Transitioning from Software Engineer to Engineering Manager

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What does it take to become an engineering manager? If you aren't sure where to begin, you aren't alone. That's why we wrote this article to give you an overview of the transition from software engineer to engineering manager. So let's get to it!

What is an Engineering Manager?

First and foremost, let us introduce engineering management in general. An engineering management position is not on the typical path of an individual contributor (IC) software engineer. To become one, you have to make the decision to leap into management. Being an EM is very different from that of an SWE. The role may not be best for every SWE. Whereas most SWEs, in their capacity as individual contributors, are responsible primarily for themselves. Managers, on the other hand, are responsible for many others. Generally speaking, EMs have two main priorities. These are:

  1. Managing technical team members
  2. Managing technical development (pushing product design, driving the development cycles, establishing strategy, and help solve technical challenges)

SWEs who transition into EM may find that their time is spent differently in management than their IC days. Specifically, they will find that they have a much starker lack of free time. Engineering managers will frequently consult with other product managers, engineers, and their teams while spending time in meetings, answering emails, and delivering presentations to upper management. SWE do not usually spend much of their time in these ways. Instead, most of their time is dedicated to solving technical problems and writing code. An engineering manager may barely have time to participate in these technical activities they once did. Their technical skills and responsibilities are replaced with people problems and soft skills.

It is easy to judge the performance of an SWE. There are a variety of objective metrics that can do so. Engineering managers, unfortunately, rarely work in a way so easily quantifiable. For instance, what objective metric is there to measure the weight of your leadership or communication skills? Often, the responsibilities of engineering managers consist of larger-scale initiatives whose effects may take days, weeks, months, and even years to show their faces. Ultimately, however, an engineering manager is responsible for ensuring the SWEs working under them can be successful. Their leadership abilities can either make or break the efforts of their engineers, and their success is compounded by their manager's competence in an often ambiguous position.

Engineering Management Job Requirements

You will find that most EM job listings will require a Bachelor's degree in computer science or something comparable, such as a math degree. Some, depending on the organization, may also look for more advanced degrees from their candidates. Aspiring EMs may also be hard pressed to find a job posting asking for less than 3-5 years of engineering experience, competency in some common programming languages, and hands-on experience with leading technical teams.

Keep in mind, however, that advanced degrees like a Masters or Ph.D. are not necessary to get a job in tech. In fact, aspiring candidates will find that previous experience (especially in a leadership or management capacity) will serve them best in receiving an EM offer. Obviously, it would not hurt to have a Master's or PhDs in your area of expertise. But the experience you have received previously is much more significant.

How to Transition to EM from SWE

Photo by Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash 

The vast majority of engineering managers begin their careers as individual contributors (IC), usually as software engineers. At a certain point, ICs will need to make a choice. They can either continue down the individual contributor track, working their way towards a principal engineer, or they can make the leap into management. The first step on that ladder is engineering manager.

A sample engineering career trajectory from Kiwi.com

Eventually, engineering managers can work their way up the ladder all the way to the CTO position. The managerial track, then, can award more opportunities than an IC track. But these new opportunities come with significantly more work and responsibility than any IC position. Every engineering manager must be a technical expert, but that is not all. They have to know how to competently manage people and projects, as well.

It used to be typical for skilled engineers to naturally be promoted into management as they proved themselves. But, as we mentioned, managing people is very different from engineering. As you can expect, the best engineers do not necessarily make the best managers because of the contrast in required skill sets. Many of these newly promoted managers struggled to match the performance they enjoyed as individual contributors. Engineering managers primarily work through the teams under them. Their performance as managers is now centered around their ability for team-building and fostering an effective work environment. Engineering managers will be responsible for hiring the right people for their teams while providing guidance and mentorship to ensure success. And, of course, through all of this, EMs must keep their projects on track.

Transitioning Within the Same Company

An aspiring EM may find that the smoothest transition into management is within their own companies. Meet with the engineering managers you work with as an SWE. Do not hesitate to let them know you are thinking about making the leap. Start by talking with your manager. Let them know that you are interested in management. If you have worked with this manager for some time, they can give you concrete feedback regarding your personal strengths and weaknesses. After that, you can construct a plan to help you transition.

Many companies may set up a trial run for you, where you have the opportunity to manage a small team. You most likely will not be the direct report for this team, but you will be expected to be their leader. This will allow your organization to objectively evaluate your leadership potential and future success as a manager. You are best served during this time to maximize the practicing of your people and soft skills. Soon enough, the trial run will end, giving both you and your company a better idea of your strengths and weaknesses as a manager.

Tips for a Successful Transition to EM

Photo by Razvan Chisu on Unsplash 

Evaluate your motivation for doing so.

As we mentioned, engineering management is different from that of software engineering. As such, you should really ruminate on your motivations for making the transition. Specifically, if you are really the right fit for a leadership position. Many novel challenges will come your way while transitioning to EM. You will need legitimate motivation to get through them.

Block out time to learn as much as you can.

It will be necessary for any aspiring EM to pencil in some time dedicated to learning as much as you can about management and leadership. This could include everything from studying leadership and business books, meeting with mentors or teachers, and enrolling in management classes and bootcamps.

Transition to a new company.

Some aspiring EM candidates may find that it is simpler to transition to the role by taking a position at another company. Truth be told, this may not be that common, considering most EMs transition within their own companies. However, it is possible for a talented tech lead, for instance, to land an engineering manager role at a smaller startup or company. Don't forget, though, that the engineering manager role can be very different depending on the type and scale of the company.

Keep your intentions transparent with your team and others.

There's no reason to keep your desires for management a secret from others in your company. If anything, doing so will hurt you in the end and damage the trust you have between the team members you may end up managing. Remaining transparent will allow your fellow engineers and your managers to help you transition successfully.

Develop the skills that translate to EM.

The best way to set yourself for a successful transition into engineering management is to develop the necessary skills. Many of these skills are related to the work you may have previously done as an SWE. As time goes on, the technology of our world gets increasingly complicated and complex. EMs, more than anybody, cannot afford to fall behind. Otherwise, they will not be competent leaders for their teams.

Here are some of the top skills that  engineering managers will need and use:

  • Emotional intelligence & experience with group dynamics
  • High-level analytical thinking (i.e. system design)
  • Resourcefulness and budgeting
  • Presentation and persuasion skills
  • Cross-functional communication
  • Project Management
  • Creativity

The Top Challenges During a Transition to Engineering Management

Photo by Lou Levit on Unsplash 

Lack of Trust & Micromanaging

New engineering managers may not be used to giving up their ownership of technical details. This, unfortunately, can lead to a tendency of micromanagement. More than anything, this is damaging to trust and very alienating to work under. No micromanager is overseeing a team that is working at its best. A great manager needs to foster an environment where their team can write great code. They should not be the ones doing so. To prevent micromanagement, aspiring EMs should learn how to delegate and extend trust towards their engineers. This means giving them space to make mistakes if they arise. Micromanagers may be attempting to prevent anything from going wrong, but this is an unrealistic expectation. People cannot have the space to thrive if they do not also have the room to make mistakes.

Not Developing a Growth Mindset

A big problem for aspiring EMs is a lack of a growth mindset. Transitioning into engineering management will involve a lot of extra responsibility. Without a growth mindset, aspiring EMs will have a tough transition. Growth mindsets are also necessary for leadership. Your team is always in tune with their leader's mindset. They cannot be inspired as much as is possible without one.  

A great leader's growth mindset is measured by their eagerness to learn and develop their leadership skills. You will never find success as a manager if you don't believe in yourself and your own growth. This also means meditating on whether a managerial track is really right for you. If your only motivation is more money or more power, then, quite frankly, you should not even bother. Managerial positions are critical for the ultimate success of any organization. This success cannot emerge without the right leaders.

Change the Way You Evaluate Your Performance

The starkest difference transitioning from an individual contributor to a managerial position will be the metrics that measure your performance. As we mentioned, software engineers have the benefit of straightforward metrics to judge their success. This is not the case for managers, whose portfolios and responsibilities are much more abstract and ambiguous. The primary responsibility of engineering managers is to oversee their direct reports while supporting and fostering their career development. This means that you should learn to evaluate your own performance based upon the performance and success of your team. Coming from an IC, where your achievement is your own, this may take some getting used to.

Transition to Engineering Management With Exponent

After helping thousands of applicants, Exponent knows that nothing helps ace your interview more than actual practice. That's why we created the Exponent EM Interview Course that includes structured lessons created with the help of real EMs from some of the most respected engineering organizations. Not only that, but it offers plenty of opportunities for you to practice what you've learned, share, and receive feedback.

But our interview course isn't the only benefit you can get from Exponent. Our members also have access to industry-leading interviewing coaching that can give you a leg up over the competition. Sit down with a coach from Google, Amazon, or even Facebook! Check out our list here and book a session today!

Anthony Pellegrino

Anthony Pellegrino

I’m a rather bohemian freelance journalist and tech content writer. Philosophy/CS student - A.I.,Consciousness, Social Sciences.

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