Starting my hybrid role in engineering management/technical leadership 15 months ago has been eye-opening, filled with its fair share of hurdles and chances to learn. If you asked me even a few years ago, I would have told you that I never want to go down the management path. Why did I choose to become a manager now then? I can boil the answer down to a few things:
- The team I was working on needed a manager and we were having trouble hiring one.
- After speaking to several engineering leaders, I realized it would be a good opportunity for me to challenge myself and embrace new growth opportunities, like improving my interpersonal and communication skills (especially with non-technical peers).
- I wanted to push myself so I didn't get too comfortable as an engineer after so many years in the industry.
- I could have a much bigger impact in building out a great product.
- I wanted to understand the bigger picture of software development as a business; including end to end product development and sales, etc.
This new position marked a clear shift from my fully technical roots and that's why I have been seeking out educational material like books and trainings to learn how to properly manage an engineering team. Amazingly, my experiences and struggles as a new manager were echoed in what I learned from the first day at the Front-end Masters Engineering Management 101 workshop. Let me share some key takeaways, mixed in with my own thoughts and ideas 💡.
Key Insights on Management
The workshop made it clear that as managers climb higher, they drift away from the day-to-day technical details and must rely increasingly on their teams. Micromanagement is a pitfall to avoid—it's a false sense of contribution. Instead, the real challenge lies in building trust and focusing on broader goals beyond the daily coding tasks.
It's a tough transition, especially if you've excelled as a software engineer. Letting go of that intricate, hands-on technical role means learning to trust your team while you tackle the macro challenges. No one will micromanage your time—you set your own priorities, and with leadership comes the weight of responsibility. It can be a lonely place, but allowing team members to vent and being there for them is part of the job.
You don’t have to become a manager to progress in your career, but if you do, it should be for the right reasons. It's about lifting everyone up, knowing when to listen, and being consistently present for your team, even when personal and business issues loom large.
The Shift in Perspective
One of the initial themes of the workshop centered on the necessity for managers to adopt a high-level and broad perspective. No longer is it sufficient to tunnel vision on technical problems. As a manager, one must see software development from the altitude of business strategy and product success. Engineering management is portrayed not as a promotion but a significant change in role; one that requires a holistic understanding of how each technical cog fits into the larger machinery of the company.
Managers must balance the technical with the human element, considering the interplay between people and business in decisions about compensation, hiring, and project priorities. The evolution into a managerial role implies that your concern is not just code but the coders, not just systems but the synergy between them.
Leadership and Influence
Climbing the managerial ladder doesn’t come with an increase in roles but rather a decrease, underscoring the competitive nature of advancement. The climb isn't about asserting dominance but about understanding the integral workings of each part of the team and the business.
Interestingly, the workshop highlighted that part of a manager's job might involve playing the roles of a cheerleader or even a therapist at times. The emotional well-being of the team is as crucial as their professional development. Managers must become adept at listening, defending, advocating, and connecting teams. This is a far cry from just writing code; it’s about writing the narrative that others will follow and believe in.
The Realities of Management
Contrary to popular belief, becoming a manager does not equate to having more control. The responsibilities are heavier, and the balance between keeping a team motivated and aligned with business objectives is a delicate art. This balancing act does not necessarily come with more job security or higher pay. Prestige in management must be earned, and respect is not given—it’s built through impact and influence.
Mistakes in management can have far-reaching effects. A manager's actions and decisions are under constant scrutiny, not only for their immediate repercussions but also for the influence they exert on the team's behavior.
The Long Game
The workshop emphasized that the true measure of a manager’s impact often unfolds over a longer time span—approximately two years—compared to the more immediate results seen in software development. This delayed feedback can be challenging as managers coach and mentor their teams, striving to facilitate positive changes and break old habits.
A Manager’s Tale: Interview with Ryan
An interview with Ryan, a seasoned manager with over a decade of experience, further grounded the discussions. His transition from lead engineer to manager was not smooth sailing. He underlined the heightened impact a manager has—not just on their immediate team but across the entire company. In this role, every word and action can ripple through departments, affecting numerous individuals and outcomes.
As I reflect on the first day of this workshop, it is apparent that the journey to engineering management is complex and nuanced. It's about growing into a role where the technical meets the human, where strategy and empathy coalesce, and where influence extends far beyond one’s immediate reach. The days ahead promise to delve deeper into this metamorphosis, and I look forward to sharing these continued insights. Stay tuned for more as we navigate the path of becoming an effective engineering manager.
Q&A and Comments
My hybrid role has left me apprehensive about losing technical skills as I consider a full shift into management. But the workshop brought clarity: management can actually make you a better engineer. You’re not abandoning technical skills; you’re gaining new ones to tackle different problems, often not directly in the code.
Discovering joy in the achievements of others is a cornerstone of management. Dealing with imposter syndrome is another aspect, one that doesn't necessarily fade with time or level—it's about adapting to how you contribute value in this new role.
The differences between an engineering manager and a product manager were discussed, highlighting their shared goal of delivering a product without writing code. Optimal meeting sizes, handling task estimations, and the importance of setting expectations were also covered—vital for preventing a culture of overestimation and under-delivery.
Meetings and Cadence
Meetings are less about immediate solutions and more about listening and understanding. The workshop recommends 1-on-1s every two weeks, and team meetings weekly. These are not just check-ins but powerful tools for management.
At my company, I made a checklist as well as a 1-on-1 tracker for each team member so we can be organized about check-ins and progress.
The First 30 Days as a New Manager
Understanding the company’s core—how it makes money, its relationship to your team, the users, and partners—is crucial. Without this knowledge, setting a long-term strategy is impossible. This foundation helps a new manager focus on what truly matters.
Mistakes to Avoid
The discussions were frank about common pitfalls: micromanaging, over-promising, and staying too close to the code. Other highlighted mistakes include over-engineering, not letting go of one's creations, putting too much pressure on oneself, and trying to change too much too soon.
Understanding the expectations of higher-ups, what they care about, and how they can assist is pivotal. You can learn a lot just from staff meetings and one-on-ones with upper management. Be sure to ask lots of questions and keep notes from every meeting.
The path to management is varied, and the motivations for taking on such a role should be well-considered. It’s a challenging role, demanding a diverse skill set and the foresight to develop these skills over time. Taking advantage of opportunities and recognizing that an interview measures potential, not just current ability, is part of the growth mindset encouraged by the course.
The workshop has illuminated the multifaceted nature of management—a balance of guiding a team, strategic thinking, and personal development. The transition from engineer to manager is a significant shift, not just in responsibilities but in the very essence of day-to-day work. As the course progresses, these insights will become part of the larger narrative of becoming not just a manager, but a leader in the field of engineering.
Those were my notes from the first session on Thursday. Later this week, I'll post my compiled notes from "Engineering 102" to get into more of the nitty-gritty of management. In the future, I hope to share how I've implement some of the strategies that I've learned. Stay tuned 😊 😁
Join me over in Discord to continue the discussion!