The curious transition to becoming an engineering manager
Engineers are uniquely unprepared for becoming managers.
Of course, engineers are capable of becoming exceptional managers—but at many companies, their entire career up to the point of transition into management trains them not to be managerial material.
“Problem solving is just not as clear cut for managers,” says Jean Hsu, Engineering Leadership Coach at jeanhsu.com. “The problems are people problems, communication problems, all the things we’ve generally learned to devalue as engineers.”
So the struggle to take on a management role is real, whether you are a twenty-year engineering veteran accepting a promotion or a still-green founder of a new startup. The truth, according to Hsu, is that engineering tends not to attract people with elevated EQ and people skills.
“Actually, we don’t really dock people for those lacks, as an industry,” she says. “People get rewarded for their technical focus. We put them in management positions, or just keep promoting them, and people can get pretty high up without really thinking too much about people’s intrinsic motivations.”
“The problems are people problems, communication problems, all the things we’ve generally learned to devalue as engineers.”
There’s no hyperbole in saying that engineering and management are two entirely separate gigs. Going from being an engineer to being an engineering manager isn’t merely a change in title. It’s an identity shift.
So Hsu, who has worked as an Engineering Manager at Medium after roles as an individual contributor at Medium, Pulse News, and Google, walked us through how to approach—and value—the aspects of management that you don’t deal with as an engineer, as well as how to recognize when you may need some help making the strange transition to management.
It’s all subjective
As an engineer, you are used to your work being more or less directly proportional to its impact. You write code, it advances a product’s development. You don’t write code, and it doesn’t. In management, however, the relationship between your work and its results is much more nuanced.
“You could have a small conversation, or make an observation to someone in a one-on-one, and it fundamentally shifts what they believe about themselves, and how they see their work,” Hsu says.
“The little wins are actually really huge wins.”
In other words, your results are the epitome of qualitative. And you better get used to dealing with subjectivity as you become a manager.
“If you don’t recognize that, you’re probably just going to be miserable,” Hsu says. “The little wins are actually really huge wins. You see a lot of people who have done a few years of management and they’re now interviewing back in IC roles because they can’t handle the subjectivity and the lack of feedback.”
We can hear the objections now: But if you can’t measure your output, and your results are so subjective…
How do you know you’re making an impact?
It’s tough to get much feedback around what the impact of managerial work is. Going into management with openness and curiosity will go a long way toward developing the flexibility to see the world differently than you did as an engineer.
This will be the hard for many engineering types to accept, but Hsu says, “Some of it is directly observable, and some of it you have to convince yourself with a bit of story-telling.”
Once you see those little impacts a few months in a row, you’ll start to see what the management path is and where it goes.
For example, let’s say you have a one-on-one with your engineer. The impact of that interaction may go beyond the immediate results stemming from the meeting. Maybe your engineer now views herself or her role in the team differently. Maybe the one-on-one helped her feel more welcome at work during a rough time at home. You may never know, and you likely never will. So you have to imagine the potential impacts, rather than expect to see concrete ones.
“As an engineering leadership coach, a lot of what I do is to help people notice those little things they’re doing that have an impact,” Hsu says. “And I hope that once they see those a few months in a row, then they’ll start to see what the management path is and where it goes.”
Her number one tip for noticing those little things is so simple that anyone can implement it: write down each day the most impactful thing you did. That will help you see the manager’s version of your daily progress.
And that will also help you see, on a regular basis, that you can do this managerial thing. Because it’s also entirely normal to feel like…
I’m no good at this
Hsu sees all the time that managers don’t realize that they’re good at management, precisely because they’re naturally good at it.
“Usually people move into management—if they’re not pushed by default as the most senior IC—because they have some innate ability around something that’s people-centric,” she explains. “I think if you have that innate ability, you don’t really know that that’s unique at all.”
It’s a lot like any other skill. Take singing, for example. If you have a natural ear and voice, singing is the simplest thing in the world. You can’t imagine not being able to sing, even though there’s plenty of tone deaf people who prove it’s possible.
“I think if you have that innate ability, you don’t really know that that’s unique at all.”
“If you’re good at managing naturally, you’re like, ‘Of course, that’s just what you’re supposed to do, right?’” Hsu says. As part of her coaching, she’ll try to point out a few things you’re particularly good at, things that she doesn’t see across the board.
Those strengths can be challenging to see without an outside eye. But you can also keep your eye open for…
Signs you need more training
In an ideal world, you’ll get a coach or a mentor when you first start the transition to engineering management. That way, you can get guidance and gut-checks before anything serious goes wrong.
But of course, that’s not always possible. So you can stay aware for specific signals that indicate, hey, you might need some outside assistance here.
Hsu’s signs that you may need more training include:
- Engineers are having trouble working with you. “If you want specific signals, I’d say people are not taking initiative, there’s retention issues, or people are having trouble working with this person,” Hsu says. What that boils down to is that, for one reason or another, you’re not building trust. Since that’s not a realization most people will voice openly to you, look for feedback in your performance reviews around communication.
- Your team is underperforming. Your primary goal as a manager is to facilitate your team’s productivity. You’re there to ensure they are working as cohesively and beneficially as possible. So if things aren’t going smoothly—your team is falling behind schedule, or your development has stagnated—odds are there are ways you can improve your management approach. (For starters, check out our seven tips for managing software developers effectively.)
- You are doing the technical work yourself. “Maybe you feel like you’re gravitating away from the management stuff and always wanting to do the technical stuff, and you kind of know that you should not be doing that, but you’re having trouble actually not doing it,” Hsu says. This tendency makes sense, particularly if you’re having trouble seeing the rewards of management work. “People naturally want to revert back to what they were doing before, but you’re now responsible for a small team of people,” she says. “There’s fallout from that.”
These are clear markers that you may need some additional coaching to get through the mindset shift. “That can be really powerful,” Hsu says.
Remember too that asking for help is a positive step for you and for your new career. In a sense, transitioning into management is a lot like transitioning into adulthood—you may think your awkward growth is entirely unique to you, but it’s the same stuff that most other engineering managers go through, too. The adjustment period is a strange and uncomfortable trip, but with a strong awareness around that strangeness and discomfort, we promise you can make it through to the other side.
Ben Thompson is a co-founder at GitPrime where he leads design and customer experience. He is a Y Combinator alumni, with a background in product design, branding, and UX design. Follow @thebent on Twitter.
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