From Engineer to Manager: Learning to Organize Yourself

· 5 min read
From Engineer to Manager: Learning to Organize Yourself

Transitioning to an engineering management role is tough for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons is different expectations — no one will tell you what to do now. You may be admired by fellow engineers for your knack for untangling the most complex technical knots as an engineer, but you were not alone all along — chances are you had a manager who supported you.

When stepping into the shoes of a manager, you quickly realize that it’s a whole new game. It’s not about cracking technical problems anymore. It’s about leading people, setting the stage for success, and keeping an eye on the big picture. You’ll find yourself juggling a whirlwind of tasks, racing against the clock, and feeling like you’re always one step behind, which is perfectly normal. It’s the bread and butter of being a manager. Think of it as navigating the unpredictable nature of software development on a whole new level.

If you’re a paper person, you’ll notice that once a neat array of organized thoughts, your desk becomes a battlefield of sticky notes, reminders, and to-do lists. Your calendar turns into a maze of meetings, leaving you little breathing space to focus on your own tasks. Delegating tasks to the team feels like a complex puzzle of balancing their skills, workload, and personal issues. Keeping track of your team’s progress is like a game of hide and seek, with missed deadlines often catching you off guard.

Despite burning the midnight oil, you may feel like you’re running a race with no finish. There’s no more satisfaction of solving an engineering challenge. But worry not. It just means that you need to learn a new language. Not the programming language this time, but the language of management. And the big part of it is learning to organize yourself. You have to do it because no one else will do it for you anymore.

Managing Yourself

The art of self-management is one of the most important skills to master for every professional. It’s the cornerstone of effective leadership, and it begins with you. You simply can’t manage others if you can’t manage yourself.

Take your workspace. If it’s cluttered, it might reflect a cluttered mind. Start by decluttering your desk, creating a clean, organized environment that allows you to focus better on your tasks. Swap the physical sticky notes for digital analogs like Notion. Over time, you’ll develop a system that will help you keep track of your responsibilities and deadlines, making sure that nothing slips through the cracks.

A big part of being an engineering manager is stress. Your well-being and productivity depend on how well you can manage your stress. After all, stress always has internal reasons, not external ones. How you do it relies heavily on you. Morning runs, cold showers, workouts, breathing exercises, or yoga do their magic for many people — YMMV here. You must find a way to stay calm and focused during challenging situations.

Try to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Set boundaries and carve out time for your personal life and hobbies. This balance is vital to maintain overall well-being. Otherwise, you’ll burn out and will have terrible consequences for everyone.

Goal Setting and Tracking

Remember how I told you that no one will tell you what to do now? That’s why you need to learn to set the goals yourself. You’ll have two types of goals in general — for yourself and for your team.

To set goals for yourself, you need to talk to your manager and learn what the expectations are from you and how your progress will be evaluated. You will most likely hear several problems the team or the company has. You’ll need to write them down and turn them into something tangible.

Goals for your team will likely be a combination of goals you set for yourself, the result of a handoff from a previous manager, and an evaluation of the team’s processes and progress that you did when you started the job (You did it, right?).

Use the SMART goals framework to define the goals. Break them into smaller tasks and assign deadlines for timely completion. Track progress towards the goals and communicate with your team and manager when necessary. Don’t wait for others to come to you because they won’t until it’s too late.

Task Management

Now that you know your goals and turn them into tasks, you need to keep them organized by priority — you won’t be able to tackle all of them, and the list will grow daily.

Any tool will work for this — I used to fill in a blank piece of paper daily, but now I primarily use Notion. Anything that can help you list and rank tasks will work. Use the Eisenhower matrix to separate the urgent and critical tasks and focus on them, revisiting the critical but not urgent tasks often — you need to make progress on them as well.

Many books are written about task management, and you should research the topic more. For me, the key is balance. There are big tasks that are urgent and important and require focused time. But at the same time, there’s a myriad of small, non-urgent, but critical tasks that pile up over time that you must also tackle. Plus, non-urgent critical tasks tend to become urgent if you ignore them long enough. Balancing all this is an art. It’s like walking a tightrope.

Team Management

Team management is a lot about task management, with a serious complication that you must depend on others to complete them. The easy part is that you don’t need to put in the effort and spend time doing the work. The hard part is that getting something done by others how you expect it to be is also an art. But we’re focusing on being organized here, so let’s skip the people part.

Use the same goal-setting and task-management approaches as with your own tasks. Communicate to your team what your expectations are — tell them what you want them to do, in what form, and when. Write this down, and make sure they commit to your goals, or voice their concerns. Then, track the progress by checking in regularly.

As a manager, you have to be the source of truth. This means that you have to have everything written down in an understandable format — all the goals and tasks you assign, all the expectations, all the requirements, and the decisions being made. This has to be done comprehensibly so that your team and you can navigate it and maintain focus. I’d also suggest using one of the tools to create meeting recordings, transcripts, and summaries — Zoom can do that now out of the box.

Time Management

Once you know your and your team’s goals and tasks, it’s time to execute. Time is a precious resource, and managing it effectively is crucial to self-management.

I can’t stress enough how vital the time-blocking approach and the Pomodoro technique are. They help structure your day into specific blocks of time for each task, keeping you focused and productive.

The hard part is starting the task when you’ve assigned it, but that’s a totally different story about how to beat procrastination (which is often a signal of you being burned out).

Remember that you’re a manager now and not alone in this. Delegate everything possible to your team members, empowering them and freeing your time.

To survive in the engineering manager role, you must be highly organized. Set clear goals, track progress, and provide constructive feedback. Navigate through challenges by balancing multiple priorities and adapting to changing circumstances. Lead by example and inspire the team — if you’re organized, they will be, too, making your job much easier.

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