The Mindset You Need As An Engineering Manager

Mindsets determine results. This is true for every career, including engineering management.

· 7 min read
The Mindset You Need As An Engineering Manager

Mindsets determine results.

This is true for every career, including engineering management. Unfortunately, many people in and out of the position carry the wrong mindset, and their teams, careers, and results suffer. I’ve seen this repeatedly, and I want to help you avoid these issues while succeeding with the right one.

Accepting this mentality isn’t easy at first, but it’s worthwhile and necessary.

You are responsible for your team

As an engineering manager (EM), you are responsible for your team from hiring to firing. No way exists around this, and it’s one of the most essential parts of your role as an EM.

When I use the word “responsible,” my meaning is not that you should do your engineers’ jobs for them. Many EMs carry this misconception, which leads to burnout.

My meaning is you are in charge of the following team elements:

  • Effectiveness
  • Cohesion
  • Hiring the best talent
  • Supporting them to make them even better
  • Firing ineffective ICs

Being responsible for your team in these ways is essential for one very important reason.

Your team determines your results

Your engineers design, develop, fix, and improve the code for the features, programs, apps, systems, products, and tools that make your company successful.

You don’t.

You did once, but not anymore, so you must rely on them to do this work. This is the point where many EMs start thinking they aren’t responsible for their teams. They say, “I’m not the one coding anymore, so I’m not responsible for what happens.”

This is a problem.

Consider a football (soccer to some) coach — let’s call her Barbara. Barbara isn’t on the field passing, dribbling, defending, and scoring. Once, she was, but not anymore. Now, she:

  • Secures the best players possible
  • Learns her players’ strengths and weaknesses
  • Puts them in positions they’re skilled or needed in
  • Guides their training
  • Develops team strategies
  • Makes adjustments and substitutions during the game
  • Works with struggling players
  • Releases underperforming ones

Football coaches like Barbara need to understand the connection between such actions and what happens on the field. They need to understand how their role impacts their team, which impacts their results, which impacts their role. Any coach who fails to see this connection and take the necessary steps still impacts their team, which impacts their results and their role, just not in the way they desire.

But, as some people point out, some elements exist outside of your control. What should you do then?

Arguments against this mindset

You can’t control everything

Continuing with the football coach analogy, some people correctly point out the coach — Barbara — can’t control if or when a player falls ill or gets injured. Barbara also can’t control game time or location, the weather, what teams hers plays, or what happens in players’ personal lives.

Many of these are true for EMs as well. You can’t control if or when your engineers get sick, have an emergency, or take a vacation. You can’t control what tools are available, the other managers you work with, and what type of work your engineers are needed for. But just like Barbara, you can and should still take responsibility for these issues because you are still in charge of your engineering team’s results.

For example, you can’t control when your engineers get sick or have emergencies, but you can control planning ahead for this or knowing your team well enough to decide who can cover for them while they’re out.

You also can’t control what type of work your engineers are needed for, but you can control which ones you suggest or how you discuss the task with them.

You can only do so much

This is another common argument against taking responsibility for your team. You can monitor your engineers and their work, have one-on-one meetings with them, analyze reports, develop guidance, and plan ahead for emergencies. But sometimes, plans fail, or the result is off-base. Or, sometimes, you put in the effort, and it’s just not enough.

So, at what point can you say, “I’m doing enough” or “I’m doing my job the way I should be”? At what point are you no longer responsible? There is no one answer to this question — it is a different line for everyone, but it is a line you need to define with confidence.

Specifically, you should know your line and always reach it, which is necessary because you’ll have to explain your version of “enough” to your managers or stakeholders. Meaning your version must be one that gets the desired results, or it isn’t good enough.

Then, when occasionally you don’t get those results partially or in whole, the people you report to will be more understanding. However, I still recommend taking as much responsibility for those results as possible and showing them how you plan to learn from them — they’re not looking for anything else.

Why take on this responsibility?

An EM’s work is difficult, thankless, and stressful. Knowing the necessary mindset improves your effectiveness, but it doesn’t ease those burdens in noticeable ways. So, why would anyone willingly choose such a role?

You can ask the same question of parents, teachers, and coaches, and you’ll get the same answer: transforming what they’re in charge of for the better. For parents, it’s their children. For teachers, it’s their students. For coaches, it’s their teams.

Engineering managers operate with the same goal. As an IC, your work matters and creates impact, but not at scale. As an EM, you influence processes, outcomes, and careers for everyone on your team. It might be difficult, thankless, and stressful, but it’s also important and meaningful in lasting ways for many people.

But that may not work for you, or you could make the effort and not see the results you’re looking for. Feel comfortable to still make that leap if you haven’t already because you can always go back.

What are ineffective and detrimental mindsets?

Likely, these are obvious by now — you’ve also probably seen all of them at least once in your current or a former workplace.

They are:

  • It’s someone else’s problem
  • Hoping things take care of themselves
  • Give it to someone else to deal with
  • Fire instead of coach

All boil down to the same lack of ownership and agency, stemming from several reasons.

Why do these ineffective and detrimental mindsets exist?

There are many reasons for this.

One is that engineering managers start out as engineers. This is necessary and beneficial, but as an engineer, your mindset is that you’re only responsible for the technical problems assigned to you. This keeps you productive and, more importantly, paid.

Many times, this mindset persists into a lead and even management role. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself, with your EM stating they’re only responsible for certain tasks. Or perhaps they’re more interested in the technical side than the management one.

But this is as much its own issue as it is a symptom of the next one.

Poor preparation is another. Not enough organizations have proper support and training for people transitioning to an engineering management role. So, few opportunities exist for someone to correct their mindset or even realize they have it.

Temptation is a third. Why not let another manager take care of some problems? Why not pass one or two tasks to your lead? You’ve already got more than enough to deal with, you need the help, and it’ll only be temporary…

The difference between collaborating with other managers and delegating to your lead and engineers and the above is the responsibility piece. When you have the mindset that you’re responsible for your team, you’re acting from that place of responsibility. When you don’t, you’re not.

Stress is also a reason. More responsibility equals more stress. No one wants more stress in their already stressful lives, so they look for ways to reduce it, such as passing off problems or pretending they’re not that big of a deal.

How do you keep the right mindset and avoid the wrong one?

Realize you’re already at an advantage. You made the decision to learn about this mindset — many choose not to or think they don’t need to.

Practice. Find opportunities, even if you’re not a lead. Practice taking responsibility for even the tasks you thought were outside your control, and challenge yourself to find ways to positively influence them. At the very least, learn from them. The more you do so, the easier it’ll become, and the more you’ll be prepared when you do transition into a management role.

Build a support system. Ask people you trust to hold you accountable — you can even ask your manager to do so. As long as you explain why, they’ll see the value in it. Giving yourself a reminder is also an option, such as a note on your desk.

What else do you need to succeed as an EM?

Plenty. I recommend starting with what the job entails and then studying the misconceptions many engineering managers suffer from.

Knowing the differences between engineering managers, project managers, and CTOs is also helpful. The same is true for the differences between EMs and engineers and the benefits the EM role includes.

Above all else, keep a good mindset while you learn and practice because mindsets determine results.

The short version

As an engineering manager, you must have the mindset that you’re responsible for your team. Specifically, you are in charge of everything from hiring to firing except what your engineers actually do — that’s their responsibility.

Operating with this mindset is essential because it determines your team’s results, which determine yours.

Some argue you can’t control everything or that you can only do so much, both of which are true. However, you can prepare for both by planning ahead and developing a definition of what doing enough means that also makes sense to your managers or stakeholders. Regardless, you are still taking responsibility for your team.

Otherwise, you fall into the opposite mindset, which takes various shapes, such as thinking the work is someone else’s problem or hoping it takes care of itself. Unfortunately, this mindset and its many forms stems from several challenges, including temptation and stress.

Keeping the right mindset requires realizing you’ve already learned about it (an important first step), practicing living it, and building a support system for it.

Additionally, it requires remembering why you want to become (or already became) an engineering manager in the first place. If it’s like many, you transitioned or will because you want to make a meaningful impact at scale. You want to transform your team for the better, outcomes, careers, and all.

And you will. If not, you can always go back.

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