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Why become an engineering manager?

I was grabbing coffee recently with a local technology leader here in Indianapolis, and in between talking about our careers, they lamented about an engineer on their team who would be a really good fit as a manager but didn’t seem interested in it.

From their perspective, they can unlock so much more value from this engineer if they could have them coach the rest of the team – cloning bits of themselves across the team.

But said engineer has declined the opportunity at every turn so far.

I was that way once upon a time, too.

I’ve uttered the phrase “I want to manage projects, not people” on more than one occasion.

Most of that was fear – of failure, of making people mad, of not doing a good job at it. And some of it is knowing how difficult a job it can be – because people are hard and code rarely talks back.

When you jump off the individual contributor train and onto the management train, it is a very different job, yes, but it also includes some incredible benefits.

Some of my favorite perks have been in watching the folks I managed as they grow in their careers long after I’ve managed them.

They’ve gone off to work for huge companies, or to manage people themselves, or – in the case of my bootcamp students – to go on to long careers in software development.

I didn’t do the work for them in any sense, but knowing I played some part in it warms the cockles of my heart most days.

That fulfillment is by far the biggest long-term perk of the job in my eyes, but there are some more practical ones, too.

Managing a team is like multiplying yourself. You can have a far greater impact on the codebase, the company and the department when you influence, manage, coach and grow a whole team of engineers – helping them avoid the stuff you learned the hard way while pushing them into better paths.

It’s very close to the first perk, but it’s also great fun seeing the folks you manage grow past you – to become better engineers or have better ideas than you could ever come up with on your own.

No matter how brilliant you are, you cannot be more brilliant than every other engineer combined. Your job is not to make the application faster; it’s instead a privilege to unlock the brilliance of the rest of your team.

You also get a peek into an entirely different context and stratosphere of how the business operates, and how an engineering department really works. Oftentimes, from an individual contributor role you can see a lot of the trees, but you never get the larger view of the forest as whole.

As an engineering manager, you are in meetings, calls, and discussions that reflect a higher plane of the organization in many cases – what kind of engineer should we hire, how should we hire them, what ways can we speed up development or improve overall team culture?

Sometimes, you get involved in thornier discussions as well – who should we let go, what should we do with someone who isn’t working out, why is this thing so late?

And these thornier bits are also a big reason why so many folks in recent years have avoided the management track, but I’d’ argue the growth and increased scope of the role makes the tradeoff worth it.

This is on top of the basic perks of the job – the ones that many folks get into the role for originally: A fancier title and maybe a pay bump.

These things don’t matter as much anymore. Titles never actually mattered, and there are now individual contributor tracks with as high or higher pay scales along the same ladder of seniority.

But, until you manage people – rather than projects – you don’t get these experiences and perspectives which help you grow as a more well-rounded person.

Becoming a manager helps to round off the engineer into a more full-fledged business person.

I couldn’t be here, making my own small business, if I hadn’t had these many years of seeing more into the clockworks of the businesses I worked for.

And I wouldn’t have gotten that if I hadn’t agreed to manage people 20 years ago.

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