On the individual contributor to manager journey: reflecting on my internal dialog

On the individual contributor to manager journey: reflecting on my internal dialog

March 17, 2021


I recently transition from being a Senior Engineer to a fresh Engineering Manager. This is a move that I considered for about six months then spent another six preparing for. Here's what that looked like.

Starting from first principles

What is a manager's job?

On the purpose of management

What would I want to bring to the table as a manager?

On my purpose for management
  • As an EM, my self appointed mandate is to take care of people, delivery, and tech in that order
  • As an IC, my mandate was to take care of delivery, tech, and people in that order

Reflect on what the job is (in your context) and why you're interested in it. Remember, it's a career change, not a promotion.

IC vs EM: defining the expectations

Are there ways to have the impact that I'm looking for as an IC, e.g. as a Staff Engineer? E.g. crafting a role as a Staff Engineer who spends more time on mentorship while continuing to steer tech decisions could also be an option.

What might be the parts of the EM role that I enjoy or think suck?

  • How much of my day would I have to spend doing those parts?
  • For the parts that I think might suck, why do I think so? Is it because I genuinely don't like them or because I'm not good at them yet?
Reminder: you get good at what you spend time doing. So do thing things that you want to do even if / especially if you aren't good at them yet.

Gap analysis

What skills might I need as an engineering manager that I don't yet possess?

Here, I tried to gather a wide breadth of perspectives. I gathered the perspective of my organization's leaders by having skip and double skip level one-on-ones. Their inputs were invaluable, as they allowed me to understand how my impact and skills (and therefore areas for growth) were perceived at higher organizationals level, which is where a manager might need to operate.

Leverage skip level one-on-ones to gain leadership's perspective on your strengths

Of course, I also gathered direct feedback on this question from my manager and immediate peers. I then cross referenced those perspectives with my own to come to a more wholistic view of myself.

Development planning

With that feedback from the gap analysis in hand, I worked with peers, mentors, sponsors, and of course my manager, to identify actionable steps to closing those perceived gaps.

Use the 10-20-70 method to decided how to spend your professional development energy

10% focused on studying/formal learning

E.g. reading books or taking courses. Some of my favorites reads

  • The Manager's Path
  • Becoming A Technical Leader
  • Making A Manager
  • An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management

20% focused on learning from others

E.g. one-on-ones w/ folks who've already made this transition. Some activities here were

  • Thinking through some of these same questions with peers who were also considering a transition
  • Talking to Staff+ engineers who decided NOT to transition
  • Talking to engineering managers who I vibe with who decide TO transition

70% focused on practice

E.g. shadowing my current EM or reverse shadowing by taking on new EM-related activities.

  • Took on the role of tech leading a very large project
  • Shadowed my manager on some of the behind the scenes planning activities that I'd normally only participate in much later

The journey need not last forever

One of the great insights that I picked up in a skip level jam was that, you can switch back from EM to IC. In fact, serving as an engineering manager for a while would likely make you an even more well rounded and effective Senior or Staff Engineer, as you will be equipped with new skills.

Don't agonize over the decision too much. Decide what you want to do and dive in. If it turns out to not right for you, then act on that info once it becomes available.