To Be or Not To Be ... an Engineering Manager

To Be or Not To Be ... an Engineering Manager

 To Be or Not To Be ... an Engineering Manager

'm often asked how I decided to switch to management as an engineer. In 2016, when I was at this critical crossroad, I interviewed several colleagues who had successfully navigated this juncture. Keep reading for a compilation of the criteria gathered from those interviews, including learnings from my journey.  It can feel like you are at a crossroads when deciding if you should continue in an individual contributor role or switch to management. To understand how to proceed, it might help to consider how many of us arrived at this turning point:
  1. Some of us have been an individual contributor for many years. We have seen a few promotions in our careers. At this point, growth seems complicated. It is more ambiguous and dependent on whom you know and the opportunities that come your way. A switch to management seems intriguing. You have seen other people make this transition, and they seem engaged and happy. Could it be for you, you think?     
  2. Changes are happening in your organization. Your manager is getting promoted or leaving the company. There is an opportunity to take on management responsibilities, and leadership wants you to try management. They think you can be successful.     
  3. As a female or genderqueer engineer, the role models around you are all managers or in executive positions. Their passion and dedication inspires you, and you want to emulate them. Switching to management seems like a natural path to grow closer to that vision. 
So, where do you go from here? Is there a way we can set aside the emotional aspects of our journeys and find data that can help us make a rational decision? At least rational-ish? We can all acknowledge that human beings make decisions emotionally, not rationally - as we would all like to believe (Damasio, 1994). However, if we can hold off on making this emotional decision until we have considered the logical and rational trade-offs of the two paths in front of us, we can be confident that the final decision, though made considering our feelings, is based on reasonable trade-offs (Mulukom, 2018).There are four critical criteria we need to consider before moving forward:

Breadth vs Depth

 Breadth vs Depth
As an individual contributor, I spent a lot of my time diving deep into a feature. As a manager, I don't always get the opportunity or the time to dive deep; I rely on a fantastic team to do that. Instead, I get to focus on the breadth. I dig for and chase all the unanswered questions for an initiative. It's like opening a Pandora's box and turning on the lights to make sure every step is clear and transparent. If you are considering a change to management, this is an important criterion. Have you noticed yourself gravitating towards and enjoying the focus on the breadth of a feature, or would you rather focus on the depth? Would you find it hard to let go of the control of a feature and trust your team with the implementation? Would you be willing to take a back seat and accept someone else's execution of a feature?

10-year vision

10 Year Vision
The path you choose at this crossroads should take you one step closer to achieving your long-term vision of yourself. In 10 years, what would make you happier - seeing yourself as an architect or as an executive? As individual contributors and managers grow in their careers, the needed skills start to converge - especially leadership skills. Senior individual contributors also tend to focus on the breadth of an initiative. What differs is the amount of time they spend exercising these skills. 
An executive might spend a lot of her time inspiring and motivating people, developing and communicating the short and long-term strategy for her product, obtaining resources, and bringing teams together to solve problems. An architect, on the other hand, spends her time solving the problem by collaborating and communicating with the groups involved and mentoring other engineers to grow their skills.

Short-term positive reinforcements

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Everyone needs positive reinforcement as it helps us stay motivated and happy at work (Sharot, 2017). What are your current immediate positive reinforcements? Positive reinforcement for individual contributors includes creating pull requests, marking a ticket as complete, and watching your customer using the feature you built. As a manager, this positive reinforcement changes to achieving deliverables, meeting project deadlines, a successful meeting, watching a report show growth. More often than not, positive reinforcements for a manager are not instantaneous.
Managers might sometimes spend an entire day being extremely productive laying down the foundation or asking questions and uncovering new areas that need attention for an initiative, but the needle might move very little on paper for the effort. Keeping this in mind, if your positive reinforcements were to change, would you still be able to remain happy and motivated? If yes, then, engineering management might work for you.

Skills to learn

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Consider how the skills in your arsenal align with the role of an engineering manager. An effective manager is great at listening, leads with empathy and kindness, facilitates conflict resolution, drives consensus, keeps the team focused on goals, and is excellent at motivating her team. If you have observed yourself exercising some of these skills, then know that you are starting your management career with the odds of success stacked on your side. However, if you think you might need to work on most of these skills, all is not lost. Being aware of the gaps and working towards bridging them is always an option, especially if you already fulfill the first two criteria in this list. There are also several triggers I would caution against while making this decision:


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If the only reason you want to try engineering management is that managers make more money, then I would advise caution. It is true that in some cases, managers end up on a higher pay scale. Switching to management, for this reason, is not worth it if it might result in you being unhappy in the role. Furthermore, your team might also suffer the cost of this decision.

Power & Authority

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We view managers as individuals with power and authority. While this is true to a certain extent, choosing management for the sole reason of gaining influence over others might not be beneficial to you or your organization in the long run. A popular psychological theory suggests that humans crave autonomy over authority (Wolff, 1998). 
The theory proposes that human beings don’t necessarily desire power over others but want the ability to have the freedom to choose the work that they do. To prevent power struggles, companies are striving hard to arm senior individual contributors with autonomy and provide a platform of influence. In my organization, we strive to build an environment where leaders strive for humility and lead with influence rather than authority and fear.

It’s the default option

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Does moving to management seem like the default option to you? “You can’t be what you can’t see” (Edelman, 2014) - If you only see women in management roles around you, imagining yourself as an architect or as a senior individual contributor can be difficult. Or, if your company doesn’t offer a great path for progressing as an IC, switching to management can seem like the only plausible path to progress in your career. In such a case, I would suggest going back to the first three criteria we discussed. I would also recommend reaching out to successful Individual Contributors outside of your organization or company and asking for their help and guidance before making this decision.
The decision to pursue engineering management can be risky and chaotic with an individual confronting multiple contradictory factors. It is one of the most critical decisions in a technologist’s career. The above criteria can help you validate the often emotional decision of pursuing engineering management. Read this article next to see the steps I used to navigate my transition.

                                                             Shilpa Srinivasan (she/her/hers)

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