Many engineering managers first transition into their roles as former individual contributors. Many unique struggles emerge for these new managers not used to the particular responsibilities involved with managing people. This is especially true for new EMs, who often previously worked as software engineers or developers before being promoted. EMs are no longer only responsible for themselves and their own workload, like the ICs on their teams. Now, of course, they are bound to their teams and must work through them, not through themselves. This presents its own unique set of challenges that can be hard to navigate for those used to IC roles. But that is why we wrote this article! Here are some of the common pitfalls that new engineering managers face, along with the best ways to overcome them and thrive in your new management position.
Common Struggles For First Time Engineering Managers
Learning to Manage Others
Most first-time managers have little experience with actual authority over other workers. Most find the experience of becoming in charge of former colleagues rather strange. They may struggle with being assertive enough to gain the respect of their teams while still building the positive rapport necessary for a productive relationship. New engineering managers will need to learn how to influence, but not alienate, their team members while still managing and coordinating their activities.
Establishing Effective Managerial Habits
New managers will need to develop new managerial habits that were not required for their previous IC roles. Just because engineering managers are leaders of their teams does not mean they should not be productive workers. They will need to ensure they develop time, stress, and relationship management habits to perform their best.
Navigating Company Politics
A newly promoted engineering manager will need to navigate upper management politics for perhaps the first time in their careers. The role will require working with more senior managers and executives, which can feel very intimidating if they are not used to it. This will involve getting a firm grasp on the company structure and culture and speaking on behalf of their team.
New engineering managers also must have the ability to motivate and inspire their teams. Otherwise, they will struggle to get their developers to finish their work and keep their projects on track. Companies will be looking towards your ability to inspire others to reach above and beyond what is expected. This skill may not come naturally to a newly minted engineering manager. Especially considering most enter management as former engineers, where motivating others is generally not on the agenda.
Giving Productive Feedback
An awkward discomfort that comes with the territory of management is giving productive performance-based feedback to their teams. This can be especially difficult in regards to poor performance. New engineering managers can often struggle with this. To be successful, they will need to learn how to hold their teams accountable without feeling alienated. They also need to guide those employees who may be falling behind or need additional skills to be successful.
Being a Coach and Mentor to the Team
There is a lot more to management than simply telling others what to do. As a matter of fact, these kinds of managers are rarely the most effective. New EMs must also play the role of coach and mentor to the members of their team. This can be difficult to do for first-time managers. Nevertheless, your performance as EM will be judged, among other things, your ability to provide your team with new knowledge and develop the skills necessary to be at their best. Not only that, but EMs will need to help coach the career development of their team.
Communicating to Team Members and Others
New EMs will need to communicate with people significantly more often than they did previously as ICs. They will also be interacting with people from many different departments and divisions. EMs must know how to adapt their communications for the different levels of the corporate ladder. Considering that many ICs usually mainly work with a select group of colleagues, this could potentially feel very intimidating for new managers not prepared for it. Effective EMs must know how to best communicate with these varying camps, in addition to their own teams, to be at their best.
Delegating Responsibility and Micromanagement
First-time managers of all stripes, not just EMs, can struggle with learning to delegate responsibility. There is a tendency for inexperienced managers to micromanage their teams. Some may simply feel they are not managing enough unless they do so, but this is not the case. Nobody likes to be micromanaged, and this can severely impact your relationship with your teams. EMs need to be comfortable delegating some control to their team, which may feel challenging to do at first. But, EMs that know how to assign tasks efficiently will be rewarded with the trust and respect of their teams.
Managing the conflicts that will inevitably arise during the development process may be hard for new EMs. They must know how to adequately address and solve these conflicts without alienating or demoralizing the team. Otherwise, trivial annoyances may turn into blowouts that can curtain the productivity of the whole team.
Managing a Variety of Employees
All engineering managers will oversee a team of diverse employees. Each of whom may have varying personalities, skills, opinions, and outlooks on development. As we just mentioned, these can clash with one another from time to time. EMs must learn how to navigate through this. Otherwise, the teams may feel alienated or resentful of one another, which can ultimately be catastrophic for their productivity and workplace satisfaction. EMs must be willing to adapt their methods and procedures around their teams according to their specific qualities and skill sets to be most effective.
Staying On Top of the Workload
First-time EMs may be surprised with the increase in their workload and the new necessity of managing limited resources. In addition to their engineering duties, EMs must manage budgeting and recruiting. This can often make them feel as though they are pressured to always do more with less. Many new EMs find that this is one of the most overwhelming aspects of transitioning from an IC into management. There is not much within the IC roles that really prepares new EMs for this jump. As such, new managers should ensure they develop the necessary time and resource management skills they need to hit the ground running and keep up with the increased workload.
Leadership Tips for First-Time Engineering Managers
New engineering managers can often stumble in the first few months of their new position. With all the new, unique responsibilities that naturally come along, many can feel as though they are thrown into the fray to sink or swim. Across many different companies, this can be observed by the high churn rates of new management staff. Here are some leadership tips to help new engineering managers transition and succeed in their new roles.
Do Not Continue Working Like an IC
One of the most immediate and practical pieces of advice for new engineering managers is to stop working as they once did as individual contributors. Unfortunately and unintuitively, what makes a talented engineer often does not make a good manager. While it may be very tempting to perform your management responsibilities in the same way you approached your individual engineering duties, effective EMs simply cannot work like ICs. This is, of course, made all the more difficult by the fact that most EMs were promoted into management because of their previous IC performance. To be at your best, ensure that you always approach the EM role as a manager first and foremost.
Conduct One-on-Ones With the Members of Your Team
Perhaps one of the strongest managerial and communication tools in an engineering manager's toolkit is the one-on-one meeting. They do many things at once, including establishing productive rapport, providing a healthy outlet to give and receive performance-related feedback, resolve conflicts, help develop the career growth of the team, and ensure the team always is working at its best.
Even though one-on-ones are very powerful tools for managers, it may not be easy at first to see their effectiveness. It may take some time before an adequate rapport is established with each team member before the power of one-on-ones is apparent. As such, new engineering managers may not utilize them when they first transition into their new positions. This can set a bad precedent and turn into a larger problem down the line. Therefore, new engineering managers need to conduct one-on-ones with their teams right from the start to be at their most effective.
Build a Rapport With Your Team
Building a rapport with your team is one of the most important things a manager must do to be effective in their positions. Without it, there can be no productive working relationship between you and the members of your team. This ultimately comes down to establishing healthy and open communication that allows everyone to give and receive actionable and constructive feedback as they move together along the development cycle.
In the end, new engineering managers only need to develop or strengthen two things to build rapport: empathy and compassion. It should not be too difficult for new EMs to put themselves in the shoes of their teams, considering they probably started their careers as ICs just like them. EMs with the healthiest rapport often encourage their teams to take the initiative and allow them the opportunity to seek out their own solutions. If an EM continuously micromanages or imposes their own technical expertise on their teams, many of their developers will feel alienated and unable to work at their best.
Always Help Your Team Grow and Learn New Things
New managers need to dispel any notion that their roles are simply those that tell others what to do. While some managers are undoubtedly like this, they are meant to do much more than bark commands at underlings. An integral piece of their portfolio is establishing a work environment that allows the team to continually grow and learn new things. An effective engineering manager, then, is a good role model in this regard. They must always strive to model the behaviors necessary for consistent improvement and growth. After all, effective managers are leaders, not bosses. Engineering managers must always be cognizant of the ways they can invest in their teams. This may mean providing technical training, professional development seminars, or simply giving them access to educational resources within the workplace.
How Companies Assess Effective Engineering Managers
While all these tips may feel straightforward to you, the way the performance of an engineering manager is judged is anything but. Measuring the job performance of an IC, such as a developer on your team, is simple and concrete. On the other hand, a manager's performance and job responsibilities are much more abstract and complex. New engineering managers, therefore, could feel some anxiety and uncertainty when evaluating their own performance. To help ease this uncertainty, a new EM could judge their own effectiveness in the same way their company does. Here is how most of them do it:
How They Manage Performance & Execution
Engineering managers are ultimately only as productive as their teams. Effective managers can be judged on how they manage the performance of their teams. The most successful of which are those that ensure their ICs are working as productively as possible. If a manager allows their teams to slack off, for example, their performance will be poor. Engineering managers will also be primarily responsible for their team's execution. When engineering teams are providing noticeable impacts on company goals, the role of the engineering manager will be noticed too.
How They Build Their Teams
Engineering managers also must act as hiring managers when it comes to recruiting and building their teams. This is one of the main ways a company can evaluate its managers. Because of this, engineering managers must learn how to interview and decide between potential candidates to find the best fit. Successful and effective engineering managers are those that consistently build teams that align with the company culture while successfully helping to drive engineering goals.
Cross-Functional Collaboration & Partnerships
No engineering team works on its own. A natural part of the development process will involve cross-functional collaboration between many different departments. As the leader of your team, you will be the head of these partnerships. This is where your managerial communication skills come in handy, as engineering managers will need to meet and work with product, design, and other engineering teams regularly. If an EM cannot successfully manage these cross-functional partnerships, their teams cannot be successful either.
Transition to Engineering Management With Exponent
If you liked this article and are looking for more information on successfully transitioning into engineering management, check out our new Engineering Management Interview course. It is chock full of dozens of lessons we created alongside real engineering managers at top tech companies. Not only that, but you will have numerous opportunities to practice the things you learn!
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