Recently, I had a conversation with a CEO about supporting and developing first-time engineering managers, and I spent a lot of time recanting my opinions, methodologies, and past experiences doing so. Afterwards, I continued to think about the subject, reflecting on past conversations with my own mentors/managers/peers, noting the influences I've had from others in the industry, and analyzing how my opinions may have shifted over the years.
I've codified these thoughts into two posts—mostly as a guide to future me and my future managers—but perhaps it will be useful for others including those grooming new engineering managers, as well as new engineering managers themselves. This first post provides an overview of what new engineering managers can expect from the role. A second (future) post will provide a framework for supporting new engineering managers as they transition into their managerial role, and setting them up for success.
For context, I am a VP/SVP/Head of Engineering and have worked in this capacity for many years at both startups and enterprise companies, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to support, mentor and develop my staff.
New Engineering Managers
A new engineering manager (aka first-time engineering manager, first-line engineering manager, junior engineering manager) may sometimes be a new external hire, brought in to provide some leadership and structure to a growing engineering team.
More often than not, particularly in larger organizations, a new engineering manager would have been an existing employee and engineer, very likely a high-performing individual contributor, that is now moving into a management role for the first time (fwiw, I tend to prefer grooming new engineering managers from within, given the added knowledge about existing products, customers, business, development workflows and overall company/team dynamics).
Regardless of where she came from, this person will have little to no prior management experience at all, and she will need coaching, mentoring, and support to become a strong, effective and successful engineering manager.
New Role, New Responsibilities
A manager has very different responsibilities than an individual contributor, and this sometimes takes a little getting used to.
As an engineering manager, it is no longer about her own technical skills and individual results—instead, it is now about her team's overall results. In fact, she will now be fully responsible for those results (as well as any failures), even though she will not be the one doing the actual work. For many first-time managers, this can be a tricky dynamic to navigate initially.
The engineering manager's staff now looks to her for leadership and guidance, and she will need to earn their respect and their trust. Any goodwill she may have had previously as their peer is helpful, but she will still have to earn her stripes as their manager and leader.
She will be responsible for motivating the team, and inspiring them to do their best work. When the going gets tough, she will be responsible for supporting them and lifting their morale.
She will also be responsible for project timelines, milestones, cross-functional communication, stakeholder updates, and an increased amount of communication to non-technical folks.
New Manager Skills, Competencies and Traits
A manager needs a different set of skills than an individual contributor to be truly effective, and not all high-performing individual contributors end up being great managers.
For instance, delegation. She should no longer be the smartest person in the room on a technical topic, as that should now fall to someone else on her team. She will need to learn how to delegate responsibilities properly to others—who's the right fit for which tasks, how to stay up to date on progress, and ensuring delegation isn't used for getting out of busy work.
She will need to learn how to demonstrate trust. It's not enough for the manager to simply say she trusts her staff, it must be demonstrated through her actions. By delegating important tasks and decisions (rather than just busy work), you are showing you respect their opinion, value their expertise, and trust their judgment.
Setting clear expectations and not micro-managing is another important skill to learn. Nobody likes being micro-managed. Having their manager dictate exactly how to do something, or breathe down their neck at every mistake is a quick path to employee dissatisfaction. The manager should set clear expectations on any preferred approaches, requirements or constraints, what results and success should look like, and how updates and progress is to be communicated and at what frequency. She should then generally get out of the way, and not interfere with the details of how things get done. There should be some allowance for mistakes to be made, and it's important for the manager to recognize when it's necessary to step back in and provide additional support.
One of the primary goals of a manager is to help your team succeed, and the team is made up of individuals with their own nuances. Developing emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy will go a long way in building bonds, fostering relationships, and really getting to know the person behind each employee. A relatable manager is significantly more effective at connecting and engaging with her team, show she truly cares about her people, and help them do their best work.
The manager should be a strong cheerleader, and the first to credit successes to the team while taking accountability for failures. Similarly, she should always sing praises publicly and broadly, while disciplining privately.
Communication plays a big part in a manager's day to day. There will be communication with the staff, with peers, with cross-functional groups, with stakeholders, and sometimes with parties external to the company. The engineering manager will need to communicate clearly, write well, be concise yet include relevant details, and develop an ability to be transparent and forthcoming without over-sharing.
And then there is time management. An engineering manager will more often than not find their calendars overloaded with a death spiral of endless meetings. Some meetings are important to attend, and others less so. Any meeting takes time away from something else she could be doing, and she will need to learn how to gauge what's important and how to say no to others.
There will be additional skills that will also need to be learned... such as self-awareness, learning to receive and seek feedback, how to coach effectively, how to stay calm under pressure, how to lead by inspiration rather than by authority, and more.
Certain skills may come easier for some people, while other skills take much longer to develop—and this will vary across individuals. Nevertheless, with dedication and effort, I have found in my experience that these skills can be learned by just about anyone who truly wants to grow as a manager.
Common Hangups for New Engineering Managers
There are a number of common hangups and pitfalls that new engineering managers have, and I have observed these in many of my past managers as well as in myself. New engineering managers often need coaching to be made aware of these hangups, and to learn to overcome them.
For instance, one of the harder things for a new engineering manager to let go of is coding responsibility, especially if they were a high-performing individual contributor. This may include writing actual code, performing code reviews, or making key technical decisions. She may feel it's ok to simply reduce the volume of these activities, or that she has the most knowledge about a key feature and should be the one to do it.
It's a slippery slope, because if she is committing code then she will also be participating in code reviews, not to mention fixing any bugs that may arise from her code. All of this takes time, and will distract her from her responsibilities as a manager—which is primarily to help her team do their best work.
However, there are nuances to this. At many startups and on smaller teams, an engineering manager may lead a small group of individual contributors but also remain "hands-on." Particularly at early-stage startups, the teams are often small and nimble and everyone is expected to wear multiple hats and roll up their sleeves, including the CEO. Experienced managers may operate in this fashion with some success, but many new managers will develop and grow much slower, and be less effective as a manager.
Every situation will be different and nuanced, but my general rule of thumb here is that the engineering manager should do what is necessary for her unique situation. But once her engineering team grows to about 7 to 8+ people, it's important to let go of all coding-related and individual contributor activities and trust her team with them.
Another common hangup for a new engineering manager is being too "buddy-buddy" with direct reports. She is now the leader of her team, and her role is essentially as their manager and not as their friend. It can be a bit awkward, especially if the manager was previously a peer, or is truly friends with some of her reports outside of the company. It is important for the engineering manager to set clear boundaries and expectations right from the beginning, which can often be discussed in your first meeting with them as their new manager.
If there are any concerns with being objective and impartial, or if it appears she is more attached to certain folks on the team over others, it needs to be addressed and potentially have some reports reassigned. Such bias (real or perceived) may influence decisions around assignments, raises, promotions and so on, and if the team suspects any favoritism at play their trust will be lost, and it will be very hard if not impossible to regain that trust back.
Learning to be an effective manager is challenging, and some people will simply take longer in developing their managerial skills and finding their groove. For these folks, imposter syndrome is a common hangup that may manifest itself multiple times throughout a new manager's journey. They may feel overwhelmed or lost, struggle to find meaningful value in their contributions if they aren't directly coding or building something, lose confidence, think they're not very good, or worse—think they will never be any good. It's important for me to recognize this in my managers, lean in with more support and coach them through these feelings of inadequacy. With dedication and effort, all managers can and will improve, and imposter syndrome becomes less and less of a hangup as they gain confidence and become more effective.
Lastly, a less common hangup that is nevertheless worth mentioning is when an individual contributor is paid more than the engineering manager. Typically this doesn't happen often and rarely at smaller early-stage companies, but it does happen from time to time at large enterprise companies. At these larger companies, there are often two career tracks—an individual contributor track, and a managerial track. Along these tracks, there are increasing seniority "levels" which influences the pay grade, and transitioning from an individual contributor to an engineering manager is not always a promotion but a lateral move.
For instance, a level 2 engineering manager may have level 7 individual contributors on her team, which are considered equivalent levels at some companies (EM2 == IC7). Occasionally the same manager may have a level 8 individual contributor reporting to her as well, which would be a level higher than hers (EM2 < IC8) and potentially paid more. If she enables the level 8 individual contributor do great work, and in turn the level 8 individual contributor improve s the overall results for her team, then the overall success is greater and should be a win for everyone.
For a new manager, making less than a direct report can be a struggle mentally. Learning to accept this and be ok with it comes with maturity and experience, but not everyone will be able to do so—I know some CEOs and other high-level executives that still struggle with this.
Coaching New Engineering Managers
A new engineering manager may start their role by mimicking their own manager, but this never works out well for long, as she is not truly learning how to lead and support her team as herself and developing her own style. For the engineering manager to be successful, she will need coaching and support—to understand her new role, adapt to new responsibilities, and hone the new skills she will need to thrive.
For me, coaching isn't something that happens intermittently—we don't "schedule coaching sessions" (although we do schedule 1:1s where a lot of coaching does happen). Instead, coaching happens in almost every conversation with my manager. Is she settling in, or feeling overwhelmed? Is she starting to connect with her team, or struggling to do so? Is she falling into the death spiral of meetings overload? Some guidance, words of encouragement, and just being a good listener will go a long way here.
As mentioned earlier, no one likes to be micro-managed, and I look to strike a balance with how much I lean in with my coaching vs how much I step back to give the engineering manager some space to grow (and to make some mistakes). In the past, I have made my own mistakes of giving some managers too much space when they needed more support, while leaning in too much with others that ended up feeling smothered. Every manager is different and there will be nuances to each situation. By paying attention, listening and being invested in the success of my managers, I have gotten better over time at reading the situation and adjusting accordingly.
No one becomes a great manager overnight, and there is no one-size-fits-all path to get there. Fortunately there are some common themes and timelines that, combined with some structure and dedicated coaching, can act as a framework to help new engineering managers be successful. I'll cover this framework in a future post, so stay tuned—more to come.