Five Important Things I’ve Learned As a New Engineering Manager

I’ve been a software engineer for my entire career. I’ve worked in various industries building and extending software that ranges from digital communication, to financial software and most recently education technology.

Throughout the years, I’ve had many different bosses. Some of them were terrible and taught me how damaging it can be when the wrong person fills this role. These managers created hostile work environments, and contributed to high turnover in the engineering department.

But I’ve also been lucky enough to report to some people that were incredibly amazing and I attribute some of my career and personal growth to each of them. They all taught me that managers and leadership are there to support the efforts of the engineering teams and ensure they have what they need to find success in their products, and develop their careers.

I was recently asked to step up as the engineering manager for my team. It’s been about three weeks now and I’ve already started learning about what it actually takes to be a manager.

Here are five of the most important take aways from my first three weeks

1). Your calendar is your life. And you need to know how to use it

The first thing I did as an Engineering Manager was schedule 1:1s and a few other calendar events that I felt were important to get started.

I was surprised when the first few meetings I scheduled with individuals were declined. After taking a second look, I realized that I scheduled them for weird times like 01:00 AM or 04:30 AM. That makes sense, I would’ve declined as well.

As a manager, your day becomes incredibly busy. I typically have things on my calendar all day now.

You need to understand how your calendar works to effectively coordinate with other teams, departments and to support your own team.

2). Find mentorship, because you’ll need it

My first week was tough! I felt like there were mountains of things that I needed to learn, and even more things that I didn’t yet know I needed to learn.

Mediating conflicts, handling client support requests, coordinating production outages, and an engineer resignation are all things I’ve encountered so far. Each of those things have a process and insight from a mentor is incredibly valuable for handling these situations.

Find someone you can trust to provide an unfiltered look at what these processes are and to help you develop into an effective manager. This is critical.

3). Watch what you joke about. It has a greater impact now

My team has always been known for joking. We joke about everything from what we’re currently working to what’s going on in our personal lives.

We even established a meme budget to purchase things like meme hats, and t-shirts, and other fun things to support our various meme creations.

But when you make that leap to management, everything you say and do has a much greater impact than when you were an individual contributor. This is especially true about things relating to the organization, and the future of the products that the team supports.

There is a fine line between appropriate and inappropriate, and it’s imperative that you remain on the appropriate side of that line.

4). Take lots of notes

Taking notes is a skill you learn long before you ever enter the workforce. I have always used notes to remember important parts of logic that still need to be implemented in what I’m writing, or to remember acceptance criteria that hadn’t quite made it to a ticket yet.

As a manager, though, you have to take that to an entirely new level. You should document everything, especially if you’re talking about mediating conflict.

Just in my few weeks as an engineering manager, I have been pulled in so many directions that it’s nearly impossible to remember what decisions I have made, what I’m supposed to do next, or even what I’ve communicated to others. Notes fix that for me.

5). Team dynamic changes because it must. But it still sucks.

This was probably the hardest part of the transition for me. My team and I were super close and we were comfortable enough with each other to talk about anything, positive or negative. It was a really good dynamic that made working on our team so great.

The interactions I have with my team now are extremely different than when I was an individual contributor working next to them. There is no longer that zero filter approach to venting. When I jump into the team Discord, it’s a different atmosphere. Even sitting on Zoom calls with them while we work production incidents is completely different now.

These relationships have to evolve because I’ve transitioned from a peer to a manager. We have to have clear boundaries and be explicit in what that evolution entails.

Conclusion

The first three weeks of my new role have taught me that there is so much more to what an engineering manager does than what I initially understood. I’ve developed a deeper respect for the great lengths managers go to in order to properly support their teams.

I am only at the very beginning of my management career, but it has provided a new set of challenges and problems to solve that were not directly present in my role as an individual contributor.

My intent with this article is to simply share my experience transitioning from working with my peers to managing them instead.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and to connect with me over on Twitter.

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Software engineer, public speaker, podcast host, global traveler.

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Zac Brown

Zac Brown

Software engineer, public speaker, podcast host, global traveler.

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