Almost two years ago I transferred to the Engineering Manager (EM) role full time, leaving behind Android Software engineering and the tech lead adventures. This has been a great experience so far, and there are lots of learnings to share. So what do EM responsibilities look like?
You don’t code anymore
Yes, you can ask your manager if you can code sometimes. And they will probably approve that. But believe me, you don’t want to. The amount of focused (uninterrupted) time you have during the day does not contribute to coding. One day your team will grow beyond 4 people, and/or you will get a lot of moving targets to take care of, such as scoping projects, architecture reviews, hiring. You won’t be able to find a single 2–3 hour slot for engineering.
And even if you submit a pull request after you scrambled 2 hours on Thursday afternoon. As you probably can guess, without daily coding practice, your software engineering skills will slowly deteriorate. Now your team must spend time reviewing a crappy pull request.
In addition to the time loss, it also raises an interesting question: “As an engineer I either approve a low-quality pull request just because it comes from my manager? Or I need to explain to them what is wrong and ask to work on it”. Would it be the best use of your time and the time of engineers you support?
You are the people person
One of the primary EM jobs is talking to people. You must be comfortable spending at least half of your working hours in meetings. What kind of meetings? First of all, one-on-ones. Team meetings and managing up are the next ones. Think of explaining to another team why APIs they expect to be delivered by your org are delayed again.
Moreover, sometimes people just stop by to talk. And this is good for your team and project. Please don’t spend the entire no-meeting office time wearing headphones (when back to the office) or signaling that you are busy in any other way.
Your people are growing
The core expectation from the EM is finding the opportunity to grow for every person they are supporting. Growth, quite often, means different things for different people. Navigating your team members to get a promotion, a bonus, or a special reward is a good start. But this is not enough.
How about finding the project that an engineer feels excited about and that aligns perfectly with their strengths? With balancing the amount of tedious maintenance/cleanup job, and some corporate bureaucracy to deal with? This is where your knowledge of the tech stack and the interests of folks you are supporting will mean a lot.
The Calendar is your favorite IDE
The science of effective calendaring is a topic for a separate blog post. In short, you need to accommodate all types of activities with other people in a reasonable amount of hours. How about managing the time if someone is in a different timezone?
It is probably worth scheduling some slots in advance, and also having some “focus time”, securing 1–2 hours of no-meeting time to do your businesses like emails, chats, and specs.
You hire and sell
If you are about to become an EM — you probably need a team you will be supporting. Soo, most likely, you need to hire them. What “hiring” actually means? I understand it as convincing the candidate to spend their precious time on something your team is working on. In the end, the candidate should “buy” your story, believe in you and the company. Conversation with the candidate might go this way: “Why should I join your team if the company X is offering me $##### and a chance to build a rocket ship?”.
You think product
An EM is quite often a connector between various parts of the company and their team. One of the most immediate partners EM is working with is a Product Manager. Historically, EMs are joining the project and/or getting involved in the discussion earlier than engineers. In that case, EM should represent the engineering vision on things your company is about to build and maintain.
I’m sure your company wants to build something useful for this world, and most likely your company wants to make some profits out of it. In that case, you probably will add a lot of value if you suggest ways on how the business might be successful. You should be more business-focused than the engineer and help your engineers merge the love of building cool things with the need to make a buck for the company.
You are responsible for everything in the team
If there is someone who wears all possible hats in the team — this is you. Depending on the situation, you will take care of the product management, fix some bugs, review architecture, draw wireframes, and even be a barista. You are bold enough to take the first step into some new area. Nobody expects you to be excellent in everything mentioned above. Still, you should be able to remove the bottleneck and find some way for your team to move forward.
You are in charge of the team setup
Here is my #1 test to see if someone is a good EM: ask them what each of their direct reports is responsible for, and if any of these projects are overlapping (hint: they shouldn’t 🙂 ). After that, ask each of these direct reports: what they and their peers are responsible for? If the EM and their team’s response matches well, you probably have a competent or a fortunate manager in front of you.
Each team member should be focused on a specific area and be aware of areas other folks are working in. Otherwise, there is a very high chance of conflict between people and lost productive time.
What’s an alternative to the Eng Management path?
What if things described above don’t really catch you? Many companies have already introduced a career path for an individual contributor (IC) to keep staying an IC and get promoted/rewarded up to the very top level. This level might be equal to the Director or Vice President, who have long reporting trees. I believe this is a very fair deal because some engineers might add the same or more value to the company’s success as an executive who has worked in management roles for the last 15 years.
If your company doesn’t offer the next steps of the IC growth — maybe you are with the wrong company? Just give me a call, we are hiring 😉
So is it worth it?
The most rewarding for an EM is to see people happy and successful. You scale yourself by helping folks around you. Think of the founder, the CEO, the president of the country. Quite often they don’t do the “real” work themselves, but somehow people do better when they are around. The EM path is a great place to build the skills you need to run a business, be a partner and a friend, and not only to speak well but also to listen.