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So you want to be a Manager - Part 1: Are you sure?
Transitioning from individual contributor to engineering manager
“Should I become an engineering manager?” is the #1 most asked question I get in my coaching sessions.
Transitioning from individual contributor (IC) to engineering management (EM) can be a very exciting and rewarding career change, but it can also be a miserable experience for everyone involved. Poor management can create dysfunctions with ripple effects beyond the immediate team, spreading to the entire organization. Engineering management is a huge responsibility because your work isn’t about you anymore, so the decision to become an EM must come after rigorous research and deep reflection.
Some people go into the role for the wrong reasons, while others, despite having the right motivation, realize too late that they didn’t fully understand what they signed up for. To really understand engineering management, we need to pull the curtain from the romanticized version of the role and look behind the scenes.
This article is the first in a 5 part series on transitioning to engineering management. In Part 1, we’re setting the stage for how to think about making this career change. Parts 2-5 will be introduced throughout this article. Make sure to subscribe to receive the full series, as it gets released, straight into your inbox.
This series will empower you to clearly articulate your reasons for making the decision to become (or not) an engineering manager.
Is Engineering Management the right fit for you?
To answer this question, take the time to reflect on what truly motivates and inspires you and ensure it aligns with the values and responsibilities that come with an EM role. Here are some questions to help you assess whether there is a bi-directional fit between you and the role:
Are you a good fit for the role?
Will you be able to perform the duties the role requires?
Do you understand what responsibilities you are undertaking?
Are you willing to make the sacrifices usually required when switching to EM?
And is the role a good fit for you?
Will you love to do what this job entails?
Will you feel a sense of fulfillment and motivation?
Will you be happy in this role long term? Will this role sustain you?
There is, however, a prerequisite question that we must first answer: What exactly is engineering management?
Understanding Engineering Management
Oftentimes, folks wanting to go into EM have a romanticized view of what the job is about.
At a high level, engineering management involves leading and coordinating engineering activities, overseeing execution, and guiding teams to achieve organizational goals.
So far, so good. On paper, it might even seem like an easier job, with more prestige, more power, and more financial reward. Behind the scenes, the reality is not so rosy.
Management is by far not an easy job. Conflicts, performance issues, lack of resources, and context switching, are, to name a few, some of the difficulties engineering managers need to deal with. No wonder management is considered more of an art than a science because most issues can’t be algorithmically solved.
The prestige, power, and financial reward aren’t guaranteed to come with EM roles. These beliefs are simply myths. We’re debunking them (and more) in “Part 2 - Debunking the myths of engineering management”.
As a manager, I had to say “goodbye comfort zone”. Dealing with uncomfortable situations, such as having difficult conversations, became the norm, but the most heart-wrenching task was having to let folks go.
I also had to say goodbye to autonomy and clarity - because I was no longer the one doing the work, and it became less obvious if I was doing a good job or not.
To set themselves up for success, aspiring EMs need to understand what are the adjustments that come with this career switch, which is what we’re discussing in detail in “Part 3 - The bad and the ugly of engineering management”.
To be successful as an EM, you need a different skill set than you’re used to as an individual contributor. You’ll need solid people skills, a ton of patience, flexibility, and a genuine interest in helping people succeed. Not understanding this has real consequences on the organization and the business, as we’ll see next.
The blast radius of bad management
After 14 years in tech, few things upset me more than bad management.
I have a lot of empathy for new managers who are still trying to learn the ropes, especially when they don’t get much support from their own managers. Their mistakes are completely understandable. The problem is when experienced management lacks empathy, doesn’t really care about people, and isn’t interested in being held accountable. That’s inexcusable.
Bad management can take a huge toll on employees, from increased stress to lower performance, burnout, and even major health issues. Aspiring EMs need to understand how big their impact radius is, which is the focus of “Part 4 - The blast radius of bad management”.
The purpose of this series isn’t to steer you away or discourage you from engineering management. The purpose is to help you make a more informed decision, deeply understand the role, and set yourself up for success, whatever path you choose.
What is your “why”?
Engineering management requires a passion for leadership, a genuine interest in the growth and success of your team, and a willingness to navigate the complexities of organizations. It is an extremely important role and can be a wonderful experience for the right people, which is what we’re discussing in Part 5 - “Why transitioning to management is worth every step”.
Once you clearly understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of engineering management, take time to reflect on what is your “why” for wanting to switch (or not) to EM. Ultimately, this self-reflection will enable you to make an informed decision that, when made correctly, can bring you tremendous career satisfaction and personal fulfillment.
Have you gone through the IC → EM transition? What advice do you have for someone at this crossroads?
Until next time,
Your Caring Techie
If you are considering transitioning to engineering management, but aren’t quite sure, I’m here to help. I coach engineers and engineering leaders on how to figure out the next career steps and level up their leadership skills. To find out more, check out irinastanescu.com, schedule an intro call, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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