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  • Lokajit Tikayatray

Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Engineering Manager


Many software engineers think becoming a manager is the only way to advance their careers.


But this idea can lead to trouble.


Why?


Being an Engineering Manager involves more than just giving orders. The job involves leading a team, making tough decisions, and understanding the big picture.


And if you’re not ready for that, things can go south pretty fast.


When an Engineering Manager isn’t good at their job, it’s like a domino effect. Deliveries get delayed, team members’ growth stagnates, and the whole company can suffer.


So, how can you ensure you are cut out for the Engineering Manager role?


The Essence of an Engineering Manager


Being an effective Engineering Manager is like being a great coach for a sports team. You need a mix of skills beyond just knowing the game (or, in this case, programming).


To succeed, you should aim for balanced leadership that includes technical know-how, people skills, and a vision for your team and project.


Here’s what you should have.


1. Technical Expertise


Sure, you don’t have to be the best programmer on the team. But you do need to know your stuff.


Why?


Because — you need to understand the technical challenges your team members face and make decisions that affect the project.


You can’t do that well if you don’t understand the technology. You won’t be able to appreciate your team’s effort without understanding the complexity of designing, coding, and maintaining a system.


2. Interpersonal Competence


So, you know your code, but what about people? Managing a team isn’t just about understanding technology; it’s about understanding humans, too.


Why?


Because — a team is more than just a group of engineers. A team is a mix of personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.


Your job is to bring out the best in each person. That means you must know how to motivate them, help them work together, and resolve conflicts.


If you want to become an Engineering Manager who inspires, you can’t ignore the ‘people’ part of the equation. You need to be as comfortable discussing team dynamics as you talk about code.


3. Strategic Insight


Alright, you’ve got the technical skills and are good with people. There’s one more piece to the puzzle — you must be a visionary leader who can see the big picture.


Why?


Because — being an Engineering Manager isn’t just about the here and now. It’s about planning for the future and understanding how your team fits into the company’s larger goals.


As a leader, you’re not just completing tasks; you’re helping to steer the ship.


When you have a clear vision, guiding your team in the right direction is easier. Your team will understand what they’re working toward.


Knowing the purpose of their work can be a tremendous motivation factor.


But if you’re only focused on daily grinds, your team will lose sight of why they’re doing what they’re doing. And with time, the job will become monotonous and demotivating.


4. Decision-Making Prowess


So you’ve got technical expertise, you’re a people person, and you’re a visionary leader.


Great! But there’s one more skill you need for well-rounded leadership — the ability to make decisions.


Why?


Because — as an Engineering Manager, you’ll face situations that require quick yet effective decisions.


As their leader, your team relies on you for guidance. Your ability to make the right decisions can either boost their confidence or shake it.


You will decide between different technologies. You have to resolve conflicts between team members or with the stakeholders. You must calibrate every team member’s performance and manage their ambition.


Good decisions can make individuals productive and help keep the project on track. Bad decisions, on the other hand, can lead to delays, low morale, and even project failure.



The “Engineering Manager Voight-Kampff” Test


Voight-Kampff test for engineering manager

The Voight-Kampff test is a made-up test from the science fiction “Blade Runner.” The test is used to tell if someone is a human or a “replicant,” which is a robot that looks and acts just like a human.


In the Voight-Kampff test, a person sits down and answers questions while a machine watches their eyes. The machine checks how the eyes move and changes to the questions. The idea is that if you’re a human, your eyes will show emotions like fear or happiness. But if you’re a replicant, your eyes won’t show those emotions in the same way.

Based on (loosely) the Voight-Kampff test, here are some questions to identify a competent Engineering Manager.


Question 1: How Do You Prioritize Tasks?


You have a team meeting coming up to discuss the next sprint’s task. You have three main things to consider:

  • Fixing some long pending tech debts that are causing issues

  • Adding a new feature that the sales team says is super important.

  • Ensure your team isn’t overworked and stressed out (team well-being).

How Do You Prioritize Tasks?


Competent Answer: “I would balance technical debt, feature development, and team well-being. We can’t ignore bugs because they’ll slow us down in the long run. The new feature is important, but not at the cost of burning out the team. So, I’d look for a way to tackle all three in a balanced manner.”


Incompetent Answer: “I would focus on getting the new feature done. That’s what the sales team wants, and we know sales make money for the company. So we should do that. The bugs and team morale can wait.”


The competent answer shows that you understand the need for balanced leadership. You know that all three aspects are important for the long-term success of the team and the project.


On the other hand, the incompetent answer shows a lack of experience that ignoring one aspect can harm others.


Question 2: How Do You Manage Tough Decisions?


You’re in a situation where one of your top programmers wants to work on a new, exciting project. But you also know that this engineer is crucial for the ongoing project, which is at a critical stage.


How do you handle this?


Competent Answer: “I had to make a similar tough decision recently. One of our best developers wanted to move to a new project. While it was a great opportunity for them, the current project was at a critical stage. I discussed the situation with the engineer and the team. We agreed that they would contribute to the new project and continue to support the ongoing one until it’s stable. It was a difficult decision, but it was best for the individual, the team, and the project.”


Incompetent Answer: “I’d let the engineer decide. After all, they know what’s best for them.” Or “I’d want the developer to dedicate all their focus to the current project until they finish it. I cannot jeopardize the running project to please personal ambition.”


The competent answer shows that you’re not afraid to make tough decisions when they’re needed. You consider what’s best for all the parties and not what’s easy or what one person wants.


The incompetent answer shows a lack of decision-making prowess. It avoids making decisions or doing them based on what is easy without considering the bigger picture.


Question 3: How Do You Handle Conflict?


Imagine you’re in a situation where two of your engineers are having a disagreement. One thinks the team should focus on improving the existing code, while the other is eager to start on a new feature.


Both are passionate about their views, and it’s causing tension in the team.


How do you handle this conflict?


Competent Answer: “In such a situation, I would first listen to both sides to understand their perspectives. Then, I’d bring them together for a discussion, where we could lay out the pros and cons of each approach. We must find a balance between improving the code and adding new features. If we didn’t reach a consensus, I would make the final decision based on what’s best for the team and the project as a whole.”


Incompetent Answer: “I’d pick a side that aligns with my understanding and ask both to do it.” Or “I’d ignore the conflict and hope it resolves itself. I would tell the team members to show maturity by figuring out an agreement themselves.”

The competent answer shows that you have a structured approach to handling conflicts. You are open to listening, discussing, and deciding what is best for everyone.


The incompetent answer shows a lack of leadership and conflict-resolution skills. It either avoids the issue or makes a decision without considering the team’s needs and the project’s goals.


Question 4: How Would You Handle Ambition?


Imagine you have a team member doing an excellent job and is ready for the next role. They expect a promotion. But at the moment, there are no openings or opportunities for advancement within the organization.


How would you handle this situation?


Competent Answer: “I’d have an open and honest conversation with the team member. First, I’d acknowledge their hard work and desire to grow. Second, I would help them see promotion is not the only growth option in a career. Next, I would explore ways to develop their skills within their current role. This could include taking on challenging roles, leading a small project, or learning something new. The idea is to keep them engaged and growing while I work towards their promotion.”


Incompetent Answer: “I’d tell them to be patient and wait for the right opportunity.” Or “I’d ignore their ambition since there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The competent answer shows you’re proactive in managing your team’s career growth, even when the traditional paths aren’t available. You’re seeking creative solutions to keep your team members engaged and growing.


The incompetent answer shows a lack of initiative and apathy for the team member’s career growth. This could lead to decreased morale and potentially losing a valuable team member.



Take Away


Being an Engineering Manager isn’t about having a fancy title or being the boss. It’s about balanced leadership, making tough decisions, and bringing out the best in your team.


We’ve walked through some key questions that can help you — or help you identify someone else — as a competent and inspiring Engineering Manager.


Remember, a great Engineering Manager can make all the difference in a team’s success. So whether you’re aspiring to become one or looking to hire one, keep these points in mind. Your team, projects, and entire company will be better off for it.


Thanks for the read. Here’s to your journey to becoming an exceptional Engineering Manager.


 

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A must-read success guide for junior developers to thrive in their career.

FAQs


1. What are the key responsibilities of an Engineering Manager?


An Engineering Manager is responsible for leading a team of engineers, overseeing project development, and ensuring that technical and team well-being are balanced. They play a crucial role in the career success of their team members.


2. What skills are essential for an Engineering Manager?


Essential skills for an Engineering Manager include technical expertise, interpersonal competence, strategic insight, and decision-making prowess. These skills are vital for the long-term success of both the team and the project.


3. How does the role of an Engineering Manager differ from a Software Engineer?


While a Software Engineer focuses on coding and technical tasks, an Engineering Manager has broader responsibilities. They not only understand the technical aspects but also manage people, make strategic decisions, and ensure the team's overall well-being.


4. What is the average salary of an Engineering Manager?


The salary of an Engineering Manager can vary widely depending on the industry, location, and experience. However, it is generally higher than a Software Engineer due to the added responsibilities and skills required for the role.

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