Navigating Career Transitions: From Engineer to Manager
Moving from an individual contributor role into a leadership position can be both daunting and exciting. I personally have found the management track to be extremely rewarding. In this post, I'll share some of the challenges and pitfalls as well as some tactics for success.
So You're Thinking About Making the Leap
The first step is to understand why you'd like to make the move into a leadership track. There are a whole host of reasons to take the leap into management.
Leadership and Influence: You'll have the opportunity to shape the direction of projects and teams, and influence technical decisions while driving engineering best practices and culture.
Personal Growth: This role will challenge you to develop soft skills. You will become an expert communicator with a deeper understanding of the business side of things.
Higher Compensation: Generally, management roles come with higher salaries and additional benefits or bonuses compared to individual contributor roles.
Broader Impact: Instead of impacting projects through your individual contributions, you can amplify your impact by leading and mentoring others.
Networking Opportunities: As a manager, you’ll often interact with other departments, senior leadership, and vendors, which can expand your professional network and open doors to new opportunities such as speaking engagements.
Potential for Further Advancement: Management tracks often lead to higher managerial or executive positions, providing a clear path for career progression.
Broadened Perspective: Interacting with different parts of the business, understanding organizational strategies, and considering the broader business context can lead to a more holistic understanding of the company and industry.
Personal Satisfaction: Helping others to succeed and grow in their career is extremely rewarding.
Stepping Out of your Comfort Zone
Transitioning from an IC role to a leadership position means stepping out of your comfort zone. It can be emotionally draining at times to fight the instinct to dive into the code and do what you know. This is, however, a trap. As leaders, it's our responsibility to be an enabler and a multiplier for our teams. At best this leads to less focus on higher level activities and at worst it robs your reports of the opportunities to tackle the more difficult challenges.
You may ask, what about a player/coach approach to leadership? I personally feel this is a misstep, especially early in the management track. As a new leader, I would lie to myself, saying "I can still code 50% of the time" and then "25% of the time". This resulted in me becoming a blocker for the team, at that moment not being a great IC or manager. Once I accepted the reality that it was my job to bring clarity, unblock, coach, and motivate the team productivity went up, estimations got more accurate, deliverables more clear and collaboration with other teams was smoother. Eventually, the dopamine hit from driving a positive team culture, collaboration and efficiency replaced that of personally delivering problem-solving code.
Become a Master of Delegation
An engineering leader who understands the art of delegation recognizes that they themselves don't need to be the expert in every aspect of a project but instead need to effectively leverage the strengths and specializations of their team members. Through effective delegation leaders not only ensure that the work is done efficiently and effectively, but they also foster a culture of trust and empowerment, leading to increased morale, motivation, and a sense of ownership among team members integral for innovation and progress.
Delegating effectively not only optimizes project outcomes but also cultivates leadership within the team. When tasks are delegated, team members are given the autonomy to make decisions, solve problems, and take ownership of their respective areas, paving the way for professional growth and development. This kind of empowerment encourages proactive problem-solving and a greater sense of investment in the project's success. By offloading tasks that others are more equipped to handle, engineering leaders can free up their time to focus on higher-level strategic planning, vision setting, and relationship building, ensuring the overall direction and success of the team and project. As a result, delegation serves two purposes: it optimizes the immediate project at hand while simultaneously nurturing the next generation of leadership within the organization.
Develop your Soft Skills
While your technical expertise brought you this far, transitioning into management requires a different set of skills: 'soft skills'. Think of developing soft skills as you would learning a new language or framework. They are a set of tools that will improve the chances of success when tackling a wider array of problems. Here is a short list of the foundational soft skills we need to develop as leaders.
Communication: Being able to articulate ideas clearly, actively listen and facilitate open discussions is crucial. This becomes even more important when working across teams, across disciplines and when communicating upwards.
Leadership: Beyond just managing tasks and timelines, a manager should inspire, motivate, and guide their team. This includes setting a positive example, providing direction, and ensuring that the team understands and stays aligned with organizational goals. (I want to reiterate positivity here. It is so important to balance drive, urgency, confidence, and transparency with positivity. As a leader you set the tone for the team, make it a positive one!)
Emotional Intelligence (EQ): Self-awareness and self-regulation are foundational to EQ. A leader with high self-awareness understands their own strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and drives. They are more attuned to how their mood and emotions can affect the people around them and the work environment as a result.
Similarly, managers with practiced self-regulation are adaptable, can manage disruptive impulses, and are comfortable with ambiguity and change. In the volatile realms of product and engineering, where timelines, requirements, or resources often change, the ability to self-regulate and remain calm is a must. (EQ is a deep topic that could be an entire post on its own).
Empathy: A hallmark of a great manager is empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others can make the difference between a good manager and a great one. As you transition, remember that every member of your team is unique, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. Strive to understand these differences and adjust your leadership style accordingly.
Conflict Resolution: Disagreements are inevitable in any team. An engineering manager must be adept at mediating disputes, understanding different viewpoints, and finding compromises that work for all parties involved. A leader often needs to be the tiebreaker or sometimes just make a decision when there are too many or not enough good options.
Decisiveness: Engineering managers often need to make decisions with incomplete information or under time pressure. Being decisive while also considering the potential consequences of those decisions is essential.
Adaptability: Embrace change! We work in an ever-evolving fast-paced field. Being flexible and open to change is a must, Shifts in scope, requirements, and expectations happen constantly. If you can't adapt quickly, you will not be very happy in this role.
Have fun!: Let's be honest, most of the software we'll develop in our careers is not going to have life-and-death outcomes. That's not to say it's not important and should be taken seriously, but have fun along the way. Make time for team bonding, take a break when you need it, and encourage your ICs to do the same.
Embrace the Learning Curve
Like any new role, there will be a steep learning curve in the transition to management. It's okay to not know everything from the start. Be open to feedback, seek advice from mentors, and always be willing to learn. Understand that mistakes are part of the process and every mistake is a learning opportunity. Don't be afraid to fail. Solicit feedback early and often from both your direct reports and your manager(s).
Find a Mentor
I recommend finding mentors at all stages in your career, however, it's particularly important as you shift into a new track. A mentor who has been through the same transition can be invaluable. They can help you avoid common pitfalls, understand the subtleties of leadership, and in some circumstances provide emotional support through empathy when dealing with the unique burdens of a leader. If possible, find a mentor within your organization who can provide relevant, real-time advice. If that's not feasible, there are many online communities and networking groups where you can connect with experienced leaders.
Not a One-Way Door
In most cases, you can move back and forth between a management and IC track. Don't be afraid to give the leadership path a try. To get started, discuss your interest with your manager. Ask for the opportunity to lead a project. Don't be afraid to fail, be excited to learn. If, in the end, management is not for you it's completely fine to step back into an IC role.
Transitioning from an IC role to that of a manager is not trivial. It requires a fundamental shift in how you approach your work and interact with your team. With the right mindset and a commitment to growth, it can be a deeply rewarding journey. The best leaders are those who never stop learning and growing.
Embrace the challenge. Stay curious. Lead with empathy.
Good luck on your journey!