How to grow as an Engineering Manager

Srivatsan Sridharan
Srivatsan Sridharan
9 min readSep 10, 2023

The struggle for growth

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So you’ve been an Engineering Manager for a few years. You know how to run your team and deliver results. You’ve built enough foundational skills around project management, prioritization, coaching your engineers, and building strong stakeholder relationships. You are known by your team, by your peers, and by your boss as a competent engineering manager who can get shit done.

Surely, it’s time for you to get promoted, right? It’s time for you to manage managers and make your way up the organizational chain?

Buuuut….you still find yourself doing the same thing day in and day out, with no growth opportunities in sight. You ask your manager about how you could grow, and they give you the cryptic — “you are not ready yet” answer. When you push further, your boss gives you tactical feedback around improving your relationship with Team X or getting better at executive presence, whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean. All around you, your peers with presumably similar skills as yours are skyrocketing in their careers.

You wonder, what is going wrong?

If this sounds like you…read on.

The Skills-Opportunity Paradox

Engineering Management is an opportunity driven profession. You can only have enough managers in your organization. The need only gets smaller as you go up the organizational hierarchy. To get those opportunities you’ll need to have all the right skills. But how would you be able to learn the skills to be a Director or VP of Engineering without getting the opportunity to do so? So there’s catch-22 situation here — To learn the skills, you need the opportunity. To get the opportunity you need to have the skills.

To break out of this paradox, you’ll need to create new opportunities for yourself. Once you do so, this paradox will transform into a flywheel that’ll propel you forward in your career. Use your existing skills to create new opportunities. Take those opportunities and learn new skills. Use those new skills to create new opportunities. And so on.

Creating Opportunities

After observing and interviewing engineering leaders around me as well as applying my own experiences, I came up with a set of six growth patterns or archetypes that you can follow to create new opportunities for yourself. The choice(s) of archetype you’d want to apply depends on your current strengths, and gaps in your organization. Let’s dive into each of them in detail and the situations where they’d serve you the best.


The Inspirational Leader

Inspirational Leaders tend to be strong communicators (and often good public speakers) who are able to get people to follow them on the basis of their charisma, empathy, and their ability to connect with people. They tend to be good at articulating a vision, getting their teams to gel together, and generate likability from their reports.

How to apply this archetype to create opportunities
Identify and motivate high performers on your team. Keep them happy, give them context, and let them find new opportunities for you and your team. As they find new opportunities for your team and help deliver on them, the scope of your team will grow. As the scope of your team grows, you will automatically grow in your career.

When can this archetype be successful
For this archetype to work well, you’d need strong engineers on your team or headcount to go hire strong engineers with whom you have mutual trust. The organization must also be somewhat bottoms-up where engineers are supported and empowered by the culture to drive impact.

The Tough Coach

Tough Coaches also tend to be strong communicators but prefer 1:1 communications as opposed to broad forums. They tend to have a strong understanding of people’s strengths, weaknesses, and motivations, and are capable of pushing each person to deliver their best. Their ruthless performance management leads to them commanding respect and admiration of their team.

How to apply this archetype to create opportunities
Set a high bar for your team and aggressively push middle-of-the-pack performers to rise up and do their best. Also be ruthless about managing underperformance — either turn around underperformers or manage them out swiftly. With this approach, you may burn out some of your engineers and cause them to leave. But the others who stay on will see themselves getting better, will attribute their success to you, and follow you wherever you go. As long as you care deeply about individuals, your tough love, while having short-term negative consequences will have long-term positive ones.

As you do this enough times, you will gain credibility with your leadership chain as someone who has the chops to turn a low performing team into an A+ team. There is no dearth of dysfunction in any organization — before you know it, you will be tapped to help fix another dysfunction, and another, and you will rise up the ranks.

When can this archetype be successful
This archetype typically works well in organizational cultures where other forces like HR (or even your boss) don’t meddle in how you operate your team. While checks and balances are important, excessive meddling can prevent you from pushing people to do their best or managing out people that need to be managed out.

The Business Strategist

Business Strategists have a keen eye for spotting new opportunities, and are good at predicting the future. While they could be intuitive or data-driven, they possess a strong understanding of the domain, the competitive landscape, and cause-effect relationships of various approaches. They don’t shy away from taking risks and tend to be very good at prioritization.

How to apply this archetype to create opportunities
Focus on what your team is building more than anything else. Eliminate low ROI projects and get your team to focus only on projects that deliver the most business value. As a result, even if your team isn’t the best, or the people aren’t the happiest, your team ends up delivering significant value simply by virtue of working on the right things. As you build this track record, your peers or bosses start to see you as someone who possesses the ability to identify and work on the right problems. As a result, they’ll include you in higher leadership forums and give you increasing scope.

When can this archetype be successful
This archetype typically works well in cultures that value business impact more than anything else. You can’t be penalized for making some engineers unhappy. This archetype also works well in situations where impact of the area you lead is easily measurable and is important to senior leadership (or you’ll have to go through an uphill battle).

The Technology Innovator

Technology Innovators have strong technical skills and leverage them to create innovative solutions to hard problems. They have a strong grasp of where research and industry is headed, and are able to match the right technical solutions to the right business problems. They are technically strong enough that they could switch into IC leadership roles interchangeably.

How to apply this archetype to create opportunities
Are there other teams or areas around you that you see are lacking a strong technical direction? Are you seeing them make sub-optimal technology choices when you have better ones up your sleeve? If so, read their design docs and offer valuable feedback. Talk to their leaders, learn about their problems, offer solutions that will make their teams better. Co-author proposals with these teams, get your management chain’s backing, and make meaningful improvements to the broader organization’s technical strategy. Teach and influence your peers on these technical approaches. As you do this, senior leadership will recognize you as a technical thought leader and will ask you to spend your time on other areas of the business. More repetitions of this will lead you to increased scope over time, which will propel you up the leadership chain.

When can this archetype be successful
This archetype is best suited for cultures that value engineering excellence. It’ll also be more fruitful if the environment is “less political” and it’s culturally accepted for teams to help each other succeed. Otherwise your approaches to bring in technology change could be resisted by your competitive peers. This archetype also works well in environments where engineering managers are expected to be technical and/or where there aren’t sufficient staff/principal level engineers who could do this.

The Orchestrator

Orchestrators have strong work management and organizational skills. They know how to keep the trains running on time no matter how many or how complex the dependencies are. They have a strong attention to detail. Irrespective of the domain or the team, they are able to extract value by creating more efficiencies

How to apply this archetype to create opportunities
First, start with making your team efficient — improve processes for planning, execution, and dependency management so that everything runs as a well-oiled machine. Then, make your cross-functional partners efficient. (For eg. can you improve the process your team uses to collaborate with product, design, and data science?) Then, make your boss’ teams efficient — can the processes you’ve built work for other teams that report into your boss? If so, pitch the ideas to your boss, get their buy-in, and make your peer teams efficient from a process perspective. Keep going up the chain this way, making more and more organizations efficient. As a result, you’ll end up getting formal ownership of more and more teams, and your career will grow.

When can this archetype be successful
This archetype is best suited for scenarios where there is a lot of chaos and little to no structure around (for eg. fast growing startups that are becoming too large too quick). This also works well in situations where is too much process and red-tape where simplification and waste-elimination can drive tremendous value.

The Savvy Politician

Savvy Politicians are keen to understand social dynamics and where power resides. They are great at networking and building relationships. They are savvy negotiators and are good at finding common ground and win-win situations. They are good at managing perceptions and branding their teams.

How to apply this archetype to create opportunities
Understand who the power players are in your organization. Once you know who they are, find out what their top priorities are, and help them be successful. As you do that, you’ll earn more trust with them. As you earn their trust, they’ll come to you with opportunities that they need your help with. By delivering against these, you’ll widen your scope and impact, which will automatically lead you towards promotions and growing in your career. For examples, by helping your boss grow, you will be able to take up the opportunities that your boss was previously taking on.

When can this archetype be successful
This archetype is almost always successful irrespective of the organization you are in. But this is also the archetype that has the highest chances of backfiring if you don’t “read the room” well. For instance, in some companies, the power players are staff engineers (and not VPs). If you try to make VPs successful which comes at the cost of burning bridges with staff engineers, you will likely not be successful. In some organizations, enabling another team to be successful may be rewarded. In others, taking over the charter and delivering better results may get you more recognition.

Putting it all together

To summarize, growth as an engineering manager is all about creating new opportunities for yourself. Figure out which archetype(s) you resonate with, identify your organizational context, and apply these techniques to create more opportunities. As you work on these opportunities, you will learn new skills. You can use the skills to create more opportunities. This way, you can turn your situation from being one where you’re stuck to one where you have a virtuous circle of growth!

Does this framework resonate with you? What other archetypes have you used or seen others use to create opportunities and grow in their career? I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Comment on this post or DM on LinkedIn!



Srivatsan Sridharan
Srivatsan Sridharan

Engineering Manager. Part-time novelist. I write about travel, food, engineering, books, movies, and life.