Thrive — don’t just survive — in your new leadership role
Imagine this: You were a superstar developer! You wrote elegant code, you understood how things were put together behind the scenes, and you were the go-to person for any technical issue or question about the organization’s codebase. And because of that, you got promoted. You got a promotion, and your team immediately starts going haywire.
Being promoted to be an engineering leader is actually not a step up, nor a promotion. It’s a lateral, separate track.
The saying about what made you successful in your previous role won’t necessarily work in your new role couldn’t be more right. As an engineering leader who once used to be a superstar developer, how do you survive and then thrive in your new role? In this piece, I’ll be sharing with you everything I’ve observed in the past from new engineering managers, including my own experience, the common challenges they face, and effective strategies for overcoming those challenges.
So lets start with common struggles new engineering managers face in their early years as an engineering leader.
Struggle 1: They Like to Code. Period.
The first struggle that new engineering managers usually face is caused by the fact they like to code, and they take great satisfaction in creating and building stuff. When these great engineers first become a tech lead, they quickly find out they don’t have much time to code anymore because they’re busy attending meetings, organizing sprints, talking to people, performing administrative tasks, etc.
And then when they become a manager, their time for coding becomes nonexistent because they’re busy with doing other activities like planning, budgeting, vendor management, hiring, coaching, performance management, and many more. Engineering managers just don’t have a few-hours block during the day to sit at their desks in peace, put their headphones on, and code anymore.
Struggle 2: Technical Pride
The second struggle new engineering managers face is caused by their technical pride; they’re technically competent, and as a result, they take pride in their technical abilities.
However, as engineering managers start dealing and working with people from disciplines other than engineering, they realize other people across the business are very different to themselves. In these situations, technical skills and abilities become less important.
What becomes more important is to be able to explain technical details in a way that everyone, especially a nontechnical audience, understands and to come out of meetings with a shared understanding across all disciplines.
Struggle 3: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
The third struggle is new engineering managers have seen firsthand how technology is always changing and advancing.
Almost every month, there’s a new framework, a new library, a new programming pattern, and/or a new tool coming out. So, naturally, they have this fear that one day their technical knowledge will be obsolete if they don’t keep up with it.
When I first became an engineering manager, I, too, was worried that 10 or 20 years from then, people would be talking to me about some cutting-edge technology, and I’d have no idea what it was. Did my fear come true? Not really — thanks to Strategy 3, which you’ll find later in this piece.
Struggle 4: Introvert Alert!
The last struggle for new engineering managers mainly has to do with the type of personality they have. This may be a generalization, but I’ve observed this to be true: Engineers and developers direct their energy inward, tend to be private, and they’re energized by spending time alone.
However, being a manager requires a lot of human interactions. The picture above illustrates what introverts feel when they’re in meetings with many people from different departments. Even after a decade in leadership roles, I still feel the same way from time to time.
I can almost hear you thinking, wow those are really big struggles, how would a new engineering manager survive, let alone thrive? Allow me to share with you a few simple but effective strategies that help new engineering managers in their early management journey. I say they’re effective because they worked for me and a few engineering managers I mentor.
Strategy 1: Seek First to Understand
The first strategy is to seek first to understand … not just anyone — but yourself. If there’s anything I truly believe in, it’s you must change yourself and improve yourself first in order to best serve others. With that in mind, it’s important for new engineering managers to unlearn a lot of things they’ve learned in their individual contributor days and change their mindset completely.
So what are the things you need to understand — let’s break them down. First in the list is your responsibilities. Find out what you’re expected to achieve in your new role, and I’m pretty sure it’s not to write as much code as you can. It’s possibly delivering business results through technology, expanding the team’s capabilities, and expanding the company’s technology’s capabilities.
Next up, you need to understand yourself. I’d recommend every leader do research about different leadership styles and discover what kind of leader you are and what sort of environment you want to create for your team. The better you know about yourself, the better leader you’ll become.
After understanding your leadership style, you need to identify your weaknesses or development areas in order to become better at your job and, more importantly, become a better leader and person. I did this with the help of trusted people around me — through 360 feedback and just speaking to people and asking their honest opinion. To give you a specific example, a development area that was identified for me was I was often too into technology and too passionate about it, so I failed to look at things from a business lens.
Last but not least, seek to understand your why and your values and your non-negotiables. In other words, what do you want to be known for, and what are the things you really care about? As for me, a few things I care about, personally, are integrity and growth. For my teams, I care about agility, technical excellence, and innovation. Knowing these values will make it easier for you to choose between options or avoid making decisions you’ll regret.
Seeking to understand oneself is actually a continuous effort, and it’s something that’s worth putting your energy into it because as you become more self-aware, you can improve yourself.
Strategy 2: Strengthen Your Empathy
The second strategy is to increase your empathy and to understand the perspectives of others; the first rule to remember is people don’t equal to code. This may sound funny, but it’s a very important rule that needs to be reiterated, especially to engineering managers and technical leaders.
You can’t expect people to be always logical, reasonable, and to act according to your predefined assumptions. You can’t create an if-then-else statements around real-life problems and execute them repeatedly, expecting the same answer or reaction every time.
One of the reasons why technical people often make bad leaders is they think logically, sometimes too logically. I used to work with a manager who was technically capable, and he was excellent at problem-solving.
But I didn’t enjoy working with him because I felt there was no empathy, genuine care, or appreciation for his people. When I mentioned to him that I didn’t feel appreciated or valued, he’d start singing my praises every other time I saw him, making it all insincere. There’s nothing worse than having a leader that’s ingenuine.
In my leadership journey, I’ve learned that listening actively, having empathy, and being generous with my time goes a long way in creating trust and fostering an environment that enables people to do their best. As a leader, when you care about your people sincerely and look after them well — treating them like humans and not machines — they’ll go an extra mile and generally be more effective, collaborative, and productive because they’re happier.
As engineers, developers, and technical people, we’re so used to solving problems and fixing issues. However, many times, as a leader, your job isn’t to solve problems but to listen, to empathize, and to empower. So this is the mindset change I recommend all new engineering leaders take as early in their leadership journey as possible.
Strategy 3: Be Consistently Learning
The next strategy to thrive in engineering leadership is to be consistently learning. Technology is always changing and ever advancing. Being a leader in technology means you’re a leader of a specific function, and you need to have enough understanding of the function.
For example: A marketing manager knows about channels of distribution and marketing trends but may not necessarily be managing a social media channel. A finance manager knows how to read P&L and understand cash flow but may not necessarily be doing a balance statement. For a technology leader, you need to know about the company’s technical architecture, technology stack, and technology capabilities — at the very least.
To keep in touch with technology, engineering managers can attend industry events (meetups, conferences, workshops, etc); read books, blog posts, and publications; and learn from subject-matter experts regularly.
I also encourage engineering managers to learn through your people as much as possible. It helps create rapport, and empowers them as they can see you’re interested in their work and you’re learning through them. This does requires courage and vulnerability at the start. However, once you accept you may not know everything — that you can always expand your knowledge if you have the willingness to learn — it’s a very powerful realization. In other words, have a growth mindset.
Strategy 4: Lead by Example
And last but not least, the best thing new engineering managers can do is to lead by example.
Leading by example doesn’t mean doing hands-on work for your developers. Leaders who espouse and practice ethical and responsible behaviors are likely to inspire others to do the same.
So think about what you want your team members to do. Do you want them to be accountable, responsible and solve problems? Do you want them to get permission from upper management before doing something? Do you want them to bring problems or solutions? When you’ve got the answers, think about what you’ve been doing, and decide if you’re leading by example in how you’re showing up.
As for me, I want my team members to be honest and transparent; have a strong work ethic; own their decisions; bring solutions, not problems; and always be learning. So that’s what I do. Because I truly believe leadership is not a position or title but a set of actions and examples.
Are We There Yet? How Do You Find Joy?
And now you might be wondering, as new engineering managers, when do you finally find joy in this new world of management — one where you’re no longer hands-on? I’d like to share how I find joy when I’m not coding or when I don’t have time to be deep in the code anymore.
It’s human nature that we want to do things we’re good at because that gives us joy and satisfaction. I enjoyed coding because I was good at it. I’m sure new engineering managers can relate, too.
As I try and become better and more effective at my job as an engineering leader, I’m able to find happiness in my job. My values and strengths, such as curiosity, learning agility, and desire for excellence, serve me well. I’ve found the best leadership work happens when leaders not only care about the value their team brings to the business but also about each and every one of their team members. Then, each team member cares about the success of all involved — themselves, their peers, their manager, their team, and their organization — and, therefore, they go above and beyond to achieve this collective success.
New engineering managers should also accept you don’t need to know every technology or provide a solution to every problem. Your job as a leader is to empower people and to give them resources so they can navigate through problems and come up with solutions themselves.
Just in case you’re wondering, it’s not all sunshine and roses every day for me as an engineer leader now a decade later — even if I say I do enjoy my job. Almost all engineering managers will agree the following situations aren’t enjoyable: the need to deal with a low-performing team member, a project that’s not going the way it should be, senior executives requesting certain things to be done or for certain information t you have no idea about, stakeholders who would ask questions like “It should be just a simple change right? I’ve seen it on another website/app before. Can it be live tomorrow? Aren’t we agile Why couldn’t your team deliver on time?”
Anyway, you’ll soon realize these situations are all part of the job, and the more you deal with these issues, the better you get at handling them the next time. Moreover, with time, you’ll get better at managing expectations and communicating to stakeholders and senior executives, which will help alleviate some of the situations.
What you need to remember as a new engineering manager is every job has its goods and bads, whether it’s a developer, team lead, manager, or C-level executive, and as long as you keep an open mind, have a growth mindset, and believe in yourself, you’ll be OK.
If I look back at my career, the leaders who made the most impact were the ones who empowered me to think for myself and to do the right thing even when they’re not around. They cared about me, they believed in me, they held space for me to grow, and they constantly challenged me to be better. And that’s exactly what I want to replicate with my people. The outcome of doing this right is having the pleasure of leading high-performing teams made up of very smart and capable people.
So let me leave you this quote on leadership by John Maxwell, who’s a well-known author and speaker on leadership.
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
The Engineering Manager’s How-to Guide is very targeted for engineering managers, and in this book, you won’t find generic advice like having regular 1:1’s, giving feedback, etc. Yes, those things are absolutely important, but they are not specific to an engineering manager’s role. It’s my goal to make sure this book provides a concise and actionable guide for engineering managers, the specific and niche content for engineering managers that you won’t find in other leadership and management books.