February 2nd, 2019
At the risk of stating the obvious, being an engineering manager (EM) and an individual contributor (IC) are different jobs. An IC is responsible for developing high-quality software that serves customers’ needs. An EM is responsible for ensuring that the company’s resources are leveraged effectively to achieve its goals. Manager concern themselves with ensuring that their team’s processes are effective, that people are in high-impact roles, and that those in their reporting structure are growing to deliver more impact in the future.
This distinction is particularly challenging for new EMs, almost all of whom transition from senior IC roles. Often, these new EMs were previously technical leaders on their respective teams. The primary advantage of switching from IC to EM on the same team is that one has to learn a new role (management) but doesn’t also have to get to know the team’s processes, people, and dependencies. Indeed, many companies won’t hire someone into a first-time management role externally because ramping up a team, role, and company at the same time sets the new hire up for failure.
Unfortunately, the advantage of familiarity with one’s team carries with it significant risk to one’s successful transition to an EM role. Since a new EM is often previously a senior IC on the team, it can be challenging to let go those responsibilities (e.g. setting technical direction, ensuring a high quality bar for the team’s output) when moving to a completely different role. I’ve seen several IC-to-EM converts who have fallen into the trap of feeling compelled to play both their new management role in addition to the technical leadership role they played on the team when they were an IC. Without good mentorship, new EMs may try to do both jobs at the same time, burning out and doing neither job particularly well.
I fell into this same trap when I first moved into management and received an unexpected blessing to extricate myself. After about a year of experience as an EM for an infrastructure team, I transitioned to managing a team of full-stack web developers. As one might tell from looking at this website, my web development skills are miserable.
Not having the advantage of being one of the best ICs on the team took away my crutch and forced me to embrace my role as an EM, leveraging ICs on the team to set technical direction and ensure that the team was delivering high-quality results. I had to find ways to validate the technical direction and quality of the team’s output without doing the work myself.
Since each situation is unique, I can’t prescribe the right time to consider transitioning to a management role beyond one’s own personal expertise, and it may happen naturally, anyway. Personally, having experienced both managing with and without domain expertise has been a valuable lesson, ultimately both accelerating my own growth as a manager and enabling me to coach new EMs facing the same struggles.