What I’ve learnt Transitioning from Employee to Manager

A photo of Nick wearing an orange jumper

Moving from being an expert in your field to managing a group of experts can feel like a huge change and a challenge that many people will face during their careers. I have now had the privilege of managing a team of engineers for over 18 months and these are a few of my thoughts on the process of moving from being a Software Engineer to becoming an Engineering Lead.

I have been a professional Software Engineer for almost 30 years and a hobbyist programmer since I was in my teens. I have often joked that I never wanted to become a ‘manager’ and would actively avoid pursuing that career progression.

When I stop and think ‘why?’, it was probably a combination of selfishness and fear.

  • Selfishness because I enjoyed writing code / making computers do things and I didn’t want to stop doing what I loved.

  • Fear because I thought of my ‘coding skills’ as part of my identity or my ‘superpower’ and I was afraid that if I started managing people, I would lose my superpowers and become a mere mortal again!

However, over the years, when I spoke about my work, I found that I wasn’t talking so much about ‘doing the coding’. It was becoming more about what could be achieved ‘through the coding’. I was motivated by the good I could do for people and how I could help people achieve their goals through the code that I wrote.

(In hindsight, that was probably always part of my motivation but my younger self would have been more interested in the buzz of seeing a computer do what it was instructed to do).

Some of the lessons I’ve learnt Transitioning from Employee to Manager

I love being a Software Engineer, rolling my sleeves up and getting stuck into a complex problem; The challenge of tracking many variables simultaneously whilst navigating the twists and turns of a large code base. Or the thrill of being on the trail of an elusive bug, ‘it must be here somewhere’, followed by the exhilarating ‘aha’ moment when you catch said bug appearing from the code in front of you and then the sweet satisfaction of knowing that next time, the user’s experience will be just that little bit better.

I was probably secretly afraid that being a manager would be boring. Here are some things I have learnt in my transition from Engineer to Manager:

Being a Manager is no less rewarding

 I thought I would be sacrificing the thrill of a bug hunt with the drudgery of watching other Software Engineers enjoying the chase.

At this point in the blog, I reached for AI to help me finish making my point, and so to stretch the ‘chase’ analogy to near-breaking point, it suggested

'But instead of being the hound in pursuit, you're the one leading the pack, coordinating efforts, and strategically planning the route. It's a different kind of thrill, but no less rewarding.'

Exactly. Thanks AI. It’s true though, being an Engineering Lead is no less rewarding. In fact, you can experience the satisfaction of seeing more bugs squashed.

Being ‘Off tools’ is okay

One of the concerns I hear people voice about becoming a manager is spending more time ‘off tools’. It’s true, I can spend whole days without firing up my IDE. Sometimes I get a bit restless for coding, there are days when even editing a simple JSON file can seem like a fun distraction but in truth, the majority of the time, I don’t miss coding as much as I thought I would.

Part of my role as an Engineering Lead is to help plan what code should be written, what features we are going to tackle and how we should go about building them. A significant proportion of my time is spent reviewing another engineer’s code; going through their code line-by-line comparing it to what I would have done myself - and often learning something in the process. I’ve found that I don’t need to actually ‘write the code’ myself to experience the enjoyment of seeing a working code base emerge from a bunch of ideas on paper.

Building software is a team sport

Some Software Engineers like working on their own and it’s true they can often be very productive when left alone, in ‘the zone’. However, as the problems you try to solve get more complex and the features being considered get larger, there comes a point where you need to scale up.

Being a ‘lead’ means you’ll need to embrace collaboration, leading a team of engineers to bring larger features to life. Working as a team can achieve more than a group of individuals working apart.

There are challenges to being an Engineering Lead

As with any endeavour involving other people, there are challenges to leading a team of engineers.

  • It requires humility: You’ll be working with people who might be better at some things than you are - and that’s okay.

    Being an Engineering Lead doesn’t mean you have to be ‘the best’ engineer on the team. It is humbling to acknowledge that to be an effective leader, you need to allow your team to be the best they can be, encourage them to grow and develop as engineers and celebrate when they are better than you. Click here to read more about how this plays out in our company values.

  • It sometimes requires self-sacrifice: As an Engineering Lead, I want to see the team grow and do well, and sometimes, that means putting myself out to ensure they have the right conditions to thrive.

    That can mean sacrificing the things I want to work on to ensure enough requirements are discovered to unblock a piece of work for them. It can mean spending longer on a code review to help an engineer understand an unfamiliar part of the code base. It can mean giving an enjoyable job to someone else so that you can focus on the stuff no one else wants to tackle.

How to make the change from Engineer to Manager

Making the transition from Engineer to Manager doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, the process can even feel natural once you discover you can help more people achieve their goals through the software you have (helped the team) produce.

Focus on what you can achieve as a Manager rather than fixate on what you might be losing as an Engineer.

Whilst I was preoccupied with my concerns and preconceptions of what it meant to be a manager; of no longer being allowed to code or being made to do boring work, it was a barrier I couldn’t see beyond.

I can now see how being an Engineering Lead has enabled me to consider bigger problems to solve, coordinate a team of Engineers to build more complex features and ultimately, for me, resulted in the satisfaction of delivering software that can reach and help more people.

Click here to find out more about career progression as an Engineer at Brightec

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