17 reasons why becoming an engineering manager is not what you thought it will be

17 reasons why becoming an engineering manager is not what you thought it will be

Photo by Vladislav Babienko
 17 reasons why becoming an engineering manager is not what you thought it will be

I often find myself giving career advice to software engineers who want to become a manager. I also mentor and coach many managers who’ve made the transition, some more successfully than others. These activities happen inside and outside of my company. The change from an individual contributor to a people manager is full of myths, pitfalls, and hidden traps. 
It’s not unusual for folks to become managers, and a year or two later realize it’s not what they thought it was going to be after going to hell and back. There is a survivorship bias when you read blog posts, watch a talk at a conference, or read a book. Those are the successful people, and you rarely hear the stories of the people who weren’t.

Here are seventeen reasons for you not to give it a try:
Reason #1: It’s not a career progression  
A software engineer’s natural career progression is to become a senior, then a staff, then a principal, and so on. Becoming an engineering manager is a change of career track. It’s more closely related to going from an engineering role to a product manager role. You’ll need to develop a bunch of new skills you didn’t know it even existed.

Reason #2: You’ll work more  
Oh, well. It’ll happen, particularly in the first few years (see #12). In addition to the typical responsiveness that engineers must have to bugs and production issues, a manager will also have to deal with people’s emergencies. Recruiting emergencies. Project planning emergencies. People conflict emergencies. These can be limited to the 40h work-week, but only after you become proficient as a manager. You’ll feel guilty when you are not responsive, and it’ll take time for you to develop the competencies to do this right — years, not months.
Reason #3: The weight of another human being on your shoulder  
As a manager, you’ll start to feel this extra weight on your shoulders when an employee is struggling, frustrated, or underperforming. Sometimes, it comes with a sense of powerlessness. Sometimes you’ll take that weight with you home, and it’ll start to affect your personal life. You’ll find yourself snapping in situations you wouldn’t snap before. For some people, particularly those with a high level of empathy, the pain of the employee becomes your pain. The pain of a half-dozen employees can become unbearable.

Reason #4: Fewer opportunities to learn technology  
I’m a growth-mindset believer. I believe that nature is overrated and nurture under-appreciated. However, a person has only so many hours in a day. The time you’ll spend becoming a better people manager and team manager will come at the cost of honing your software skills. It was a deliberate decision I’ve made as soon as I became a manager, which harmed my engineering skills. I remember feeling a couple of years behind those who were tracking like me in their software engineering career after I became a manager. I was okay with it because I wanted to be a manager.

Reason #5: Fewer job opportunities  
Do the math. If a typical engineering manager at a tech company manages 5 to 10 engineers, it means there are 5 to 10 times more engineering jobs than manager jobs. Also, there is a tendency to promote a high-performance engineer into that role (see #7 below). They already know the team, the code, and the company, thus, creating even fewer opportunities in the marketplace.
Reason #6: More meetings, more emails  
I wish I had more emails on my inbox and more meetings this week? Said no one, ever. But that’s the thing; you’ll be the heat shield for your engineers. Nearly everything will go to you first, or you’ll be CC’ed in all communication. And you’ll need to be on top of it to be effective at your role.

Reason #7: Your career was in a fast-growing path  
Let’s promote the worst engineer in the team to the manager role! Again, said no one, ever. Even though that might be the right decision. Those promoting people to manager roles look at the best performing engineer on the team and assume they will do as well as a manager. Sometimes it’s true. The problem is that you were feeling awesome because you were killing on your performance review. Suddenly, you put yourself in a position where you are not as good as before. It takes time to develop the skillset, and you have to reset your expectations (see #12).

Reason #8: More reorgs & more shuffle on your career  
Teams are going to merge. Teams will split. Your team might report to one side of the organization, then to another. It’ll happen more often than you think. For some of these changes, you’ll be able to participate and influence; some will come from a strategic shift. The engineers will continue to do their work, but whom you report to, the scope of responsibility, the meetings you have to attend will change more often than before.
Reason #9: People issues  
Human beings are complicated. Your employees will have personal issues they might bring to the office. They might even share things with you that you’ll feel quite uncomfortable discussing. Or, worse, there will be things that you should not discuss or advise as a manager of an organization at all. While those might be fine as a peer, it’s more complicated as a manager. There are also interpersonal conflicts, unexpected time-offs, and absence. Some people will be upset with their compensation or with someone else’s promotion. What might be the most surprising aspect of this type of issue is not the intensity they happen, but the frequency. You can expect one “personnel issue” per employee every other month. Once you have 6–8 engineers, you are dealing with a new issue on average once a week.

Reason #10: Fewer resources to learn & grow  
There are more online courses, books, videos, articles, and other resources to learn how to be an engineer than there are on how to be a manager. And, there are even fewer resources on how to be an engineering manager. I’m not exaggerating when I say fewer than 20 books are worth reading on how to be an engineering manager. Most of them present views based on personal experiences and not on studies, research, or science. They were written by an engineering manager (“I did it this way, and it worked, you should too”). They are full of survivorship bias.

Reason #11: Less Maker Time  
Do you like coding? Or do you like architecting components or micro-services? Do you enjoy the thrill of solving a complex problem? There will be less of that. And even less over time. Not only that, but your calendar will be a checkerboard of meetings. It’ll be hard for you to get 2–3h uninterrupted hours to code. What did I do when I became a manager? Easy, I started coding from 4:00 PM until 11:00 PM. I burned out. You’ll just need to accept you’ll have to do less “maker’s work.” When you do assign yourself a coding task, you have to make sure it’s not going to block anyone else when it takes longer — and it’ll take much longer.
Reason #12: It’s a hard transition  
In #7, I talked about how you were likely a high-performance engineer, and you suddenly find yourself in a new role. The problem is that people don’t shed their old views of themselves. You’ll continue to use a yardstick that’s not appropriate anymore. You can’t measure success by the standards of software engineering productivity. Yet, you don’t know what are the skillsets and expectations of a manager. You’ll likely see yourself as a failure.

Reason #13: You believe you’ll make more money  
In most tech companies, being a manager or not doesn’t change your compensation, and that’s a good thing. That’s not true in most industries and undoubtedly not true 30 years ago. So if you are being influenced by old books or by your parents & grandparents, you might be misguided on what to expect.

Reason #14: You can’t boss people around  
Over the last decade, this is the number one reason engineers come to me and ask to be the team manager. They don’t feel people are doing it their way or feel respected by the other engineers. If they are the boss, people will do what they tell, and they will respect him/her. Yeah, no.
Reason #15: You believe you’ll have a more significant impact  
You’ll certainly be part of more decision-making meetings. You’ll certainly be privy to more information. But, real impact has more to do with expertise and leadership than management — at least in a healthy organization. You’ll surely be able to create more damage, and your blast radius will be wider when you make a mistake. Fun

Reason #16: It sucks when a great engineer leaves  
People change jobs. Maybe they stay with the company but move to a different team. Either way, it’s tough on you and your team members when someone leaves. It’s even worse when they are a high-performance engineer or they hold unique knowledge. And that’s not the only downside. You’ll also be evaluated by your manager and their manager on why that engineer left. The question they will ask themselves is if the engineer left because of you or not. And, most studies suggest that the manager is the #1 reason people leave their current job.

Reason #17: It’s unpleasant to fire people  
Firing people is super hard. The first time is gut-wrenching. It’s easy to mess it up and make the employee and you feeling terrible about it. Sometimes Human Resources have to step in to clean up the mess you’ve made. It might be that you are firing someone because of performance, behavior, or violation of company policy, in which case you’ll feel less bad. However, it could also be that it wasn’t your choice. The project got canceled, there is a reduction in force (RIF), or a significant lay-off.
I’m trying to give you a clearer picture of what it means to transition from an engineer to an engineering manager. You should check your motivations behind this desire and see if they align with the role of a manager. If they do, and you are ready for the challenges I listed above, go for it — with open eyes.

Follow me on Twitter: @calbucci
                                           Marcelo Calbucci
Meet 1:1 with me: https://calendly.com/calbucci/coffee-chat  Marcelo is a technology entrepreneur. He's the CTO Hiya, a company making the phone call experience secure, rich and engaging on every smartphone globally. He has a background in software engineering with more than 25 years of experience.   Over the last 16 years as an entrepreneur, he has built products in verticals like content, social network, baby & family, social media, events, e-commerce, fitness, health, education, real estate, e-games, training, etc.  He was the CTO and part of the founding team at DoctorLink, a healthcare startup in the UK.  
He was part of the founding team at Pioneer Square Labs, a startup studio in Seattle, working on many projects in real estate, e-sports, podcast, e-learning, etc.  He was the founder and CTO at EveryMove, a fitness incentive platform for Health Insurers and employers.  He was the founder of Seattle 2.0, an organization for entrepreneurs aggregating content, hosting events and conferences, and delivering an array of services to investors and entrepreneurs in Seattle. It sold in 2012 to GeekWire.  Marcelo is an active mentor and startup advisor, and a dabbler-investor, and he has been helping startups at TechStars, Seedcamp, SXSW, Founder Institute, and Startupbootcamp.  Before being an entrepreneur, Marcelo was a development manager at Microsoft in the MSN Search (now Bing) Division.

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