A Checklist For First-Time Engineering Managers
Becoming an engineering manager for the first time can feel lonely. It's how I felt - and other engineering managers I've talked with confessed the same feeling on transitioning from engineer to manager.
The most visible change in moving to management is you get a lot less feedback. When you're an engineer, you get feedback on your code, on your design documents, or how your projects are going. As a manager, you have none of this. There are also often no clear and specific expectations of what you should be doing in this role.
I wanted to make the path to becoming a new manager "easier", and so I created a "checklist" that I wish I had when starting out as a new EM. At Uber, we had an Apprentice Engineering Management program in place, a structured way to help senior and above engineers transition into the engineering manager role. When the first engineer on my team entered this problem, I thought back at what I could have used as help when I became a manager.
I noticed the many parallels between an engineer managing a project the first time and a new manager starting to manage a team. In either case, they've not done this work before: and an opinionated list can prove much more helpful than general advice.
The expectations checklist I created was opinionated and specific to the role at Uber and on my team. I aimed to craft the checklist items to specify the output but leave the "how" to the engineering manager. You can view the complete checklist here.
We would first discuss if the points made sense, tweak it, then check-in regularly on their progress. My goal was to narrow the seemingly endless task of "be a good engineering manager" down to something manageable.
The expectations are split into these areas:
- Team building and teaching. Build trust on the team, execute on hiring (if they have headcount), and develop people on their team.
- Deliver results. Ensure the team has a structure to execute on, get things done, and keep a high quality bar.
- Collaborate and connect. Keep an open communications channel with the team, connect people and teams, and run good meetings.
- Vision. Ensure the team has a purpose and collect team values. Involve the team in planning for what the team will do.
- Professional growth. Keep growing as a person: set their own goals, work with a mentor, network with peers and give back.
The feedback for this approach has been overwhelmingly positive. The first-time manager on my team said this checklist made a huge difference in their focus and confidence. They said the list gave them a much-needed structure. This manager has also gone to become an excellent one, as confirmed by their team, their stakeholders, and by their manager - me!
Other managers in the organization started to use the checklist, tailoring it for their needs. Other managers gave similar feedback in how it provided something "concrete" in this fuzzy world of management.
My advice in using this checklist is this: don't blindly copy it: but customize it. Start by defining what a competent engineering manager looks like in your organization. Then, working backward, come up with outcomes that can prove that someone is demonstrating this competence.
Try not to define exactly how the engineering manager should go about doing something. That's micromanaging: unless you have a good reason to do so, I'd advise avoiding it. Instead, define what result you'd like to see. You'll see how much of the expectations in this document leave interpretation open to the new manager.
Don't forget that first-time managers need just as much support as first-time project leads and first-time engineers do. As a manager to a first-time engineering manager, investing your time to help these managers succeed is one of the highest leverage activities you can do.
Featured Pragmatic Engineer Jobs
- Full-Stack Engineer at Farmlend. £85-95K + equity. London.
- Senior Backend Engineer at Farmlend. £85-95K + equity. London.
- Senior Full Stack Engineer at Perfect Venue. $150-180K + equity. San Francsico or Remote (US).
- Senior Software Engineer at AI Build. London or Remote (Europe).
- Senior DevOps Engineerr at AI Build. Remote (US).
- Full-Stack Engineer at Vital. $70-120K + equity. Remote (Global, within 5 hours of GMT).
- Backend Engineer at Vital. $70-120K + equity. Remote (Global, within 5 hours of GMT).
- Technical Lead - Platform at Vannevar Labs. Remote (US).
- Senior Software Engineer, Fullstack at Vannevar Labs. Remote (US).
- Computational Geometry Engineer at AI Build. London or Remote (Europe).
- Senior QA Engineer at AI Build. London or Remote (Europe).
- Lead Backend Developer at Cineville. €53-79K + equity. Amsterdam.
- Senior Software Engineer, Distributed Systems at Mixpanel. $200-270K + equity. New York, San Franciso, Seattle or Remote (US).
- Senior Software Engineer, Fullstack at Mixpanel. $200-270K + equity. New York, San Franciso, Seattle or Remote (US).
- Principal Engineer at Shoplift. $185-205K. New York.
- Senior Engineer at Sixfold AI. New York.
The above jobs score at least 10/12 on The Pragmatic Engineer Test. Browse more senior engineer and engineering leadership roles with great engineering cultures, or add your own on The Pragmatic Engineer Job board and apply to join The Pragmatic Engineer Talent Collective.
Want to get interesting opportunities from vetted tech companies? Sign up to The Pragmatic Engineer Talent Collective and get sent great opportunities - similar to the ones below without any obligation. You can be public or anonymous, and I’ll be curating the list of companies and people.
Are you hiring senior+ engineers or engineering managers? Apply to join The Pragmatic Engineer Talent Collective to contact world-class senior and above engineers and engineering managers/directors. Get vetted drops twice a month, from software engineers - full-stack, backend, mobile, frontend, data, ML - and managers currently working at Big Tech, high-growth startups, and places with strong engineering cultures. Apply here.