As a senior engineer, you likely feel fulfilled in your career. You can choose the projects, teams, and technologies you work on. Your expertise makes you valuable, with recruiters constantly pursuing you to join other companies. Each day brings opportunities to expand your skills and tackle new challenges.
Yet, something may still feel missing. While you control implementation details — how to build features, which frameworks to use, coding practices, and conventions — you lack influence on higher-level processes and strategy. Perhaps you see flaws in development workflows, testing approaches, system architecture, or agile processes that slow progress. Or you may notice high employee turnover and wish you could build an engineering culture where people thrive long-term.
You likely have ideas on improving these bigger-picture areas but limited power to drive that change yourself. And there are only so many hours in the day for you to personally deliver features. At some point, you may start to think about building management skills — to extend your impact by leading teams to execute a strategic, sustainable vision for engineering excellence balanced with business needs.
Seeking Greater Influence Over the Big Picture
The more you work, the more you recognize inefficiencies in development workflows and want to fix them. I have always wanted to build balanced delivery timelines so we’d still have long-term system maintainability. I worked on many projects where managers without engineering expertise pushed the team too hard on speed at the expense of technical debt. This led to key engineers leaving, with new people struggling to maintain velocity. The cycle repeated again and again.
I felt I could solve this as an engineering manager and balance a decent pace and business value by having both the technical background and stakeholder relationships, steering the team towards practices that would prevent the accumulation of tech debt that torpedoed many previous projects.
If this resonates with you, maybe your calling is also to step into engineering management. Though you’ll do much less hands-on coding, you can multiply your impact across whole teams and products with the right approaches.
Transitioning for Impact
As you transition into an engineering management role, your personal hands-on output will decrease, but the value you deliver across the entire team increases exponentially. With a management span of control, you aim not just for immediate business value but for compounding returns over time.
An engineering manager who can attract and retain top talent has a multiplier effect that drives much higher productivity. You pursue broader influence, setting your team’s vision and strategy and boosting their long-term success. This isn’t just corporate talk — you literally draw a picture in the minds of your team and help them stay on track to get there.
The limit is no longer the number of hours in your day but how effectively you can lead others to execute on a shared roadmap. Your reach expands beyond what you can do on your own, it becomes a collective impact.
Thinking Bigger: Reframing How You Add Value
As an engineering manager, you start evaluating work differently than when you were an individual contributor. When you are heads-down writing code, you focus on things like code quality, using the right approaches like domain-driven design, and so on. When you become a manager, you see how this focus sometimes doesn’t improve overall business value. Best practices don’t help much if they delay progress on critical functionality business needs asap.
Over time, you learn to balance velocity and quality based on what delivers the most value both in the moment and long term. You start prioritizing and scoping features differently. If a developer wants to over-engineer something, you steer him to focus on where it matters most. You still care about code quality but become less dogmatic if it bogs down delivery.
This shift in thinking takes time. You learn when to push back on calls to compromise quality and tech debt in favor of speed. And when to pave the way for quick progress by setting aside perfectionism. There’s no magic formula. You continually re-evaluate and course-correct. Your responsibility now extends well beyond your own keyboard.
Leverage Your Institutional Knowledge
You may consider management if you feel threatened by the new people joining your company. While they may have shinier skills and a grasp of the latest tech, you have a battle-tested understanding of systems and business context accumulated over the years. This institutional knowledge is invaluable.
Becoming a manager, you can combine your hard-earned knowledge, your competitive edge, with the technical prowess of new hires. Your depth of understanding of existing systems and business needs makes you the perfect candidate to lead teams and projects. You can amplify engineers’ strengths while mitigating their weaknesses that come from a lack of experience on the project.
Building Your People Skills
Transitioning to management can help you build new personal traits that will serve you well throughout your career. As an engineering manager, you’ll likely need to stretch beyond your comfort zone if you’ve previously worked mainly as an individual contributor.
An introverted coder often finds management forces him into continual collaboration and conflict resolution. As a manager, you will spend a lot of time in meetings, interacting face-to-face, and directly managing people instead of dealing with code and various systems. This is quite a change of pace from heads-down coding work.
Moving into management is a trial by fire for building soft skills like communication, influence, and emotional intelligence. You must sharpen your abilities to motivate the team, provide effective feedback, resolve disputes, and make tough calls under pressure.
Developing those muscles makes you more adaptable and well-rounded. Even if you later decide management isn’t for you and you return to hands-on coding work, the empathy and leadership abilities you built will stay. Once you’ve walked in a manager’s shoes, it transforms your perspective on teamwork.
Don’t shy away from management just because you think of yourself as a technical person, not a people person. Making the leap will unlock surprising talents and make you even better at the technical aspects of product development through a more nuanced understanding of team dynamics.
Consider The Downsides
As you reflect on the potential upsides of transitioning into engineering management, consider the downsides. Weigh both personally and objectively.
On the one hand, you will gain greater influence over processes, architecture, talent, and culture. You’ll drive broader change beyond what is possible as an individual contributor. And you build universal soft skills that serve you well throughout your career.
However, your day-to-day work also will change dramatically. You trade hands-on building for people management, meetings, conflict resolution, and higher-stress decisions with farther-reaching consequences. The role requires completely new skills that take time to develop, alongside a shift in mindset and priorities.
So, reflect honestly on whether the tradeoffs are worth it and aligned with your interests, values, and character. Talk to people who made a similar transition to better understand the reality of the role shift before committing. Every engineering leader has a different journey, but with eyes wide open to both upsides and downsides, you’ll make a conscious decision if this pivot is right for you.
Originally published on Medium.com