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Individual contributor to engineering management: 5 mistakes to avoid

We all know the qualities of a terrible manager because we’ve all had at least one. They are poor communicators, chronic micromanagers, and ineffective motivators. They probably took on manager roles with the belief that leadership was an innate skill. “When I made the transition from an individual contributor to a team leader,” says Miriam Aguirre, SVP of Engineering at Skillz, “I had a classic (and faulty) expectation that it would come naturally.”

This is a common myth, and one that we’d like to debunk right away. Leadership is a learned skill, and uniquely challenging in any industry. Drawing from insights derived in partnership with Miriam Aguirre (you can read the Robert Walters interview with Miriam, here) and other engineers' direct experiences, we've put together a list of the top mistakes new managers make.

By avoiding these mistakes, you can ensure your transition from individual contributor to engineering manager will be a smooth one.

1. Not having a mentor

The qualities that make a good individual contributor, like writing good code and advancing product development, matter much less now. As a leader, it’s your job to manage and motivate a team. The best way to develop your people management skills is to find a mentor that will give you sound advice and candid feedback. If you don’t have an internal manager that can provide guidance, check out Plato, the IEEE Mentoring Programand this enormous list of mentors gathered from a popular tweet.

2. Managing time poorly

Steve Jobs once wrote that “the most precious resource we all have is time”. As an IC, work processes are often very clear. There is never a question of what comes next, because your schedule is dictated by Jira tickets, Pivotal Tracker, or whiteboard stickies. As a manager, the number of items you will be tracking goes up dramatically. A simple to-do list simply won’t cut it, so consider investing in a task-tracking app like Trello or Remember the Milk. These apps can assist in prioritization, which is absolutely essential for minimizing distractions that take away from overall business goals. “As a manager you will be bombarded with inputs, requests, questions, distractions, fires to fight, etc.,” says Mathew Vanderzee, VP of Engineering at eSentire. “Part of your job is to field all this, so it doesn’t hit your team and distract them.”

3. Underestimating the importance of good communication

A huge portion of your time should be allocated to team communication. Research shows that high quality 1-1 meetings are at the foundation of every highly successful company. As reported by the Harvard Business Review, “employees who get little to no one-on-one time with their manager are more likely to be disengaged. On the flip side, those who get twice the number of one-on-ones with their manager relative to their peers are 67% less likely to be disengaged.” Check out this guide to making your 1-1s as meaningful as possible. 

4. Falling back into coding

It’s basic human instinct to be attracted to the familiar. As a result, new engineering managers may feel tempted to “get into the code” because that’s what feels comfortable. While you can’t be faulted for this too much (after all, you probably got into software engineering for your love of code), it’s important to realize that your role is no longer to solve problems on your own, but to support your team in solving them. Coding might “provide short-term benefit to some projects and make you feel good”, says Brad Armstrong of Noteworthy, but it can prevent you from “achieving your primary objectives”, and ultimately “hurt the long-term output of your team”.

5. Not delivering feedback

When done incorrectly, feedback can breed fear and resentment, creating a culture of avoidance.  Not surprisingly, it’s something that new engineering managers struggle with. However, feedback delivered correctly can result in improved self-image, improved interpersonal relationships, and increased productivity among your team. “In the moment, it’s usually easier to let bad work slide than to address it, but this is a recipe for disaster,” says Jacob Baskin, Head of Engineering at Coord. “Managers have to be comfortable letting people know when they are doing well or badly, and explaining their expectations in detail.” Check out Radical Candor, a fantastic book that talks in-depth about how to give (and receive) feedback the smart way.


In the end, there is no “one secret to success”. Try and recall the path you took to senior or lead engineer. “Learn to be humble and put yourself in the mindset of being a beginner again,” suggests Miriam Aguirre. Build trust in your team by being direct, honest and consistent and avoiding micromanagement. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, and help them to improve their skillsets and grow towards their career goals. If you can avoid the aforementioned stumbling blocks, you’ll soon see the impact of your efforts, and the value that you add to the company. 

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