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InfoQ Homepage News Transitioning from a Software Engineering Role into a Management Role

Transitioning from a Software Engineering Role into a Management Role

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Software engineers who want to become good at leading engineers can use everyday opportunities to practice management. Peter Gillard-Moss gave a talk at QCon London where he shared his experience with becoming a manager, and provided tips and ideas for engineers aiming to become a manager.

Gillard-Moss mentioned that he wanted to enter management because he believed his technical experience gave him the insight to lead and make decisions on behalf of the team. This was a belief shared by the people who put him in the manager role, he explained:

Whilst I was keen to lead, I was reluctant to manage. In the end, the actual responsibility of management meant that I struggled in those roles.

Looking back, the reason for this was mainly bad managers, Gillard-Moss said. He did also have good managers, but those managers were very non-conventional and positioned themselves more as leaders than managers. They were very hands off and focused more on giving me direction and leaving him to figure out the day-to-day responsibilities, as Gillard-Moss explained:

I was free to make technical decisions, but this didn’t help me develop as a manager. The result was that I was struggling with non-technical aspects of working with people and I lacked confidence in my role and retreated into being a senior technical individual contributor.

Gillard-Moss suggested that engineers who want to become good at leading engineers should practice in the small. There are everyday opportunities for engineers to practise management, he said. You don’t need authority. In fact many engineers who end up as engineering managers are often spotted because they are showing flares of management in their teams, as he explained:

It really could be as simple as picking up an epic and taking responsibility for it end-to-end. Organising the team to deliver it successfully, providing clear communication and working to remove obstacles so the rest of the team can stay focused. Or it could be running a team ritual and working to make it valuable and productive.

If you have a good manager then you’ll probably realise they are already giving you these sorts of opportunities and enabling you to do it, Gillard-Moss said.

To act as role models, engineering leaders have to live up to the standard they want to set. Your every move is being watched by your team, Gillard-Moss said. The behaviour you expect from the engineers you must show first:

If you say quality is important but every time a hard trade-off needs to be made you sacrifice quality. Or you say you want to enable independence but get involved in every decision. Then you aren’t role modelling.

As an engineering leader, I don’t need to know all the technical decisions or be an expert in every framework we are using or have intricate knowledge of how the code is organised to get the team to an answer, Gillard-Moss said. But the team does, he explained:

The value my experience as an engineer brings is that I know when someone else’s idea shows promise and I should get behind it. Or when another engineer disagrees I understand where they are coming from. And when the team shows me what it looks like, whether in code or in a diagram, I connect with what they think and feel about it too.

This doesn’t mean you can be ignorant, Gillard-Moss said. You have to learn from your teams and listen to them, as they will naturally keep up with things. As an engineering leader, you can nurture and encourage that. Combine that with going to the gemba and observing teams doing real work and you will pick things up by osmosis, Gillard-Moss concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Peter Gillard-Moss about managing and leading engineering teams.

InfoQ: What challenges did you face when you became a manager?

Peter Gillard-Moss: I had a strong aversion to the word manager and the idea of management. A lot of this was down to ignorance. I didn’t know what good management looked like or what it meant. And the ideas I did have of it were mainly negative. Authority, approval, inspection, delegation, and giving tough feedback. I also associated a lot of those skills with project management and I knew I didn’t have those things "in my blood".

It took me a while before I learned what good management is and why it is important. And why leadership and management are two sides of a coin, not a dichotomy.

InfoQ: How can engineering leaders act as stakeholders for engineering?

Gillard-Moss: You have to be a stakeholder for engineering and engineers by representing. This isn’t the same as "speaking on behalf".

Your role is to bring the stakeholders’ perspective and ensure their needs and concerns are part of the decision-making. When making tough decisions you need to bring the engineering perspective, and help people from other disciplines understand the trade-offs being made. Negotiate with other stakeholders so we can make the best decision for the organisation and its customers and employees.

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