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Frontend Development / Software Development / Tech Careers / Tech Culture

Advice for Developers Wanting to Become Engineering Managers

How developers can make their way into engineering management and what companies can do to build an engineering management pipeline.
Mar 31st, 2023 7:58am by
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Dylan Etkin made a serious mistake in his first month as a new software team manager: He forgot to manage “up.”

“I was like, I’m super good at this. My team is doing great and everybody above me knows that I’m pretty good. So I guess they’re going to assume that we’re doing great and in the absence of information they’ll assume we’re doing awesome, right?” said Etkin, now co-founder and CEO of an engineering metrics tracker called Sleuth. “Unfortunately, that’s not how humans work. In the absence of information, they assume the absolute worst, and I was shocked to find out that they thought we were floundering.”

He adjusted his tactics of sending bi-weekly emails to his boss, his boss’s boss, and the IT team’s executive sponsor. A month later, his chain of command thought his team was “killing it.”

“The interaction between engineering manager, product, and design, and possibly some stakeholders can be a little — it’s people stuff. It’s not, ‘Hey, I’ve got the technical answer, and therefore, everybody’s going [to] say, ‘Hooray!’ It’s horse trading about priorities and it’s peer relationships, more so than a hierarchical relationship.”

Since then, he’s promoted many software developers to engineering managers. He’s watched the ascent of more, particularly while working at Atlassian, during which time the staff grew from 20 to 4,500. Atlassian develops software for developers, program managers and software development teams.

The Making of an Engineering Manager

Etkin explained what kind of software developer he’s seen become the best engineering manager.

“It’s often the engineers who have an amazing attention to detail [and] really good personal planning skills. Often they’re coming to you saying, ‘Hey, this is going to take a little longer — here’s why. I dug into this and yes, I can get this done by this date,’” he said. “They just have that good sense of how do you actually get a thing done.”

Another key difference is: They can speak intelligently on broad technical topics.

Whereas some developers are more comfortable focusing only on their tasks, a potential manager tends to see or at least be aware of the “bigger picture,” he said.

“The very best that have turned into managers, in my experience, are the folks that are almost doing the job before they’re doing the job — they are exhibiting all of these attributes that we’re talking about,” he said. “They have a team player attitude versus ‘I’m gonna put some blinders on and get my job done.’”

To that end, they also tend to spend time helping those around them to do the job and encouraging developers to pull together as a team, he added.

“Sometimes you have folks that are really smart but are terrible at motivating themselves to get through to the full end of a task,” Etkin said. “It’s an unusual thing to take the best engineers and turn them into managers, because there’s not always an overlap.”

What Successful Engineering Managers Do Differently

Engineers are good at fixing things, but management is also about people skills — and sometimes people defy “fixing.” One thing smart newcomers do is to look for mentors and learn about the job rather than trying to invent everything from scratch, Etkin said.

“They’re going to have enough challenges learning this new role, working with their team, understanding who these people are, having them understand who they are, without having to reinvent certain wheels,” he said “I always counseled folks to be very cognizant of that and to pair them up with a good mentor who works with their style.”

The fact is a software developer could have a lot of the attributes he mentioned and still not have the people skills to manage peers, he added. People problems can take up significant amounts of time, and developers can’t just look up the answer online.

“That can be the death of transition to a manager as well, is that you just find the people stuff drives you crazy because nobody preps you for that,” he said.

Something else to consider: Becoming a manager means less time coding. There’s even a debate over whether managers should even code at all, he said.

“I fall on the side of not coding, because there’s a ton of things for them to do otherwise,” he said. “Even if they’re coding, I think everybody would agree, even if they’re in that other camp, that they need to not be in the critical path.”

New managers should draw clear boundaries around shipping code, since their primary job is to ensure the development team as a whole can ship more code.

“Management is real,” he said. “Some people come from the engineering side, and they think, ‘Well, it’s just all pretending anyway,’ and you’re like, ‘No, it’s actual real work.’ It’s just harder to put your finger on; it’s not a code commit that you push.”

Structuring Dev Teams to Build an Engineering Management Pipeline

One way companies can help developers prepare for management is by creating tech leads, he said. It should be a rotating role where developers are heading up the technical side without managing the people of the project. This gives developers exposure to project planning, he said. A team lead, on the other hand, might handle the people issues by coordinating and interacting with team members. This sort of formal management structure can give developers a chance to learn and explore new roles.

“You get a flavor of whether they even like that stuff […] or if it feels too uncomfortable for them,” he added.

Common Company Mistakes with New Engineering Managers

Etkin said he’s made rookie moves in the past as a manager and offered a few examples of mistakes new managers can avoid. For instance, he hired a manager for an existing team, but he gave him technical duties before the people management duties. That caused confusion.

“I threw him in, but I didn’t give him the whole thing, and looking back, that was a super rookie move, right? There was confusion,” he said. “At the end of the day, when you’re talking about hierarchy and structure, you don’t want there to be confusion. You don’t want people to think that you don’t have faith in the manager.”

Another mistake is to overload a new manager with too many direct reports or too much technical debt, he said.

“They’re just trying to figure out how the hell do I even do this and what does it mean? And then the people management issues are overwhelming them or the technical debt is just so huge,” he said. “If you overwhelm somebody or put them into the most horrific possible situation first, you’re just not going to give them that opportunity to get comfortable with this new role.”

Finally, he suggested company leaders avoid micromanaging new managers.

“I’ve seen that done and that is no room for growth whatsoever,” he said. “You shake their confidence right out of the gate.”

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