The Engineering Manager (EM) role is rather broadly defined, the definition varying from one place to the other. If you are looking to get hired/promoted into this role, make sure you understand how the company you apply to sees this role.
In my mentoring sessions, I often talk to EM aspirants who misunderstand about this role and its responsibilities.
In social media discourses these days, there is a relatively higher emphasis on the PeopleOps aspects of this role as opposed to delivery and technical leadership. There are a couple of reasons for this.
- First of all, people management and coaching concerns are the most relatable and cut across the boundaries of technology and product, making them common grounds for conversations among engineering leaders.
- Secondly, people management challenges are the trickiest and most difficult to navigate, especially for a new manager.
- Lastly, the command and control nature of traditional management has done a piss-poor job of addressing the human concerns at work. It is only now that our collective political awareness is holding organizations and leaders accountable for how they treat their people. However, this skew can sometimes lead EM aspirants to confuse Engineering Management with Coaching and undervalue the technical and delivery expectations from the role.
At least in the places that I am familiar with, Engineering Managers have clear “delivery” responsibilities and are hired not just for their coaching skills but also for their ability to lead their teams towards value delivery. This requires a more nuanced understanding of the role and the ability to wear multiple hats - caring for and coaching your reportees but without failing to deliver on the strategic and tactical delivery expectations. Good EMs understand this and invest time in steering the ship towards the organization’s business objectives. As technical leaders, they participate willingly in creating a technical vision and direction for their teams. As business partners, they hold themselves accountable for delivering value to their stakeholders.
None of this is “breaking-news” but it is surprisingly very common for EM aspirants to lean towards one at the cost of others, especially as new EMs come with a variety of prior experiences and backgrounds. It is, of course, totally fine for an individual to be stronger in one of these skills than others. But before throwing your hat in the ring, make sure that you understand your own strengths/inclination vis-a-vis the hiring manager’s expectations very clearly.
- This is not a debate on whether or not EMs should participate in technical and delivery leadership.
- There are many orgs who define the EM role more clearly than others. There have also been attempts to further categorize the EM role into a Technical EM vs a People EM vs a Product EM (see Pat Kua’s 5 engineering manager archetypes. But in a large number of orgs, this role continues to have hybrid responsibilities.