Should I become an engineering manager? Seven questions for reflection

One of the most common questions I hear when mentoring engineers is whether a person should pursue engineering management. I usually take this to mean that they are actually looking for a leadership role, and I want to help them discern whether that might be as a primarily technical leader or as a managerial leader.

Leadership != Management.

A key related concept is that leadership is not equal to management.  There are many ways outside of managing to become a leader.  Leadership is about influence, respect, taking on additional responsibility in order to grow, and having the opportunity to give back and mentor others. I can think of many individual contributors who are fantastic leaders and role models.

A starting point for reflection

There’s no right answer to this question, so my goal is to provide a way for people to listen to their own inclinations. In preparation for a conversation, I ask people to start collecting their thoughts on the following:

  1. Who are some of your role models (inside or outside of your current company)? What is compelling about what they do and the impact they have?
  2. What makes you interested in management right now?
  3. What’s the best part of your day lately (coding, meeting with people, mentoring, architecture/design, planning)?
  4. What would you change about your current team?
  5. Are you looking to deepen your technical knowledge, or are you ready to broaden/generalize?
  6. What have you been reading/studying/thinking about management so far?
  7. What are some of your possible long term career goals? Do you imagine yourself focused on building/running an organization of dozens or hundreds of engineers someday, or would you rather be focused on research and setting technical strategy and direction?

Reflecting on these questions provides many clues to where a person’s true interests and passion lie. I listen for things like a fascination in debugging human vs. machine systems, curiosity about the psychology of motivating others, and an appreciation for solving problems with process.

I also remind people of two things: 1) it gets harder to keep up your tech skills once you become a manager, but 2) it doesn’t have to be a permanent decision.

What questions have helped point you in the right direction? Add to the conversation here:

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