In 2022 I made the transition from IC (Individual Contributor) to EM (Engineering Manager).
At the time, taking up an EM role seemed like the natural progression of my decade long Software Engineering career. Unfortunately this transition has not been as seamless or straight forward as I naively thought it would be.
In order to enlighten any other software engineers who are currently contemplating this switch, I've channeled my frustrations from the past two years into this article where I have provided you with 7 reasons why you should not become an Engineering Manager.
Reason 1: Growth and development
Growth and development in my role as an IC was easier because it was a lot more natural and organic.
As a software engineer, I would either work on high-impact projects that were challenging and interesting, which automatically came with new learnings, or I would work with people on my team or across different teams who had much more experience than me, whose thoughts, ideas, approaches and competencies would gradually rub off on me, catalyzing my growth and development, often without me even realizing it until after the fact.
As a manager it’s very different, the progress seems slower and the journey feels lonelier and a lot more isolated. When I was an engineer I often worked on teams or projects with other engineers that had varying levels of experience. However, as an EM I’m not on a team of managers where we can pair together on management challenges and where I can see how a more experienced manager approaches their day-to-day. I can’t log into GitHub and look through novel approaches to engineering management problems that have occurred over time throughout the company, in the same way that I could as an engineer.
Unfortunately, a lot of the challenges that you face as a manager don’t happen in public and are not visible in real-time for everyone else to see and use as an example or case study. And even if they were, management isn’t really science per se, it’s non deterministic. And because it’s not very transparent it's difficult to assess how you are performing in relation to your manager peers, which makes it even harder to assess your own growth and development.
Reason 2: So. Much. Talking
I’m known for many things (entrepreneurship, coding, writing and my toxic love-hate relationship with Manchester United to name a few) but the one thing I’m not known for is my desire to talk. In fact, I actively try and avoid talking uneccessarily. I hate hearing the sound of my voice and whenever I do talk in public I always feel like I’ve either talked for too long or said the wrong things (#socialAnxiety).
Unfortunately as an EM the one thing I’ve had to do a lot more of is talking. Talking in Sprint planning, talking in Sprint reviews, talking in stand-ups, talking in meetings, talking in 1-1s. Talking, talking, talking - oh the horror! Tis truly an introvert’s nightmare.
My default has always been to listen, to process, and then to act in my own time. I don’t like taking up space or being too loud, I’m way too self-conscious for that. The only times that I really want to speak and command the room is when I feel absolutely convicted about the topic at hand. Unfortunately, as a manager of an engineering team, I don’t always have the luxury of engaging in my favourite past time of unassuming silence.
Reason 3: Less time to code/build
One of the biggest challenges with taking up a management role is that I don’t code as much as I used to. The problem with this is that for so long I’ve defined myself by my ability to make and create. It’s my default and it’s also what really fulfills me. Why? Because, I’m a creator at heart. I live to make. My purpose is to build. If I was born a few hundred years ago I'd likely be a carpenter, ok fine, maaaybe a philosopher, definitely one of the two.
As a result of this predisposition, when I’m not making, building or creating, it’s easy for me to end the work week without feeling a sense of accomplishment, and when this happens I feel empty inside 💀.
Reason 4: Feeling “unproductive”
Following on from the above, something I struggle with on occasion is feeling that I’ve been “unproductive”. As a software engineer, you can jump into your daily standup with the rest of the team and say “Yesterday I worked on XYZ, I merged A into production and I started looking into B” and the rest of the engineering team enthusiastically cheers your name as you wrap up your impressive yet concise 30 second update.
In contrast, as an EM there are days when you do something that takes up so much of your time, focus and energy yet it still doesn’t feel tangible or “worthy” enough to proudly verbalise to others during a standup because it doesn’t feel like “real work”.
Reason 5: Longer feedback loops
When you are an engineer you can deploy something to production today and instantly see the impact. The feedback loop is short, you can immediately tell if you’ve done something good or bad and you can react accordingly.
In contrast, the feedback loops with management can be quite long; you can hire someone today but only know whether it was a good decision 6 months later; you can implement a change with the team process this week but only notice the impact several sprints down the line; you can provide detailed performance feedback to a report but at times only really see their growth (or lack thereof) up to a year later.
These longer feedback loops make it much harder to feel like you are doing a good job and it makes it difficult to iterate and improve upon.
Reason 6: Dealing with ambiguity
The further I've gone up the ladder of seniority and the closer I get to Product, the more ambiguous things have become and I personally struggle with ambiguity. I despise rules but I love order. I need the world to be black and white. I need things to make sense, otherwise, my logic board short-circuits, and my brain malfunctions.
As a manager, I’m no longer shielded from ambiguity in the same way that I used to be as an IC, and when I am directly faced with ambiguity and multiple potential paths forward, it’s not always immediately obvious what is “right” and “wrong” (this is something I've written about before).
Reason 7: The Competence Game vs The Confidence Game
We are all playing a particular type of game at work, whether we are aware of it or not.
For the longest time, one of my games of choice has been The Competence Game where I accumulate knowledge first and then base my actions on what I believe is objectively the “right thing” to do. This approach has taken me far in life. However, as I’ve transitioned into management I’ve realised that more often than not I should be playing The Confidence Game instead, where I confidently make a leadership decision which might not always be backed up by theory and knowledge but rather, intuition, intention and conviction.
I’ve always associated confidence without competence as straight-up bullshitting. And hey, sometimes it is just people bullshitting or overcompensating, but other times, it’s a valid move to make and an extremely useful skill to cultivate.
OK, there you have it. Another post where I’ve poured my heart out and laid my vulnerabilities out bare in the open, for the sole purpose of your reading pleasure - OK, I lie, it's also very cathartic 😮💨.
After reading this post, one question I’m sure some of you might have for me is: OK Ben, so do you regret making the transition from IC to EM?
Honestly, the answer is both Yes and No.
Yes, because there are some days when I’d rather just be sitting in my man cave with my headphones on, in a deep state of flow, staring at my one of my three monitors and coding away, without having to worry about my persistent Google Calendar notifications.
And No, because there are some days where I actually want to contribute to the growth and development of others, increase my influence on the wider organisation and continue mastering the dark arts of technical leadership and people management.
Also, I've spent the past 10 years of my career building business ventures and software products, so it's about time that I explicitly focus on building high performant teams.
So I’ll continue down this Engineering Management path for now. We can catch up in another year and I’ll let you know how it's going.
Ait. EM Ben out. ✌️