Engineers Code, Managers Coach (And Other Differences)

Many misconceptions exist about the engineering manager role. A common one is thinking the role of an engineer is similar. While some similarities do exist, there are far more differences.

· 7 min read
Engineers Code, Managers Coach (And Other Differences)

Knowing the differences benefits you in numerous ways, such as better understanding:

  • Your boss’s responsibilities
  • How to support them
  • And what you’re getting into when transitioning into engineering management

Taking all this in at once is challenging, but many differences are interlinked, and learning one helps you learn the other. Some are likely already familiar to you, making them even easier to grasp.

Still, reinforcing your understanding of them is a good idea, including an engineering manager’s scope of work.

1. Scope of work


Software engineers design and implement solutions to technical problems. Many, like you, excel in this role.

In this way, you’re like the racecar driver trying to reach the finish line. They don’t care about anything other than this goal, and they shouldn’t because their job is to reach it faster than the other drivers.

You do the same as an engineer — or another role if you have a different one — although you’re not trying to do it faster than everyone else. But you don’t consider anything other than the software problems assigned to you.

This is not true for engineering managers (EMs).

Engineering managers

EMs can code, but shouldn’t be (or should do it on the side), if they are. They are not concerned with researching solutions, debugging, or testing.

An engineering manager’s scope encompasses two areas: engineers and the engineering process.

In more detail, among other things, they are responsible for the following:

  • Seeing the big picture
  • Evaluating engineers’ performance
  • Coaching them
  • Communicating with other managers
  • Prioritizing work
  • Advising project managers about their engineers and skill levels

In other words, your perspective and duties widen immensely as an engineering manager. You are now the racing team manager instead of one of the team’s drivers. Instead of racing to the finish line, your job is evaluating drivers’ performance, coaching them, and making decisions based on that performance.

Crucially, this does not make EMs more important than software engineers — it is just a fact that they have a wider scope of work. But everyone must help one another, or the process will fail.

2. Amount of communication


As an engineer, you’re focused on the task at hand, having the occasional deep-dive technical chat, and attending weekly team meetings. You thrive in this zone, tinkering away in solitary silence, solving problems one at a time.

But communication is not a major part of your everyday responsibilities. For many, this is just fine.

Engineering managers

Once you step into the manager role, you become your team’s communication hub, ensuring information flows perfectly for everyone. You’re also responsible for removing whatever blocks that communication brings. Whether it’s a late update, lack of feedback, or ineffective collaboration, it’s your job to fix these.

Failure to do so destines your team to explore all kinds of dissatisfaction — slipping deadlines, critical bugs during production, incorrectly implemented features, overworked ICs, stress, and frustration…Nothing enjoyable.

Combating and preventing these requires:

  • Getting knee-deep in team meetings
  • Scheduling one-on-one chats
  • Updating everyone on work progress
  • Async communication processes

It’s not easy, but it gets easier the more you do it, and it’s worth doing. Your team will be grateful to you, even if they don’t show it.

3. Learning and using psychology


Because you don’t need to communicate as much as an engineer, you also don’t need to consider as much how people work or how to support them. Your role is purely technical, so you’re good as long as your results solve problems without creating new ones, don’t break, and stand the test of time.

This is not the case with engineering managers.

Engineering managers

As a leader, you deal with people a lot. Empathy, patience, and emotional intelligence are the new tools you need to carry in your tool belt.


Because your work centers around team interactions, motivations, and conflicts, and it doesn’t mean solving these problems only when they pop up. You need to foster a culture of collaboration, support, and shared success. But sometimes, you will need to deal with these situations when they arise.

For example, imagine an engineer who enjoys a task but is behind schedule by a couple of days. When you ask for an update, they react emotionally, saying, “Why do you keep bothering me? You’re pressuring me, and it’s not helpful!”

It’s easy to take offense to such a response and react emotionally. While doing things this way may get short-term results, it will hurt you, your team, and the work in the long term. Instead, consider why the engineer reacted that way.

They likely need help and are under stress. They may have worked hard but couldn’t finish the task on time, and it’s probably frustrating when they’re reminded of this. Additionally, communication challenges and introversion often worsen the situation.

So, acknowledge their feelings and offer support. For example, you could say, I get that you’re feeling stressed, and I value your effort. I’m here to help in any way I can. Let’s figure out a solution together.”

But this is just one situation with one team member. You’ll need to keep learning about them and others as long as they’re with you.

4. Level of organization


Sometimes, being an engineering manager feels like you’re running a classroom.

I don’t mean engineers are children — they are not. But in a classroom, every student is focused on their own work. Heads are down, and fingers are typing.

This level of self-focus isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s ideal, and it’s often what drives engineers to fight through those tough problems and develop incredible solutions. But someone needs to help create space for that focus.

Enter the teacher or, in our world, the engineering manager. Without them, engineers would have to set their own deadlines or take more responsibility for communicating about their work to a wider range of people. With them, engineers have more space to care for their duties.

Engineering managers aren’t so lucky.

Engineering managers

As an engineering manager, every morning, you’re going to sit down and open your laptop. As soon as you do, a steady stream of information will pour out like it’s coming from a strong hose. It won’t stop until you close your laptop, and no one’s going to help you manage it — that’s your job.

Specifically, you’ll be handling the following:

  • Fielding any questions your engineers might have
  • Collaborating on project needs with project managers
  • Mitigating technical debt
  • Tracking data and making decisions based on it

Without a strong organization system, you’ll sink. With one, you’ll at least keep your head above water.

Additionally, your engineers also sink without one. Your organization (and the other tasks you do) has to take them into account, but this doesn’t mean giving in to every request they have. You will need to learn which tasks you can set aside and which things you can’t.

Sometimes, that will mean telling an engineer you can’t help them at the moment. It might also mean giving them a way to communicate with you asynchronously. Either way, your system won’t be perfect, but having one helps keep your team productive and the work flowing, and you can always improve it.

5. Supporting a team


As an engineer, you have a team but no responsibility for it. This fact doesn’t translate into a good thing one way or the other, but many engineers prefer this since they’re only responsible for themselves.

However, this fact is the primary reason so many of these differences exist. As an engineer, you interact with a bevy of ICs and managers, but your communication doesn’t need to take them into account. In other words, you don’t need to think about effective communication as much, understand how people work, or even be as organized.

Learning and practicing some of these elements is beneficial — especially if you want to transition to an EM role — but you only need to make minimal use of them.

Obviously, this changes when you become an EM.

Engineering managers

Engineering managers have teams, and they have to be responsible for them. If they aren’t, the team is more likely to struggle and fail (and so do they).

Of course, this connects with giving your engineers the space to focus. But it also means resolving conflicts between them, learning about their skills and personalities, and supporting them when they’re having trouble with the work. And it means learning who works well together and who you can develop into a leadership role. However, as I mentioned earlier, EMs are not better than their engineers. They both rely on one another in different and essential ways.

Engineers need EMs to handle all the tasks that keep the team together and keep them productive. EMs need engineers to do hands-on work with the technical problems and move projects forward.

Without each other, it all comes crumbling down.

Is engineering management the right move for you?

Still feel like leaving technical work behind?

Once again, assess the below differences to ensure engineering management is right for you:

  • Scope of work: you’re working with people, managing the team, evaluating performance, and more, but you’re not coding
  • Amount of communication: you’re managing team and cross-team communication (your main and most consistent priority)
  • Learning and using psychology: you need to learn how people think, feel, and behave, in particular your engineers, so you can help them get the most out of themselves
  • Level of organization: you need to stay organized to manage a steady stream of information each day, in part because your team depends on you for it
  • Supporting a team: you’re responsible for everyone on your team, so you need to learn how to support them in every way you can

If you still want to make the transition (and if all this doesn’t scare you), do it. It’s hard, but it’s also very rewarding. You can work at scale and make 20x the impact.

Want more tips on leading effective software engineering teams?

Join my newsletter if you’ve found this content useful

Originally published on