The engineer-to-manager transition and its three mindset shifts
You have always been an engineer, solving problems and writing code. Now, there is an opportunity to become an engineering manager. You are interested.
However, questions arise.
Am I really the right person for the job? Will the others accept and respect me? Will I have to give up hands-on work? Will I be any good at this job?
Certainly, the transition from engineering to engineering management can be scary. After all, it's not primarily a promotion. It's a different job. A job you will be underprepared for.
As an engineer, you can watch courses on Coursera or Udemy. You can work through tutorials and get familiar with the technologies that matter in your role.
For new or soon-to-be engineering managers, it's not quite as simple. Sure, there are some books and blog posts, and even some conferences that focus on engineering management.
However, the move to engineering management requires more than knowledge and skills. It requires a few important mindset shifts, and you cannot learn these from books or video courses. One of these mindset shifts is connected to the sense of productivity you have built up over years of engineering work.
As an engineer, on most days, you have certain boxes you can tick off.
Five code changes committed.
Three code reviews done.
One PR merged.
2% of test coverage added.
As a manager — depending on your degree of still being hands-on — a lot of this goes away. You have more meetings, you have more interruptions, and your time is more fragmented. This leaves shorter and fewer stretches of time for deep work, which is the worst that can happen to somebody who likes to code.
As a result, you will not produce the same number of commits.
You will get fewer PRs merged.
You will write less code.
You might actually do more code reviews, because you are responsible for what gets delivered, so that is at least one easy-to-measure thing that remains. But apart from that, you will have to redefine what a productive day looks like for you. And once you know what the new kind of productivity looks like, you still have to learn to feel productive when it happens. Because, at first, you won’t.
There will be days where you feel terribly unproductive.
You start your day by drafting a design document.
After 20 minutes, a co-worker has a problem and you are the only one who can unblock them. This reminds you: You have to train more teammates to do this. You help your co-worker, and schedule a training session for later this week.
You get back to the design document.
However, just as the words start flowing again, you have to join a meeting.
After the meeting, you have only 20 minutes until the next meeting, so you don’t get back to the design document, because it’s not worth it. Instead, you work through some messages that have accumulated during the morning.
Later, you have to go through some CVs for an open position, you lead a technical interview, and you have a one-on-one with one of your direct reports.
After eight or nine hours, you reflect about the day and you can’t help but wonder:
“What have I even been doing today?”
Apart from one-and-a-half paragraphs added to the design document and dozens of messages and emails that you marked as “read”, you have little tangible to show. At least, that’s what your feeling tells you.
Therefore, you have to start paying more attention to the intangible things.
Were you able to unblock somebody? Maybe, you even taught them something in the process, so that they will be more autonomous next time?
Did somebody come to you with an idea, and you helped them refine it? Did you connect them with the right person who can bring the idea closer to reality?
Did you have a good one-on-one meeting that improved your relationship with a team mate?
Did you make a good impression on a promising job candidate, so they will want to become your next team member?
All these things are less clear and crisp than commits, merges, and shipped features. Often, you cannot recognise their meaning and importance in the very moment, but only weeks or even months later. However, they are as important and sometimes more important than the short-term dopamine kick you get from merging a PR.
After all, the best codebase will not save you when good people leave, feeling nobody cares about their development.
A product that is successful now will not keep flourishing if you don’t create an environment where fresh ideas are welcome and nurtured.
You have to consciously notice these “intangible” results of your work, mentally track them, and learn how to generate more of them. This is your new measure of productivity. There are no charts or dashboards that can really help you. It’s mostly in your head, and only you can own it.
Once you feel productive again, however, you will be aware of your impact, and your work will be very satisfying.
Give it some time. Real change takes time.
However, while you get used to your changing productivity patterns, there is another mindset shift that you should be aware of: You are on stage now.
Being on stage
You will not feel different after your role change. You are still the same person. The thing is, you will be seen differently, and not just by your reports. You have become a larger cog in the clockwork, and when you spin, more cogs will spin with you. In short, people will pay more attention to you.
You didn’t ask for this, but you cannot help it. And it comes with some changes.
As an individual contributor (IC), you could simply hide behind your screen when you were having a bad day, and let everything pass by. As a manager, you are “on stage”: People see you, even when you try to be invisible.
This new situation might take some getting used to. It means that you have to be more present, and more conscious about the things you do, or the decisions you make.
It means you have to be more disciplined about what you say, how you say it, and how you behave. As an IC, it might be excusable to occasionally rant about some other team or the department lead. In the best case, it’s just your personal opinion and people will not make much of it.
As a team lead, on the other hand, you serve as an example. Your voice will be heard. Others will mimic you, and adopt your attitude. If you are negative about a topic, others will be, too. If you allow yourself to rant, so will they. Your blast radius as a lead is larger, which is why you have to proceed with more care.
Therefore, without turning into a politician who uses a lot of words to say nothing: Think about the message you want to convey. Think about the words you use, and how you say them.
Again, this mindset shift will take some time. Finally, the third mindset shift is related to the fact that you are accountable for the team atmosphere and quality of work.
Giving critical feedback
When a team member behaves in undesirable ways or keeps delivering low-quality work, this can drag the whole team down — if nothing is done about it. That's where the team's manager comes in: Performance management is part of their job, and talking about underperformance is the first step.
Giving critical feedback is tough, though. A lot of people shy away from conflict — and engineers are certainly no exception. Therefore, it can be tempting to postpone giving feedback.
Maybe things will improve by themselves, right?
Maybe. However, the longer you wait, the worse the atmosphere on the team might become. If you lose your best people because they get frustrated with their environment, it will be too late, and the damage will be disastrous.
Therefore, as an engineering manager, you must deliver feedback, even if it's uncomfortable.
The first few times, it will feel very weird. Yesterday, you were just another engineer on the team. Today, you are the one “telling people off”.
Will people think you are power-hungry? Will they think you enjoy criticising people, and that’s why you wanted this job? Or, just as bad, will they think your words are just hot air, and you are not really serious about it?
However, these questions may spin in your head as you approach the difficult situation. And this is exactly where your self-perception and your attitude have to evolve. You have to care about your people, but you must not worry too much about what they think about you. It is not your prime objective to be liked by everyone.
You have a new responsibility now. Living up to it is not power-hungry, or mean, but it is something that is expected of you.
Neglecting it would mean letting your other teammates down. Neglecting it would mean fostering an environment where high-quality work and friendliness towards each other are not a priority.
Therefore, embrace the new responsibility. Adjust your self-image to be the guardian of high standards within your team. This takes time, as real change always does.
But it is of utmost importance.
However, if you have to make all these learnings on the job, without any additional support, you will make a lot more mistakes, and it will take a lot longer to master the skills you need in your new role. Therefore, you should ask for help.
Help can come in many forms. Your lead will hopefully give you some advice and guidance and should be your go-to person when it comes to management questions. You can also ask a manager whose style you like if they would be willing to mentor you - you might be surprised how many people readily do this, no matter how busy they are.
At trivago, every new lead takes part in a series of multi-day leadership workshops which help a lot with the transition into the new role. Experienced trainers share their knowledge on topics like communication, motivation, team composition, change management, or unconscious bias. Participants deepen their theoretical knowledge through exercises, where they learn to lead difficult conversations, give feedback effectively, think about their role and define expectations towards themselves.
Workshops like the ones trivago offers its new leads cannot make you an outstanding manager overnight, but they can speed up the learning process significantly, and enable you to think about your role more effectively.
Still, real change takes time, so allow for this time.
You will make mistakes, and you will feel bad about them. That’s normal. The important thing is that you learn from your mistakes over time. So, rather than feeling guilty about your mistakes, take the time to reflect about the situation, and what you could have done differently.
That said, switching to management or team leadership is not a one-way street. If, after six months or so, you realise that you are unhappy and that you would rather go back to an IC role, talk to your boss about it.
This is not a sign of weakness, but a very responsible action. After all, nobody wins if you unwillingly continue in a lead role. You will be unhappy, and your reports will feel it sooner or later. The team atmosphere will take a hit.
Many successful leads have transitioned back and forth between IC and management multiple times. For a more detailed view on this pendulum phenomenon, I recommend Charity Majors’ article.
The bottom line is, nothing speaks against an iterative approach to becoming a manager 😉