The path to management

The path to management

Insight for developers considering making a move from individual contributor to engineering manager.
Part of
Issue 11 November 2019


Throughout high school and college, I worked as a tutor, teaching assistant, and mentor, and discovered that I loved helping people realize their own potential and finding groups of people who worked well together. And so, when I started my first full-time engineering job, I started to think more deeply about my future career trajectory. Solving software problems was interesting, but I missed the mentorship and organizational work that I’d been doing.

I knew engineering management combined these two skill sets, but I wanted to learn more about where that career path began, and how to begin it. I asked Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Team, and Jill Wetzler, director of engineering leadership development at Lyft, to share their advice for individual contributors curious about the role.

Understanding the job

Engineers solve technical problems and build features, while managers facilitate environments and processes so that engineers can do their best work. A managerial role requires dedication to your people skills, and it often means stepping away from actively programming and the joy of solving technical problems.

For those thinking about engineering management, Lew recommends reflecting deeply on how you feel about conflict: “Your role as a manager exists to encourage, facilitate, and resolve conflict healthily. Should your natural disposition be to avoid conflict, you may want to reconsider becoming a manager.”

“When I’m looking for people who show great potential for management,” Wetzler adds, “I often look toward my ‘glue’ employees. They are the people ensuring the team is communicating up and out properly. They are the first to inform me that someone is unhappy on the team, or that conflict is brewing.”

Deciding when to move

There’s no single answer for when the transition from engineer to engineering manager should happen, but both Lew and Wetzler believe that effective management takes both technical know-how and people-management skills. And it takes significant time to develop both skill sets.

“Everyone wants a credible manager who understands what their team is working on well enough to explain it to others when the engineers are not in the room,” Wetzler explains. “No one wants a manager who misrepresents their team’s progress or challenges to their boss.”

Wetzler encourages folks to wait until they’re at the mid- to senior-level range before making the move into management, and cautions engineers against “taking on management too soon in their careers.”

Lew underscores the importance of expertise and credibility, noting that it’s “hard to gain the trust of your team if you’re not an expert in the field yourself.” She adds an important caveat for consideration: “Being great technically and having a lot of engineering experience doesn’t directly translate into being a great people manager.”

“You need to be able to participate in design discussions, spot gaps or estimation mistakes in a plan, and resolve technical conflicts,” Wetzler says. Managers “don’t necessarily have to be the tie-breaking call, but they have to know when to step in—and who to pull in—in order to drive a problem to resolution.”

Preparing for the role

With inconsistent ladders and levels across companies, finding a career path in the startup landscape can feel somewhat ad hoc. (Even the meaning of “senior” varies from workplace to workplace.) But many companies, especially those that are larger or more mature, have cleared explicit career tracks.

Wetzler shared that Lyft has a 90-day policy where new managers “begin acting in a management capacity right away—holding weekly one-on-ones, running meetings, participating in feedback and calibration processes—but the official reporting relationship does not change.” This means that team members have interim access to both their previous manager and their new one. Functionally a trial run, this practice is a great opportunity for those who aren’t completely sure that management is for them.

Mentorship is another tool that companies can provide formally, and that individual contributors can seek on their own. “The more exposure to different models of leadership you can give to an individual contributor, the better,” Lew says, speaking to how companies can best cultivate up-and-coming managers. “This ideally means not just providing one mentor to an individual contributor, but giving them access to a variety of mentors within the company—and outside the company.”

A mentor inside the company has the context of the culture and goings-on, but in some instances the mentee needs guidance on topics that they may not want someone in their own company or part of the organization to know about yet (e.g., leaving their job or dealing with a difficult boss). Lyft realized that new managers needed to be able to talk about their struggles and quandaries in detail with experienced managers outside of their immediate organization. “Now part of our transition process calls for assigning a mentor who works in a different part of the engineering organization,” Wetzler says.

Forging a path

Someone may have the desire, the experience, and the mentorship in place to make a confident transition into a leadership role, but there’s no opening at their company. In cases like this, Wetzler suggests strategic networking within the workplace.

“Find a team that’s so big it’s about to split,” Wetzler advises, one “with no engineers who are interested in management.” Or, she says, “figure out which areas are going to be making new, big investments (and thus new teams will be forming). Meet with directors and managers from various parts of the org in order to find out what they’re working on, and express interest in their teams.”

Lew says that having a direct conversation about goals can help. “Companies know for the most part that upward mobility and career progression is a huge reason (other than a poor manager) that a person leaves their job,” she explains. “Having the conversation—that this is something you have on your mind—can help you find a path forward.”

About the author

Kaya Thomas is an iOS developer at Calm and the founder of We Read Too. She is also an international public speaker and has contributed to Smashing MagazineTechCrunch, and Fusion.


Artwork by

Mel Tow

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