3 reasons to congratulate a new engineering manager — having new reports ain’t one of them.

Often, when a talented engineer becomes Engineering Manager, that transition is seen as a promotion. But it really is not — a career track switch (see this New Relic blog post) is really a (bold) lateral move. Contrary to Individual Contributors, Managers usually have a team reporting to them, but this is not cause for congratulations. Driving a team on a power relationship can compromise the trust building exercise, a key ingredient to team cohesion and performance : you can’t establish trust by asserting your power.

I like to think of the Engineer to Manager transition as a road cyclist at the top of her game switching to mountain biking : sure, she will still cycle, use her power endurance and mental strengths, but that’s about it — she will not start as a an expert mountain biker and will have a lot to learn in the process. And this is where the new Engineering Manager starts — at the very start of a new discipline. Congratulations on the demotion then? Of course not, this move will be extremely rewarding and should be celebrated — here are three reasons to do so.

Putting your team before yourself

As a manager, your main responsibility is NOT to write code anymore or design systems : your job is to harness everyone’s energy, skills and potential to have your team deliver to the organization. Solving that “human puzzle” will require to put yourself in the backseat and sharpen your empathy and listening skills among others. Understanding each of your team members’ unique needs, caring for their career growth, and coaching them to achieve their goals will require the best of you. As their manager, you will have to fight for your team, including for their salary, which may become higher than yours : you still have to do what is best and fair for them, regardless of what your ego says. Being an Engineering Manager is a full time, ever-changing job where you excel by having each and everyone on your team excel. The skills required to accomplish that feat are not unique to Tech : empathy (I do repeat myself here, but that may be the most important skill to develop), caring (genuinely caring or it will go against you), and to push it to Rands’ extreme : unfailing kindness. The cherry on the cake : it is officially your job to cater to your team needs, and you are accountable for it. Congratulations on officially accepting that challenge.

Trading your technical expertise for soft skills

You were expert in your Engineering domain, people used to come to you for advice, you presented at conferences, you’ve made it to the top : congratulations. Now that you are Engineering Manager, you are going to be able to multiply your knowledge and make an even bigger impact : it will require very little of your engineering domain expertise. Cynthia Maxwell in her talk at Calibrate SF 2016 did an amazing job at outlining a manager’s various responsibilities :

1) Team Building

  • Recruiting
  • Building relationships
  • Coaching

2) Crafting Your Vision

  • Exploring
  • Learning
  • Roadmapping

3) Delivering Results

  • Coordinating
  • Controlling Risks
  • Using your expertise

Out of the all the above 9 responsibilities (actually 10, but I’ll let you read the follow up), using your expertise represents a fraction of the job. You now have a slew of new skills to master (building relationships, coaching, recruiting). Even genuinely giving advice from your technical experience to the team in order to “help” will end up hurting everyone. So, as Molly Graham puts it, congratulations on giving away your legos.

Going with a trial by fire approach

A majority of software engineers learn and practice how to code at school : an environment propitious to learning where a bad line of code may not cause an outage. When not learning at school, it’s through books and hands on experience, again in a “safe” environment — it’s very unlikely your learning mistakes will have any consequences.

The majority of Engineering Managers never learnt Engineering Management, Management or even empathy at school. Some of the skills needed for the job were maybe learnt as part of family values and through life experiences, but not in books. Some are lucky and can benefit from training programs and mentorship through their work, but for the most part, new managers are left to their own devices. We can of course find plenty of resources on the topics :

But when it comes to practice, we’re left with our new team and a blank canvas. It can be scary (“am I going to mess up?”) and the stakes are high (“what if Alex quits?”), but thankfully humans are a lot more forgiving than systems and as long as you are very attuned to your environment ( “1:1 — every week, same time, no matter what”) and that your own manager is doing her part supporting you, you have a lot of leeway in learning your new job. Nonetheless, congratulations on a trial by fire approach.

Becoming an engineering manager is a journey to becoming a better human : your success relies on you supporting your team rather than technical excellence. This paradigm shift is not for everyone and should not be forced onto anyone once they reach a certain level of technical expertise. Next time you come across a colleague doing that transition, do congratulate them, but for the right reasons :

  • Putting their team first and being accountable for being a better person
  • Giving away their legos
  • Plunging into the deep end with a brand new team and no prior experience
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