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Transitioning from Engineer to Manager: 5-step Survival Guide

Engineers face many questions when offered a managerial role: Should I make the switch? Do I have to do it? Will I be any good at it? What if I do it and I don’t like it?  

Having faced this dilemma and gone through this thought process, I know just how weighty these questions are and how impactful for our careers the answers can be. 

The answers to these questions aren’t universal; there are no right or wrong answers, only answers that are right for us at the given time and place. And while we all must make that decision for ourselves, we don’t need to go through the thought process alone—we can lean on the experiences of others who have faced a similar challenge  

I’m here to share my experiences and observations from my own professional journey. I hope it will help others understand what they need to take into consideration and, just as importantly, why they shouldn’t be afraid either way.  

Before we decide 

The roles of engineers and managers represent two fairly divergent skill sets. They exist alongside one another, and sometimes even overlap, but their focus and scope of responsibilities are quite different.  

Most engineers with sufficient experience will, at some point, be offered a chance to shift to a managerial track. For many, this is a natural career evolution, taking them from being an individual contributor to leading and guiding teams.  

However, it’s important to understand that there are no right or wrong answers. It’s okay to say “no”. It’s okay to say “yes”. It’s okay to be uncertain and give it a try to see how it fits. And it’s okay to change your mind.  

The choice 

The first order of business is the old Shakespearean dilemma of “to be or not to be (a manager).” This is a major career decision that often comes with plenty of soul searching, reassessing career objectives, and comparing the path we presently walk with the diverging path ahead. 

Engineers often spend decades pursuing the technical track. Shifting onto the managerial path may seem like letting those decades of dedication to the engineering craft go to waste. The trade-off is that a managerial role enables us to impact the technology processes in different ways, and our engineering experience is immensely valuable in understanding and guiding other engineers. 

The only definitive answer I can give for this dilemma is: “It depends.” Not only will the choice be greatly determined by the individual’s personal preferences and aspirations but also the organizational context.  

Roles are defined differently from one company to another, with different responsibilities and expectations. It can even happen that the same role has different meanings in different companies, which was precisely my case. My specific context was that I was a technically oriented person who also always led teams. In my career, I was only an individual contributor for a few months, and for the next 15+ years, I was involved in managing teams. Right before joining HTEC, I was a Solution Architect in charge of the technical aspects of a project but also entrusted with leading people and teams. At HTEC, Solution Architects are individual contributors without any people management responsibilities, so I had to choose whether to focus solely on the technical side or the people side of the job. I chose people.  

Ultimately, we must assess our specific circumstances and ambitions, and that starts with understanding exactly how the new role differs from the previous one, what we give up, and what we gain in return. 

The change 

Becoming a manager involves an instantaneous and fairly dramatic shift in focus and responsibilities. To grossly oversimplify things, where we were once responsible for writing excellent code, we’re now responsible for developing people who write excellent code.  

Giving up hands-on technical work is the most obvious and drastic change, but we quickly identify the absence of other aspects of work we took for granted as engineers. Here are a few to consider:  

  • Focus time 
    A manager must prioritize availability—the workday becomes extremely fragmented. The bigger the team, the more questions there are, not just from engineers on the team but from external stakeholders.    
  • Short feedback cycles 
    Engineers are accustomed to instant feedback that happens parallel to their work (code review, document design, number of bugs, etc.). In management, it can take months to see the results of our decisions and our initiatives.  
  • Avoiding conflicts 
    For engineers, avoiding conflict and difficult discussions is a matter of choice. Resolving conflicts and talking about personal and performance issues is one of the key responsibilities of a manager.  
  • Making technical decisions 
    Letting others make technical decisions can be difficult for accomplished engineers-turned-managers—that’s what we’re trained for and what our comfort zone is. However, it’s important to empower team members to make those decisions independently. Yes, they will sometimes make mistakes and they will learn from them, and managers must give them room to grow and develop.  
  • Learning new technical skills 
    This change hits the hardest for engineers who value themselves on the depth of their technical expertise. However, managers need to stay current with the broader technology trends to be able to understand the trade-offs of different decisions.   

Where we were once responsible for writing excellent code, we’re now responsible for developing people who write excellent code. 

Elmana Pelko

Senior Engineering & Delivery Lead at HTEC Group

The transition 

At this point, let’s assume we’ve decided to take the plunge into managerial waters. While we may be feeling unprepared for the new role, there’s some good news: there are many traits shared between good engineers and good managers.  

Engineers are detail-oriented, and they are problem solvers. They possess a deep understanding of both the engineering profession and the work at hand, which enables them to motivate the team and gives them a high-level perspective. Furthermore, they’re curious and driven by a desire to resolve challenges positively.  

While this is an excellent starting point, the career shift will still require plenty of adjustment and mental dexterity. This was my 5-step survival guide for transitioning into a managerial role. 

  1. Change your definition of being right.
    Engineers like to be right, and they sometimes fall into the trap of believing that their solution is the only good one since their entire professional reputation depends on finding solutions. As managers, we must let the team devise and implement solutions. 
  1. Learn how to manage people.
    While an engineer’s expertise is technical, managers need people expertise. It’s a skill that can be developed, and we don’t need to be a “natural-born leader” to become a good manager. We must focus our learning efforts on understanding how to influence people and processes to make them more efficient. 
  1. Adopt a business model.
    Engineers measure their success based on technology metrics. Managers are concerned with broader business objectives and need to develop a business mindset. For example, a solution cannot always be the best solution by an engineer’s standard, it needs to fit a budget and ROI. Personally, I found this part the most difficult to change and apply. Early on, in meetings, I would focus on less important information and discuss deep technical pieces of information while practically tuning out when deadlines were communicated. 
  1. Learn to let go of control.
    Ceding control makes the team feel more valuable. This doesn’t mean letting things happen randomly—there is still plenty of work for a manager: shaping the vision and strategy, organizing the team, clarifying requirements, finding resources, setting schedules, and so on.   
  1. Ask for help. 
    Experience is crucial for managers. As beginners, we need to lean on the experience of more senior managers who can help us improve our skills and offer advice for dealing with different issues on a team. Experienced managers are possibly the most valuable resource for learning how to lead people. 

The destination 

We have arrived at our new career destination: Manager. Now what? 

Manage yourself first 

Being able to manage others well starts with our ability to manage our own time and activities. There are many aspects of self-management, but these are the three main areas: 

  • Get organized 
    One of the key differences between the work of an engineer and a manager is the amount of information managers must stay on top of. Keeping everything in our head or on post-it notes is not going to cut it—we need to master our calendar, various inboxes, to-do lists, task management tools, and any other resources that help us keep track of everything. 
  • Categorize your activities to feel more productive 
    Novice managers often feel unproductive as they primarily work through others, perform countless small tasks, and spend much of their day context-shifting. When they’re not in meetings, that is. It’s good to categorize activities to be aware of what we’re actually accomplishing. It can be context-dependent, but generally, we can split our time into the four key activities for managers: information-gathering, decision-making, nudging, and being a role model. 
  • Measure the output 
    For managers, team output takes priority over any individual achievements. Managers also do their work by influencing those outside their immediate team. It’s important to assess and measure those outputs and outcomes to decide how to make the best use of our time. 

Manage others 

Be(com)ing a good manager is a process that requires constant learning and refining our approach. It’s a science, one that I am still very much learning, and one that is impossible to distill in just a few sentences. However, I believe that the foundation for healthy managerial practices rests on three pillars of activity:  

  • Communicate 
    We need to be timely and consistent in our communication practices, but first and foremost, we need to understand that it’s not about us and learn to listen. This is the main prerequisite for shifting the focus from ourselves to others. 
  • Delegate 
    Delegating can be a slippery slope for managers, because it is necessary to strike a fine balance. While we never wish to become a bottleneck for the organization, we also still want to get our hands dirty. With enough time, managers will determine that sweet spot, but the key thing is to never delegate accountability. 
  • Keep learning 
    Regardless of our experience, there is always more to learn and ways to fine-tune our approach to people, processes, organization, time management, and technology. While this is paramount for new managers, learning and development should never really stop. 

Dealing with second thoughts 

Transitioning into management doesn’t need to be a one-way street. For many reasons, engineering managers may find themselves missing the days of being an individual contributor.  

While relinquishing management responsibilities may seem like a career step backward, it can have clear benefits for both the employee and the organization. Not only do individuals perform better when they are fulfilled and doing the work they enjoy, but organizations also benefit from individual contributors who possess a broader business perspective.  

Furthermore, in today’s engineering landscape, there are numerous “hybrid” roles (e.g., team lead) that combine managerial responsibilities with hands-on work with technology, thus expanding career options for engineers. 

Careers in tech don’t necessarily develop linearly–roles and responsibilities constantly evolve along with the ever-dynamic industry. There are no right or wrong paths, just paths that are right or wrong for us at a particular moment in time. While I can’t tell you what the right decision is for you, my final advice is to give it a real try, don’t give up after the first challenge, and most importantly, choose a path that excites you enough to wake up happy and head to work with a smile.