From Individual Contributor to Engineering Manager

5 Big Tips



Transitioning from an individual contributor to an engineering manager can be difficult and very stressful. Suddenly, you are going from being responsible for your performance to the performance of a team, the success of a product, and its profitability, too. At times, it will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. The satisfaction you gain at the end of the day can also make you feel like you’re standing on top of the world, too. We’d like to help with that by addressing and validating the five most important factors in making the leap from individual contributor to engineering manager. 

The Individual Contributor to Engineer Manager Career Path

To transition from individual contributor to engineering manager is a big decision for the individual and their employer. Each passing year makes it a more complex decision for engineers who incidentally already have no shortage of career options. Today’s software engineers may feel machine learning or artificial intelligence, data engineering and data science tugging at their sleeves, alongside their prospects to be engineering managers.

Some soul searching may be in order. Choose what you enjoy most that provides the greatest satisfaction at the end of the day. But, you may never know if you like something if you don’t try it. If you seriously venture into engineering management, your career could be on track for Director of Engineering, VP of Engineering, and Chief Technical Officer… or even CEO of your own company.

Companies should respect your wishes. If you’re given the option to jump from individual contributor to engineering manager, but you’re unsure about it, talk with your supervisor. It could be that an engineering manager has left the team or taken on a new role. The company needs a replacement. Their only options are to promote from within or spend at least 2-3 months to hire and onboard a replacement. It could take longer. So, if you’re unsure, negotiate an arrangement with your supervisor to serve as the interim engineering manager.

At the moment, Glassdoor lists openings for over 73,000 engineering managers, with 55,000 listed on LinkedIn. The overlap is large, but the demand is real. Forcing you into a job you don’t like risks the company having to fill two high-end vacancies.

1. Social vs Technical Skills?

At face value, the individual contributor has a career choice between advancing their technical or people skills. But, we’re not talking ordinary people skills here, nor implying engineers aren’t friendly. The distinction with engineering managers is their ability to understand the vernacular of their fellow engineers, the mechanical knowledge of technical processes, and bring them together to do all kinds of cool things for people and businesses.

But what’s more important? Microsoft asked 563 software engineers in 2018 what was most important to them in What Makes a Great Manager of Software Engineers? A super-majority, 75% said they’d favor hiring a software engineer manager with great social skills and average technical skills, than the other way around. The engineering manager needs to understand what they’re building, their engineers’ work, their tasks, as well as the tools and technologies they use. Software engineering managers need to know enough to have informed discussions and ask insightful questions that will help engineers make good decisions.

Microsoft’s study identified a total of 83 attributes of great software engineers and collated them according to 15 primary characteristics. Roughly half of these involve social skills, while the balance concerns mentoring, decision-making and quality assurance processes.

Microsoft’s Top 15 Characteristics of Great Engineering Managers

  1. Maintains a positive work environment
  2. Grows talent*
  3. Enables autonomy*
  4. Promotes fairness
  5. Recognizes individuality*
  6. Inspires the team
  7. Supports experimentation
  8. Clears the path to execution*
  9. Drives alignment*
  10. Builds culture*
  11. Guides the team
  12. Is available
  13. Facilitates interaction
  14. Is technical*
  15. Builds relationships*
Of course, it will involve more than reading one whitepaper from Microsoft to become a great software engineering manager, but it is an exceptionally insightful paper to start your journey. Please note, that the Top 15 characteristics reflects only the views of Microsoft’s engineers, which usually promotes based on technical merit. Characteristics marked with an asterisk (*) reflect characteristics of great engineering managers from a similar study conducted by Google. At Google, managers can have as many as thirty developers and engineers reporting to them. Each company and each individual is different. To get the pulse of your team there’s nothing preventing you from asking your engineers what’s important to them, or conducting a survey of your own.

2. Supporting Your Team and Company

A software engineering manager job description may be handy for you, but it’s also profitable to understand your role in the whole scheme of things. You’re going to be the face person, the administrator and ambassador between your team and all other parts of your company. You’ll have other exciting roles, too, if these sound a little blasé.

Probably the single hardest part of becoming a new engineering manager is removing all code writing tasks from your daily routine. However, you’ll become much more attuned to the analytics of your team’s code. The Microsoft study also indicates engineers expect engineering managers to not make technical decisions, but to guide them. You’ll have to trust and verify that your software engineers and developers are doing what they do best.

As a software engineering manager, your team will rely upon you to keep them informed of project requirements, associated strategic considerations and pave the way for them with other stakeholders. You’ll likely find tools for automated analytics of software developer performance indispensable to gaining the kind of insight to help your team members improve their skills and productivity.

Administrator? You know most of this already – you’ve handled assignments, participated in code reviews, completed timesheets, put in vacation requests. Now, you’ll be helping to process them, working with your team in deciding task assignments, forming work estimates and schedules, scheduling and conducting 1-to-1’s, and attending meetings, etc. This is common to nearly all management positions across all industries. The hardest task here is keeping everything organized and arranging the time to do everything.

Ambassador? The harder of the two roles, you are the company’s ambassador to your team and their ambassador to the rest of the company. The two almost never inherently see eye-to-eye, so your role here is to facilitate everything needed so that they do. It’s not necessary for everyone to agree, just to understand and accept the reasons behind the business decisions made. This makes it necessary for you to understand the decisions and often enough to be able to play the Devil’s advocate for both sides.

It also means understanding that most decisions are made based on numbers – from individual performance metrics to profit margins, and everything in-between.

3. Engineering Manager Priorities: People, Products, Profits, and…?

When everything’s a top priority, nothing is a top priority. The weight of the world is on your shoulders! So, what’s your top priority going to be? Do you focus on your team, the tech, or the bottom line?

Of course that’s a trick question.

Focusing too heavily on any one of these will have an adverse impact on the others. Perhaps you’ve had a manager that proudly insists, “I’m only interested in results”. Results are guaranteed, good, bad, indifferent, the results will be hit or miss. A focus on process, however, gradually gives rise to consistently better results.

The Process is your best friend.

This doesn’t inherently run counter to the Agile manifesto emphasizing “Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools.” It’s also not saying that you need to run out and get ISO certified, either. What it is saying is that if you expect to succeed, you need to improve numbers – not with statistical sleight of hand, but in real, objective and observable ways that can be consistently measured – by owners, executives, clients, and team members. Automated software development analytics to track your team’s performance play an essential part in this, that we’ll address shortly.

I had the occasion to talk with a one-time employee of Amazon who, contrary to a lot of the negative news today, loved working there – in one of its distribution center warehouse facilities, its SNOC and Six Sigma Teams. Even when he worked there, over a decade ago, Amazon measured everything – from how many papercuts happened per shift to A/B and multivariate tests of products it displays for customers visiting the online store. Every work process had a written SOP, every work process was measured. The cumulative impact of constantly improving everything over twenty years brought a company that was scoffed at to generate at one point (2018) nearly half of all online sales in the United States and make Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world.

Different arguments can be made for Agile (better project management), Six Sigma (process improvement and reducing defects), and Lean (improving productivity). Continuous Development or Next Generation Agile is gaining popularity in blending these tools and techniques together. The core point is that there are time-tested processes that you can use to make it easier for your team to improve their numbers, job satisfaction and company profitability. There’s a good chance that you’ll be working on projects involving Big Data, so it only makes sense to put it to work for your team to automate the gathering of analytics and KPI’s to help you make more informed decisions.

4. Experimentation

Transitioning from an individual contributor to a software engineer manager today has the potential to be more rewarding, interesting and exciting than ever before. That may elicit some laughs, but the faster technology evolves, the faster it will continue to evolve. The net effect is a continuous stream of new software, tools and technologies that can potentially help people learn new skills and perform routine tasks faster, become more efficient and productive. Automated software development analytics, again, will serve a vital role in helping you compare new tools and techniques.

You are… Bond’s new “Q.” A reasonable analogy, if an embellishment. Part of your role is keeping abreast of new technologies, what your competition is using and doing, and incorporating new techniques and technologies that you find useful and effective into your team’s processes. Your developers and engineers are likely to provide you a slew of new tools to consider. They’ll help you test and evaluate how good they are. Adopting them is a question of evaluating, comparing and determining what kind of return on investment they will have if/when integrated into your processes. With the help of your team, you can determine whether they are safe to use or not. So, just like Bond’s new “Q”, you’ll find that exploding pens are NSFW!

The very nature of experimentation means that not everything you test is going to work. That’s okay. You’re an investor, too – a venture capitalist of sorts, not relying upon any single investment to big. You’re investing small chunks of engineering time to evaluate potentially many new tools, techniques and third-party solutions. Some will fail, some will do okay, and a few may be unicorns – major force multipliers for your team’s productivity.

5. Team Up with an AI Assistant?


Emerging technologies as we’re working on with Gitential are about to make the landing a lot easier for recently promoted engineering managers. Our performance analytics is being transformed into an AI Assistant to help all software development stakeholders. It’s premise is simple: Ask a question and get the data, definitions, a situation summary, and Next Best Actions to help improve delivery, by developer, team – and even vendor. 

An Example of How Next Best Actions Work and Look Like:

Conventional analytics, however useful, can be quite time-consuming. Even an experienced engineering manager might have to spend hours digging through performance metrics to find insights to help their team in specific ways. Even then, it can be hit or miss. With AI, these manual hours are condensed to minutes. 

Now, an experienced manager having the data may already know how to act upon it. A newly promoted manager might not – so Next Best Actions provide a simple action plan for their specific scenarios. 

AI serves as an Advisor – You remain the Decision Maker. There’s a lot of information that the AI does not and probably should never know – like whether you and your team are eating right and getting a good night’s sleep.  That’d just be wrong… well, maybe one day that will be the new normal, but until then…

Most developers would like their manager’s to be more socially savvy even at the expense of technical expertise. One of your biggest tasks is “simply” helping your developers be the best coders they can be. So, being a manager is actually somewhat less about “knowing the answers” then it is asking questions about how to improve different aspects of software delivery. 

There are a lot of them…

Ways an AI-Assistant Can Help

Boost Team Performance

See by org/project/team/developer level where the greatest improvements can be made - and how to make them.

Optimize Resource Allocation

Identify the best combination of developers for a project - like best Python or C++ developers with additional metrics like Pull Request Commenting rates or lowest defect density.

Enable More Accurate Planning and Budgeting

Use historical data to compare with project requirements and the relative skill of developers in specific languages. Help to assess whether to outsource for a Swift specialist or provide training for your best Objective-C developer.

Automate Time-Consuming Tasks

Complexity of these calculations increase by team size. Hours of research are streamlined into minutes.

Improve Delivery Processes

Where are your bottlenecks - and actionable insights on how to fix them.

Better Align Teams with Company Objectives

Know where your team is at compared to strategic interests - Delivery speed? Quality? Budget?

Real-Time Awareness

Receive alerts 24-7-365 whenever key indicators exceed the standards you set.

More About AI for Engineering Managers

Where a lot of mistakes in the experimentation process are made is in failing to compare new results against established benchmarks and performance metrics. Unless you can objectively measure the difference in performance, it is unlikely you can calculate an ROI.

Post updated: February 08, 2022

November 2022 Release Notes

Here’s what’s new in our November 2022 Release Notes:

* Improved data exports for our custom solutions;
* Stabilized backend environment for smoother workspace data refreshes;
* Flexible pagination;

Read More »

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