One of the perks of working at a large company is that there’s always someone at the top of their field that you can reach out for advice. Out of curiosity I asked one of my favorite managers with an excellent track record of making significant changes in the organization: “How does one become an Engineering Manager (EM)? How can a developer do the transition?”
His answer was solid advice that would’ve been a waste not to share. Here’s the reply (lightly edited for anonymity):
So the first EM role is always the hardest — making the initial transition. It would be hard if not impossible to get it by application if you have no previous experience, at least for a full blown full time EM-role. Then people would tend to go and look for a proven track record and go on the safe side.
For it to happen naturally you need to have a good relationship with someone that sees you, where you have these conversations, and where that someone can help you get exposed to opportunities. You need a sponsor, someone who can use their mandate and authority to make things happen and there exists a lot of trust between you.
Looking at all the ones that I have helped on this path, it is more or less been me seeing leadership capabilities in them and encouraging them to do things where they more formally can exercise these abilities to get a start or them saying they want to move towards this track, and me seeing potential, and trying to give them opportunities.
So in short: have this conversation with your direct manager and make sure your ambitions are voiced and you look at how the path could be. Making sure you get exposed piecemeal to actually easing into a role like this is the best path.
Update: after talking to my manager (who is more like a friend) he gave me the following advice that also worth to share:
I was a developer like yourself but wanted to become an engineering manager. What I did was to start taking more responsibilities and delivering impact where it mattered. This is important: you need to spend your time on tasks that move the needle for the team and the company. That way you can prove to be capable of creating more value and officially becoming a manager.
I got this question at the few EM interviews I did: have you fired anyone? I didn’t know what to respond cause “why would I fire someone”?
An engineering director I respect a lot said this interesting thing:
Conflict management is a big part of a managers job. And avoiding such conflicts or postponing them only makes things worse.
“Conflict” as in telling people uncomfortable things (this is in my opinion a surprisingly big factor for many people) and conflict as in having different goals.
Whenever I hired or promoted someone into a manager position conflict management was always one of my focus topics. A manager who avoids conflict is like a developer who avoids testing their code.
Never Split the Difference
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Prioritizing the team
A talent acquisition manager I respect a lot talked about a different way to look at EM positions:
There are two types of managers.
1. Those who protect their own position
2. Those who want to do the right thing.
I’ve always gone into a new job with a 2 year plan, and quite confident in myself, so there’s nothing to protect. So I can do the right thing. Like:
“I’m raising this persons salary whether or not you approve, fire me?”
“I can not promise the impossible, we can deliver half on that time, fire me?”
“I’m not allowed to take my team on office? Okey, I’ll pay for it myself and try to expense as much as possible, fire me?”
While a manager who protects his own position…
“okey, I won’t raise that persons salary, even thou it’s long overdue, okey we can deliver that in that time I just have to ask the team to work at 200% and sorry team, I know you all put in so much hard work, but there’s no budget for an offsite”
There’s a long story behind that as well, you know, A players hiring A players (to learn) and B players hiring C players (to protect their position) and D players probably hiring F players to look good. In my honest opinion, a good manager should coach people who has the passion, drive and want to, to basically teach them and drill them into taking your/my job. And not be afraid of that. Not protect positions or holding people back. Which is super toxic
having a good manager is night and day. It’s more important than the company, or product. Or team for that matter.
Here’s a rant on Hackernews that generated some interesting comments.