From Coder to Engineering Manager: Making the Leap

· 5 min read
From Coder to Engineering Manager: Making the Leap

For many engineers, the path to management starts by becoming the “go-to” expert on your team. You handle the tough technical challenges and guide others, eventually taking on the unofficial tech lead role. After staying in this lane for a while, you’re finally tapped for an official management promotion.

Though part of you is thrilled to have your skills recognized, your stomach drops as imposter syndrome sets in. Can you transition from being a technical expert to leading people? Sure, you can knock out features and resolve bugs all day long. But can you inspire teams and develop talent like as effortlessly?

You stare at your new list of responsibilities. Just yesterday, you were heads-down in the codebase, feeling confident and determined. Now, you’ve been entrusted with the success of the project and the careers of others. No pressure, right?

The excitement of new leadership potential collides with the nagging doubt that you’ll fail. Not only yourself but the people who now rely on you. Maybe you should’ve rejected this promotion and stayed coding in your comfort zone instead of stepping into the unknown.

What to Focus on in a New Role

Does the story above sound familiar? I felt this way, too, when I started working as an engineering manager. This moment of duality is common for new managers — that nagging self-doubt on the brink of opportunity. Eager to grow yet worried about stumbling. They now face a new world of complex people-challenges their engineering backgrounds didn’t cover.

But don’t sweat it! Since these feelings are common, there’s plenty of knowledge on how to deal with them. A good start would be focusing on the key differences of you new role below — this will help turn uncertainty into opportunity.

While management comes with plenty of new challenges, there are some common changes inexperienced managers need to make that guarantee success, see them below.

Coding Is No Longer Your Job

It’s tempting to continue coding like you did as an individual contributor. The comfort of hands-on work and that sense of tangible accomplishment are tough to give up. However, splitting focus between management and coding often causes failure in both areas. Context switching reduces productivity, and you can’t give your full attention to either responsibility.

For example, a new engineering manager jumps in to tackle a complex bug that’s blocking the team. But now he misses 1:1s and skips providing feedback on a key pull request. The immediate bug gets fixed but at the cost of long-term development and team success. The consequences are reduced team effectiveness and failure to grow as a manager.

Though some coding may be required, it can’t be your top priority anymore — you must rely on your team now.

Guide People Instead of Telling What to Do

It’s easy to focus on projects, features, and bugs — the tactical work outputs. But growing and developing team members is equally, if not more, important. While delivering results is important, prioritizing team effectiveness compounds those results over time. Engaged, aligned teams execute better.

A new manager worried about an impending deadline spends his time directing work in detail and thoroughly reviewing pull requests to ensure quality. Engineers working with him feel micromanaged and mere cogs in the machine, rather than empowered members.

The consequence is a checked-out team merely going through the motions. Instead, invest substantial time in one-on-ones, feedback, mentorship, and professional development. Make it a priority to understand motivations and strengths. Results will follow.

Your Value Now Lies in Team Results

As a manager, your impact shows in the team’s overall results, not individual tasks. But it’s tempting to cling to tangible deliverables like pull requests reviewed and hours of meetings held. Metrics like that inflate the value of busywork. Judge yourself instead on how you enable team success.

A manager points to a number of meetings and a huge number of files reviewed as his contributions. But, the team keeps missing goals and lacks cohesion. The risk is losing sight of the big picture to focus on the wrong KPIs.

Recognize that your work is leveraging people to accomplish shared objectives. Are you helping remove roadblocks and develop skills? Those are your new key objectives and results.

Voice Your Expectations To Avoid Disappointment

It’s easy to assume everyone shares your work ethic and decision-making. However, unstated expectations lead to confusion when they are not met. Everyone works differently. Failing to communicate assumptions risks frustration on both sides.

A manager assigns a critical bug to an engineer and expects night and weekend work if the bug can’t be fixed during work hours because that’s how he operates. The engineer working with him prioritizes his work-life routine and goes home early on Friday afternoon. The consequence is disappointment on both sides without clear requirements.

Always spell out your expectations — deadlines, priorities, preferred style, and other contexts when delegating tasks. Ask clarifying questions to ensure shared understanding. And make sure the other side agrees with your requirements.

Involve Your Team Before Committing To Anything

Don’t surprise teams with unreasonable commitments made on their behalf. Their input ensures authentic buy-in. Imposed deadlines hurt morale when teams don’t feel heard. Collaboration drives engagement.

A manager promises a tight timeline to stakeholders without consulting the team. The team is now demotivated and likely to miss an unrealistic target. The result is disengaged teams who won’t go the extra mile when imposed upon.

Instead, include them in the solution design and planning phase before committing. Give transparency into priorities and tradeoffs to get buy-in.

Leading Means Letting Your People Make Decisions

Micromanaging causes inefficient over-reliance on you. Empowered people can self-organize with the right vision and context. Inspire instead of dictating every step. Enable teams to work autonomously.

A new manager reviews every pull request and insists on rigid status processes. The team becomes unable to make decisions without the manager. The outcome is a bottlenecked team lacking independent analysis and judgment.

Provide mission guardrails, but let people determine implementation details. Guide through coaching and asking thoughtful questions, not commanding.

Address Hard Conversations Head-on

Performance issues and interpersonal conflicts don’t resolve themselves. As a manager, promptly address them. Evading problems hurts morale, trust, and results. Have the courage to engage sensitively but head-on.

A manager notices a team member struggling but avoids giving critical feedback to prevent tension. Resentment quietly builds within the team. The result is stalled careers, ineffective collaboration, and lingering uncertainty.

Don’t wait — thoughtfully confront issues early before they worsen. Focus on impact and solutions, not blame. Move forward constructively.

Constantly Improve Your Management Skills

Management requires constant growth through books, training, and peer learning. Make development a priority. Like engineering, management is a skill acquired over time that must be honed.

The consequence of neglect is an underdeveloped manager unable to evolve. Seek wide sources of learning — seminars, mentors, meetups, podcasts, to name a few. Reflect on your growth areas and create a learning plan. Outstanding leadership takes lifelong dedication.

The transition from engineer to manager brings exciting opportunities and tough challenges. It’s okay to feel uncertain about leading people versus technology. Focusing on key differences of a new role will set you up for success.

Invest time in your team’s growth, communicate expectations clearly, and stay focused on enabling results instead of individual tasks. Adopt a learning mindset, and continue developing your leadership skills over time. With some thoughtful priorities and courage, you can step up and help your team thrive in this new role.

The engineering insight and passion you bring will be an asset — combine it with steady management fundamentals, and you’ll be an outstanding engineering leader!

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