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So you want to be a Manager?

Despite how satisfying and fun designing and writing software can be, building high performing teams can be even more so. The highs are higher and the lows are lower, but overall it can be an incredibly rewarding career and developing future leaders on your team is a key responsibility.

So, as a manager, how do you handle an individual contributor (IC) engineer on your team expressing interest in becoming a manager?

Start with the Why

A good place to start the conversation is by asking “Great! Why do you want to be manager?”.

There are a plethora of reasons why someone might be interested in moving into people management, and certainly no single right or wrong answer, but some warning signs might be:

  • I want people to do what I tell them!
  • Management will give me better career growth opportunities

Becoming a manager is not a promotion, but a change in career, and there are plenty of opportunities for career growth as an engineer and IC (if not, you are at the wrong company).

  • I want to get paid more

Assuming managers get paid more than engineers is a common fallacy; renumeration is dependent on experience and contribution on both side of that career path.

On a related note, Charity Majors (who is always an entertaining read) lists some more positive reasons on why someone shouldn’t become a manager in Reasons not to beĀ  Manager

“Better” answers might include:

  • I enjoy coaching, mentoring and helping colleagues succeed
  • I want to build and retain highly performing teams (leading to great conversations on what means)
  • I have already taken on several leadership responsibilities and I’m really enjoying it…

Underlying motivations & alternative paths

Whatever the answers provided, the conversation can provide good insights into maturity and readiness for the role. Importantly, it will also hopefully surface underlying motivations, and it may become clear that what the engineer is looking for may be achievable in other ways than becoming a manager.

For example, some people may be looking for leadership opportunities that can be found in technical roles too.

Being a Tech Lead, for example, involves facilitating design discussions, getting consensus on decisions, communicating and defending those decisions, and reporting wins and issues. All of this may be within and across teams, and to management.

From The Rent The Runway engineering ladder text:

The tech lead role is a set of responsibilities that any engineer may take on once they reach the senior level. If a tech lead is not managing directly, they are still expected to provide mentorship and guidance to the other members of the team.

On a related note, there is a good discussion of what it means to be a Tech Lead in Chapter 3 of The Manager’s Path, by Camille Fournier (former CTO of Rent the Runway).

 

Being a Scrum Master requires organization, leadership, good communication skills and a willingness to help others and be an un-blocker for the team.

Technical writing is also an all-too-often overlooked opportunity for engineers to provide insights, clarity and guidance for projects and teams. And if you can’t express your thoughts clearly on paper, you are unlikely to be able to do so in person.

Maybe they are even more suited to another role completely, such as Product Manager, Project Manager or Technical Program Manager.

 

Talk them out of it

If you have had the conversation about motivations and alternative paths, and the engineer is still keen on being a manager, I believe you have an obligation to challenge further on whether it is really what they want to do. Being a manager involves dealing with all sorts of difficult conversations and stressful situations, and making hard decisions. It is better to have someone realize the difficulties of the role now, rather than later.

So, remind potential managers that being a manager will eventually involve dealing with:

  • Personality conflicts
  • Performance problems, managing out and firing people
  • Dealing with personal and “HR” type issues
  • Handling complaints such as being underpaid, unrecognized, under leveled, overworked, frustrated, burnt out etc

So… Why on earth would you want to deal with all of that?!?

And even if all of that doesn’t put someone off, the simple reminder that a move to management will inevitably move away from technology can be enough to make people have second thoughts. Yes, technical skills remain important as a manager (and I like this presentation from Kathleen Vignos on How to stay technical as a manager), but the reality is that as a manager, your main focus is on people, not technology. While a 50/50 split of development vs management may be a reasonable breakdown for a new manager on a small team, that ratio will inevitably skew heavily towards people as you manage bigger teams and projects.

But for some people, these difficult situations sound like a challenge. For example, there is something inherently rewarding in working with someone who is underperforming and coaching and helping them back to full productivity.

And for those people, management may be the right path…

 

Ease into it

If someone has the willingness, capabilities and aptitude to become a manager, I try to start giving them some management type responsibilities to gauge both their skills and continued desire…

Define roadmaps

Charting the course for the team is an integral part of being a manager. Having a potential manager contribute to or even lead the creation of roadmaps can be a useful exercise. It gets them exposure to resource planning, estimations, timelines, commitments, cross team dependencies, and communicating all that to the team, management, and stakeholders. Which is a good segue to…

 

Present more

Encourage your would-be manager to give more presentations, not just to teammates, but to leadership too. All managers need to share information with groups, and being able to communicate well to larger groups is essential. Have potential managers present more both to test their presentation skills and to enhance them. It also has the added bonus of getting the engineer in front of the leadership team more often. An engineer is unlikely to be able to make the switch to management if other managers don’t know who they are.

 

Give feedback

Giving feedback and guidance is a big part of what every manager does, and having an engineer start sharing more feedback on their colleagues and collaborators (and you!) can be a great way to have them start exercising those muscles. It can of course be a great benefit to you as a manager too, to get better insights into your team, and help expose any blindspots you might have.

1-1s

This one is a little tricky. Having an engineer do 1-1s with their fellow engineers can be controversial (“Do I have to? They’re not my boss!”). But I try to position this as helping a team mate to move to a new career path of management.

The benefit of this is that the potential manager gets insights into some of the issues the team may be having. Some of the aforementioned issues like team conflicts. Good potential managers may even be able to sniff out potential issues or areas for improvement that you as manager have missed.

On the other hand, being exposed to such issues may help some potential managers realize that this is not in fact the role they want to pursue.

 

Manage consultants or contractors

Often consultants are more independent and self sufficient. So “managing” consultants can be a good first time gig for potential mangers.

Soak up management information

Finally, be a sponge. Talk to existing managers, ideally a combination of new managers who have recently gone through the transition from engineering, and veterans who have lots of management experience and can guide you to avoid common new manager mistakes like micromanaging, under communicating or trying to be liked by everyone. If you don’t know enough managers personally, or aren’t comfortable asking them for advice, ask your current manager to put their network to use for you and make introductions. Try to aim for a mix of people who are internal and outside of your current company.

Finally, read! There is an abundance of management books out there, but not all are equal, so try to find those that speak to you. Consider setting up a bookclub with other managers. I’m currently reading An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management, and recently read The Manager’s Path and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. I also recommend The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And while How to Win Friends & Influence People isn’t management specific, it is still a classic text on how to improve your people skills. I also find @clairejlew and the knowyourteam.com site to be consistently good reading too.

 

Next steps

If potential managers can do the above tasks, demonstrate competence, capability and an appetite to continue, then the next step will be to start looking for opportunities with the company. Becoming a manger requires both competence and a need within the org. If both exist, the next step may be to start managing a small team and formally become a people manager.

Finally, I always like to point out to potential managers that switching to a management career is not a one way path. It is OK to switch back to being an Individual Contributor. In fact some of the most rounded people I have worked with have switched back and forth several times between IC and management. I feel like having spent time as a manager makes you a better IC, and much more considerate of the difficulties a manager faces. Similarly, a strong technical background gained as an IC is always an asset as a manager.

If someone expresses interest and has already demonstrated some leadership abilities, be inquisitive, ask probing questions and test them for the management path ahead.

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