things on an IC’s mind as they navigate this space. The choice ends up being between diving into management or continuing on the path that they’re on in a technical sense. If they want to make the leap between them, the way forward may not always be obvious or clear. Sometimes, doing so involves a step down initially.
Every software engineer faces this decision at some point in their career trajectory. They feel as though their technical talent, often their core strength, has suddenly been taken away from them. It will no longer be what they are evaluated for; now, they will be judged on what they are able to lead others to do instead.
It can make you feel powerless because we really don’t have any control over other people. My own manager has expectations for what the team should be doing and it’s my job to get everybody excited about these goals.
The thing that you’ve lost is the instant feedback that you receive when you code; you no longer have the instant gratification of knowing exactly how talented you are on that level. What you gain, however, is rapport with the team who will be picking up where you left off as an IC. All of these people will help you figure out how to improve as a leader. It is an invaluable resource.
First and foremost will be establishing a relationship and a sense of trust with the team. A lot of new managers miss out on this when they first sign themselves on. For the manager themselves, the change will be minimal. You were likely a peer to this team before, and, suddenly, now you’re responsible for their wellbeing. Invest time into your one-on-ones with them.
The unfortunate truth is that management is often viewed as a higher position to occupy. This is not always the case; in fact, the manager is often not even the most experienced member of their team. It's just a different job function. This transition is a fragile time that must be handled properly in order to ensure the success of the group.
- It took me a long time to understand that we play two different roles as managers. Being an engineering manager doesn’t mean that your technical knowledge no longer matters; it just matters in a different way. An EM is not just any manager. The expertise and acumen that you have acquired over the years will give you the insight required to plan and to manage technical projects in an abstract sense. Managers who have never been involved with the work before do not possess this foresight.
- First-time managers may retreat to that comfort zone of writing code when they have time. I don’t necessarily consider this to be a bad thing. After you’ve progressed and have become a senior-level manager, coding may not be the best use of your time. In the beginning, however, it’s okay to find a one-hour block on your calendar where you focus on a task that may not be super critical, but that needs to be done regardless. Balancing this tendency with your real duties as a manager will help you avoid painting yourself into a corner and losing track of your time. Stepping back into technical work may help you regain your mental sanity in times of chaos.
- I was lucky to have a very good mentor. They had gone through a similar journey before me and were able to give me a lot of great advice. Without this guidance, some younger professionals may struggle to find themselves. After all there are no courses or certifications to become an engineering manager. It's something you learn on the job. If you can find someone who has gone through this journey themselves, it can be a valuable resource as you navigate this unknown territory.
- Don’t try to do too many things at the same time. Your company does not expect you to have everything up and running by the end of your first day. The transition is one that should not be rushed along. You should always be soliciting those around you for feedback on what can be improved.
- Some people make the decision to become a manager and worry that they may not like it as a long-term arrangement. In cases like these, it is okay to step back down and become an IC again. Most companies will give you six months or a year to feel the role in its entirety; you need to be honest with yourself about whether or not the decision was the right one for you personally. It should never feel like a door is shutting behind you.
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