August 18, 2021

Many things that mattered in my old role suddenly became less important in my role. New role change was a steep learning curve for me as an engineering manager. In this post, I'm summarizing what worked well for me during the transition as well as what I wish I knew going into the transition.

People first, partnerships second, code last

This role is not about writing code, something I quickly realized when I first started in this role. I thought it would be a bit of coding here and there, with most of my time spent with individual contributors. But turns out, that's only part of the job. While I do spend time reviewing code as necessary, I actually spend more time on things other than coding.

In terms of priority, I have to make sure I prioritize spending time on my staff. Helping overcome any blockers, one-on-one meetings, providing mentorship, listening to and addressing grievances.

Second, if you want to be taken seriously as a leader, you have to collaborate on just within your team but outside of your team - with other organizations, other leaders on things important to the broader organization.

You are not positioning and advertising just yourself personally but you are now responsible to make sure you speak for and represent the capabilities of your teams.

From details to the big picture

I used to focus on the details. What is that line of code doing? Why are we doing it this way? I could easily get sucked into that for hours, days, weeks. Now with the context of other things going on in the organization, I'm able to prioritize well what needs my attention and what doesn't.

I don't need to worry about implementation details unless they matter strategically. Every team has an assigned owner who is in charge of that project and it's a part of my job to make sure the boat keeps running smoothly.

Let's say the team is building a feature that needs to communicate with another service, I don't need to know the exact details of this interaction but I do care about the interaction approach (synchronous or asynchronous, resiliency, etc.) the overall quality, and timelines. If we have to make trade-offs, I want to understand what those are and be able to communicate these decisions properly

Being a better listener

As an engineer, I had to make sure people understand what I've built and how to use it. I had to make sure I communicate effectively whether it is to make someone understand a certain piece of code that I had written or why I disagree with a particular technical approach. In short, for the benefit of the team and the technology we were building, I had to make sure my concerns, ideas, and explanations were heard. I have realized it is quite different when you are in a managerial position.

As an engineering manager, I need to listen more than being heard. I have to pay attention to my staffs' opinions, thoughts, concerns and so on. After all, they are the experts of what they do every day!

I need to be able to understand my team's feelings and address those so that they know that I care and listen. I have to make sure I am an active listener and if I don't understand something, ask clarifying questions until I do and everyone is on the same page.

Change of focus from technology to people

As a manager, I spend more time with people than with technology.  As an engineer, I used to solve problems by typing on my keyboard. The biggest change I noticed right after becoming an engineering manager was that most of the issues can be solved or prevented just by having a conversation with other people. 

Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

As a developer, I rarely had to have difficult conversations. As a manager though, I need to talk to my staff about work that is not going well, when there is a disagreement in the team or when I need to make tough decisions. Every time I have an awkward conversation with someone from my team it feels like time has stopped for me for a moment. But this is something that is part of the managerial skill set so being uncomfortable is okay as long as I am able to maintain relationships and trust and drive the team towards the outcome we are looking for.

Summary

I had never imagined that I would be in this position as a manager. And I was not really prepared for all the surprises that came with it, everything from candid conversations to difficult decisions to prioritizing. It has been an experience of personal growth for me and it's been challenging and rewarding at the same time. I hope my experience so far helps other engineers who are considering a manager role.

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