Uplevel Blog

So, you became an engineering manager. Now what?

There’s no job like being a developer. Building and problem-solving make the days productive and satisfying, even if they come with their challenges. Of course, challenges are part of the job, but for some, another job allures.
Author: uplevel
Tags: Blog
new manager guide

Being a manager can feel like the natural evolution from software developer. After years of being an individual contributor, the opportunity to have a team seems attractive. You gain visibility into the rest of the organization, change how you collaborate with others, and build new skills. However, life as a manager is different in many ways. With new responsibilities, you’ll experience a new balance in time split between meetings and your desk, and you may find that full days of noise-cancelling headphones are over.

Manager life isn’t for everyone, but with the right preparation, it can be the team-rallying, roadblock-clearing, get-it-done reality you’ve been eyeing. How do you transition from an individual contributor to a manager? We’re sharing what to expect—and what to do about it. Uplevel is here to help.

#1: It’s less of a ladder, more of a jungle gym.

What to expect: Becoming a manager can feel like progressing upward from individual contributor to someone with direct reports. It’s true, yet it’s also a completely different job in many ways. To paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, instead of climbing up the corporate ladder, you’re somewhat jumping tracks to another part of the jungle gym, and climbing from there.

What to do: Lean into project management skills. These are what set the two jobs apart, and they’re incredibly worthwhile muscles to strengthen. Focus on refining communication styles, time management, organization, new tools and software, how to scope work, how to delegate, and how to identify the right people for the work.

💡Uplevel tip: Your greatest ally is the new Project Explorer we recently launched on the Uplevel dashboard. This project overview gives incredible insight to which epics are taking your team’s time, how that work is spread across the team, and which spots might need support. You can load balance work before it even becomes an issue.

#2: You’ll build more people skills than technology skills.

What to expect: Instead of learning new coding languages and industry trends, you may spend more energy on interpersonal conflict, sprint planning, and budgeting. This does not represent a full departure from your engineering skill set—your fluency in the former undeniably helps you in the latter—yet you’ll spend less time expressly focused on that mindset.

What to do: Stay involved in projects or trainings for skills you want to keep. Sign up to attend “lunch and learn” workshops, hear from guest speakers, and borrow the books your engineers are reading. At the same time, it’s fully worth it to embrace the new skills you’re building. They’ll apply to future jobs, where you’ll stand out in the sea of candidates as someone who understands both sides of the coin.

💡Uplevel tip: Record your new “softer” skills with objective data. Throughout your time as a manager, collect the metrics that show your impact on the team. Did your monthly virtual game night result in more cross-team collaboration? How did your approach to team members that are stretched too thin lead to stronger throughput? Showing those shifts on top of your new ability to mediate conflict will sharpen your double edge.

#3: There will still be some late nights.

What to expect: You might think that you’d be spared multi-hour sessions of Deep Work, or urgent bug fixes after-hours. Managers simply support their engineers while they tackle the critical issues, right? Not quite. As the ones that assign work and address problems, managers are still involved in unexpected dilemmas, even the ones that happen outside of traditional office hours. 

What to do: Draw clear boundaries with yourself about when you need to respond. You’ll likely have more people contacting you with issues or concerns, and have a resulting sense of urgency around every outreach. However, without boundaries, you could find yourself working 24/7. Try holding dedicated space for feedback, like frequent 1:1s or office hours, to avoid messages at all hours of the day. When a pressing issue arises, like a bug, you will have to jump into action—but know that it’s a partnership between everyone involved, not just you.

💡Uplevel tip: Keep an eye on “Always On” data, which shows overtime patterns like frequent late-night Slack conversations and high Jira activity. Getting ahead of this can help ensure that high-workload weeks are the exception, not the norm (and provide proof that you and your team deserve an afternoon off every once in a while).

#4: 1:1 meetings are no longer about you. 

What to expect: Instead of arriving to weekly 1:1s ready to have your problems solved, you’ll often be helping someone else solve theirs. This change of role can take some preparation to ensure that you’re giving your direct reports meaningful time and support.

What to do: Come with an agenda. Not sure what to say beyond “how are you?” Follow our 1:1 best practices to keep the meeting focused and open-ended in all the right ways. For extra points, share this 1:1 guide for individual contributors with your team so they can prepare in advance, too. The recommended questions and metrics give more structure for an effective 1:1 than the informal coffee chats that often happen instead.

💡Uplevel tip: Uplevel provides customized 1:1 reports for each team member, packed with real, recent data and guiding questions for your check-ins. Managers can come prepared for data-driven conversations on what’s going well and identify areas that need help.

#5: Very full calendar. Very full inbox.

What to expect: As an engineer, your manager is responsible for fielding questions before they get to you. They’re in project-planning meetings before you catch wind of the kickoff. As a manager, well, you’re going to be in all those meetings. Expect meetings about projects, meetings about meetings, and maybe a post-mortem about those meetings about meetings. Plus, follow-up emails after each.

What to do: Protect your Deep Work time. (Yes, that’s still critical as a manager.) With so many hours spent in meetings, your residual hours need to be focused. Find the two-hour windows in your week that can be set aside for administrative tasks and project planning, then set Do Not Disturb as needed. On the flip side, enhance your time in meetings by reducing multitasking (i.e., no more juggling Slack conversations while someone else is presenting).

💡Uplevel tip: Use the Deep Work Scheduler to block time for you and your team. If you’re all heads-down in Deep Work together, you’re much less likely to get interrupted, and more able to crush that to-do list before your next meeting pops up. Additionally, you can see Multitasking data on your Uplevel dashboard. Aim to reduce that trend over time.

#6: You may face more competition for jobs.

What to expect: Basic math shows that most companies have more engineers than managers, so those manager positions may have more candidates vying for the role.

What to do: Come to job interviews armed with data of your effectiveness as a manager. Many people can talk about their skills, but not everyone can show concrete metrics or trends that illustrate their positive impact.

💡Uplevel tip: Use your Uplevel dashboard to set and track goals so that you can put metrics behind your management story. Maybe you’re aiming to reduce the average time of PRs in Q2, or want to show that you have a stellar track record in closing projects on time. There’s immense value in showing how you use data to improve team performance.

#7: Hard conversations become harder.

What to expect: You may be looking forward to guiding engineers to their highest potential, but you’ll also have to coach struggling employees, give negative feedback, or even fire people. This can be a tough transition for individual contributors that haven’t previously played that role.

What to do: Share the reasons behind your concerns to be as objective as possible. Come prepared with data whenever you have a hard decision to make or critical feedback to share. These straightforward demonstrations help alleviate any personal pressure (although they still call for empathy).

💡Uplevel tip: Pull reports for any relevant metrics before entering the tough conversation with your team member, like showing a downward trend in throughput, or a high prevalence of multitasking even after it’s been identified as an issue. Your Uplevel dashboard shows recent data, as well as trends over time, so you have a multi-level view of performance.

#8: Noise-cancelling headphones might be a rare luxury.

What to expect: In your engineering days, you could often (ideally) put yourself on Do Not Disturb mode and code away for hours. As a manager, you might have more spontaneous tasks or responsibilities. This reduction in “me time” can take some adjusting, especially if you gain several direct reports.

What to do: The more seriously you protect your Deep Work time, the more others will respect it, too. Emergencies aside, you can insist on isolated time to get to work. Customize your Slack notifications to only let SOS messages through and enjoy the brief hours of solitude. Beyond that, however, be ready for dynamic days.

💡Uplevel tip: While you can’t control what happens, you can use data to show the need for improved workflows or more support. Look to Always On data, Slack activity, the number of open Jira epics, and other metrics that convey your workload—making the case for changes so you can actually get work done.

Every organization relies on engineers and managers. Both are valuable positions with worthwhile skills—finding the right fit is more important than the title. If you do make the change to become a manager, life will be different, but one thing is certain: With the right expectations and toolkit, you can excel.

Next: Curious about managing while working remotely? Read our 2020 report on how managers coped during 2020.