Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before Becoming a Manager

Maker and manager are often orthogonal roles, with very little overlap. There are a lot of differences between being an engineer and being an engineering manager. So how, as a maker, do you jump ship? If the roles are so different, how can you know whether you’ll like it?

I’ve recently been asked this quite a bit: whether I like it, and how did I know if I would? For me, the surprising thing is that yes, I like it a lot, and yes, I think you can tell whether or not you’ll like it too.

Ask yourself — am I more irritated when I have a bad day, or when the customer has a bad day?

As a manager, the job is to solve whatever problem is blocking the team and company from delivering excellence, causing pain for the customer, or making someone disengaged or unhappy at work.

As an engineer, my coding was very driven by solving the most pressing problems, and I honestly didn’t care too much what part of the product I worked on or the type of code that I wrote. I was as happy fiddling with the Stripe webhooks, building out the front-end in React, or tackling bugs, as long as it was relieving the pain point and widening the bottleneck. I couldn’t help but hunt those bottlenecks down.

For me, technical challenges were a means to an end. They were fun too, but I wasn’t fundamentally drawn by the fun of it the same way I believe many natural engineers are. If you respond to questions like “what are you interested in working on?” with a feeling of amusement and the answer — “whatever the customer is interested in getting to work” then that’s a sign you’ll be a happy manager. If you find solving specific technical challenges really validating, and love a certain kind of work, you’ll probably be happier and more valuable as an individual contributor.

Do you prefer “flow”, or do you love facing down an impossible task?

When “managering”, I don’t experience much flow, and there’s not a pull request to show at the end of the day that I can point to and think yes, I was so productive.

I rarely spend many hours in the zone with my skills perfectly matched to the problem at hand. The problem at hand can always use more skill, more tact, more insight. I never really experienced much flow anyway as an engineer, perhaps because as soon as I had a handle on something I’d try solve a harder problem.

If you love being in the zone, you might find the average day of managing unrewarding.

Are you an outsider? Or do you like the camaraderie of a group?

This one could be its own post, but the thing I miss most about being an engineer is not the mornings in a coffee shop, listening to Spotify and shipping away. It’s feeling part of a crew. Talking shop with coworkers, friends, strangers on the internet, Hacker News and Hacker News Onion, and the knowing laughter when we all have this experience debugging.

You can’t really do this as a manager. You’re managing your team, but also managing sideways (your peers) and managing up (your boss). You’re holding the umbrella; you don’t complain about the rain. If you like to be part of a group, and like to be liked, managing will be tough.

Being an engineer is solitary job: we work alone, mostly. Being a manager is all about people, but it can be much more lonely.