What Every Individual Contributor Needs to Know Before They Become an Engineering Manager

September 10, 2020

Most engineering managers have no idea what they are doing on their first day.

But jumping in and figuring it out is the best way to learn, according to four engineering managers across Colorado who first started as individual contributors. 

For Victoria Swansegar and Jem Zornow, engineering managers at healthtech company Sondermind, that meant redefining what success looked like. As individual contributors, responsibilities included writing, debugging and deploying great code. As managers, success meant delegating, providing mentorship and assisting the team with deliverables. Swansegar and Zornow said being a successful manager requires a mind shift to implement new responsibilities and approach. 

However, change doesn’t happen overnight. Matt Johannes, a robotic systems manager at Outrider, said a gradual transition process allows for new management skills to be more effective and efficient. During the shift, turn to other managers and mentors for advice. They experienced their first day too. 

 

Matt Johannes
Manager of Robotic Systems

Manager of Robotic Systems Matt Johannes said managers must balance overseeing their team and individually contributing their own technical expertise. Each day, his responsibilities and priorities at Outrider, a company that automates yard operations, exist at a different point on, what he calls, the “manager-contributor continuum.” 

 

What was the single biggest challenge you faced during the transition from individual contributor to engineering manager, and why?

A strong manager slides along what I call the “manager-contributor continuum.” As a manager, I orchestrate the schedule against product roadmaps, ensure technical relevancy and empower the team. In the contributor role, I use my technical expertise to formulate novel concepts, develop prototypes, and integrate and test Outrider’s robotic systems. The challenge is balancing the two. To be successful requires making critical technical contributions while simultaneously embracing management roles and responsibilities. 

 

Every day, I must carefully decide where I need to invest my time and at what level.

 

How did you overcome this challenge, and how has it shaped your approach to management?

Every day, I must carefully decide where I need to invest my time and at what level. Several factors are involved in these decisions, such as depth of the technical challenge, ebb and flow of managerial responsibilities, the pulse of the team and the state of the project. Then, I base my decision on the level of impact, strategic significance and efficiency gains that my contributions will have on our collective success. At the end of the day, my approach to management is clear, open and constant communication about what the team and I are doing and why.

 

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is transitioning into their first engineering manager role, and why?

First, give it time. The transition does not happen overnight, and effective management skills don’t suddenly appear. Transition is more effective and efficient when it takes place over time with a lot of practice. This helps you manage your own expectations about the speed and trajectory of your career. 

Second, listen to your team. Teams thrive when members feel their voices, opinions and needs are heard, particularly when decisions and courses of action are being set. This promotes a healthy environment of inclusion and fosters intellectual safety that’s critical to idea exploration and problem-solving. This is important for development pushing technology frontiers or to realize novel capabilities.

 

Victoria Swansegar
Senior Engineering Manager

Stepping into a manager position means redefining what contribution and success look like, according to Victoria Swansegar and Jem Zornow, engineering managers at healthtech company Sondermind. Learning to delegate and assign responsibilities to direct reports is as important as their individual contributions. When the team is successful, managers have just as much reason to celebrate.

 

What was the single biggest challenge you faced during the transition from individual contributor to engineering manager, and why?

Success for managers is harder to understand when you’re first getting started because you are unsure what it looks or feels like. Your team’s deliverables will not feel like your own. At first, leading employees does not give the same sense of accomplishment as slinging your own tickets across the board.

Pivoting from an old responsibility that gives a sense of contribution and personal productivity and into a management role can leave you feeling like you have no control or influence over anything. Through the transition from individual contributor to manager, it often felt like I was trying to do two jobs at once, knowing at the same time that it’s impossible to do both or at least do them well. 

 

Jem Zornow
Engineering Manager

How did you overcome this challenge, and how has it shaped your approach to management?

Eventually I hit a wall and realized that I cannot successfully perform both jobs. I learned how to delegate. A well-delegated task carried out by a direct report is as good as something done by my own hand. As a dispatcher and a knowledge base, I can see more work done in a day than I could do as an individual contributor. 

A mindset shift helps recognize the gap between the responsibilities of an individual contributor and a new manager. The required skills are different, the responsibilities are different and the approach is different. Of course, my own work matters, but more importantly, so does my team’s work. If they flounder and fail, so do I as their manager. When they are successful, I get to celebrate with them. 

 

Learning how to delegate well is essential.

 

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is transitioning into their first engineering manager role, and why?

Learning how to delegate well is essential. It’s critical to understand what level of detail different employees need and how best to motivate and serve them. 

Know that you are not obligated to know everything and that you will not have all the answers. Leadership has broader responsibilities and accountabilities. Learning to lead relies heavily on the experiences gained by doing. But, you cannot do everything on your to-do list because you’re just one person. While in your transition journey, partner with other peers and tap into your own leadership team to ask for help, share problems and strategies, and brainstorm situational solutions. 

 

JK Slyby
Head of Software Engineering

In a perfect world, developers and stakeholders peacefully operate without intervention or a manager. In reality, JK Slyby, the head of software engineering at truck-sharing platform Fluid Truck Share, said it’s his responsibility to communicate stakeholders’ needs to developers so they are motivated to grow the business. 

 

What was the single biggest challenge you faced during the transition from individual contributor to engineering manager, and why?

Fluid Truck is a growing startup, and with that growth comes a need to expand our platform. There are times where we are given an aggressive deadline for a project. Occasionally, a task that needs to be done in a week or less can creep into our current sprint. Even though these hurdles make it challenging for developers, they are essential for the company’s success. These challenges arise for businesses at any stage, but they are more pronounced in startups.

As a developer, my instinct was to push back against the business. Keeping my developers happy with the freedom to explore new tech was my priority because how else would I build this cutting-edge team? Of course, that meant that the stakeholders suffered and it was not sustainable. I was trying to build the development team that I wanted, not the development team that Fluid needed.

 

Our goal as developers is to deliver value.

 

How did you overcome this challenge, and how has it shaped your approach to management?

Our goal as developers is to deliver value. Understanding the value the features provided to the stakeholders and communicating that value to the team is critical. Once the developers understood why stakeholders had certain time constraints, they delivered what was needed and they delivered it on time. Communication between business and tech was critical. By ensuring that we all understood why certain deadlines were important, we became not only the team that Fluid needed but one that we were all proud to be a part of. 

The experience shaped my approach to management by showing me that development standards and best practices, while something to aspire to, should not hinder your business’s progress. You have to find a balance between what works for your team and what gets the business the results that it needs.

 

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who is transitioning into their first engineering manager role, and why?

Ensure that you communicate with the stakeholders who you and your team are accountable to. What is the situation that you are trying to manage? How can you get results for your stakeholders while ensuring that your team is happy? Where do you need to compromise in order to hit your deadlines? If you clearly identify expectations, you will set your team up for success.

 

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