It's not a promotion - it's a career change
The biggest misconception engineers have when thinking about moving into management is they think it’s a promotion.
Management is not a promotion. It is a career change.
If you want to do your leadership job effectively, you will be exercising a vastly different set of skills on a daily basis to what you are exercising as an engineer. Skills you likely haven’t developed and are unaware of.
Your job is not to be an engineer. Your job is not to be a manager. Your job is to be a multiplier.
You exist to remove roadblocks and eliminate interruptions for the people you work with.
You exist to listen to people (not just hear them!), to build relationships and trust, to deliver bad news, to resolve conflict in a just way.
You exist to think about the bigger picture, ask provoking and sometimes difficult questions, and relate the big picture back to something meaningful, tangible, and actionable to the team.
You exist to advocate for the team, to promote the group and individual achievements, to gaze into unconstructive criticism and see underlying motivations, and sometimes even give up control and make sacrifices you are uncomfortable or disagree with.
You exist to make systemic improvements with the help of the people you work with.
Does this sound like engineering work?
The truth of the matter is this: you are woefully unprepared for a career in management, and you are unaware of how badly unprepared you are.
There are two main contributing factors that have put you in this position:
- The Dunning-Kruger effect
- Systemic undervaluation of non-technical skills in tech
Systemic undervaluation of non-technical skills
Technical skills are emphasised above all in tech. It is part of our mythology.
Technical skill is the dominant currency within our industry. It is highly valued and sought after. If you haven’t read all the posts on the Hacker News front page today, or you’re not running the latest releases of all your software, or you haven’t recently pulled all-nighter coding sessions to ship that killer feature, you’re falling behind bro.
Naturally, for an industry so unhealthily focused on technical skills, they tend to be the deciding factor for hiring people.
Non-technical skills that are lacking, like teamwork, conflict resolution, listening, and co-ordination, are often overlooked and excused away in engineering circles. They are seen as being of lesser importance than technical skills, and organisations frequently compensate for, minimise the effects of, and downplay the importance of these skills.
If you really want to see where our industry places value, just think about the terms “hard” and “soft” we use to describe and differentiate between the two groups of skills. What sort of connotations do each of those words have, and what implicit biases do they feed into and trigger?
If you’re an engineer thinking about going into management, you are a product of this culture.
There are a handful of organisations that create cultural incentives to develop these non-technical skills in their engineers, but these organisations are, by and large, unicorns.
And if you want to lead people, you’re in for a rude shock if you haven’t developed those non-technical skills.
Because guess what - you can’t lead people in the same way you write code or manage machines. If you could, management would have been automated a long time ago.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
The identification of the Dunning-Kruger effect is one of the most interesting development of modern psychology, and one of the most revelatory insights available to our industry.
In 1999 David Dunning and Justin Kruger started publishing the results of experiments on the ability of people to self-assess competence:
Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill
If you’ve had a career in tech without any leadership responsibilities, you’ve likely had thoughts like:
- “Managing people can’t be that hard.”
- “My boss has no idea what they are doing.”
- “I could do a better job than them.”
Congratulations! You’ve been partaking in the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The bad news: Dunning-Kruger is exacerbated by the systemic devaluation of non-technical skills within tech.
The good news: soon after going into leadership, the scope of your lack of skill, and unawareness of your lack of skill, will become plain for you to see.
Also, everyone else around you will see it.
This is the heart of the matter: by being elevated into a position of leadership, you are being granted a responsibility over people’s happiness and wellbeing.
Mistakes made due to lack of skill and awareness can cause people irreparable damage and create emotional scar tissue that will stay with people for years, if not decades.
Conversely, by developing skills and helping your team row in the same direction, you can also create positive experiences that will last with people their entire careers.
The people in your team will spend a lot of time looking up at you - far more time than what you realise. Everything you do will be analysed and disected, sometime fairly, sometimes not.
If you’re not willing to push yourself, develop the skills, and fully embrace the career change, maybe you should stay on the engineering career development track.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
By striving to be a multiplier, the effects of the hard work you and the team put in can be far greater than what you can achieve individually.
You only reap the benefits of this if you shift your measure of job satisfaction from your own performance to the group’s.
Many engineers who change into management feel disheartened because they’re not getting as much “real work” done.
If you dig deeper, “real work” is always linked to their own individual performance. Of course you’re not going to perform to the same level as an engineer - you’re working towards the same goals, but you are each working on fundamentally different tasks to get there!
Focusing on your own skills and performance can be a tough loop to break out of - individual achievement is bound up in the same mythology as technical skills - it’s something highly prized and disproportionately incentivised in much of our culture.
If you’ve decided to undertake this career change, it’s important to treat your lack of skill as a learning opportunity, develop a hunger for learning more and developing your skills, routinely reflect on your experiences and compare yourself to your cohort.
None of these things are easy - I struggled with feelings of inadequacy in meeting the obligations of my job for the first 3 years of being in a leadership position. Once I worked out that I was tying job satisfaction to engineering performance, it was a long and hard struggle to re-link my definition of success to group performance.
If everything you’ve read here hasn’t scared you, and you’ve committed to the change to management, there are three key things you can start doing to start skilling up:
- Do professional training.
- Get mentors.
- Educate yourself.
Tech has a bias against professional training that doesn’t come from universities. Engineering organisations tend to value on-the-job experience over training and certification. A big part of that comes from a lot of technical training outside of universities being a little bit shit.
Our experience of bad training in the technical domain doesn’t apply to management - there is plenty of quality short course management training available, that other industries have been financing the development of the last couple of decades.
In Australia, AIM provide several courses ranging from introductory to advanced management and leadership development.
Do your research, ask around, find what people would recommend, then make the case for work to pay for it.
Find other people in your organisation you can talk to about the challenges you are facing developing your non-technical skills. This person doesn’t necessarily need to be your boss - in fact diversifying your mentors is important for developing skills to entertain multiple perspectives on the same situation.
If you’re lucky, your organisation assigns new managers a buddy to act as a mentor, but professional development maturity for management skills varys widely across organisations.
If you don’t have anyone in your organisation to act as a mentor or buddy, then seek out old bosses and see if they’d be willing to chat for half an hour every few weeks.
I have semi-regular breakfast catchups with a former boss from very early on in my career that are always a breath of fresh air - to the point where my wife actively encourages me to catch up because of how less stressed I am afterwards.
Another option is to find other people in your organisation also going through the same transition from engineer to manager as you. You won’t have all the answers, but developing a safe space to bounce ideas around and talk about problems you’re struggling with is a useful tool.
I spend a lot of time reading and sharing articles on management and leadership - far more time than I spend on any technical content.
At the very beginning of your journey it’s difficult to identify what is good and what is bad, what is gold and what is fluff. I have read a lot of crappy advice, but four years into the journey my barometer for advice is becoming more accurate.
Also, be careful of only reading things that re-inforce your existing biases and leadership knowledge. If there’s a particular article I disagree with, I’ll often spend a 5 minutes jotting a brief critique. I’ll either get better at articulating to others what about that idea is flawed, or my perspective will become more nuanced.
It’s also pertinent to note how the article made you feel, and reflect for a moment on what about the article made you to feel that way.
If you’re scratching your head for where to start, I recommend Bob’s Sutton “The No Asshole Rule”, then “Good Boss, Bad Boss”. Sutton’s work is rooted in evidence based management (he’s not talking out of his arse - he’s been to literally thousands of companies and observed how they work), but writes in an engaging and entertaining way.
Almost four years into my career change, I can say that it’s been worth it. It has not been easy. I have made plenty of mistakes, have prioritised incorrectly, and hurt people accidentally.
But so has everyone else. Nobody else has this nailed. Even the best managers are constantly learning, adapting, improving.
Think about it this way: you’re going to accumulate leadership skills faster than people who have made the change because you’re starting with nothing. The difference is nuance and tact that comes from experience, something you can develop by sticking with your new career.
This will only happen when you fully commit to your new career, and you change your definition for success to meet your new responsibilities as a manager.