Do you have what it takes to be an Engineering Manager?

Engineering management can be a difficult career to pursue. What skills do you need to get started and what's it like being an EM?

Do you have what it takes to be an Engineering Manager?
Some mossy moss rock in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. In other words, a cohesion of plant cells working together to make some awesome fuzzy rocks!

So you are eyeing up a role as an Engineering Manager (EM)? Maybe there's a job description and maybe there isn't. Perhaps it's a position at your current company or maybe a new one. Is your manager asking you to step or are you climbing up on your own accord? Either way, at some point, you're thinking to yourself, "Do I have what it takes to be an Engineering Manager?" Having spent many years as either a lead or EM myself, I feel comfortable enough to help give you some answers.

The first thing to note is that definitions of Engineering Management circulate like wildfire, and they are vastly different depending on the company you're inquiring about. This is why I'll give you many characteristics and skills of engineering managers, but not all may be required depending on the company you're eyeing. At large companies, EMs may focus solely on the growth aspect of engineering, whereas at smaller companies they wear many hats.

A Litmus Test

I'm getting ahead of myself here, though. There's a litmus test of sorts for Engineering Management if you're not yet "on the track". Keep in mind, in most engineering organizations, two tracks emerge as Managers and Individual Contributors (ICs). Most people start off on the IC track and make a change to management. That decision to make a change from IC to management comes from either being pushed into management [great ICs can* make great managers] or a desire to manage others.

So what's that litmus test? Start by asking yourself, "Do I enjoy seeing others grow more than myself?"

If you're having trouble answering that, think about it this way. Would you rather spend time helping others, or would you rather have moments of bliss in coding all by yourself? I think many of us are perhaps lured by the prospect of more opportunity, higher pay, less leetcode, and more autonomy in Engineering Management.

The truth is, not everyone is cut out for it, and honestly, that's normal. Engineering managers are weird, servant creatures who like being the resource for others. Successful engineering managers aren't battling for power, trying to dominate the room for decisions, or focusing on their egos. Successful EMs derive their success from their team members' success.

So, if you're wondering if you would rather grow others versus yourself, I'm advising you that you don't have what it takes. That's ok- make sure to read ahead on responsibilities before you get too upset about that.

What does an EM do?

As I mentioned before, there are vastly different duties depending on the company, but I'll argue that there's only one real, correct definition for any size company.

Engineering Managers drive product growth directly and through engineering growth.

What does that mean? Reading between the lines of every company's goals, you often see goals that align directly with product growth. Whether it's "Build feature A", or something more masked like, "Increase platform stability", everything ties back to product revenue and growth in the end product. Engineering managers have a key responsibility in communicating with product stakeholders, to determine the best course of action for their team.

Watering a tree to grow a forest is the naturalist equivalent of coaching an engineer to build better products. Engineering managers' majority focus should be on the growth of individual contributors. This is why they are strange creatures, and it's not exactly easy to fit in that mold. You are as much a sounding board for your team as you are a decision-maker.

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Now that you have this high-level idea of what EMs should be set about to do every day, let's talk about some lower-level tasks:

Career Roadmapping

One of the most challenging things about being an EM, at least for me, is helping others roadmap their career. From your first day as EM to the last day of work for a direct report, you should have an accurate career roadmap planned for every single person who reports to you.

Accurate and effective career roadmaps not only require you to have a deep understanding of the company's career ladder and the individual's goals, but also empathy about the path, and knowledge of what it takes to get wherever they want to go. Building a roadmap for them will require you to look past their goals at the company and deeply into the future of where they want to be. Although it would be easier to be an oracle of sorts, in reality, it's a lot of listening and planning.

Workload Monitoring, Rebalancing

Part of your more boring daily tasks as an EM is getting an understanding of each team member's workload and if they ever need rebalancing. In some deficient organizations, project management and engineering leadership are relatively disconnected, requiring you to dig for current workloads and understand if you need to represent individuals during project planning or standups.

Although it can be difficult to keep an eye on workload stress, it's easier with tools. Once you know you need to rebalance workloads, you'll have many angles of attack. Do certain members of your team require coaching in certain areas, or would they feel more engaged working on a different feature? Does your team need to be reassessed for headcount? Do you need to borrow an engineer for a critical project? These are all questions I've had to answer, and subsequently act on.

Knowledge Weaving

One of your longer-term goals as an EM, with roots in engineering and product growth, is maintaining adequate knowledge sharing within your team and the broader organization. Has your team built a massive feature with low visibility in the organization? Hold a workshop, plan a demo, or engage other EMs to see if they are interested in learning more. Is one member of your team an expert on a certain module but the rest of the team is oblivious? Help them write documentation, or assign them a partner to help share the knowledge. The more connections to knowledge your team has, the better.


A standard, yet often poorly executed part of engineering management is the 1-on-1. 1-on-1s are a critical part of understanding individual goals, motives, workloads, relationships, and engagement. This is how you connect with individuals on every important matter. They are the foundation for every engineering growth tactic you'll act on. It's important to note, however, that many managers make 1-on-1s a top-down meeting and it's an utter mishandling.

1-on-1s should be mostly led by individuals, not managers. This includes the individuals helping to build the agenda while you always save your pieces for last. What they have to say is, more often than not, more important than what you have to say.


To encourage engineering growth, part of your daily tasks should be not only to help set standards but also to take the key qualities of others and make them gold standards in the organization. Do you have a team member that is really good at documentation? Herald them as the shining example, and then help them document their process to build solid foundations in your team.

Process Improvements

Part of improving standards is also improving processes. As an EM, it's your job to make sure your team is functioning like a well-oiled machine. Bad processes can often get in the way of great teams, so you should never be afraid of improving on deficient processes to help your team gain momentum.

Coaching & Feedback

The best and worst parts of engineering management arise from this daily duty. Coaching and feedback can range from extremely rewarding to extremely awkward. Managers tend to like touting the good of every engineer, but your job as an engineering manager means that you'll also have to point out the problems of individuals.

To make this easier, I can assure you that most of the time when it comes to problems, individuals are aware of their issues and simply need direction or resources on how to improve. The hardest job is delivering that. Your ultimate goal is to help engineers improve, so remember that this is just part of being a manager!

A golden retriever lays next to a frog.
A low-quality picture of my golden retriever making a friend with a frog. I feel like he would make a great manager if he could code and talk.

So what hard skills do I need?

So you think you have what it takes. Trust, but confirm. Let's run through the skills I think you need to succeed!

  • Coding
    Although some may say it isn't true, successful EMs are deeply rooted in computer science fundamentals. You must know how to code before you can coach others on coding. Being a manager is a heavy task, and without a solid understanding of programming, you'll be lost for words when individuals need your help the most.
  • Reading People
    Being a manager will require you to assess people's skills, emotions, values, strengths, and weaknesses. This means you have to be really, really good at reading people. Forthcoming individuals are often trusting individuals, and great people skills mean you'll accelerate this process that's critical to your success.
  • Listening
    Great managers are great listeners. Listening is a hard skill to master, as humans are trained to prepare their response mid-listening to another's statement. Start by completely listening during every interaction you have. If you find yourself thinking of words to say, stop, instead wait until the other person is finished with their dialogue to think of a response. Pauses are more natural in conversation than you think.  
  • Investigating
    Managers will be required to monitor a myriad of different things to ensure their team is high-performing. On top of this, they'll also be required to help resolve conflict and difficult situations. Resolving conflict, deficiencies, and process issues effectively at an organization requires deep investigation skills. You should feel comfortable listening to multiple sides of a story and comparing notes to understand the whole truth.
  • Organization & Planning
    I don't have to say much about this skill. Great EMs are organized and plan effectively. I struggle with this one the most, but tools can help you level up in this section of management.
  • Networking
    Well-connected managers build well-connected teams. Being a manager means that you'll often have to talk to other EMs and broader leadership, stakeholders, and other ICs on other teams. This requires you to build connections and be a great networking proponent. Outside of your organization, you should feel comfortable gathering future engineer prospects for your organization and building connections with experts on technologies you use.
  • Auto-didact
    Great managers are great learners. At their very core, they listen, absorb, and learn quickly from failures, written and spoken knowledge, and workshops. Managers will often manage multiple projects, sometimes in different technologies. They should be comfortable learning outside of their day-to-day use cases.
  • No Ego
    Micro-managers have huge egos and no one has ever succeeded under a micro-manager. Amazing EMs are servant leaders, not afraid to give up their egos for the betterment of everyone else. This also means that they are easier to talk to, which means you'll always be able to connect with your team.
  • We, them. Never I.
    When it comes to representation, as a derivative of no egos, managers should tout team wins as We and Them, and never just I. A win for your team is a win for you, never focus on yourself. The only time you should feel ok about using "I" when it comes to representing your team is when there has been a failure. Focus on failure as a systemic issue from your team's perspective.

In Conclusion

Becoming an effective Engineering Manager is a challenging, yet rewarding journey that requires a unique blend of technical expertise, leadership qualities, and a genuine passion for nurturing the growth of others. Successful EMs embrace their role as servant leaders, finding fulfillment in seeing their team members thrive and excel.

In a vast sea of engineering management job descriptions, the path to success may vary depending on the company's size and culture, but the core attributes of an excellent EM remain constant – a passion for helping others grow, a commitment to driving product growth, and an unwavering dedication to fostering a supportive and thriving engineering environment. Keep in mind, this isn't an exhaustive list of attributes and more or less may be required depending on the role.

So, if you are considering the path of an Engineering Manager, remember that it's not just a role, but a calling to empower and elevate your team to new heights of success. It's ok if you're not cut out for it, as not everyone is.