How to identify who to promote to Engineering Management?

Four great engineering leaders (directors of engineering at Box, Affirm, TuneIn, and Waymo) talked about how they usually identify who to promote to management during the Plato event #3 hosted on August 9th, 2017, in San Francisco. Don’t miss our next event on the XXth of September in XXXXXX with speakers from XXXX, XXXX , XXXX…

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Deciding who to promote to an engineering manager role can be a challenging task. It’s a double challenge for the organization, which needs to someone who is not just a great engineer with good people managing and communication skills, but also someone genuinely interested in the role. Engineers are not often eager to become managers — a higher salary and more perks is often not enough to convince them. Four panelists explained their approach to promotions:

Laura Bilazarian, CEO and cofounder at Teamable (Moderator)

Antoine Boulanger, senior director of Engineering at Box

Allen Cheung, director of Engineering at Affirm

Radha Shenoy, director of Product Engineering at TuneIn

Sacha Arnoud, director of Engineering at Waymo

What are some of the signs that someone is ready for the engineering manager role?

Sacha emphasized the differences between an engineer and management calls. The commitment to learning the “nature” of the job is the key to making a successful promotion to engineering management. If the applicant shows signs of hesitation (such as wondering, “Will I still be able to write code?”), it’s a warning sign that person might not be ready to fully commit to the role. The organization itself needs to create an environment for everyone to grow, and the promotion needs to be a success for both the person and the company.

Notice can do things in a proactive manner, and who is the first to come up with creative ideas. Those who propose interesting ideas and solutions regarding team-related issues may be a good fit for an engineering management role. Even if the solution itself may not appear as ideal from your perspective, you should try to further investigate that person’s managerial skills. This is what Radha does. Based on her experience, she recommends modeling the engineering management position in a way that doesn’t affect the selected person’s prospects of improving their technical skills.

Allan recognizes different kinds of engineers — not in term of their skills and education, but rather in terms of their approach to engineering. Some people believe that engineering is purely technological, and thus, see themselves as tech-only talent. Others are more proactive and are able to adopt new non-tech skills easily. He recommended looking for the kind of person who regards an engineering team as a group of people, not just technological talent.

Many people only see the “cool” side of management at first — higher salary and perks — and believe being a manager is much easier than a job based on “hard skills,” such as coding. The fact that management is a serious and complex career choice that carries plenty of new responsibilities may repel most who originally express interest in that career path. Engineers who take charge within their team for a long period of time are usually the best fit for managerial positions, and it’s better for the senior manager to initiate that promotion.

First three things to do when you transition someone to engineering management position

When someone transitions from an engineering role to an engineering management role, the company needs to help them to get the mutual success of the promotion. The aim should be in sharpening the selected person’s competencies in a way that should benefit the company and finding out how to help the selected candidate to reach managerial excellence as quickly as possible.

Antoine believes in a smooth transition from a tech position to management. Box has a program for transitioning engineers into managers that lasts anywhere from six months to a year. During that period, enrollees are gradually exposed to management. They are given tasks to perform related to project management, Scrum, and similar skills, and by the end of the transition, they have learned core management competencies.

What Allan does to successfully transition engineers at Affirm into managers is give them enough space to try out management tasks themselves. This lets them explore the role and their reactions to management-related challenges and issues, and also helps superiors better assess their adaptation to the new position. Allan uses these signals to provide feedback and guidelines to the new managers.

Radha has frequent one-on-ones with those recently promoted. The senior lead needs to dedicate time for that and make a plan for a smooth, yet successful transition through one-on-ones. Concurrently, the selected candidate should have regular one-on-ones with his or her future direct reports. These meetings should be informal at first, and then over time should become more businesslike. At that time, the WM title can be awarded to the candidate without any noticeable change.

Sacha highlighted the different roles that an engineering manager has to perform. As a previous engineering manager at Google, he had to attend classes whenever he was promoted. While it’s something most startups can’t afford, it assures the company that new managers can acquire and handle new responsibilities. One-on-ones need to focus on the related team’s accomplishments, rather than the selected manager’s.

The ability to get promoted is of major importance for attracting and retaining good talent, but tech companies need to create and maintain an organization where employees can get promoted in other areas than just management. Not everyone is suitable for managerial roles, and managerial roles are not for everyone, but there may be many quality and skilled persons who deserve to be promoted to other important, non-managerial roles.

At Sacha’s company, people can choose their promotional path based on their technical skills and what new skills they can learn. Waymo is about rewarding people for acquiring any new technical skill that can benefit the company.

How do you get someone to realize that engineering management is not the only way to get promoted?

TuneIn’s tech promotion strategy is learning what an individual engineer is interested in, and then allowing him or her to achieve an expert level in that chosen technology or skill. At that point, other employees will consider that engineer a “go-to” person because of his or her domain knowledge. This brings a real feeling of being promoted and also a feeling of self-accomplishment and Radha’s company is rewarding it.

Allen discussed the problem of the manager role’s impact. Managers have more knowledge on what is happening in the company. Engineers spend most of their time inside their teams working on projects, while an intrinsic property of managerial position is having a bigger viewpoint. One way to overcome this situation is to give senior engineers more authority and transparency, and the ability to empower people the way managers do whilst not actually being managers themselves.

Antoine talked about two promotion tracks: the manager track and the IT track. Companies should strive to make these two tracks as structurally similar as possible, beyond the differences between engineering and management. It means the same system of rewards, compensation, influence, communication duties, etc.

A solid, well-integrated, and suitable scheme of an organization is largely dependent on promoting people to higher positions. In tech companies, those can be both managerial and technical roles. Owing to that dual nature of tech companies, their organizational structure is much different from those of other companies, and more customized. Thus, the employee promotion processes are more personalized and tailored to what the company needs in that moment. Plato’s instructors can help your company achieve a structure and system of promotions that can help your company move forward, work more efficiently, and grow faster.

Plato is a community of top-notch engineering leaders who dedicate 30 minutes of their time per week to have calls to help engineering managers, or engineers who are currently transitioning to management roles, their challenges. Sign up to become a mentor or to be mentored.

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