Engineering Education Now: What to Consider Before Switching to the Manager Track

In our last post, we examined how Google proved the worth of good engineering managers. Google also demonstrated through data and analytics the managerial traits that create better performing employees and teams.

Now, let’s examine a couple of factors engineers should consider if they are thinking about switching from the individual contributor track to the manager track.

Manager Track vs. Individual Contributor Track

As a Fast Company article recently pointed out, becoming a manager should not be viewed as a promotion, but rather as a career change. The manager track and the individual contributor track are mutually exclusive, though of course having an engineering background enables engineering managers to better understand what their teams are tackling. Nonetheless, managers and individual contributors have different growth trajectories and responsibilities.

How Success is Measured in the Manager Track

One significant thing to consider about making this career switch is how success is measured for managers versus individual contributors. Engineers are makers, solving technical problems and building products and apps. Their value is direct, and it is very clear how they contribute to their organizations. Given this easily measurable output, maker/engineers’ worth to their teams is readily apparent.

But managers’ success is based for the most part on abstract characteristics like teamwork and communication. Their success is predicated on ensuring that their teams flourish by having strategic meetings and resolving issues. Simply put, managers have very little time for technical work. As an article for puts it, “[m]ore emails and meetings, less code.”

Obviously, this is a drastic change from the tactile accomplishments of individual contributors. Engineers who wish to become managers should be prepared for this shift, as managerial responsibilities for their teams mean that technical work would be, for the most part, no longer feasible.

And this change should be embraced: for this switch to succeed, engineers’ own personal output should be less important than the output of their team.

A Change in Perspective for the Manager Track

A change in perspective is another result of making the switch from individual contributor to manager. When it comes to technology, individual contributors usually focus on the “how” rather than the “why.” This “technology religion” typically has no connection to practical considerations for the business.

Managers, however, must focus on the “why,” and decisions around technology are always based on what is good for the business.

In order to steer their teams the right way and grow in the right direction, managers “need to know where the ship needs to sail.” This solutions mindset focuses on the business goal, and what it takes to get there.

Consider What Motivates You

For both tracks, then, there are definite pluses and minuses. Zach Haehn, head of R&D at Bloomberg in San Francisco, explains why he switched to management: “I wanted…to have more influence on projects. I realized that I had an aptitude for it, and it was where I could make the best contribution. I felt valuable. That said, there have many days where I feel like I didn’t achieve anything personally. You have to get used to that.”

In considering making this type of change, engineers need to ask themselves, what gives you energy and what drains you – what’s your motivation?

Kristen Smith, CEO of Code Fellows, notes, “As an engineer, you’re hands on, solving technical problems, and building things. If that’s what you enjoy, then do it. As a manager, you have to enjoy being an administrator, working with people, and negotiating. Focus on what you’re good at.”

Next time, we’ll look at the differences between a CTO and CIO.

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