Premature thoughts on becoming an engineering manager


an introspective, self-serving piece about why I aspire to become an EM

I have been thinking about the prospect of becoming an engineering manager (EM) for the past year. Although I am still at an early point of my career as an individual contributor (IC) – I have only been working as a software engineer professionally for a little over 2 years – I recently decided that I will take on an EM role in the future. This is how I arrived at that conclusion.

I have always been curious about what an engineering manager does#

Ever since I started working as an IC in the industry, I have been deeply curious about what an EM does in their day-to-day jobs. Management in tech was mysterious to me for a number of reasons:

  • During a typical daily standup meeting, ICs share status reports on their work and an EM just listens and asks questions. I heard in some teams the EM would also give status updates from time to time but that’s not the case for the teams I’ve been on. As a result, an EM’s work is relatively opaque to ICs, at least for junior and mid-level ICs. Of course, I get to read the artifacts that my EM produces – docs, roadmaps, emails – but still it is not like I can closely observe how they work like I do in a pair-programming session with a co-worker.
  • I don’t have any friends who are EMs. All my friends working in tech are ICs, all around the same age as me (20-ish). (Of course you can be a high-achiever in your twenties, like this guy)
  • I don’t have hard data on this, but compared to the number of articles and blog posts online on technical topics, there aren’t that many high-quality thinking pieces written by EMs. I haven’t found many EMs who write about their work and share their insight either on their blogs or on social media. And when they write, it tends to be some vague, basic advice about becoming a decent human being (e.g. facilitate wellbeing, cultivate relationships, have integrity). These generic aphorisms don’t really tell me anything about the actual work they do as an EM – I want to know how they fight for budget and recognition for their team, how they get their team positioned for highly visible work, how they dutifully shield their team from organizational politics, frivolous nitpicks and distracting requests, and how they make unpopular decisions, telling someone on the team "no" when the request wouldn't be in the best interests of the team.
  • It can be hard for a rank-and-file IC to tell whether an EM is excelling or just average. Everyone knows that a great EM should help the team achieve great outcomes, but that doesn't tell you how to gauge the manager's performance. When the team delivers high-impact projects, you can't know for sure if the manager did a great job, or if he/she just got lucky; He/she was assigned to great ICs and maybe those ICs could have been great regardless of his/her managerial input. Therefore, the manager quality needs to be measured as the manager’s value-added to his/her reports’ productivity or engineering output, which is, again, hard to pinpoint in tech where the deliverables are not always as measurable as, let’s say, sales numbers made by a salesperson. On top of that, companies, such as Amazon, use self-report survey data with questions like “On a scale of one to five, how much do you agree that your manager generates a positive attitude in the team” as one of the metrics that a given EM. Questions like those lead to answers based on feelings as arbitrary as “I think my manager likes me and thinks I am good at my job so I’d say they are good at theirs”.

Over the past couple months, I have been pestering my current EM to tell me all the details about his leadership experience. I’ve eagerly read many articles, posts and books about management, which demystified a lot about the job of an EM. And that also reinforced my interest in becoming one.

Why I want to become an EM#

The one number driving factor for me to become an EM is to challenge the existing power structures and fix the current demographics in the tech industry, where there are so few east Asians in managerial roles compared to the number of IC roles they take. The Bamboo ceiling is as real as it gets. Representation matters and I want to see more confident Asians exploring the opportunity of stepping up in management from the overcrowded IC space. It is completely fine if one ends up going back to the IC route (which is a lateral move, in my opinion) after realizing he/she isn’t cut out for management, but at least we should all give management a try at some point in our career.

Another reason to become an EM is to have an outsized impact. It sounds cliche. And depending on how you interpret it, it might also sound politically incorrect because it implies staying at the IC lane doesn’t give you the opportunity to make a big impact. Despite having the ubiquitous dual-career track in tech, where an IC can rise in the ranks of being an engineer, all the way up to distinguished engineer, I am cynical enough to say that, in terms of having a seat at the (not-purely-technical) decision table, the "being listened to in actual decisions" bit of work always skews more towards people in the management chain. Secondly, I don’t see myself becoming a 10x engineer or a rock star engineer in the foreseeable future – after interacting with top-of-their-game engineers, I just realized I don’t have the kind of mental aptitude they have. I don’t obsess over coding. Coding is just a means to an end for me. So I am more than happy to facilitate and unblock people who are way smarter than me and trust them to do more than I could ever do individually. As is put in Software Engineering at Google, ”Traditional managers worry about how to get things done, whereas great managers worry about what things get done (and trust their team to figure out how to do it).”

But am I really cut out for management?#

To be honest, I am not sure since I haven’t tried it. Although I don’t think there is a simple litmus test to see if one is manager material, I do agree with what Julie Zhuo wrote in her book The Making of a Manager, where she presents three questions to ask yourself if you ever wonder the possibility of becoming a great manager:

  • “Do I find it more motivating to achieve a particular outcome or to play a specific role?” ✅ That is, ask yourself if you care so much about the team’s outcome that you would try your best to adapt to become the leader that your team needs, or you would rather stick with a specific role or activity you want to get better at over time, e.g. coding. I checked off this box because, as I mentioned previously, coding is just a means to an end for me. I like building software, but I don’t cry if I can’t code at my job anymore. Learning and understanding people and organizational dynamics are as interesting, if not more, as growing my technical competency.
  • “Do I like talking with people” – ✅ I checked off this box too. I am interested in people in general.
  • “Can I provide stability for an emotionally challenging situation” – I don’t know about this one yet. I haven’t experienced any emotionally-charged scenarios so far in my career. But I’d like to think I am a calm and composed person in general.

What are your answers to these three questions?

reasons for not becoming an EM#

I am aware of the unglamorous parts of the job of an EM, and I agree that management isn't for everyone. Charity Majors wrote a post called 17 Reasons Not to be a Manager, uncovering all the ugly parts in a managerial role. I agree with most of what she listed in the post, except for the one about having too many meetings.

It is a simple fact that managers have a lot of meetings to attend. And as an IC myself, I don’t like meetings. However, I do think, for many ICs, the aversion of meetings is most likely a product of them operating on a maker’s schedule. As a maker, we need large chunks of uninterrupted focusing time to produce work. We don’t want our day get chopped up by meetings because that hinders us from producing quality work. In other words, we probably don’t hate meetings naturally. We just have been conditioned to avoid meetings to protect our time.

I am still at the beginning of a long journey#

As the title of this blog post suggests, these are my premature thoughts. I am an IC right now and I haven’t been asked or handed an opportunity to become an EM so far. It might take me a couple of years to become an EM. But when I finally find the opportunity to become an EM, you better believe I will try my best and stick it out.