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How to be a better engineering manager

Great managers are made, not born — and no, you don't need to be the best technologist to be the best leader of them.

There's a better way to manage. (Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink,’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.

To determine if you want to be an engineering manager, Mike Saris advises you ought to first consider whether you care about three things at your organization: people, process and product.

If so, that might mean you’re drawn to “glue work,” components that are necessary but have little visibility. Anything short of that and you might be pursuing a management track position for the wrong reasons — like the money. To combat the old Peter Principle, organizations strive to develop pathways for individual contributors to advance their careers without managing people.

But companies need managers. The number of engineering managers in the US economy will grow far less slowly than the blistering pace for software engineers they manage, according to the BLS, but demand remains. Nearly 15,000 openings are projected each year to 2030. An explosion of hypergrowth companies backed by surging private-market business investing in the last decade will demand ever more competent leaders to get the most out of their software teams. Can anyone step into the role?

Saris, who is an engineering manager at Tendo, a healthcare platform company, says it plainly: Great managers are made, not born. The trick is, you have to want the job.

“You can’t go into it reluctantly,” he said. The first step, then, to becoming an engineering manager is actually deciding you want the job. Tell your supervisor, seek out a role or otherwise start building your network.

Here is guidance on what to do next to become a better engineering manager:

Understand your job is to be a translator

The key role of a manager is that of translator, as long-standing research shows. Managers take organizational strategy and help their reports understand how their contributions fit into that strategy. Managers take broad leadership announcements and make them make sense for their team’s context. Managers are how workplace culture scales as a company gets bigger. Managers get the best out of direct reports by adapting to their quirks and messaging to their passions.

To do so, be clear, be consistent. Have a weekly one-on-one with your direct reports, but be open with how the time is used.

“Structure is the key to flexibility,” as one culture pro put it. “Policies as guidance, not rules.”

In short, great managers make work more human. That’s why the stereotype of the rotten manager is one who is indifferent or impatient with the individual.

Technical or not, respect the work your reports do

Research from Google and others shows that many high-performing managers do often have technical competence. Expectations from a manager seem more realistic when that manager has done the work before. This is especially true in the context of software engineering, in which many non-technologists seem intimidated by the in-demand skills.

“You don’t need to be technical to be a great manager, but it sure helps,” Saris said.

He, and others, are clear that it doesn’t mean you have to be the highest-performing engineer. In truth, most companies might prefer their highest performing engineers to stay as engineers. Rather, it helps to have some degree of familiarity with the technical work to respect the work and effort your reports put in.

Others who are tech-adjacent can be effective, like a product manager. A great coach, though, can likely manage any team to their best.

Lead with empathy, and always keep learning

Saris says as a kid, he had a predisposition to lead other kids. Many bad managers start off the same way, he said, assuming they don’t need to sharpen their skills beyond natural skills.

Instead, though, Saris says he got way more value from a leadership training program he got from an earlier corporate job. He also is a constant consumer of books, podcasts, articles, newsletters and peer-to-peer learning groups on management and coaching.

One tip he comes back to: Only give critical feedback to your reports when you have action, plan for impact and can measure that impact. The pandemic depletion of workplace belonging has made more prominent that obvious point: The advice above all else is to be empathetic.

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Companies: Tendo
Series: Builders

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