Transitioning From Engineering to Software Engineering Management: What to Expect

Transitioning From Engineering to Software Engineering Management: What to Expect

Written by
Niall McQuay
Date published
March 21, 2024

From Engineering to Software Engineering Management: What to Expect

Journey from software engineer to engineering manager. DALL-E
Journey from software engineer to engineering manager. DALL-E

If you're an engineer looking to transition into a software engineering manager role, this is for you.

Leaping from dedicated coder to software engineering manager can be alluring, brimming with prospects of leadership, strategic impact, and broadened horizons. A management position represents the next logical step forward for many in software engineering roles. This natural progression aligns with the desire to shape the code, your team, your culture, and your company vision. However, before you race toward this transition, you must pause and take stock of what this transformation truly entails.

Here, we'll offer an unvarnished glimpse into the must-know realities and white-knuckle truths software engineers face when adjusting their focus to become engineering managers.

The Pains of a Software Engineering Manager

A stressed software engineering manager. DALL-E
A stressed software engineering manager. DALL-E

Management is not a Shortcut to a Higher Salary

It is a common misconception that the path to an engineering management role is a fast track to better perks and a fatter paycheck. In the software industry, where senior engineers and other senior technical roles usually outearn their management counterparts, money cannot be your sole motivator. The increase in responsibility doesn't always equate to a spike in salary, especially in today's world, where highly skilled individual contributors are highly valued.

Your Calendar Will Always be Full

Between standups, retros, sprint plannings, backlog groomings, 1:1s, stakeholder meetings, and every one of those pesky little meetings on your calendar that should have been an email, engineering managers are hard-pressed to find time to get any real focused work done. The solace, comfort, and quiet you once knew will be replaced by an itinerary crammed with meetings, and your underutilized vocal cords will be strengthened to rival those of an opera singer as you will be talking most of the day. When you have an important task to focus on, it might be smart to schedule time for it on your calendar.

You Won't Get to Code Often

Put that master's degree in computer science degree away. No more days spent fiddling with new technology and automated tools. For those fueled by the joy of opening up their IDE and writing code, the shift to manager implies a bittersweet farewell to coding daily. A manager's role is multifaceted, demanding attention across various spheres from meetings to mentoring, leaving precious little time to engage in the actual writing of code. Delegation becomes the order of the day as technical problems get passed to the engineers.

You Are Never off the Clock

As an engineering manager, you are much more responsible for the reliability of the product your team is building. Contrary to the 9-to-5 job of the stereotypical programmer, management positions thrust you into a realm where work-life balance can be a vanishing mirage. The task of being on-call for catastrophic scenarios and the weight of high-stakes decision-making don't adhere to a clock. In management, your personal and professional worlds often intertwine in a complex dance of responsibility.

Hiring is a Slow Grind

At high growth startups, the hiring process becomes a never-ending cycle. As each candidate comes in, you get the quest to determine if they are a 'perfect fit.' The hard truth is that most of the time, they aren't. The hiring grind is a wearying responsibility, as the onus falls on you to cultivate and maintain the talent that is the lifeblood of your department.

You'll Face Tough Decisions Often

Throughout your engineering manager career, you'll likely face many tough choices. You might face layoffs during times of economic uncertainty or company instability, and you need to be prepared for these.

When layoffs come, you may have to choose who stays and who goes. You'll have to make tough choices that negatively impact the lives of people you likely care a lot about.

You'll also need to fire people occasionally. Despite our best efforts, sometimes the hiring decisions we make as managers don't pan out as we hope, and we have no other option but to terminate people. If you're a good manager, this should only happen sometimes, but expect it to happen occasionally. As an aside, it's better to communicate poor performance early in performance reviews, rather than letting it drag on.

The Pleasures that Await Engineering Managers

A happy cartoon engineering manager. DALL-E
A happy cartoon engineering manager. DALL-E

Now that we've seen some of the bad let's talk about the good.

If the previous section cast some fear into your heart, the following section beams a light on the brighter aspects of a management career. The role is replete with opportunities to nurture and guide, to take part in the strategic decisions of company projects, and to savor the victories of a team's collective endeavors.

The Ability to Help Others Grow

Engineering leaders are champions of their teams and do what they can to help their team members progress. Fostering individual development is among the most gratifying aspects of the managerial role. Personal investment in your team members' growth can be deeply rewarding, with each promotion, bonus, and performance review carrying a surge of pride in the part played in shaping professionals' futures. You actively invest in helping others on your team enhance their software development and leadership skills.

A Seat at the Table

Engineering managers can be pivotal players in the company's strategic product meetings. Their vantage point offers them a panoramic view of the organization's objectives, allowing them to steer their team's efforts and software projects in alignment with the company's overarching vision.

The Opportunity for Personal Growth

A career as an engineering manager will push you outside your comfort zone and challenge you to develop new leadership skills. You'll learn to navigate complex team dynamics, manage different personalities, and foster an inclusive and productive work environment. This personal growth will benefit you as a manager and in any future roles or endeavors you pursue.

The Ability to Deliver Value

When you rise to a higher position within your organization, you gain a bird' s-eye view of the intricate processes involved in each project's success. This broader perspective allows managers to fully appreciate and feel ten times more rewarded when your team successfully delivers something significantly valuable to your customers.

To experience this reward, you'll need to sharpen your project management skills. Learn to help your team execute their software projects effectively by overseeing timelines, detailing requirements, delegating tasks, and ensuring that projects stay on track.

Management is People First

This can be a shock to people in their first management role The role of an engineering manager is radically people-centric. You will need to transcend your technical knowledge to prioritize the human aspects of management.

Keep a PMA (Positive Mental Attitude)

It's important to remember how the little interactions you have can impact the people around you. A frustrated, pressured, angry manager can make for an uncomfortable, disheartened, and unmotivated team. For your team's sake and your own, do your best to keep a positive mental attitude. As an engineering manager, you will confront countless stressors, but how you handle and react to each one is up to you.

Be a Mentor and Advocate

Success in managerial roles is measured by the success of the team you cultivate. An engineering manager's pivotal role is that of a mentor and an advocate, offering guidance in career progression and exemplifying the acumen needed for navigating the corporate labyrinth. Good managers always want their people to succeed, and they do so by providing consistent, honest, in-depth feedback and clear responsibilities. You'll also need to encourage growth by providing your teams with access to training.

Use Empathy

A good engineering manager understands the impact of their decisions on their engineering team. They lead with empathy, actively engaging with their reports to understand and address their concerns and to champion a work environment that promotes wellness and inclusivity.

The best software engineering managers have a high EQ. You'll need to be emotionally available to help people on your team as they navigate the difficult personal problems that life sometimes throws our way. This may mean listening and providing support or directing them to resources that can help.

Communicate Early and Often

Strong communication skills are crucial for any successful engineering manager. You'll need to effectively communicate with your team members, other managers, and stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards a common goal.


For software engineers considering the leap to management, the journey ahead is a tapestry woven with diverse experiences, from the mundane to the triumphant. The realities we've discussed are not meant to discourage but to guide expectations and prompt a clear-eyed assessment of the role's demands and rewards.

Management isn't just another step up the corporate ladder; it's a significant shift that offers the potential for meaningful impact and undeniable challenges. To excel in this ever-evolving landscape requires a unique blend of technical expertise, interpersonal skills, and unwavering determination. Reflect on your motivations, assess your readiness for change, and dive into the realm of possibilities that a management career holds if the timing feels right.

For those who feel connected to the call to lead, mentor, and advocate, the engineering manager role could be the pinnacle of a career defined by code and camaraderie. Ultimately, whether the role of engineering management represents a significant milestone or a stepping stone to greater ambitions, the key takeaway is this: Approach the role not as an escape from technical challenges but as a progression that enriches your career with leadership accolades and a legacy of human accomplishment.


Here are some outstanding leadership and engineering management books that helped me on my journey, and I hope they help you as well. Keep sharpening those skills and growing as an empathetic, emotionally intelligent engineering manager. Best of luck on your journey!

  • "The Manager's Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change" by Camille Fournier
  • "Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach" by Gerald M. Weinberg
  • "Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity" by Kim Scott
  • "High Output Management" by Andrew S. Grove
  • "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High" by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
  • "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.

Remember, being an engineering manager is a continuous learning process; these resources can help you along the way. Don't be afraid to seek advice and support from others, and always strive to improve your skills.


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