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To Practice Management

My weekly routine lets me talk to a pretty wide range of engineers at different points in their careers. Between candidate interviews and mentoring, I chat with everyone from new grads to more seasoned and experienced senior engineers to tech leads to engineering managers to directors.

And while the junior folks are often eager to learn and don’t have a concrete sense of where they want to end up, the more senior engineers can project their career trajectories from their own experience usually keep the management option open. If the Leadership Pipeline is correct in their assessment of roles, a manager of managers needs to be adept at identifying and then grooming senior ICs into line management roles. Turns out, I’ve recently had the opportunity to have this discussion with a bunch of aspiring managers, and my main takeaway is:

If you want to become a people manager, start practicing before you formally transition into the job.

To be fair, most companies do have training programs that they make available for promising management candidates and first-time managers. I’ve taken what I’ve surmised is the same management course 3–4 times over a decade across multiple employers; they end up covering many of the same topics:

  • Feedback conversations (sometimes with roleplay!)
  • Understanding people (by using a framework to split them into a set of personality buckets)
  • Various leadership and management styles
  • Tactics and logistics, like running meetings and the basics of good communication

Particular to software engineering is the additional work of project management and incorporating technical work within a manager’s schedule, and I’ve heard of some training programs that provide this sort of holistic toolkit for engineers looking to make the leap into management.

But all that said, if someone knows that they want to make the transition, there’s no reason to not start just taking on some of these responsibilities. Formal training is just that—a few hours of absorbing theory, but meaningless unless practiced and applied to real-life situations. Scheduling 1:1s with teammates, establishing cross-team and cross-functional communications, crisper communications and project planning, understanding dynamics and relationships between people and how it affects the delivery and efficiency of projects; all these areas are available for non-managers to try out and improve upon.

In fact, experienced managers encourage their folks who are motivated and inclined to add this dimension to their skillsets. They understand that it’s a good way to test out the management waters without fully committing to the role, and even if the transition doesn’t work out, leveling up soft skills in and of itself is a worthy endeavor.

The hardest part, really, is getting engineers to want to participate in the first place.

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