From Developer to Engineering Manager

Everyone wants experienced tech leads in their teams but, the fact is there aren’t enough of them out there to fill all open roles. Team Lead, Tech Lead, Engineering Manager, these and other technical middle management roles are the cornerstones of any growing business. They are at the forefront of innovation, responsible for leading teams of engineers and driving transformation efforts within an organization. Nevertheless, according to a recent survey, 58% of IT leaders are looking to change jobs because they lack leadership support. Funny right?

In addition, going from developer to engineering manager is a challenge, and growing into a leadership position is not something that happens overnight. It is the result of years of informal or formal mentoring and training. Mainly on-the-job training by real-life try-and-fail experience. What makes it long-lasting and transformative is the support of your leader.

As a Software engineer, there is a huge opportunity in the current market to take this next step. But becoming a leader down the line means you should be consciously planning for your growth. And you should identify who will support you in that process. 

Are you part of a company that only looks for  “plug and play” profiles? Or do they nurture people’s growth with clear learning and development efforts and succession plans?

What do you have to master to become a Tech leader? 

Transitioning from an individual contributor role to a managerial position is easier said than done (as most things in life). 

Tech leads are responsible for representing their teams within the organization and are the direct liaison to the Director of Engineering or CTO. What makes engineering team leads/engineering managers interesting is that they often have some level of individual contributor (IC) responsibilities. Plus their management tasks. The ability to manage “up” and “down” is rare and exhausting! That’s why full support from top management is critical for success.

Some people may still think leadership is the natural career path if you want to advance your career, but it’s actually not the only one. As a software engineer you can also choose to pursue a career on the technical side. For example as Solutions Architect or Principal Engineer. Please know that taking this track does not mean you’ll avoid leadership responsibilities. You’ll still be required to train, educate, and oversee other engineers’ work. What’s important is selecting what energises you, so you can grow in a space best suited to your abilities and interests.

Now, becoming a Tech leader requires a combination of technical proficiency, business acumen, leadership skills and of course some curiosity. Let’s quickly go into what all this means:

  1. Technical proficiency: Obviously it’s a must that you have a deep understanding of the technologies and tools out there. This will not only help you make informed decisions but also provide you with the ability to guide your team and the business in making the best technical choices.
  2. Leadership: You should have strong communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills. This will help you manage your team, build trust and foster a positive working environment in the long term.
  3. Business acumen: As a leader, your work impacts the overall business results. Therefore, you need to understand the business goals and objectives of your company. You should be able to align technology initiatives with the company’s strategy and ensure that your team is focused on delivering value to the business.
  4. Continuous learning: Technology is rapidly changing, and it’s crucial that you stay up-to-date with new trends, methodologies, and best practices. You should cultivate a growth mindset and continuously invest in your professional development as well as your team.

According to Alvaro Moya, seasoned CTO and trainer for tech leaders, each of the areas mentioned above has many sub-areas; finding a mentor/coach will benefit to support you in areas as us: Handling 1-1s, preparing OKRs, facilitating meetings effectively, influencing decisions up and down and even preparing performance reviews. As you are not just dealing with code, but with people, there are always new challenges.

Self-leadership is the first step

Transitioning from developer to engineering manager, whether you work at a company that supports you on this process or not, means being the one driving your own growth. For that, there are several on-the-job training opportunities you can pursue to prepare yourself for a promotion in your current company or on your next company move:

  1. To help you gain a better understanding of the broader business, look for cross-functional collaborations. Seek out opportunities to work with other teams, such as product management, marketing or operations. This will also help you build the communication skills necessary for a tech lead role. For C-suite executives, understanding the technical side of the business is crucial to making informed decisions. You should be able to effectively argue your technical vision with non-technical teams to help them make decisions that drive the company forward.
  1. Take on leadership responsibilities for smaller projects. Leading a project team or managing a project from end to end will give you experience in project management, risk assessment, and decision-making. 
  1. Test your mentoring skills. If you are already a senior engineer, for sure there are less experienced colleagues who benefit from your help. You can start this more as a casual interaction but you can also offer more formal support and create a plan to track progress.
  1. Ask to be involved in the company’s technical and strategic planning process. This will give you exposure to high-level decision-making and help you understand the business context. 
  1. Take an active role in the hiring process from profile definition to assessments and hiring decisions.

Practising real situations in advance is only one of the ways to ensure your engineers have a smooth transition. According to Alvaro Moya, the perfect model will include not only experiences but also knowledge and interactions. The latter two can come from managers in your organisation or external mentors. They can act as powerful allies to drastically improve the chances of success in the process to become a leader. If you can’t get these three components at your current company (experiences, knowledge and interactions) Alvaro’s academy, LIDR, supports aspiring leaders to get there. For example, South America-based Rappi is a case of success with LIDR Academy.  A Software Engineer was promoted to Engineering Leader seamlessly. Just a couple of months after he completed the program. The combination of content and community perfectly complements a well-planned onboarding process that included a gradual delegation of responsibilities.

You can check the program here. If you decide to go for the academy make sure you add acework’s coupon: LIFETIME to have unlimited access to the content.

Showcase your leadership experience on your CV (without having the title) 

If you’re looking to make your move to a leadership position with a new company, your CV should tell a story. From your first job to your current role. You need to reflect on your professional progress because you want to make it clear you are on a leadership path, even if you don’t have the title yet. It should be obvious to the CTO, and even to the recruiter reading your profile, what you’ve learned and what path you’re on. From reading your responsibilities and outcomes they have to conclude that a formal Team Lead role is a logical next step for you. Basically, because you’ve actually been one, for a while now, in the shadows.

Emphasise responsibilities, and explain the details

You should reflect on the outcomes of your work and list those you were responsible for. For example, the description of your experience could be described like this: 

  • Mentored and oversaw (number) junior developers on an agile team to ensure the delivery of quality
  • Helped to hire (number) engineers: interview, create tech assessment, review test
  • Backend development for product/ features with (number) users
  • Tech stack: code languages, frameworks, databases, cloud, and other tools with an impact on the overall product

Be explicit about your outcomes and abilities:

  • What you have learned and how eager you are to transfer this knowledge to a new product and team. 
  • Exercising how to tell and explain why you have the right skill to be a tech lead is almost as important as having the experience. 
  • Another important side to reflect on your areas of improvement. Not to add to your CV but to be ready to answer in an interview (or career development) discussion. You should be able to share those areas of development with confidence. Make sure the other party is also committed to helping and supporting you in these areas.

Prepare for a rigorous interview process when you apply for a Tech Lead role

If a company is taking the risk of hiring someone that has not formally been a lead they will have to find a way to make an informed assessment of how ready that individual is to transition into a managerial role.

Here are the areas/ questions we would recommend you reflect on and prepare for, as they might come up during the interview process. The top 5 areas to focus on for the interview:

  1. If they are looking for signs of leadership potential: The ability to work well with others, effectively communicate ideas, and make decisions that benefit the team and the business.
  • When was the last time you made others follow your ideas? Think about explicit examples.
  • Have you ever promoted, or implemented a change or improvement in your work that had a direct impact on the business or team?
  • Have you ever been involved in time or cost estimations? 

2. Tech leads must be able to prevent, identify and solve complex problems. You must show the ability to resolve technical issues under pressure.

  • What are the pros and cons of the agile software development process?
  • How would you assess whether a new tool is worth investing in in the short and long term?

3. Show your ability to articulate complex technical concepts in a clear and concise manner, and your ability to effectively communicate with both technical and non-technical stakeholders.

  • Explain the most complex technical project you work on and the impact of it as if you were talking to a 9-year-old.

4. Passion for technology and a genuine interest in staying current with industry developments is also a key indicator of potential as a tech lead.

  • What technologies do you think will become outdated/more relevant in the next 5 to 10 years?

5. You should also consider the areas where you will need support to succeed and articulate those to your interview partner.

At acework, we help you prepare and reflect on the value you can add to a company. We have learned that more than often the best people are not very good at selling themselves. But with some effective advice and actionable points, we can quickly help you get rid of that imposter syndrome. 

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