As a coach for many first-time engineering managers, I've had the privilege of helping folks navigate the challenges of this new role. Some new managers are confident that they've found their path, while others are eager but uncertain. Regardless of their disposition, the hurdles of transitioning from a technical individual contributor to a people-leading engineering manager are largely the same.
One of the primary challenges in transitioning to an engineering management role is the need to adopt a new mindset. As an individual contributor, your work is directly tied to your output. However, as a manager, your success is measured by the output of your team. This requires a fundamental shift in perspective that can be challenging to achieve. It's not just about developing new skills, it's about undergoing a process of internal realignment that can be both daunting and rewarding.
Looking back on my own transition to engineering management, I recall a particular challenge I faced around this mindset shift: the temptation to engage in hands-on technical work. This is a common pitfall, as technical work is often more familiar and comfortable as well as immediately gratifying when compared to the often abstract and intangible work of management.
However, giving in to this temptation can be a form of procrastination, in which we avoid the more difficult task of developing new skills by rationalizing the need for our technical expertise. It's essential to recognize this trap, as it can impede the shift in mindset required for success in management. In my case, I found myself too deeply involved in the technical work, resulting in an unhealthful codependence which affected both my personal growth and the team.1
Without a clear understanding of the need to transition mindset from an individual contributor to a manager, it's easy to fall back on old habits and miss opportunities for growth and development. By recognizing and addressing this challenge head-on, you can more effectively shift your mindset and excel in your new role as an engineering manager.
A Beginner Again
Another aspect of our mindset that can impede transitioning to an engineering management role is that, at first, we very likely will not excel at this new craft. We may have been skilled and seasoned as an individual contributor, but managing people requires a different and new skill set. This is a novel challenge which may not have been fully appreciated prior to embarking on this change.
It's akin to a long-distance runner who decides to start lifting weights. On the first day, she probably won't be able to benchpress her lofty goal.2 However, if she consistently shows up and gradually increases the weight, she can steadily progress and will eventually hit her target.
But if she only lifts weights sporadically and spends most of her time on the treadmill, where she's already comfortable and proficient, her weightlifting progress will stall. Similarly, if we only dabble in management and avoid developing these new skills, we are likely to struggle to succeed in our new role.
It's crucial to recognize both that this is a new skill and that the first few iterations are always challenging; we almost certainly will not show up as a skilled practitioner on day one. By acknowledging this and committing to consistent improvement, we can effectively shift our mindset and begin the work of becoming proficient engineering managers.3
Consider adopting a beginner's mindset as you start your journey as a novice in engineering management.
Embracing the Role
Similar to technical work, people management is a distinct domain that requires its own set of skills. It demands a lot from us and asks that we recognize it as a discipline that we should cultivate with the same dedication as we would any other skillset, such as software engineering. Its outputs are meaningfully different from outputs of other roles. Recognizing this is the first step in an important mindset shift.
Likewise, given its nature as an independent practice, we should expect to start as novices. This can be challenging because very likely we may be experts in other areas already and there's a failure mode we should intentionally seek to avoid: reverting back to things we know well, like technical work. This only hinders our progress and creates unhealthful dependencies on us as individuals.
While people management is undoubtedly challenging, approaching it as a new skill that requires a new mindset is an excellent starting point that can accelerate growth in this new role.
When I realized this regression and took the time to more carefully consider how I was setting up both the team and myself for success, I created the space for the team to succeed without my day-to-day involvement in the code. Almost immediately the team's velocity increased. ↩
Even in the first year you might not realize an ambitious weightlifting goal. Just as you didn't become an expert programmer over night, you should expect management to take years of practice with plenty of failure along the way. ↩
This is the unreasonable effectiveness of compounding returns on consistency. While it's overly reductive to state it's just this, showing up everyday is more than a large chunk of the requisite work. ↩
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