Check out a free preview of the full Engineering Management Fundamentals 101 course:
The "Paths to Management" Lesson is part of the full, Engineering Management Fundamentals 101 course featured in this preview video. Here's what you'd learn in this lesson:

Jem discusses the different paths that individuals can take to transition into management roles, focusing on accidental and deliberate paths. Jem emphasizes the importance of considering how people end up in positions of authority and the need for formal training and support for new managers.

Get Unlimited Access Now

Transcript from the "Paths to Management" Lesson

[00:00:00]
>> So I talked a lot about the motivations, the different paths. But let's get a little more tactical on what does it look like to move into management, the actual transition. So we had an interview earlier with Ryan Burgess, and he talked about his path to management, and his was more accidental.

[00:00:18] And really, there's two ways to do things in life. There's accidentally doing something and deliberately doing something. Maybe one's easier than the other, but they are both valid. I'd say a lot of cases in people I talk to, the accidental case, the accidental manager is more likely story.

[00:00:37] A lot of people don't set out to become managers, I certainly didn't. In my software engineering career, I got my CS degree, ready to go into the world and code. I was not like, I'm gonna be a great manager someday, far back as you can think. So a lot of people's paths are accidental.

[00:00:55] Mine was a little bit more planned, more deliberate, but it was never my long-term goal to become a manager. The accidental case happens all the time, a rapidly growing company, which is great. You're at a startup, it's growing, it's growing, it's growing, you're a manager, why? Cuz you've been at the company for six months and that's six months longer than everybody else on the team.

[00:01:16] You're now a manager, that happens all the time. Or you're the best software engineer on the team, the team needs a manager, you're now the manager. Let me stress this again, being a good software engineer does not translate into being a good manager. In fact, consider it the opposite, if you're a really good software engineer, that means you're good at shipping and specing things, delivering things on time.

[00:01:41] And you're gonna pull something of your core competency and move them into an entirely different role. That doesn't make any sense, but that's usually the case. Sometimes the manager is just the best software engineer on the team, which is kind of weird to me, but it happens a lot.

[00:01:57] In other cases the engineering management team leaves and they're like, eeny meeny miny you, you're now manager. We chuckled, but it happens, this is how a lot of people become managers. And you're like, crap, and you sink or swim. And the problem is if you sink, you pull everybody down with you.

[00:02:19] If you swim, it's gonna be a hard swim, the boat's really far away, land is far away. Another accidental path is the team lead to engineering manager. So a team lead, this varies from company-to-company, but generally, you're a technical person, you're still doing day-to-day. But you're also responsible for project management, the OKRs, the roadmap planning, the strategy.

[00:02:43] A lot of times that's the team lead, and they kind of accidentally become the manager, even though that was not really their intent. In my mind, team lead does something a little bit different, they're more the technical leader. I have team leads, they're not officially that but I do lean on them for technical side and planning.

[00:03:00] But I still do all the overall strategy and things like that. But oftentimes the team lead becomes the engineering manager and you don't even know it. A lot of times you're a manager and you don't even know it, just people start thinking of you that way, cuz you're the person who's the face of the team.

[00:03:13] You're the one sending out emails, you're the one running slack, that's pretty common. And then there's the deliberate path, that's where you actively apply for roles. I'm a software engineer, I wanna become a manager, this is what I did. And we'll talk about the challenges there. And sometimes it's deliberate, if your company is well-structured, they'll have a growth plan for you.

[00:03:37] From moving from software engineer all the way to manager, if you're lucky, right? A lot of companies don't have that, but some do. And then sometimes you have a role transition over time, where it's agreed by your manager, it's a small enough team, the blast radius is small.

[00:03:52] And you slowly grow your impact over time, and eventually they make it official. Okay, you're a manager, you've been doing it for a while, we're just gonna make it more official. So of these two paths, what do you all think the majority of your managers have fallen into?

[00:04:07] Or if you are a manager, which path did you fall? Were you the accidental manager? Or are you the deliberate manager?
>> I was [COUGH] definitely accidental. [COUGH] I was at Microsoft and we had a bunch of different companies that got bought, and we ended up making a new product.

[00:04:28] I didn't like the manager I had, so I kinda went above and let them know I wasn't happy, and then I ended up with my own team.
>> [LAUGH] The lesson there is don't complain about things, right, you end up being a manager.
>> My previous company, it was more accidental, we went through an acquisition and we re-orged as part of that.

[00:04:52] And I ended up with some direct reports, which I would have been fine with except I didn't really want to work for the acquisitor, so I left. And in my current organization my moves through that org have been more deliberate and more following a company structured growth plan and.

[00:05:14]
>> So of the two, since you've had both, which path are you happier with?
>> As you mentioned, I think they're both valid. I think I appreciate the more deliberate and intentional approach. It's certainly more appropriate for the role that I'm in currently and how I've arrived there and all the other [LAUGH] context and factors around it.

[00:05:45] Smaller orgs, accidental can totally work and probably make a lot more sense even.
>> Online we have someone who said they earned the trust and respect of their team and just ended up there. And then a few other people said accidental. Someone said 90% accidental.
>> [LAUGH] It's kind of wild, right?

[00:06:20] Most people have a manager or someone they report to, actually everybody has someone they report to, generally. And it's such a critical, vital role, and with a really big impact, but we don't put a lot of thought into how people got there. It doesn't make any sense, and we're all intelligent people in tech.

[00:06:38] I shouldn't say we're all intelligent people. We work in a, what do we call it? What is it, a knowledge field?
>> Knowledge work.
>> Yeah, knowledge work, thank you. Yeah, which is, seen by the world as like, you think more, you don't do things with your hand.

[00:06:53] I don't necessarily agree that's better, but that's kind of some perceptions. So, but we think about things, we do knowledge work, but yet we don't think about how people end up in the positions of authority, which doesn't make a lot of sense. So if you're a director or VP watching this, look how people under you who are reporting to you became leaders.

[00:07:14] Really think about that, that means a lot of people never have formal training. They've never had any sort of hiring training. They've never had any inclusion training. They're just now a leader and they're responsible for all these things, but nobody told them.
>> Yeah, in my case, I really liked writing code, I liked it day-to-day a lot more, I thought it was more fun.

[00:07:35] But when I came down to it, seeing a product that I thought needed to exist in the world, I had to learn a different way to approach it. Cuz you writing code every day wasn't gonna get this product into the world. I had to think about what are the systems at play and then how can I get a lot of people working on those various parts of the system in order to see the thing I wanted in the world actually exist.

[00:08:05] And so it's more fulfilling today, but it was more fun then, if that makes sense.
>> Yeah, I like what you said, Mark, that's exactly how I translate it. Engineering management is lots of fun, but it's more fulfilling, and until you've done it, it's really hard to be like, that doesn't make any sense.

[00:08:25] But that's the truth of it, I don't have too much fun, but I'm more rewarded by successes, and I definitely learn a lot more. I still think it's funny, the accidental versus deliberate path, I think accidental is far more common. We don't invest in people becoming leaders, we just assume they're gonna do it.

[00:08:46] And some people do it well, a lot of people don't. I don't know, I can't fix the system, I can just point out some incongruities in it.