Many will set their sights on management responsibilities and will see it as a hallmark of their success. For most, however, the transition away from individual contributions and towards less tangible, strategic thinking is difficult.
This is one of the most common concerns raised by the Software Engineers we talk to on a daily basis. To get an appreciation of the scale of the challenge (and to get an idea of how Engineers can reduce the friction in the transition) we sat down with a few technical leaders to discuss the Engineering Manager role, what makes an effective Engineering Manager and what advice they have for those looking to take the step up into management.
In our recent webinar ‘Discussing Effective Engineering Leadership’, we asked Matthew what it was like for him to take the step from individual contributor to Engineering Leader – here’s what he had to say:
We wanted to build on the points raised by Matthew and invited a few of the Engineering Managers within our community to discuss their journey to Engineering Leadership.
Starting as an Intern at Citrix in 2012, Shaun was mainly focused on security testing. With this anchoring within a technical team Shaun slowly built his influence by taking on increasingly challenging projects that included leadership responsibilities. Then an opportunity came out to build a world-class team that would focus on cloud performance engineering – a team central to Citrix’s growth plans.
“We’re helping engineers understand, from a code perspective, how they can optimise the performance of the received end-user experience, as well as enabling executives to make informed engineering investment decisions.“
Coming into management after being an individual contributor is the most common route into that leadership position. You know the challenges that a team will face and that makes you uniquely positioned to provide solutions. However, this route into management doesn’t come without problems. For one, having the restraint to hold yourself back from simply solving the problem yourself – as you have done in the past – is a skill that will need to be developed over time. For Shaun, who followed this route, make sure you take your hands off the code is very important.
“On one hand, you want to dive in and support the engineer directly, but at the same time, that’s the worst thing that you can do. Because you’re not coaching them towards a solution. You’re doing it for them.”
Not only will you be limiting the development of the Engineer by removing an opportunity for learning through problem-solving, but you will also be reducing the amount of time you can spend on strategic management – reducing your overall effectiveness.
“You need to be able to scale yourself. Diving into the code every day will mean you can’t take on additional responsibilities because you won’t have the bandwidth. So building autonomy in people has to be the focus.”
This hands-off methodology is at direct odds with the methodology of an individual contributor who has been conditioned to tackle problems quickly and directly. For those heading into tech leadership roles, Shaun believes that focusing on the development of your team and trusting your technical strategy will help you break out of old habits and take your hands off the code.
“I have to look at it as harmful to the individual. Otherwise, I will jump in inadvertently.”
Technical guidance and alignment against operational plans are most often joint responsibilities across an engineering manager and one or more technical team leads. Ensuring technical team leaders are consistently empowered is a key responsibility of an engineering manager. A similar relationship exists between engineering managers and technical team leads as it does between team leads and members.
“It’s helping people who really understand the technical aspects well, also understand the importance of the strategy. Then aligning the two, and filling in the gap in between, which is often huge.”
To truly align the technology with the wider business objectives, while giving your team individual contributions that are valuable, an Engineering Manager needs to have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the industry. Who is doing what? What developments are being made? Without that knowledge, engineering strategies will be one-dimensional.
The problem, however, comes in the form of an ever-evolving tech industry that will not slow down for anyone.
“The faster we move, the more of a challenge it creates. The main challenges for me as an Engineering Manager lie on the industry awareness side more than anywhere else.”
When is the right time to move into tech leadership? When will you know? For many, the opportunity will likely be thrust upon them without time to consider if they’re ready. But what does ready look like? For Shaun, you should look after your personal brand before you think about moving into leadership.
“Imagine moving into a leadership role at a new company has never previously been in either. You have limited to no support network at that point, right. You don’t have a personal brand or are already well established. Making that initial move into leadership can feel easier when you’ve already got this personal brand that’s very strong. And you’re very well thought of, and that potentially gives you some leeway.”
With a significant pedigree in the technology space, Aidong has enjoyed a long diverse career with some of the biggest names in technology. Now at Johnson Matthey, Aidong is Responsible for developing technology roadmap, strategic R&D programs, IP management, building commercial partnerships and R&D collaboration with 3rd parties, identifying, evaluating and investing strategically fit cutting-edge technologies. Focusing mainly on batteries materials for EV applications.
His team is tasked with identifying technologies that Johnson Matthey will go on to develop over the next 5 or 10 years.
For Aidong, who is a technologist at heart, striking a balance between your love for technology and your position as a leader for your team can take a long time.
“It can go one of two ways, you can end up leading people, or you lead the idea flow. The latter is often the most important.”
Taking a step back from the individual contributions frees you up to lead the flow of ideas in the team. This, in turn, enables you to focus on the creation of a team culture that allows engineers to be truly autonomous.
“I think it’s the technical manager’s role to create an environment that allows engineers to develop their own ideas and feel comfortable following their instinct.”
For those looking to take their first steps into Engineering and technology management, Aidong recommends flexing your muscles in a project management capacity first and foremost.
“This will give you the opportunity to work with a diverse range of people who don’t actually report to you. There isn’t so much of a direct reporting burden so you can focus on your people management skills and high-level stakeholder management skills.”
Mark Bell, VP of Development at Telensa started his career at BT before moving on to a small start-up where he works towards the creation of web browsers for mobile devices. After a Microsoft bought that start-up, Mark moved on to Amino Communications – a start-up he would remain at for the next 18 years moving up the ladder from software engineering to director of software.
When you’re dealing with direct deliverables every day, it can be hard to suddenly be thrust into a realm of work with less definition. When Engineers and Developers assume leadership responsibility, they lose the clearly defined criteria for success and achievement.
“When you’re doing tech, you work on something all day and can move it along when you’re finished. You know, this was what I built. And this is why a lot of developers moving into leadership try and keep hold of some dev responsibilities.”
For Mark, it’s about shifting your perceptions on achievement and development – moving towards human development rather than technical development, which can be just as if not more rewarding.
“I don’t necessarily get enjoyment from implementing a piece of code anymore, I get it from helping someone move from where they are today to where they want to be.”
In some circles, there is a notion that once you become a Project Manager (PM) you can lead any project regardless of the industry, that it all comes down to being able to reach deadlines, assign tasks, manage schedules and stakeholders etc. But is that really all it is?
For Mark, it’s important technical managers have technical backgrounds so they can interface effectively with developers and engineers.
“Certainly the most common route is working your way up from an engineer, figuring out the ins and outs of the product while building your profile across the organisation. That’s important if you want to be able to make quick decisions when you’re in a management position. When moving to a management role in a new company, you may have the basic technical knowledge but You don’t necessarily have the organisational knowledge. So there’s that learning curve.”
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