Last night, I went out with a very dear friend who's been in charge of engineering for a year and, with two drinks, I wrote a long list of things that I always tell the new managers of engineering.
Then I remembered: I should write a post! This is one of my goals this year to write a longer form instead of twitter in the abyss.
There is a post that I wrote two years ago, The engineer / manager clock, which is probably my favorite post of all time. It was a love letter to a friend that I wanted to see back to engineering for his happiness and sanity. It seemed to touch an agreement, because it was not a message that people had heard often.
This room is a sequel to that one.
It is aimed primarily at new managers, who do not know exactly what their career options are or how to evaluate the opportunities that come their way. Who does not know how certain inflection points can widen or reduce your range of options. Let's start with the first fork in the road, depending on which technique you want to stay.
The first fork on the way to the manager
Each manager reaches a point where he has to decide: does he want to manage engineers (a "hierarchical manager" in everyday language) or does he want to try to climb the organization chart? – manage managers, managers of other managers, and even other divisions; while be "promoted" from director to principal, from director to senior director, to vice-president, etc.
And a closely related question: how much do you want to stay technical and how much do you want?
Are you a "chief engineer" or "chief engineer"?
These are not reminiscent of the decisions that each engineer ends up taking: go deep or in the broad sense, specialize or become a generalist. The problem is that both engineers and managers often make these career choices with very little information – or even knowing that they do it. And executives in particular then tend to look up ten years later and realize that these choices, whether they are voluntary or not, have made them a) less usable and b) deeply dissatisfied.
Many people are convinced that once they become technical managers, they should go to work together as a technical manager who manages other engineers. are now.
But it is a very fragile place to sit in the long term, as we will see later in this article.
But back to the beginning so that I can speak to those of you who are thinking of taking the lead for the very first time.
"So, you want to try the management of engineering."
COOL! I think a lot of senior engineers should try management, maybe even more high level engineers. It's so good for you that it makes you better in your job. (If you're not a chief engineer, I mean at least less 7 years and more experience in engineering, be very careful; know that this is not usually in your interest.)
I hope you have already understood that management is a career change, not a promotion, and you are aware that no one is very good for the first time.
It's good! It takes a year or two to find new rhythms and reward mechanisms before you can even begin to find your own voice or trust your judgment. Management problems seem easy, falsely misleading. It's really hard to generalize here, but it's difficult:
- Most tech companies are absolutely sorry about training or structure to help you learn the tricks of the trade and find your brands.
- Even if they take management seriously, the company can If you are only a bachelor, learn to be a good engineer, it's a bit like if you become a bachelor, learn to be a good manager is much more unique and personalized. to the specific strengths and struggles of each individual (I suppose that management is more like obtaining a PhD or a self-study program?)
- It will exhaust you mentally and emotionally in the strangest way for much longer than you think, unpredictable and inexplicable. You will be very tired and miss the dopamine shots of everyday life.
This is because you have to change some of your habits and practices, which will actually change who are you as you become less optimized for engineering, more optimized for management. Models and habits and rhythms. you have developed as a senior engineer need complete overhaul. It takes time to develop and reintegrate with your sense of self. That's why …
The minimum period of service as a new director is two years.
If you really want to try to be a manager and that opportunity comes up, do it! But only if you are ready to fully engage in a two-year experience.
Commit yourself as a real career change. Look for new peers, find new heroes. Bring new eyes and a state of mind to the beginner. Ask a lot of questions. Re-examine each of your patterns, habits and priorities: are they still serving you? your team?
Do not even worry about whether you "like to manage" for a while or whether you're trying to determine if you're good at it. Of course you are not good at that yet. That feeling of being above your head and forgetting about the dopaminergic effects you might have everyday with that feeling of "I've built something!" * BUMP! * Or "I repaired something!" * BUMP! * – Yes we all miss these brain drugs. This is the price of entry if you want to win these experiences. Sadly.
It takes more than a year to acquire these skills and gain relevant experience. If you are satisfied with the two-year commitment, the moment may not be time. Changing manager too often disrupts the team, and it is not fair to ask them to report to someone who would prefer to do something else or who is not trying.
It takes about 3 to 5 years for your skills to deteriorate.
So, you have been running a team for a few years and you are starting to feel … comfortable? Hey, you're pretty good at that! Phew!
With a few years to your credit as a line manager (you directly manage the engineers), you now have TWO powerful skills. You can build things and you can help organize people into teams to build bigger things. At present, both sets are sharp. You can come back pretty easily to engineering or stay as a manager – in one way or another.
But it does not last very long. Your technical skills stop advancing when you become a manager, but begin to erode. Two years later, you are not the technological leader you have been. your information is out of date and full of shortcomings, difficult parts are led by other people these days.
More importantly, your mind patterns and habits change over time and become those of a manager and not an engineer. Consider how an engineer is excited about the prospect of an innovative, justifiable project; Now, compare her to her manager's depressed reaction as she instinctively feared having to plan something as unpredictable and difficult to estimate. It takes time to reconnect.
If you like engineering management, you tend to go "cool, now I'm a manager" and move from one job to another as a manager of engineering, managing team after team. But it's a trap. This is not a good long term plan. This led many people to a place where they never wanted to be: technically out of the way.
Why can not I just make a career as a combo + line manager?
One of the most common pathways to management is: you're a technical manager, you lead ever larger technical jobs, do 1 x 1 tasks, and pick up some personal things when your boss asks you if you want to manage the team. "Of course!", You say, and voila – you are an engineering manager with deep expertise in the field.
But if you do your jobyou immediately begin to free yourself from your technical leadership responsibilities. Your own technical development should stop once you become a manager, because you have a any new career focus on learning.
Your job is to leverage this technical expertise to turn your engineers into excellent senior engineers and technical managers. Your job is do not capturing glory and sitting on difficult problems yourself means empowering, challenging and guiding your team. Do not suck up all the oxygen: you will delay the growth of your team.
But your technical knowledge is out of date and your skills are atrophying. The longer you have been an engineer, the more difficult it will be to go back. It really gets tough around three years and five years seems like a turning point.
And because much of your credibility and effectiveness as a technical leader derives from your expertise in the technology used daily by your team, ultimately you will no longer be able to technical leadership, only people management.
Being an "engineering manager" who deals only with people management
I mean, that's one of the reasons we do not attract Starbucks as good people managers to lead engineering teams. It is the intersection and juxtaposition of skills that give engineering managers such an impact.
The big ones can make a big team vibrate with energy. The big ones can divide a massive project into projects that challenge (but do not overburden) a dozen or more engineers, new graduates to exhausted veterans, pushing everyone to grow up. The older ones can look forward and guess the stones on which you will die if you do not work to avoid them now. The big ones are a treasure: and they are rare. And to stay in shape, they must regularly go to the well to update their technical skills.
There is a strong demand for engineering leaders, far more than ours. The most common solution is to match a human resources manager (whose technical skills have deteriorated a long time ago) with a technical manager and have him or her co-lead the team. It often works pretty well. But most of these staff managers did not want or expect to be marginalized in this way when told to stop engineering.
If you want to be a staff manager and do not do engineering work, and do not want to climb the ladder or can not find a ladder to climb, you will have more power. I do not know if I met many of these people in my life. But I have come across many people in this situation who are always a little anxious and discontented. Do not become this person by accident.
Which brings me to my next point.
You will be prompted to stop writing code or engineering.
Everyone's favorite pastime is to ask new managers if they have already stopped writing code or not, and not to drop until they say otherwise. It's a very bad, horrible, horrible and mediocre idea that seems to have been originally a sloppy repetition of good advice, namely:
Can you spot the difference? It's very subtle. Let's run a quick test:
- Create a feature? ⛔️
- Covering on call when someone needs a break? ✅
- Diving on the biggest project after a post mortem? ⛔️
- Code reviews? ✅
- Find a p2 bug annoying but that never seems to become a priority? ✅
- Insist that all commits be validated with their approval? ⛔️
- Clean up the monitoring controls and write a library to generate coverage? ✅
The more you keep your hands warm, the more effective you will be as a coach and a leader. You will have a richer instinct for what people need and what they expect from you and others, which will help you keep a light touch. You will also slow down the erosion and geriatric creep of your own technical chops.
I strongly believe that each supervisor should be rotated on call or pinched in a generalized and regular manner, but it is a different position.
Technical leadership track
If you love technology and want to remain an expert in designing, building and shipping advanced products and technical systems, you can not allow you to drift too long or too far away from practical engineering work. You must consciously cultivate your way, probably by practicing some form of clock engineer / manager.
If you like executive engineers – if you're very proud to be a technical manager, you need to maintain your technical skills on a regular basis. invest in your practice and renew your studies. Again: it's just the price of entry. You need to renew your technical abilities, your mental habits and your visceral senses to create and maintain systems. There is no way to do that besides doing it. If management is not a promotion, the return to work is not a demotion, either. Right?
A warning: your business may be great, but it does not exist to your advantage. You and only you can decide on your needs and defend them. Remember that the next time your boss tries to make you feel guilty, you need it so much, when you can feel your skills rust and your efficiency diminish. You need to understand what makes you happy and build a portfolio of experiences that allow you to do what you love. Do not sacrifice your happiness on the altar of a company. There are always other companies.
Honestly, I would try not to think of yourself as a manager: you are an "engineering leader" performing a service tour in management. You are pursuing a long-term strategy to become a respected technologist, able to code, provide expert technical advice, and provide detailed information tailored to anyone, no matter how sophisticated.
Organizational Leadership Journey
Most managers assume that they want to climb the ladder. Niveler is a feat and you can not resist that.
Resists. Or at least, resists doing it without thinking. Do not do it because the ladder is there and needs to be climbed. Know what you can do before deciding what you want.
Here are some reasons to think critically about the rise of the roles of director and leader.
- Your choices are shrinking. There are fewer jobs and more competition, mainly in larger companies. (At least you as Large companies?)
- Basically, you have to work in real time in a large company that teaches effective management techniques, otherwise you will start with a disadvantage.
- Bureaucracies are extremely idiosyncratic, skills and relationships may or may not be transferred between companies. As an engineer, you can jump every year or every two years for greener pastures if you arrive at a shit concert. An engineer has … about 2-3 times more room for maneuver in this respect than a performer. A series of short director / executive concerts is an early career or a right-hand coaching seat to the consultant's life.
- You will become globally less employable. The rise continues higher and higher almost never happens, usually for reasons over which you have no control. This can be a very bitter pill.
- Your employability is more about your "likelihood" and other problems. The success of your business determines the shape of your career more than your own performance. (In fact, it probably starts the day you start managing people.)
- Your time is not yours. Your faults are no longer cute. You will see your worst failures spread and magnify and reflect. (Same, apply to all leaders but intensify as you get up.)
- You may never feel the success of dopamine "I've learned something, I've repaired something, I've done something" that comes so freely as an IC Some people learn to feel satisfied with the management tasks, others never do. Most describe it as a very moderate version of the thrill of building things.
- You will go home tired every night, unable to express what you did that day. You can not compartmentalize or set it aside. If the project failed for reasons beyond your control, you will still be identified with the failure.
- No one really thinks of you as a person, you become a totem on which to throw shit. (Things will only get worse if you fight back.) Can you handle that? Are you sure?
- It's about a one-way trip.
Of course, there are compensating rewards. Money, power, impact. But I point out the negatives because most people do not stop to consider them when they start saying that they want to try to manage the managers. As almost all directors say after becoming directors.
As if the mere existence of a ladder forces us all to climb.
I know people who climbed, got stuck and wished they did not do it. I know people who have never realized how difficult it would be for them to come back to something they liked to do after more than 5 years, climbing the ladder further and further from technology. I know people struggling to find their way, others who do not know how or where to start. For those who try, it's difficult.
You can not go from engineer to executive, or even from director to director, in the same way that you can roam freely between management and engineering as a technologist.
I just want more people to go in the direction with their eyes wide open. That's all I say.
If you do not know what you want, take action to maximize your options.
Engineering is a creative act. Management engineers will need your attentive and authentic self. You will have more success if you determine what is it and if you honor its needs. Try to resist the default stories about promotions, titles and roles, they have nothing to do with what satisfies your soul. If you have influence, use it to support you hard against things such as paying managers more than same level ICs.
It is quite normal not to know who you want to be, or to have a passionate end goal. It's a pleasure to live your life, work and keep an eye on interesting opportunities, and see what resonates. It's great when you are asked to step up and take advantage of your successes.
If you want a sustainable career in technology, you will have to continue learning all your life. The world is changing much faster than humans have evolved to adapt naturally. So you have to stay a little restless and have an abnormal hunger to succeed in this industry.
The best way to do this is to make sure you a) know yourself and what makes you happy, b) spend your time mostly in harmony with it. Doing things that make you happy gives you energy. Doing things that drain you goes against your success. Find out what these things are and do not do them.
Do not be a martyr, do not let your consumer habits clutter you and do not build things that disturb your conscience.
 Important point: I'm not saying that you can not acquire the skills and patience to practice engineering again. You can probably! But employers are extremely reluctant to pay you an engineering salary if you have not been paid for sending the code. From my experience, the tipping point for recruiting ability is well before the tipping point for learning ability.