Do I want to become an Engineering manager?

Disclaimer: This post was published initially in Spanish ¿Quiero ser manager?.

My manager has asked me if I want to become a manager. What does it even mean? This is a question that I’m asked quite often, so I’m writing this post to share my perspective.
So, what now? How do I know whether I want to become a manager or not? What happens if I do it and I don’t like it? What’s a manager anyway?

This post is meant to be a guide of things you must consider and the questions you should ask yourself before accepting becoming a manager.
There are two facets to keep in mind:

  • Manager’s skills and responsibilities
  • A manager in your company

They’re normally very similar but, sadly, for each company, manager means something different.

Questions you should ask yourself

  • First of all, it might be that you already have shown you have the skills for the job and you don’t even know it. For example, have you ever stepped up in a situation where there was a lot of uncertainty or chaos? Have you ever succeeded in aligning your team? Make them work in the same direction? Are you one of those people who can read others and realize instantly when a coworker is feeling low or has a problem? Do you like having conversations with people outside your team? When you see a problem, instead of just complaining, you look for ways to solve it?
    All these things show that you already have some of the required skills: leadership, being able to navigate uncertainty, not going along with the chaos, on the contrary, being able to establish measures to control it, skills to communicate to all types of audiences, etc.
  • Do you like people? Bear in mind that the main responsibility of an engineering manager is that: managing people. I know the question is too generic, so let me elaborate. Are you willing to dedicate a lot of your time motivating and engaging people? Because your job is to make people productive and, on top of that, retention. If you’re not willing to sacrifice coding to dedicate time to think about these things for each member of your team, I would think twice before accepting the position. And the same goes for all the things in this post, being a manager means that coding is not your main concern anymore, people are. Is people development one of your main concerns? Because one of the main reasons why people want to stay in a company is because they feel they’re growing, learning. Are you willing to put the time and the energy to find out what people want and help them achieve it? Are you willing to align their goals with the company goals? Are you willing to have frequent conversations with other teams to discover opportunities?
  • Are you willing to change the rewards cycle? This is one of the main frustrations for managers and too many times we don’t even think about it. As an IC, you have rewards and wins every day, but as a manager, it can take you months to see a win.
    After solving a problem, you get an adrenaline rush, happiness. You end up your day with an amazing feeling! But when you’re a manager, everything changes! It normally takes months for problems to get solved and, more importantly, you can’t rely on your technical skills/knowledge or your knowledge about the product to solve these problems. These problems are about people, processes, delivery, productivity, etc. Although, without a doubt, the most complex one is PEOPLE.
    Let me ask you something: how many times have you faced a personal problem that kept you up at night? Think about this: when you’re dealing with your problems, you know the situation inside out. And even then it’s not easy because people, well, you know, are people, so they are complex. Now imagine how it must be to solve other people’s problems, where you lack context, problems that you didn’t even know existed in your team. And too many times you won’t even see if the decisions you made were right or not after weeks or months.
    It’s not only that it takes a long time to see results, the same thing goes for rewards, although if you have a good manager they should be able to recognise the work you’re doing even if the results are still not visible.
  • Following up with people’s problems: do you feel comfortable when someone tells you his problems? Do you feel comfortable digging into the problem? Trying to understand the context? Listening to the different parts in the conflict? Putting hours, having meetings with stakeholders or members of your team, etc to understand the reality, the root of the problem?
  • Do you feel comfortable being completely honest with people? I mean, you don’t sugarcoat your feedback. Because giving feedback will be part of your day to day job. Too many times what you have to say won’t be easy, you won’t be saying “good job” all the time and there will be times when what you have to say will create conflict. So if you are averse to conflict you’re going to have a lot of bad times. Don’t worry, with time and training, you can learn to say the same things in a way that reduces conflict.
  • In connection with the previous bullet point, are you a good listener? If someone comes to you right now and tells you “can we talk?”, how would you react? Because this will happen constantly, and if you’ve done a good job, people won’t be afraid to speak to you and tell you their problems. So, if you’re not willing to put time to listening to people, I would think seriously about being a manager! Because this is going to happen for sure, but, more importantly, because if you don’t listen you’re not going to be able to do all the things I mentioned before: develop people, helping them to grow, etc.
  • Do you have empathy? Because without it, it’s really difficult to be fair. If you’re not able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, everything seems easier than it is, less dramatic and pretty likely you will assume people’s motivations and too often you will assume they have bad intentions. In one word, you will be unfair.
  • Agenda. Something very common amongst new managers is to complain about the schedule, the amount of meetings, that it seems they don’t own their calendars. The reality is that you will be spending more time in meetings than coding, and that means that you’re going to be switching contexts all the time, and you will have very few moments of deep focus. Do you remember all those long hours hunting a bug? Forget it, pretty likely you will have one or more meetings in that time, does it piss you off?
  • Communication to different audiences. As a manager you will take part in meetings with stakeholders (depending on the company these will be CEO, CTO, VPs, directors, other departments…). You will have to present pretty technical problems to non-technical audiences, you will have to create proposals to solve horizontal problems in the company. Let me be more specific. Depending on the size of the company you will take part in meetings, proposals where you’re trying to solve problems like hiring, onboarding, diversity, recruitment, career paths (ladder), working groups, etc.
    Being able to communicate clearly, without ambiguity, is key for a manager. You won’t be able to do your job otherwise! And I’ve been talking a lot about stakeholders, but it’s even more critical that you can communicate correctly to your team. How do you communicate when someone is fired? How do you communicate a problem in the company? A change in the strategy of the company? Are you able to keep your team motivated after a project is cancelled? After a layoff?

This depends a lot on the number of people you have to manage: the more people you have the more you will feel all the things I mentioned.

Questions for your company

  • Another thing to take into account is if the company is going to train you. Ok, so you want me to become a manager, are you going to teach me? How am I going to learn? Depending on the size of the company this will be doable or not. I mean, normally, small companies don’t have the resources for that and you have to learn on the job.
  • Do you have a safety net? Make sure you’re not jumping out of a plane without a parachute. This is a good metric of the maturity of the company, the ideal situation is one in which you can go back to IC if you don’t like the role.
  • Do I have a development plan? How am I going to start in the role? Am I going to have 4 people all of the sudden or I will do it step by step?
  • Is there a career path for managers? What will my career look like in two years if I’m doing a good job? What’s the next step for me? (Again, this varies a lot depending on the maturity and size of the company, in some of them you can become manager of managers, VP, director… or it might be that there isn’t much more).

Consider if you like your current role

In a nutshell, the manager’s role is to put out fires and not become a bottleneck while doing it. Trying to stay out of the critical path does not come easy for someone whose main passion is coding. It’s a major shift in perspective, responsibilities, and approach.

Looking at the whole post, it seems like I’m trying to convince you not to become a manager :D but it’s actually the other way around, I want you to become a good one, so I want you to be sure you know where you’re getting into. You don’t need to do perfectly all the things I mention, and it’s quite normal that you don’t know a lot of them, but you will have to learn them if you want to do a good job.

Thanks Andrei for the revision and suggestions!!

Opinions entirely my own. Sr Eng manager @eventbrite ex @google . Management, critical thinking & psychology. http://medium.com/@flopezluis/