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Going from engineer to engineering manager means focusing less on code and more on supporting others. Here's a six-step guide on how to be a good engineering manager.
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Many engineers will eventually meet a crossroads in their careers. Either they stay an individual contributor—managing their own workflow—or become an engineering manager, managing and guiding others.
As an individual contributor, an engineer narrows in on languages and platforms to specialize in. As an engineering manager, an engineer must broaden their skillset beyond software development and learn how to be a good engineering manager.
Neither path is better or worse, as they each offer their own benefits and fulfillment for the right person. But they both require growth in different ways. We’ll dive into what you need to succeed as an effective engineering manager.
New engineering managers take on many responsibilities while simultaneously gaining authority and influence within their organization. For that reason, engineers-turned-managers have to level up in several key areas to do their role justice.
Let’s talk about those areas. Here are six ways to uplevel engineers to become better engineering managers:
Becoming an engineering manager changes the scope of your day-to-day tasks. It’s less about your own accomplishments, more about others’. You’re no longer working on tickets assigned to you; instead, you’re focusing on the big picture of how to drive success across an entire engineering team.
To that end, your work mainly consists of driving conversations and decisions to help your direct reports do their best work. In turn, this allows your organization to realize its engineering objectives.
You can feel confident about your big picture understanding if you can answer these questions:
There’s no perfect playbook for managing an engineering team because every team member is different. Each engineer brings their own preferences, perspectives, and working style, which influence their contributions to how a whole team gels.
Your best course as their manager is to get to know your engineering team members on an individual level so you can align your company’s goals and motivations with theirs. Whether you do it through one-on-one conversations, group team-building activities, or daily check-ins with Kona, pay attention to:
These details are vital to designing a team workflow and structure where everyone is engaged in their work and can be their most productive. It also helps you support their career development more meaningfully.
Jonathan Tian, Co-Founder of Mobitrix, emphasizes the importance of pinpointing your team’s frustrations and challenges upfront.
“Find out what is hard and frustrating for your team. When you find what is disturbing them, you can easily move towards an answer regarding how to change it. Assign them to work according to their skills and interest or whatever creates value for them. When they get engaged in their work, they become more productive.”
As a manager, your effectiveness is strictly linked to the trust you've built with your team members. After all, trust is the foundation for genuine relationships. In the workplace, it increases job satisfaction and productivity while decreasing stress.
Building trust might not come naturally to new engineering managers who are more technical-minded. Still, it’s as simple as being a good, empathetic person. You gain trust through mutual respect, honest communication, honoring your commitments, and practicing what you preach as a leader. It also helps to show your vulnerability, so your team feels comfortable opening up to you.
Anne Trobaugh, Vice President of Quality and Customer Experience for American Woodmark and founder of My Best Friend At Work, highlights the need to show empathy to gain your team’s trust.
“I believe the best advice for new engineering managers is to work on becoming an empathetic leader. To be an empathetic leader, a manager must know his or her team members well. And a very tactical approach for getting to know them better is to [focus] on personal development and building trust within the team.”
Engineers are often measured by their technical contributions. But an engineering manager is measured by how well their entire team performs. That means that if you’re seeking to level up as an engineering manager, you must shift your mindset from player to coach.
There are several parallels between coaching and being a successful engineering manager. For one, great coaches run training programs to keep their players in tip-top shape and to ensure consistently good performance.
Mark Herschberg, CTO, MIT instructor, and author of a career skills book The Career Toolkit, agrees with this concept for managers and their employees. He adds that training should happen regularly.
“Many companies like to send a new hire off to a quick two-day training program. That’s like an NBA team bringing on a new basketball player, sending them to a two-day basketball clinic, and then telling them they don’t need to practice the rest of the season. Management training is not one and done.”
Another parallel between engineering managers and coaches is that neither claim to know all the answers. Instead, they encourage team members to actively learn from each other by working in small groups and finding mentors amongst each other. Herschberg confirms that “the best way to learn [engineering] skills is not in isolation but through peer learning groups using active learning.”
Engineering managers are often go-to problem-solvers due to their seniority, subject matter expertise, or tenure at a company. However, great engineering managers don’t jump at every chance to fix a problem.
Instead, they foster autonomy in their team so others can feel empowered to reach solutions independently. Not only does this instill confidence in those who rise to the occasion, but it also:
Most engineers hope the technologies they're working on keep them motivated and fulfilled. But shouldn’t be the only aspect keeping them at the company. Other sources of fulfillment and excitement are the people they’re working with and the work environment, otherwise known as the team culture.
As an engineering manager, it’s your job to create and nurture a culture that positively contributes to your team’s engagement levels and quality of life.
There are multiple approaches to creating a positive team culture, but it starts with being thoughtful about who you hire. Second, set an example for the qualities you want more of in your culture. For example, if you want a culture of honesty and compassion, be an honest and compassionate leader.
Finally, choose some core cultural tenets and use them to inform your decisions as an engineering leader.
Being a good engineering manager that brings the best out of a team of engineers takes focus and a unique combination of non-technical skills. These six tips are an engineering manager’s guide to becoming the trusted leader, coach, and supporter that every engineer would be fortunate to have.