Engineers face an important choice as they move up the career ladder: Should I be a technical lead or an engineering manager?
While there is overlap between the skills each role requires, technical leadership and engineering management are very different paths. Deciding which one to take depends on your natural strengths and interests.
The basic distinction between technical lead and manager roles is the emphasis on technology vs. people. Technical leads spend more time writing code and learning new technologies. Engineering managers spend more time helping people grow and collaborate effectively.
Alex Kavalsky, a Software Development Manager at Amazon, advises that management isn’t the right track for everyone. “Some engineers become managers because they like the idea of leading other people. I don’t think that’s enough.”
An effective software engineering manager is essential for the success of any engineering team. The following are some of the key qualities that make an engineering manager effective:
1. Technical knowledge: A good engineering manager should have a strong technical background, including hands-on experience in software development, to be able to understand the challenges faced by the team and provide effective solutions.
2. Communication skills: Engineering managers need to have excellent communication skills, both written and verbal, to be able to convey information and directives to their team, as well as to effectively communicate with stakeholders. Communication is vital for managers and engineers alike – teams perform best when everyone shares information effectively. However, becoming a manager significantly increases your communication responsibilities. For instance, EMs are expected to
- Set and communicate expectations to their team: “As a leader, your role is to connect everyday tasks with the larger question: Why does my team exist? When employees understand how their contributions impact the mission of your team and company, they will feel more engaged and inspired.” – Magda Miu, Engineering Manager at Adobe. Also, translate between executives and engineers
- Translate between executives and engineers: As a manager, your performance is measured by the business impact of your engineering teams. This means that you need to communicate effectively with executives and engineers – two groups that speak very different languages. “As an engineering leader, a regular part of my work was explaining the tradeoffs of technology investments to business people. Let’s say the business wants to implement two-factor authentication. From a business perspective, I can affirm the value of the idea while explaining the technical complexity behind it: it’s not as simple as adding a field to an existing feature.” – Karl Hughes. On the flip side, it’s also important to explain business decisions to your engineering teams. This can be challenging when the decisions require engineers to scrap a project or change course. However, you can maintain morale by communicating clearly and leading with empathy. “How can a manager ensure these drastic changes do not devalue dev work? By understanding the external changes from a business perspective, and then connecting those product imperatives to the team’s technical interests. Managers must communicate the why that drives a change in scope, and assure the team that the change is meant to empower their work to be even more valuable, more effective.” – Fahim ul Haq.
3. Lead by example: An effective engineering manager should be a role model for their team, setting a high bar for work quality, commitment, and collaboration. They should also be proactive in addressing any challenges the team faces, rather than simply delegating responsibilities.
4. Strategic thinking: Engineering managers should be able to think critically and holistically about the development process, and be able to identify areas for improvement. They should also be able to set clear goals and prioritize tasks to ensure their team stays on track.
5. Problem-solving skills: Effective engineering managers need to be able to identify problems and develop solutions in a timely manner. They should also be able to anticipate potential roadblocks and be proactive in preventing them from occurring.
6. Emotional intelligence: Engineering managers should be able to understand the emotional state of their team and provide support and guidance when needed. They should also be able to handle conflicts in a professional and respectful manner.
7. Adaptability: In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing technology landscape, engineering managers need to be adaptable and willing to embrace new technologies and methodologies. They should also be able to motivate their team to continuously improve and evolve.
8. Extreme sense of ownership: Engineers measure their success by the quality of their code. For engineering managers, success is measured by the impact of people, processes, and delivery. Moving into management means owning new processes. Instead of focusing on writing great code, you will be expected to show bias for action by looping in the right people, providing feedback, and communicating with stakeholders as well as Making tough decisions that will benefit the business when a group can’t reach a consensus. Being empathetic doesn’t mean avoiding uncomfortable conversations. In fact, a lack of clarity around changing goals and expectations will prevent your team from adapting successfully. Depending on your management style, you may need to make a conscious effort to be more transparent and ensure your team has the level of structure and clarity they need.
9. Interest in Mentorship: Engineering management is all about supporting business goals and people’s career growth. To find a successful balance, Ariel Weinberger keeps these 3 things in mind which are:
- The business strives to make money.
- Your team needs the motivation to achieve business goals.
- Software engineers want to grow and work on exciting projects
The trick is to negotiate these 3 points and find as many win-win solutions as possible. Through ongoing mentorship, you can help engineers grow in a way that also serves the business. As an EM, you will spend a lot of time helping engineers identify strengths and opportunities for growth. This includes regular 1:1s to help engineers find projects that advance their careers while accelerating the team
In conclusion, an effective engineering manager possesses a combination of technical expertise, leadership skills, strategic thinking, problem-solving abilities, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. These qualities allow them to effectively guide their team to deliver high-quality products and achieve their goal