Becoming a manager is a challenge for anyone, no matter what type of team they’re leading—and, between a tendency towards introversion and a high level of talent, a team of engineers can be particularly testing. Whether you’re diving headfirst into a new role as a manager or looking to brush up on your management skills, it’s worth taking some time to set yourself up for success, which includes understanding some common stumbling points for new engineering managers.
Part of the difficulty of managing a team is that—unlike in many other roles—there’s no textbook solution for being successful. Unlike when working with computers, people can be unpredictable and respond differently to the same management styles. So it can be particularly difficult for talented software engineers to come to terms with the fact that they might not excel at management when they first start—and that’s OK.
Instead, think of your new role as an entirely new function… one in which you can bring your engineering expertise to bear in order to be more effective, but which also requires skills you might not already have. Think of each day as a new test, and make the process iterative, trying new things to see what works with which team members and feels natural to you. In addition, involve your team in the process—make it clear that you’re new to engineering management and ask for their regular feedback.
While individual contributors typically move upward within an organization by honing their technical skills, managers are judged by their teams’ effectiveness—and fostering this requires a wholly different skillset. Management skills are generally on the softer side, so it can be a particularly tough transition for engineers accustomed to being evaluated on hard skills.
Start to process your role as manager through the lens of a coach. Coaches put their team members in the right position, encourage them to perform to their maximum potential, and positively reinforce things that are going well while creating an open space for healthy debate. So rather than focusing on your own engineering expertise, think about to ways to encourage individual improvement as well as team cohesiveness and collaboration.
In addition to being common, wanting to manage every aspect of your team’s work is perhaps one of the hardest things to avoid for new managers. Good managers take responsibility for mistakes their team members make, so it can be tempting to want to check each and every piece of work that gets put out—but that’s rarely the best use of any manager’s time.
The temptation can be especially strong for new engineering managers, who were likely just days or weeks before writing their own code. In addition to adding stress to your plate, micromanaging can create a toxic team culture and distrust between you and your direct reports. Instead, consciously check in with yourself about how overbearing you’re being (one good gauge of this is how much coding, or code review, you’re doing), as well as soliciting feedback from your team about your management style.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that being a manager is all about setting and attending meetings. In fact, spending too much of your time in meetings—and not knowing when to turn down meeting requests—can lead you to neglect other higher-priority responsibilities.
When it comes to meetings you own (1:1s and team meetings), consider your team’s structure, priorities, and working styles to determine how to make these meetings most effective. These meetings can easily turn into simple status updates, which can feel more like a rote obligation than a valuable use of time. Instead, find alternative ways for team members to share progress updates, and use 1:1 and team time to focus on what’s not working and tease out potential issues before they occur.
When it comes to meetings requested from other parts of the business, don’t blindly accept an invitation just because you’re new to management. Question whether you’re really the right person to be in the meeting, what you’ll add, and whether there’s something else that deserves more of your time. Rather than getting in the habit of working through meetings (which can also create a bad impression if you’re not paying attention), be firm about how you allocate your time from the beginning, and others will come to respect those boundaries.