I have been an engineer in the valley for more than 10 years. In this time, I have reported to quite a few managers, both good and bad. When I transitioned to an engineering manager role, I assumed that my engineering and mentoring experience would help me. In reality, I have found this assumption to be a far cry from the truth. In this story, I shed some light on the differences and what I am doing to close the gap.
As a senior engineer, I am not solely responsible for my team. I play a very important role in the team’s success but if the team fails, it’s not my fault. An effective leader takes complete accountability for the team. If the team is not healthy, its the manager that fixes it. If the team fails, its the manager that bears the responsibility. The pressure of playing this role is completely different from a mentorship/lead role.
As a senior engineer, I have a lot of one-on-one meetings but how often do I feel awkward or get sticky questions? As a manager, I have to embrace awkwardness, to the point where it feels very normal. “Why did I not get a raise this time even though I got a great review?” , “Person X’s performance is affecting the entire team, why are we not doing anything about it?”. These are questions that good managers should expect and even welcome. As an engineer, my response would have been more like “Ugh, how would I know?”.
As a manager, one of my primary responsibilities is to help people grow in their careers. I have to find ways to challenge my team, help them learn, and reach their goals. As an engineering lead or mentor, I do not have to do this. I am there to help and guide people. Whether I do that successfully or not is not always measured. Giving advice without accountability is a lot simpler than taking responsibility for someone’s career goals.
There are other areas of engineering and team management where as a senior engineer, I participate and as a manager, I lead. Engineers contribute to the team culture. As a senior engineer especially, I watch for red flags and actively try to do my part. As managers, I do not just contribute to the team culture, I set it. My actions can make or break a team.
Attracting and hiring talent is one of the most important functions of an engineering manager. Engineers actively participate in hiring decisions. They do their part in trying to find references and market the team and the company. But as a manager, I own hiring decisions. A bad hire is my responsibility. A good hire is the minimum expectation.
How I am approaching this
Most of what is stated above are not hard for a seasoned manager. But it can be overwhelming for a new manager. Just as a complex software engineering project can be overwhelming for a junior developer. I am approaching management like I did engineering when I started. With a beginner’s mindset. I have accepted the fact that I do not know the ABC’s of management even though I am an experienced engineer. I am reading a lot about management, from many different sources. It took years of experience for me to get comfortable being an engineer, and enjoy the uncertainty that comes with complex projects. Could I ever be a great software engineer if I do not understand binary? Management and Leadership are no different.