Congratulations! You’ve been hired or promoted into a management role, and need to quickly transition from being an individual contributor to actually leading, inspiring and managing people. Not so confident about what to do next, and how to ensure your team and you are successful?
The team at Plato wrote a step-by-step guide to help you become a great leader.
Becoming an engineering manager is almost like starting a career in a new field, and requires a whole new set of skills. Managing people doesncom’t come easy, and asking them to do something isn’t the same as writing a piece of code. Code doesn’t have feelings, doesn’t need to be inspired, does not ask for empathy, and doesn’t have to trust you in under to work.
Fortunately, you can leverage your experience as an individual contributor to start getting a sense of how to be a great leader.
First, you will need to learn continually in order to improve your coding skills. Observe the best individual contributors, their habits, or which resources they use. Do not hesitate to ask questions and take advice on how to improve.
You will also need to learn about the software architecture: how it was conceived, what are its strengths and weaknesses, and why it was built that way.
But this is only a first step if you want to become an engineering manager. You will need to pay attention to process as well. And it’s not just about learning what the process is and how it is structured. It is also about asking yourself the right questions: why did your managers decide to make it that way? How did they change it over time and for what reasons? How would you improve it to ensure a better productivity of team?
Once you’ve mastered the process, you will have to ensure you understand the single most important thing in the team: people. You should thus observe how relationships work and how to communicate, how hiring is done, and how feedback is received and given. Try to learn from your manager and observe how she tackles daily challenges.
Finally, if you have to opportunity to embrace some forms of leadership, do not hesitate to do so. It could mean being a tech lead, organizing events, or setting peer learning sessions. Whatever the means, it will help you get a sense of what being an engineering manager is, understand if this is a job for you, and improve your skills in the process.
This continuous learning over your experience as an individual contributor will give you the necessary experience and confidence to start as an engineering leader.
Though you will obviously improve over time, there are some skills that will help you kickstart your career as an engineering leader.
Understanding of the role
While each company has its own definition of what an engineering manager is, and the daily tasks and goals will vary from one team to another, there is a common ground everywhere.
An engineering manager is here to grease the wheels in order to maximize the productivity of the tech team. He will plan, direct, supervise and coordinate all activities, and ensure communication is smooth between all the stakeholders.
The engineering manager is also wary of employee wellbeing: giving direct reports the means to grow in their role, the necessary tools and knowledge, and a hand when needed. The manager will be the filter between the upper management and the team, both protecting employees and ensuring the objectives are met.
Finally, he is here to get everyone aligned on the purpose of the mission and the strategy.
You obviously won’t need to now the inner workings of each technology, but it’s important that you are up-to-date in the languages, technologies, services, etc. you will need in your day-to-day job.
As being an engineering manager means taking informed decisions, you’ll at least need to be aware of what works best in each situation. Senior software engineers in your team will obviously share their opinion, but being knowledgeable — though not an expert — will prevent you from turning a blind eye to important decisions.
This also means being able to read the code your team writes. It does not matter if you didn’t / won’t write a line of code for several years. Though, if you’re not proficient in the language the people you manage use, you won’t be know how to gauge the work of your team. And they may not trust your judgment either.
While tech skills are, to an extent, compulsory for you to become a great engineering manager, you will need some soft skills that are even more important.
Vijay Kothandaraman, Senior Director of Engineering at VMware, and mentor at Plato, says it best:
As an IC, you are evaluated on what you do as an engineer, most of which is under your control. When you move to management however, it is no longer about you. It becomes more about bringing the team together and enabling them by getting the best out of each individual. This is not a technical skill you can bring with you, but rather a soft skill you will have to learn to survive management.
Management being all about people and facilitation, you will have to master problem solving, communication and organizational skills.
But next to these, it’s essential to understand people, both as individuals and as a team. First of all, before you start thinking about each and every member of your team, it’s critical that you get to know yourself better.
What are your own emotional triggers, emotional states? What do people think about you, how do they see you? Asking yourself these questions will help you deconstruct your relationships with others and see fields of improvement.
But do not assume everybody works the same way as you do. The contrary would actually be surprising! This is why you need to develop skills that are harder to master: empathy, crisis management, motivation, inspiration, etc.
Empathy may be the single most important skill required in any manager. It requires that you put yourself in the stead of each stakeholder.
First, your direct reports: what are their objectives, in terms of career, of life? What are their values, what do they care about? Which triggers motivate them to do their best work? What do they hate? Why?
Knowing these will show them you care about their feelings.
Also, you could ask yourself the same questions for your boss, as well as to read between the lines when understanding their expectations. This will enable you to maximize the output of each meeting with you own management.
Finally, it’s important to know how all those personalities, individual objectives and beliefs interact between each other. This may take you a few months before you can get a glimpse of what happens in the background, but this is what will ultimately help you have a meaningful impact.
Antoine Boulanger, Sr. Engineering Manager at Google, and mentor at Plato, insists on understanding these interactions:
Remember that the contents of conversations are just what lies at the surface. […] There’s an invisible layer of interaction between people in a group. Learn to understand human interaction and the potential power play, politics, or influences that are happening.
Finally, it’s important to remember what your job is. We will repeat it: it’s about helping people do their best in order to achieve a common goal.
This means being able to communicate in the right way depending on the people you have in front of you, and making sure the level of information is the same for every team member to work efficiently.
This also means putting your ego aside and trying to take objective decisions to maximize the output. If people are smarter than you, this is mostly a sign you’re a good manager! But if people don’t respect you, then there might be a better way…
Managing people necessitates strong organizational skills as well, but we’ll get to that in the next parts!
Now we have gone through what we consider as prerequisites, let’s explore what your job will look like from day one to success.
When you start fresh as an engineering manager :
You already in the company and got promoted to a management roleYou are in the company and get promoted to a management role in the team you used to be an individual contributor inYou join a new company as an engineering manager
We will focus on the latter, even though the advice we will give in the next sections are applicable to both cases. We will just not approach the specifics of the other cases.
3. Your first weeks are all about building trust
Whether you are new to the company or have an in-depth knowledge about it, the first days can be very intimidating. In order to succeed, the first step is to build trust among the team. How?
Here is a framework used by Chandra Kalle, Engineering Director at LeanTaaS and mentor at Plato. He now manages more than 40 engineers with a lot of success.
Step 1: transitioning with the ex-manager
When you’re land a management role, chances are the team already had a manager and that you are here to replace her. In the first days, you will hear great things about her, and the way she used to work.
If you’re lucky enough, there will be a short period of overlap: take it as an opportunity to know more about how the old manager used to work, and accelerate your learning curve. If you’re not in that case, just skip to the next step!
So, let’s assume you can make a smooth transition with the ex-manager. Here’s how to behave to take over efficiently, according to Bimlesh Gundurao, CEO at Aguai Solutions:
- Spend good time with the person, to understand her hiring decisions and factors on each team member.
- Seek information on her perception of each team member: strengths, areas of challenge and potential.
- Ask for the goals that were defined for the next 6–12 months, and make sure you have a clear understanding of them, as they will be a critical part of your job.
- Seek management challenges to expect, be it in terms of relationships with team members or bosses, resources allocated or constraints and issues.
- Get insights on key stakeholders from the global team.
Also, don’t take everything said for granted. You will make up your own mind in the process!
If you’re not in a case where you can count on someone to help you transition, do not hesitate asking for access to the HR files (if they exist!).
Step 2: being genuine and interested
No leader can lead without trust, be it in the army, in politics… or in a company. This is important for you to build it and ensure people see you as legitimate for the job. To do so, the first weeks will be crucial.
We won’t say it enough, but it’s important that you keep in mind, at every moment in your career, that your job is to help the team before helping yourself.
The first step is to invest a lot of time getting to know people, especially your direct reports.
This means: understanding what they work on, who they are, what makes them tick, how they envision things, what are their strengths, their weaknesses, their values, their problems, etc.
To build rapport, you will thus have to meet people as a team, and in 1:1s. Do not hesitate to take more time in the beginning and do them more frequently.
Invite them for lunch, outside their usual work environment, so that you create a real break in their routine and help them open up to you and tell you how they really feel.
Show your interest in their issues, and that you will do your best to help them solve them. Be approachable and available, be aware of what happens, be present: in the future, this will help calm nerves and build trust. Listen to their perspective, their accomplishments, and their ideas as well.
It’s essential to talk to both the individuals and the team, as one-to-one relationships builds an emotional bond, while talkin to the whole team will allow you to bring down people’s barriers and foster a relationship between members, even more if some of them work remotely.
Whatever happens, MEET YOUR TEAM frequently. We’ve seen engineering managers work at night or on a different schedule, only communicating with emails or Slack message. As a result, there was no rapport built and absolutely no cohesion between the manager and his direct reports. Even if you’re an introvert, communication is key to be a great leader.
Besides meetings and 1:1s, do not hesitate to “manage by walking around”: we always underestimate casual conversations to get feedback, whereas just one sentence, in a particular context, can be more insightful than a two-hour meeting. Please, just don’t fall into micromanagement, and don’t defocus your team doing so!
Step 3: learning about the environment
In order to build trust, you will have to know what you are talking about. This implies that you know what you are talking about.
You will therefore need to:
- Read everything you can about the product, what it is about, what problem it solves and start thinking about how to improve it.
- Meet with other managers to get a broader vision of the product and how the part you manage impacts the rest.
- Learn about the stack: which technologies are used, which libraries were chosen, which were ditched and why, what the server, architecture, database looks like, etc.
- Read code to get a deeper understanding on best practices, impediments, requirements, tests, etc. You could also assess the level of each of your direct reports if you read commits, pull requests. It’ll also help assess the level of collaboration between each individual contributor and the deployment habits.
- Meet customers: though this is not compulsory, it’s always interesting to do a small field trip and understand why people are buying the product, how it’s making their life better, who they are and what their goals are. If you can’t/don’t want to meet customers, you can interact with customer support and customer success leaders instead. Whatever the means, you’ll have a to get a pulse on customer perspective to take informed decisions in the future.
Doing so will help you establish trust and credibility on the product, and enable the team to look up to you.
Oh, and we almost forgot: learn about management too. You can find a mentor in your company, ask to be trained by internal or external people who went through the same challenges as you. Grabbing a coffee with a VP or a high-level director, or having a quick call with a mentor can unlock a specific situation in 5 minutes instead of days.
Step 4: helping out tactically
One of the hard things to integrate when transitioning to a management role, is to forget your habits of being an individual contributor.
While you will be used to taking action and solving problems, your new role implies that you are in service of your team, and ensure everyone has the ability to pursue their more specific goals.
In the beginning, you will have to prove your worth to the team members, and to do so, you may have to get your hands dirty. As you may not be confident enough or won’t know the inner workings of the company (politics, power play, people to contact, etc.), we advise you help with low hanging fruit issues:
Solve immediate problems and take the boring work, for instance:
Testing and debuggingSolving access management issues if your direct reports need access to some pieces of the systemHelping with designsFixing software license issues
These small initial wins should help establish trust and show people you really care about them. Just be careful not to do too much or people will get used to it and consider you as an individual contributor more than a manager.
Step 5: tell them about yourself and set expectations
To create trust in the long term, the relationship between your direct reports and you has to be two-sided.
Most of the time, you will be a listener before being a talker, but in order to build rapport, you may need to say more about yourself.
When introducing yourself, you can reveal some of your past jobs, past struggles, your curriculum…
You will also need to tell them about your strengths: where you can help, how you can help, why you can help, what to expect of you as a leader… And where they should not expect you.
It is also great if you can share your management principles and beliefs. In the future, this will enable your team to accept some decisions more smoothly, and understand why you decided to act in a particular way.
Again, sharing your work ethics and the way you usually work can help them follow you, but make sure everyone is aligned with it. If not, you may have to adapt and find a common ground.
Trust is hard to earn, but can be lost in a wink. How do you sustain it week after week, month after month?
Communication is crucial in keeping trust, and even if you are a manage, you need to act as an individual when you communicate: people report to you, but you too have to report to them regularly. Here are a few best practices shared by Dave Ellery, Senior Engineering Manager at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and mentor at Plato:
- Make sure everyone has the same level of information in the team, about how stuff goes on in the roadmap, what the next steps are, etc.
- Stay transparent: which decisions were taken, why, how it impacts their work.
- Tell your team who you meet with and for what reason, so that they share their input or just know you’re trying to help them achieve their tasks.
- You can communicate struggles and advance as well: validation problems, how you’re going ahead, etc.
- Become both a shield and a filter: transform negative feedback into constructive criticism, make sure everything becomes a concrete action. “Protect” people from the top management, so they don’t have to deal with politics or power play.
- Keep your good habits and present the same as when you began: regular 1-on-1s and team meetings, still caring about feelings and objectives.
- Help people grow in their mission by giving them a sense of responsibility as well as opportunities to advance in their careers.
- Don’t overpromise in the beginning: if your direct reports start thinking you are a magician, their experience will be very deceptive, and you will be the only one to blame. Whatever happens: deliver on promises.
- Build the right culture: a culture where the team can give, receive, accept and act on feedback.
That way, your links with your direct reports will strengthen over time.
Important notes about building trust
Gaining team respect as an engineering manager isn’t as easy as it looks. There are chances you will struggle with the steps described in this part.
When you join a new team, you don’t know about its history, and you may soon figure out that it’s already dysfunctional and needs to be fixed.
Unfortunately, you can’t fix a team if you didn’t earn trust first.
A study by Gallup Organization found that worldwide, only 13% of employees are engaged at work. This means that only one in eight team members will be committed to your objective. A whopping 63% define themselves as “not engaged”, but the scary part is that 24% said they were actively disengaged.
These 24% may spread negativity among their co-workers, and the only way to fix it is to show you care about them, and that their work is appreciated.
If the case happens to you, you might want to be domineering and start giving people orders as you would if you were a general in the army. Please don’t.
Instead, stick to your guns, stay loyal, despite the hurt you may feel. That will show you care and will do everything in your power to help. This process may take several weeks before you start to see the fruits, but on the longer term this is a game changer. However, that doesn’t mean being weak: hold your stance without being a pushover.
Anyway, we hope you won’t have to figure that out!
4. Organization, delegation & prioritization
Once you estimate trust has been built, you will be ready to actually drive positive change on the long-term. To do so, you’ll need to be thorough in your organization and observation of how the team works, and always remember what your job is.
We won’t repeat it enough: you’re a helper, not an individual contributor! This means being organized, able to delegate and inspire is an essential skill in your daily job.
Taking control of the process
Once you have built trust and let people open up, as well as explored the inner workings of the company, you will be able to take control of the process to ensure maximal wellbeing and productivity of your team.
Again, keep listening to the team and get their input. As you will be new, you will be able to take a step back and make the right choices.
Here is a small framework to assess the actual process and improve it. It is partly based on the experience of Ramkumar Venkatesan, VP Technology at MiQ Digital, and mentor at Plato.
- Write down the objectives and the purpose of your company, your product and your team to make sure your process will be aligned.
- Define your vision. Make sure it is clear and well-defined for everyone.
- Define the problem being solved by the process. Usually, the underlying value is time saved and quality improved. Time saved can be used in other areas (think: innovation, debugging, refactoring), and quality is directly perceived by customers (think: product speed, less bugs, desired outputs, etc.), as well as employees (less rework).
- Define the stakeholders: you are a stakeholder, your boss is one, every team member is a stakeholder, the virtual entity “team” is a stakeholder too, the organization, as a collection of teams is one too.
- Define the interactions between stakeholders. Who does what, with whom?
- Look at existing processes to see how they impact (positively or negatively) the organization. Eliminate the ones that have a negative impact and learn from the ones that increase overall ROI.
- Start small: begin with minimal process, and build up as things go on. You can take bits and pieces of usual process like SCRUM or Agile if you think some parts are relevant to your team, and cut down on what isn’t.
- Define KPIs / success criteria. In order to assess the efficiency of your processes, it’s important that you define different KPIs, both for overall productivity, individual productivity, and team wellbeing. That way, you’ll know what to improve, what to ditch, or what to keep.
- Evolve in increments: don’t forget, people are mostly resistant to change. They won’t accept an evolution that’s sudden and need time to integrate it in their routine. So, work in increments to take out the fear of a big process change.
- Rinse and repeat. Defining a process is an iterative task. You won’t find the perfect one at first and will need to listen to feedback and adapt. A process is a bit like a product in that way. It’s important to reassess the whole process from time to time too, as sometimes.
For people to accept your propositions, make sure you include them in the ideation part, so that they feel it is partly their idea that is set up, and they feel positively inclined to follow it.
While many challenges need to be tackled in your first months, you will have to ensure you maximize your own productivity too. This means, making sure you put the priorities where they are. We could write a book about how to be organized, but we will rather share a few tips from our mentors to help you kickstart your career with the right tools.
Cliff Chang, engineering Lead — Growth at Asana, suggests you have a physical notebook with you wherever you go:
- Writing a notebook will help you organize your notes and action items, rather than relying on memory, especially in the beginning where you’ll have a lot of meetings
- Keep notes so that you can plan the next one-on-one with a team members
- Define each action item as a bolded arrow
- Check your notes at the day’s end and write down each action item into your work tracking tool.
- Add whatever context necessary not to forget about what you wrote a month before.
- The notebook will help you see all of your outstanding work in a single place and tackle it by priority order instead of recency or urgency.
Sean Fannan, co-founder and CTO at Chartboost, gives you some insights about time management and delegating tasks:
- Ask yourself the right questions: where do I put my time? How do I optimize it?
- Every two weeks, take half an hour to write down all the different things you did and order them based on what are most important to you. Self-analyzing will help you ditch what’s less important or delegate it. Try to become more realistic about yourself and stuff you can handle on your own.
- Do not hesitate to delegate, even to people you’re not 100% sure of. It’ll still free you some time even if you have to look after what’s been done in your stead.
- When delegating, make sure people have escalation paths for asking for help, and that you do not expect them to handle it only on their own. You and your team can, and should be leveraged if someone struggles.
- People get a sense of ownership if you let them do stuff you usually handle well. Even if you’re an overextended manager, the output will be better.
- Average performers can show a lot of growth if you give them ownership, and you may see their weaknesses improve drastically. If you let people grow, overall productivity and wellbeing will grow too. Remember: you fought to gain trust, but you need to trust your team as well!
- Plan for interruptions: uncertainty is part of your job, and unexpected events might postpone some of your work. Plan accordingly!
It’s also important that you free up some time for overall strategy and roadmapping. Your role is to drive the company’s vision by leading a team of engineers. Every decision will thus need to be aligned with an overall strategy and it’s therefore crucial that you think about the big picture.
- Find enough space to think deeply in order to make the right choices.
- Think about the current roadmap and see if you need to adjust it so that things are done when, and how they should be done.
- Try to identify needs before they become obvious, and think one step further and staff people accordingly. Think about your hiring strategy for the next few months depending on the needs you anticipate.
- This is also the time where you’ll think about how to improve your process and tools you will need to maximize productivity.
- Start taking notes on what has gone wrong, and needs to be improved for longer term success. Be it in terms of behaviour, process, unexpected events, or the mistakes you’ve made.
- Think about the cultural contributions that were done by your direct reports, and what you need to make the team culture even stronger.
- Free up some space to assess your rating system, your incentives and how you can make them more objective and productive.
- Think about your next reviews and who may be on track for a promotion. Also, who you might fire if things aren’t corrected.
- Review the estimates of the team output to make them more realistic. This will help you handle the relationship with other teams or with your hierarchy.
Putting things into perspective will enable you to have a broader vision of the next months and adjust your behaviour, your processes to ensure you can deliver on your goals. In the meantime, do not forget to keep learning and applying your knowledge in the field!
Continuous self-improvement: our recommended resources
There are a few resources we like and think will improve your overall chances of being a great leader:
- The First 90 days — Michael Watkins
- Turn the Ship Around! — L. David Marquet
- Managing the unmanageable: rules, tools and insights for managing software people and teams — Mickey Mantle and Ron Lichty
- The Manager’s Path: A guide for tech leaders navigating growth and change — Camille Fournier
- High Output Management — Andy Grove
- Managing Humans — Michael Lopp
Plato Stories, AMAs and Engineering mentorsEngineering Management JournalPlato BlogStanford Lead ProgramConclusion
This guide is here to help you get a sense of what lies behind the title “Engineering Manager”. It voluntarily focuses on soft skills, organization and building trust as it is, according to us, one of the most important part of the job.
When starting fresh as an Engineering Manager, you won’t need to be perfect, but it’s important that you support your team from day one, to get your team to support you.
If you feel like your skills aren’t up-to-date yet, you could consider talking to one of our mentors from top startups and share your management challenges with them, or just have a look at our community or our blog.
They all have been through the questioning you may have right now, plus a few years of experience. That way, you’ll be able to kickstart your career way faster than anybody that doesn’t get help. You can learn more about Plato here or book a demo directly there!
Thank you for reading and do not hesitate commenting below or contacting our team if you feel like something’s amiss.
P.S. : Join us on August 7th for Plato Elevate, the 1-Day summit for Engineering and Product Leaders