Jennifer Dennard

So you want to be an engineering manager

Insights and advice from engineering leaders who have been where you are today

Share with linkedin

Yesterday you were a standout engineer. Today you’re a standout engineer with a question to consider: Do you want to be an engineering manager?

For many, answering that question isn’t just difficult, it can actually be quite scary. How will your day-to-day change? Will you be able to continue honing your skills as an engineer? What training and support will you receive as you transition to management? And what happens if you decide management isn’t for you? 😬

There’s a great deal to think about as you consider the engineering management path and you shouldn’t have to go it alone. That’s why we invited four engineering leaders to join us and share their experiences at a Meetup focused on the transition from individual contributor (IC) to engineering manager.

Here are some of the key lessons and advice we took away from the event and that we think might help you begin to determine if management is for you. And if you want to hear everything for yourself, watch the recording of our panel discussion below.

1. Deciding to become an engineering manager

As an IC or even team lead, it can be difficult to know what being a manager is actually like and whether or not you would enjoy it. If the following points resonate with you, becoming an engineering manager might be right for you.

  • Scale your impact — You can grow your influence in a lot of ways without becoming a people manager, says Eugenia Dellapenna, Senior Engineering manager at Medium. If you’re interested in scaling your impact and being directly accountable for the humans on a team or in an organization through programs and coaching, then you may like being a manager.
  • Solve new problems — Early in her career, Rukmini Reddy, now VP of Engineering at Abstract, quickly rose to principal engineer. Her then CTO saw in her a talent for people and building relationships and urged her to give management a try. Though quite skeptical about the move, she gave it a shot and never looked back.
“Programs are very predictable. Humans are not. That’s what I love about the craft.” —Rukmini Reddy

But it’s not all about knowing how to work with people. Rukmini advised that as you enter into management you will still require the technical chops to discuss work with your team. Without it they won’t respect you.

Deciding to remain an individual contributor

The different challenges and new skills development that come with management aren’t of interest to everyone. If you know you love exploring deep technical problems, or if architecting a company’s software infrastructure is part of your five-year plan, then continuing down the IC path is probably the right decision for you for now.

2. Setting your expectations for management

Regardless of where you work, when you becoming a manager your day-to-day is going to change. Accepting this reality is important. Here are a few additional realities you should warm up to if you’re considering becoming a manager.

  • Code less, mentor more — When you become a manager, you’re going to be doing a fair bit less coding that you were used to as an IC. For Sri Raghavan, Engineering Manager at Asana, his first few months of being a manager were about finding new ways to value his impact on the organization.

Before doing it, he had no idea what to expect from being a manager. A year in, he loves it. “Management [is] a way that I contribute to the organization and feel impact,” he says.

  • Surrender to change and prepare for surprises — The way in which your teammates approach a problem may not be exactly how you’d go about it. You’ll have to learn that different doesn't mean wrong. Nitpick less.

One of the things that surprised Ryan most about becoming a people manager was how often direct reports brought up very personal issues in one-on-one meetings. Visa complications, difficulties in a relationship, a deceased pet. As a manager, it is likely that you will be the first person to whom a team member brings a problem. So be prepared for your meetings to sometimes shift from project-focused to person- and support-focused.

  • Set boundaries — With that in mind, “Other people’s well-being is not your burden,” advised Rukmini. “Compassion over empathy.”
“You aren’t your reports’ therapist.” —Eugenia Dellapenna

There’s a lot of emotional labor involved in being a manager, and it will not be helpful for you to try to take on the role of primary supporter. People want to be heard, and often that can be enough.

3. Assessing your effectiveness as a manager

As you get started as an engineering manager, one question you may find you consistently ask yourself is: Am I doing a good job? The answer is probably yes. But, here are a couple of ways to help you gauge your effectiveness as a manager.

  • Ask your team for feedback — What feedback do you have for me? If that question doesn’t do the trick, Ryan Leary, Engineering Manager of the Oculus team at Facebook, says try, If I had a magic wand, what would you want?

Ask these questions of everyone on your team, but also be sure to seek out the people on your team or across your organization who don’t shy away from giving feedback. It’s going to help you improve as a leader.

  • Evaluate success metrics — Is your team shipping? Are you shipping on time? Are you operating well? Are people happy and collaborating in a healthy way?

“A lot of factors go into a team being successful,” says Eugenia. “It’s my job to diagnose what’s going wrong and why. Ultimately, if my team is successful, that means I’m doing my job well.”

4. Being a great manager

You might find your footing on the path to management sooner than you expect. And on your way to becoming a great manager, there are a few things our panel urges you to never forget.

  • Empower your team — “Have my back and get out of my way.” When asked by a former CEO how he could best support her, that’s how Rukmini replied. Empower the people on your team to do their job by providing them with the resources, autonomy, and guidance (when they need it) to be successful.
  • Be the sword and shield — Fight for your people and protect them. As a manager, Ryan says, it’s your job to both lead and protect. Advocate for what your individual team members need to be successful — and, by extension, for your team and you, as a leader, to be successful — and also be prepared to bite the bullet for them when it’s required.
  • Say I don’t know — You’re going to feel like you have to have all of the answers when you start out as a manager. You don’t. Sri shared that “Whether the question was about compensation or promotions, I felt like I had to know everything.” For him, it was a battle to eventually be able to say honestly “I don’t really know, but I will find out or we can learn more together.”
  • Learn to let go — While it may be your instinct as a manager to try to fill gaps — and yes, this is an important responsibility of yours — it can very easily get out of control. You can’t be responsible for everything, and sometimes you just can’t answer every question that comes your way on Slack. Let your team share in some of that responsibility, thereby granting them the opportunity to grow in new ways.
  • Make the hard decisions — It’s probably not going to be easy to acknowledge, but there’s a chance that not everyone on your team is going to be successful (for whatever reason). Early in your time as a manager, you might try to do whatever you can to help a struggling teammate keep up with the rest of the group. But when you find someone dragging down the rest of the team and things aren’t changing, even after a concerted effort from yourself and HR, it will be time to let them go. The rest of your team needs you, too.

5. Recognizing the power of good management

Being a manager is really hard work. So much depends on you and your ability to set your team up for success. But when you get it right, being a manager is so very rewarding. Here are a couple of ways the power of good management has manifested for our panelists.

  • Building healthy teams — Seeing your team energized and excited about their work is going to feel great. “I love my job,” said Sri. “I inherited my team, started managing a few folks and expanded to managing the whole team.” Today, his team is healthy and other engineers across the organization want to become a part of it. (It is incredibly rewarding as a manager to hear that last part.)
  • Helping team members advance their careers — When you’ve been working with someone for a while, coaching them, and then you see them accomplish their goal. That’s one of the best parts of management according to Ryan. Building plans for promotion with your direct reports and seeing them advance will make you feel great.

Ryan admits that, selfishly, hearing “If you ever leave, take me with you” and “I never want to leave [this team]” will feel pretty great, too.

Additional resources to help you on your path to management

At the end of the panel discussion, we asked each panelist for resources that have helped them along the way. Management is a skill that you must continue honing, so it’s no surprise that everyone noted they continue to go back to these resources.

  • The Manager’s Path, by Camille Fournier
  • Rands Slack Group
  • Plato for finding mentorship and peers if there are none at your company
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni
  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • Dare to Lead, by Brené Brown
  • An Elegant Puzzle, by William Larson

As you consider management for your future, or as you continue forging your path as a new engineering manager, we hope the lessons and advice from these great leaders help.

For more leadership resources, check out our leadership reading list. And if you’re looking for ways to build healthier, more successful teams then be sure to try Range!

Support your team, grow as a leader

Subscribe to Lead Time for insights on building effective teams