Should I become an Engineering Manager (EM)?

Swathi Sundar
10 min readJul 12, 2021


Things to consider before transitioning from Individual Contributor (IC) to Engineering Management

Jumping from IC to a EM role Courtesy: Vecteezy

“Welcome to the dark side!”

That was the welcome message when I joined my first managers’ staff meeting with my organization. An odd way of welcoming someone to a new EM role, isn’t it? I used to wonder why. I now understand why they said it the way they did. There are ups and downs of being a manager, overall, I have come to really enjoy it as I am now exposed to managing different teams and people in different companies.

Things to consider before IC to EM transition

It’s not a promotion

  • It’s a lateral move or some times a level down.
  • If you are a high performing senior engineer, it might mean that you are in the top end of the band for the level and could potentially get promoted to next level if you continue to exceed expectations.
  • When you move into management, the expectations and the job role and function is completely different. The skillsets you need to build to be successful are very different. You are literally starting from the beginning, at the lower end of the band for the same level.
  • It’s a new role. You might need to learn, unlearn and relearn a lot of new skillsets.

It’s not easy to get promoted

  • Your success isn’t a sole result of your efforts anymore. It is contingent on the success of your company, results of your team and growth of your teammates.
  • Compared to IC promotions which are mostly based on your performance, manager promotions are based on business need.
  • Even if you are a top performing manager, your promotion might be depending on the market economies like recession/lay offs, budget, headcount allocation of your organization, scope and breadth of the charter of your team, your company’s investment in the current locale/hub/office, departure of other managers in your ladder, etc.
  • Unless you are in high growth companies or in high growth organizations in well established companies where the pie is growing, it’s harder to get promoted as a Manager compared to ICs in the same level in your company.

There’s no instant gratification

  • As an IC, you code, you debug, you deploy. “Segmentation fault. Index overflow exception. Your build is completed, Your code is deployed. 34/165 tests pending. Your deployment is rolled back due to alerts.” You get instant feedback. Machines are complex, yet simple.
  • Even if you don’t see the complete results, you see incremental progress instantly or in a few days, at max, in a week. Bugs are closed, incidents are mitigated and resolved, you release a feature and you can observe the metrics and charts moving in whatever direction they should. Basically, you do something, you see the results, instantly.
  • As an IC, the problems are more often direct, and the methodology for fixing the problems are rational or deterministic once the root cause is diagnosed.
  • Humans, on the other hand, are complex, complicated, harder to diagnose and debug. It takes months or sometimes years to see the results of your coaching and mentorship.
  • As an EM, progress is hard to visualize, the approach for solving the problems is not straight forward. There is no definition of done.
  • You could feel the burden of not knowing whether you are making progress. Imposter syndrome is real and could creep in easily.
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You lose a valuable member of your team

  • Most of the time, your manager requests you to step into the role of an EM for your team, because you are not only delivering results, but also communicating effectively, collaborating well and most importantly taking ownership and initiative for a bunch of things happening on your team.
  • When you become an EM for your team, you lose one of the most valuable member of your team, YOU.
  • Just like how you can’t be as effective as your manager from day 1, your team mates can’t be as effective as you within days or weeks. This could be frustrating initially and also tempting to roll up your sleeves to do the work for your team.
  • You need to write more than talk, and listen more than write. Both writing and listening takes a lot more energy than just talking. You also need to delegate, coach, mentor, support, and provide feedback to get your team to be in the better state than it was before, and that takes time. Patience is key!
  • Your go-to engineer on your team, might actually not want to take up ownership of everything you were doing before!
  • So, go figure it out.

You are a tightrope walker and balance is key

  • Humans are unique and awesome. But they are also quirky and idiosyncratic. Including you!
  • It’s easy to fail as a manager if you do not have balance in everything you do. I couldn’t have explained it any better than what Chris Chiu mentioned in his blog.

The failure modes are many. Managers can:

Be overly-prescriptive and micromanage.

Be underly-prescriptive and detached.

Be neglectful of the individuals on their teams and their growth.

Steer into the wrong product direction and fail to launch.

Steer into the wrong architectural direction and create tech debt.

Be self-serving and put their career growth over the team’s success.

Fail to gain the respect of their peers and the executives.

Be rude in the name of directness.

Be too uncritical and fail to keep people accountable.

Contribute to the gossip of the company.

Be too strategic and fail to execute.

Be too tactical and fail to form a vision.

Be a bad information conduit.

Not be technical enough to gain the respect of the team.

Fail to follow through and see initiatives to their completion.

You have exposure and power…. Damn!

  • As an EM, you get to know a lot about people’s level, compensation, performance. You are also the first in your team to know about reorgs, new hires, promotions.
  • You are also exposed to your team mates’ personal lives. You know when they are going through a breakup, when they lose their loved ones, when they are planning to have kids, etc. You listen a lot and listening takes energy. Depending on how empathetic and sympathetic you are, you might carry these emotions outside of your work environment.
  • Call it organizational dynamics, office politics or toe stepping. You get exposed to them too!
  • You have the power to approve time offs and vacation, expenses, etc, but you also have the power to impact someone’s career. In bigger companies, your team mates think you have power, however reality is you move some bar in a sliding scale and the machine/system/process crunches the numbers for you.
  • You are the carrier of all good and bad news that happens in the company or organization, regardless of whether you were part of the decision making or not. Imagine laying someone off on your team based on the list handed to you by HR/senior leadership.

It’s lonely at the top

  • The very day you step into the role of the EM, the trainings by the HR and legal team warn you multiple times about how you could be sued as a manager. After that session, you come away wondering if you could even say the most benign thing in the world to your engineers. You think multiple times before saying a harmless comment. You start aloofing yourself consciously or unconsciously.
  • Once you are a manager, it’s natural to feel excluded for coffee chats and water cooler conversation. Even if you happen to be part of it, the discussions take a different turn compared to just being a conversation full of ICs alone. This is purely because of the hierarchical nature of how the reporting structure is set up. As much as you become conscious, your engineers are also watching out for what they say.
  • Even if you used to be the Tech Lead and knew the internals of the system in and out, you can’t fully take sides on a technical decision. There is a slight chance that it might be perceived as supporting one person’s view over another.
  • Management can sometimes feel like a thankless job. The amount of positive feedback you get significantly dwindles.

Wait.. So why should I even consider becoming an EM then?

It’s a new job!

  • Becoming an EM is a new job. It means new roles, new expectations, new responsibilities, and new perspectives.
  • It also means moving out of your comfort zone — pushing yourself out of the fear zone, molding yourself in the learning zone and finally seeing yourself through the growth zone! A guaranteed way to add multiple new skillsets to your toolbox.
  • You are starting from scratch — so you get to shape it the way you want right from the beginning via trainings, books and mentorship. You can also avoid a lot of mistakes that people before you did.
  • Along with the new job, you get new peers, new mentors, new lessons, new influences, new innovation and new ideas.
  • Finally, it opens a whole new set of doors in terms of opportunities.

Promotion is not the only thing you care about

  • Being a manager is an humbling experience (some compare it to parenting). It changes you, it evolves you, it morphs you and it molds you to be a better human being.
  • Your awareness to human dynamics and human emotions heightens to a whole new level.

“The nature of human dynamics doesn’t change from level to level” — Barack Obama

  • Your core duties revolve around the business mission and impact you are working towards, the technical challenges and limitations in those ideas and solutions and empowering and coaching people to deliver results.
  • When you are an IC, you primarily work towards your goals, then for your team’s success and finally delivering value for your organization or company. The thought paradigm is completely reversed as a manager. Your primary role is to deliver value for the organization/company and you do so by appropriately juggling all the duties mentioned before.
  • As an EM, you not only get to shape the vision of your product, you also get to define vision and mission for your team. It’s fun and fulfilling to communicate and unify your team and rally them to execute against the technical and product roadmap to achieve business OKRs.

There’s long term fulfillment

  • It takes a while to understand everyone at an individual level. You need to pick up their emotional cues, listen really well to what they are saying, show sensitivity and understand their perspectives and help them based on their needs and emotions. After a year or two of weekly 1–1s, you build a strong relationship with your engineers and an acute sense of empathy.

Each human being is unique, unprecedented and unrepeatable. — Rene Dubos

  • There’s something deeply gratifying about seeing someone grow in their career through your coaching and guidance.
  • It’s easier to teach people what to do than allowing them to make mistakes on their own and learn from it. However, transformations that can happen after delivering effective feedback and proper mentoring is priceless.
  • Advocating and representing someone else’s work and their achievements and seeing their promotions go through is extremely rewarding.
  • While managing others, you also come away learning a lot about yourself. You also learn a lot from your engineers strength which you might have overlooked as an IC. Your self-awareness definitely increases, mine sure did!

You shape, build and culture a high performing team

  • Empowering and trusting others to do better than you needs conscious thought and effort on your end.

The whole is greater than the sum of parts. — Aristotle

  • You have the power to turn a completely dysfunctional team to a high performing team. You can build that alignment between company priorities and people’s personal career aspirations to achieve greater results by that combination.
  • You also multiply your scope and impact by scaling yourself through effective delegation.
  • By communicating clearly, prioritizing effectively, building trust with the team and stakeholders, you lead the team to deliver strong business and technical output, both in quality and quantity.
  • People leave managers, not companies. So by instilling a strong and healthy work ethic, providing a psychologically safe and an inclusive environment for the team to work together, you can produce high quality work without churn.

Balance is indeed the key to success

  • Considering you can’t go about cancelling a bunch of meetings as an EM, you learn better time management.
  • As an EM, you learn a sustainable way to manage everything that you want to do. There are no two ways about it. Let me repeat, balance is key.
  • Self care is important!

You have exposure and power! …. Yay!

  • You have an opportunity to improve the process and culture of your team and organization to make it fair and equitable for everyone.

With great power comes great responsibility. — Spiderman

  • You can shape your team through thoughtful and effective hiring, by setting up the right structure and process.
  • You have the power to bring people closer together for a common goal by dealing and resolving interpersonal conflicts. That’s huge!
  • As an EM, you can identify learning needs and create opportunities for engineers, create a development plan for them and manage their performance by delivering actionable feedback and providing effective coaching. You can leverage your exposure to bring visibility to others work.
  • You have the power to distill everything you are exposed to and provide only the relevant context to all engineers, thus shielding them from chaos and helping them stay focused on the team’s goal.
  • By effectively managing up your management ladder or by managing sideways with your stakeholders in the same/different domain, you get to influence the overall decision making in your organization.

Your circle is bigger!

  • Your Product Manager, designer and Data Scientist are your direct partner. You are a (s)quad and you learn to work well with each other.
  • Your peer managers experience similar situations and challenges. Your manager and your skip level are experiencing similar scenarios too! They are now your go-to people to riff on ideas and brainstorm solutions.
  • You build a “First Team” mindset described by Patrick Lencioni.
  • Your learning is no longer restricted to learning from other software engineers. There is also a huge community of leaders and managers across different companies in tech, but also different sectors and domains like BioTech, FinTech, Manufacturing, Politics, etc . You can now learn how to be an effective leader from all of them!
  • Your opportunity for growth and learning is now exponential!

Hopefully this gives the ground reality from my experience and perspective and allows you to weigh the risks before you jump into management!

In case you decide to become an EM, all I would like to say to you is…

“Welcome to the dark side! :D”