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So you want to be a Manager - Part 2: Debunking the myths
Analyzing 8 common misconceptions about engineering management, where they came from and what the reality is
Throughout my career, I had the privilege to experience engineering management (EM) from multiple angles: first as an individual contributor (IC), then as a tech lead, and then by becoming a manager myself. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with some incredible managers and the misfortune of working with some terrible ones. I’ve experienced firsthand the whole spectrum of management, from good, to mediocre to really bad.
The reason why this spectrum even exists is that some become managers without a clear understanding of the realities of the role. The issue is aggravated by some common misconceptions and myths about the role that end up not being true.
Great managers can truly transform people’s lives, whereas bad managers can even push people to quit their profession altogether, which is why deciding to become an EM needs to be done with careful consideration.
This article is the second in a 5 part series on transitioning from individual contributor to engineering manager. If you haven’t read it already, start with Part 1.
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In Part 2, we’re debunking 8 of the most common myths that falsely advertise the EM role so you can feel empowered to decide whether EM is the right fit for you (or not). We will explore each myth and its origins and provide you with the reality of the situation.
Let’s jump in!
Myth #1: Management is the natural next step for great ICs
This is a pervasive myth not only in engineering organizations. Folks who are high performers as ICs and have a good track record often end up being offered management opportunities.
The root of this myth is no surprise. If an organization needs to create a new team, a manager needs to scale themselves, or if there is an urgent need for backfilling a managerial role, leadership might seek among existing employees someone with enough technical context and a good track record. The best-performing engineers seem a sensible choice.
The problem is that IC and EM are different jobs with radically different core competencies. Sure, technical knowledge and trustworthiness are essential for EMs, but just because someone is a great IC, it doesn’t mean they have what it takes to be a good manager.
Potential ICs becoming managers must show core people skills (leadership, empathy, communication, etc) before taking on the role. Unfortunately, this aspect is often overlooked.
I agree with The Pragmatic Engineer, who tweeted recently:
Promoting a high-performing IC to EM should be done only after properly assessing people skills and ensuring management training, otherwise, it’s a loss-loss situation.
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Myth #2: To be a leader, you have to become a manager
Some might believe that if they exhibit leadership behaviors, management is the only avenue they can pursue to utilize their skills.
Two issues contributed to the creation of this myth. First is a lack of understanding of the difference between leadership and management. The second is historical: many companies didn’t use to have explicit career ladders describing growth as an IC after a certain level.
I’ve said this before and will repeat it: management and leadership are not synonyms. Not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers. A leader inspires and guides others toward a shared vision, while a manager focuses on organizing and coordinating tasks to achieve specific goals. Yes, you need leadership skills to be a great manager, but to be a leader, you don’t need to be a manager.
The solution for the second issue was adding staff/senior staff/principal—and above—roles to career ladders. To be successful as a staff+, one often needs significant leadership skills: the ability to work cross-functionally, mentorship, and communication, and can even influence the vision and strategy of their organizations. However, staff+ roles are not responsible for evaluating performance, conflict resolution, recruiting, team planning, career development, budgeting, cost management, etc. If these responsibilities are not of interest, then perhaps staying on the IC track is a better choice.
Myth #3: Management guarantees more money and more prestige
Some might choose EM because they believe that’s the only way to increase their pay. Others are seeking the perceived elevated status and prestige that comes with the EM role.
Going hand in hand with myth #2, if management is perceived to be the only growth opportunity for engineers, then naturally, it is also the only avenue for more money and prestige.
It’s true that if you’re an EM, you will get all these wonderful rewards. But the same will happen if you stay on the IC track too. Data from levels.fyi shows that salaries are comparable for managers+ and staff+ roles.
Prestige is a subjective concept. In my book, getting to senior staff, principal or distinguished levels as an engineer is just as prestigious—if not more—as becoming a director or VP of engineering. How many people have easily reached those levels? Not many, and that’s because it requires tremendous work, expertise, and impact regardless of the company.
Myth #4: When you’re a manager, you get to call the shots
Some people might think that the only way to steer the trajectory of a project or team is by becoming a manager. There is an illusion that the authority that comes with the EM role gives people the superpower of “calling the shots”, whether it’s about technical things or not.
This myth stems from managers who abused their power and applied a dictatorial leadership style where they monopolized decision-making and dismissed alternative opinions.
The reality is that building software is a team sport. A good manager not only does not want to make all decisions but creates a psychologically safe culture that invites criticism. I recommend reading this article to learn more about psychological safety in organizations.
It doesn’t really matter if you want things to be done a certain way if you don’t get the necessary buy-ins. You can’t boss people around. You can’t coerce people into listening to you, even as a manager. Good managers need a lot of patience and influencing skills to build trust and inspire people to take action.
Myth #5: Being a manager is easier and requires less work
Some believe that by switching to EM, they “won’t have to get their hands dirty”. Making high-level decisions, talking to people, and attending meetings, sounds simpler than spending hours glued to a computer troubleshooting a difficult issue.
What created this myth is a lack of understanding of what managers actually do behind the scenes. Many of us wondered at some point what our managers/leaders even do all day. I know I did until I became a manager and saw things differently.
Engineering management is more than just a higher-level version of engineering, and it’s hard to accurately compare the two because they’re different jobs. Management is by no means easier, and the transition requires an IC to give up many things to adjust to the new role. We’re exploring more in “Part 3 - The bad and the ugly of engineering management”.
Myth #6: It’s easier to get promoted as a manager
The path to promotion for managers might seem more linear than for IC. You start managing a team, then you get more headcount, then you grow the team and need to figure out how to scale yourself so you find managers to report to you, and so on. There are fewer managers, so the competition might seem smaller.
The reality is that the variable nature of businesses has a more significant impact on the career growth of managers than ICs. Reorgs, reduction of scope, and losing part of your team as a result of layoffs are some of the challenges unique to managers that might hinder their career progression. In addition, internal mobility for managers is more complicated than for ICs.
Myth #7: When you’re a manager, you can still be very technical
Some folks go into engineering management thinking they will still have time to code or architect systems.
As former engineers, new engineering managers sometimes struggle to let go of what they used to really enjoy, such as coding or going deep into a technical problem. Not coding anymore might even be seen as a betrayal of the “software engineering” profession.
An engineering manager's week is filled with 1:1s, meetings, overseeing the team’s projects, collaborating with cross-functional teams, and ensuring the team's productivity and development, leaving no time left to make significant code contributions.
Unless they’re working for a super small startup or they're in a hybrid TL-manager role, no manager that I know still has time to do hands-on coding. However, this doesn’t mean they archive their engineering skills and never put them to use, as we’ll see in the next section.
Myth #8: When you’re a manager, you don’t have any more technical responsibilities
This myth is the flip side of the previous myth. Some folks go into engineering management to escape their technical responsibilities. And then they actually succeed in that. How? By focusing exclusively on their duties as people managers, not trying to understand the architecture that their team is building, not challenging technical decisions, and deferring any technical judgment to the experts on the team.
I believe the reason why some managers can get away with avoiding technical responsibilities is—as I mentioned in the same discussion above with the Pragmatic Engineer—the following:
Good managers are able to understand systems, evaluate technical tradeoffs, challenge proposed architecture, and much more. Strong technical understanding and even keeping up-to-date with the latest technology are crucial for setting the vision and supporting the team accordingly.
If a manager does not utilize and continue building their technical knowledge, it will create dysfunction within teams where tech leads, or experts are involved in too many meetings and distracted from their actual responsibilities. This dysfunction will become increasingly frustrating to these folks, who might end up either burned out, choosing different teams or even quitting.
Hopefully, by reading this article, you got closer to clarity in deciding whether EM is the right role for you. Staying on the IC track can be an appealing route for those who want growth, money, prestige, influence and still do significant technical work.
Was there anything that surprised you when reading this article? What are other myths that I haven’t addressed? I’d like to hear from you!
If you’re enjoying this series, head over to Part 3, where we discuss “The bad and the ugly of engineering management”.
Until next time,
Your Caring Techie