As ICs grow to senior levels and are exposed to the non-technical side of engineering roles, many begin to consider whether they should continue as an IC, developing expertise in hard engineering skills, or complement their current technical skills by undertaking a managerial role.
Often, the role of an EM is perceived as the only viable option or most lucrative path to a successful career in tech; where a clearly defined path for advancement as an IC is not apparent. In traditional organisational hierarchies, management is popularly perceived as a step up the career ladder vis-a-vis IC roles.
However, it’s a growing practice in the tech industry, especially at larger companies, to chalk out separate and distinct career paths with the opportunities to advance in either management or IC/technical roles.
In deciding whether to become an EM or remain an IC, one should consider how the roles of an EM and IC are different in terms of job profiles, what they entail, and their required skill sets.
To help software engineers with making this decision, we decided to ask some industry experts in a session on Clubhouse, the fastest growing social media app. This article is based on that session. Hosted by Ryan Valles and Soham Mehta, the co-founders of Interview Kickstart, the session featured a panel discussion comprising Interview Kickstart alumni & instructors working as Engineering Managers at FAANG and tier 1 companies. The panel also fielded questions from the audience comprising software engineers from various companies including aspiring FAANG engineers.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What do Engineering Managers do? How is it different from being an Individual Contributor?
- Engineering Managers vs. Tech Leads, Team Leads, Tech Lead Managers, Technical Product Managers
- Skills needed to become an Engineering Manager
- What does a company expect from an EM?
- How can an IC progress toward an Engineering Manager role?
- Can an IC join a new company as an EM?
- What is the career pathway from an L4 to an EM?
- Can an IC move laterally from a senior IC role to a corresponding senior EM role?
- Why choose an Engineering Manager role?
- Suitability for entrepreneurship or early-stage start-ups
- The Engineering Manager Interview Process
- The Engineering Manager interview process at Facebook
- How can an Engineering Manager’s success or productivity be measured or How can EMs project their capabilities?
What do Engineering Managers do? How is it different from being an Individual Contributor?
An Engineering Manager works through people unlike an Individual Contributor who works alone on a particular task.
- Individual Contributor (IC)
An Individual Contributor works individually, coding, designing or taking ownership of a task or a component of a project. The output of an IC is dependent solely on his/her own efforts. While ICs may have to interact with peers, they are not responsible or accountable for anyone else’s efforts.
ICs focus on the technical aspects of a project and their scope of work is limited compared to an EM. They usually work on clearly defined tasks in a prioritized manner within a prescribed framework.
Their roles are technology and task-oriented and do not require people management, strategizing or resource coordination. ICs have to have strong technological knowledge and constantly develop their technical skill sets.
- Engineering Manager (EM)
An Engineering Manager supervises a team of engineers, typically sized at about 7 – 8 members (larger at big companies), and is responsible for the work or output of the entire team as a unit.
At larger companies, especially at FAANG companies, EMs are not expected to code, personally execute technically or provide technical solutions (which are considered tasks to be performed by team members and tech leads) but to ensure that all these aspects are delivered on through their team.
EMs are primarily responsible and accountable for people management.
EMs focus on team building, team management, devising technical strategies, supervising projects, coordinating internal and external resources to resolve issues, collaborating with other teams, communicating with stakeholders, conducting one-on-ones with team members, assessing and reporting on team performance, and providing direction to ensure technical operations achieve planned goals.
This includes various allied activities such as hiring, coaching, mentoring, and budgeting among others. Context switching, time management and prioritization are an inherent part of an EM’s role to be able to attend to multiple requirements.
EMs need to possess reasonable levels of technical knowledge but are required to possess very strong leadership, interpersonal, communication, and project management skills.
Engineering Managers vs. Tech Leads, Team Leads, Tech Lead Managers, Technical Product Managers
An Individual Contributor (IC) role can have two aspects i.e. the type of IC who focuses on coding, design, and developing solutions or ICs as Architects or Senior Engineers who act as Tech Leads or Team Leads.
The latter, in addition to technical tasks, also handles non-technical/project management/leadership responsibilities such as setting roadmaps and visions, breaking down tasks, ensuring their execution, managing tech issue trade- offs etc.
Larger companies like Google and Facebook also feature Tech Lead Manager positions in addition to Tech Leads. While Tech Leads do not have direct reports, Tech Lead Managers do have direct reports and require more people skills.
It’s not uncommon for engineers to misconstrue an EM’s role to be a natural extension of a senior IC role, similar but wider in scale, given both roles are a blend of technical and managerial activities. However, functioning as a Tech Lead Manager or Product Manager does not signify an IC will function well as an EM.
A Tech Lead or Tech Lead Manager focuses on and is responsible for technical aspects and systems whereas an EM’s role is primarily centered around people management and not technological aspects.
Similarly, a Technical Product Manager is focused on customers, maximizing customer impact, product direction etc. They may be able to provide a lot of support to EMs on how to run the team but in terms of accountability, a TPM is responsible for product impact on the customer while an EM is responsible for the team’s impact on the company.
Many ICs find managerial aspects of a senior IC role appealing because it gives them a chance to lead but without the pressures of accountability. They function primarily within their comfort zones i.e. working on coding, designing, technology, software, product development, user research, user behavior etc.
However, when they go down the EM path, ICs may find that they do not enjoy a role that encompasses only managerial duties and is devoid of technical execution. Focusing solely on handling a team without the opportunity to apply their technical skills can prove dissatisfactory in the long-term.
If an engineer is more adept at and interested in technical skill development than people skills, then transitioning to an EM role would not make for a meaningful career progression.
However, if ICs in hybrid positions such as that of a TLM or TPM find themselves naturally drawn to and more adept at the non-technical aspects like leadership, strategizing and people management, transitioning to an EM role is more appropriate.
Skills needed to become an Engineering Manager
- Technical Skills
Although an engineering manager is not usually expected to execute on technical aspects, EMs do need to possess a sound technical background to understand what their team is doing, understand requirements, provide appropriate direction, coordinate resources and ensure technical issues are resolved.
It is preferable to gain experience at the level of a senior engineer before moving into an EM role so as to have developed adequate levels of technical knowledge. EMs do not have to possess the skills or knowledge of an expert but should definitely be proficient in the areas they are handling.
The role of an EM cannot be seen as an escape or alternative to coding nor is it suited for those who are not passionate about engineering and technology. EMs have to stay abreast of the latest developments in technologies and processes to be able to lead their teams.
In addition to skills needed to deal with technical aspects, EMs are also required to have strong project management skills to establish necessary processes, ensure effective and efficient coordination of internal and external resources, achieve project delivery, and assess and report on operations and results.
- People/ non-technical skills
EMs are required to have very strong people skills. While there is no universal checklist to determine the right non-technical skills needed to be an EM, some of the more prominent skills one should have as an EM are -
- Leadership and assertiveness
- Empathy; being an active listener
- Effective communication skills
- The ability to be a visionary and strategize
- The ability to engage with other people and build relationships
- The ability and interest in working with and directing others
- The willingness to help, coach and mentor other people
- The ability to develop and grow others’ careers
- The ability to enjoy others’ successes
- The ability to give feedback and convey difficult messages
- Self-awareness and perseverance to overcome their own mistakes
- The ability to assess and analyze situations and potential challenges
- The ability to prioritize, multi-task and delegate
- Decision-making and intuition
- Emotional intelligence
What does a company expect from an EM?
The role of an EM may vary across companies but the expectations from an EM largely cover three major areas viz. –
- People management – Ensure that organizational health is maintained through their teams
- Priorities or Products – Ensure that the technological aspects are taken care of and delivered effectively
- Processes and Projects – Ensure that processes and projects are executed effectively and efficiently.
How can an IC progress toward an Engineering Manager role?
An IC can prepare to be an EM and develop the required skills while still in an IC role.
- Identify and develop the required strengths and skill set. An EM requires strong people skills. An IC with strong technical skills or an interest in developing technological expertise is better suited to IC roles. An engineer with a natural leaning towards people management, strategizing, and leadership is more suited to an EM role.
- Develop project management skills by developing the ability to break down projects into assignable tasks.
- Coach or mentor interns or volunteer to onboard new engineers in order to develop leadership and coaching skills. At Facebook, coaching or mentoring experience is strongly considered for EM candidates.
- Invest in and enjoy others’ success by helping others resolve problems, especially with non-technical issues. Look for opportunities to facilitate favorable team outcomes e.g. supporting process or design decisions.
- Build relationships across the company and develop the requisite interpersonal skills. Practice providing feedback, positive or constructive, to peers. Create a reputation of being the go-to person for advice and resolutions, especially on non-technical aspects.
- Progress into a role which encompasses people management activities such as Tech Lead, Tech Lead Manager, Technical Product Manager or other similar senior engineering roles to develop influencing skills and gain first-hand experience of team and project management. If these opportunities don’t currently exist within the company, look to create similar functional roles within the company by talking to management. These roles provide the ability to work on medium-sized projects and practice influencing skills.
- Identify EM roles within or outside the company and understand the process to transition into these roles. Growing companies are more likely to have larger and complex projects that require EMs.
Can an IC join a new company as an EM?
Transitioning from one company to another from an IC to an EM role is not common. Larger companies generally do not hire inexperienced EMs. Companies typically expect EM candidates to possess at least a couple of years of management experience when hiring from outside the company. However, smaller companies tend to be open to hiring senior ICs without management experience from larger companies.
What is the career pathway from an L4 to an EM?
At an L4 level, an IC should look for opportunities to become the Tech Lead of a medium-sized area, if not a team. This will help build influencing skills and gain experience getting work done through others as well as widen their scope of work. Transitioning into an L5 role with these skills gives an IC the opportunity to become a Tech Lead Manager which will then provide exposure to both technical and management aspects and act as preparation for an EM role.
Can an IC move laterally from a senior IC role to a corresponding senior EM role?
The similarity between senior IC roles and senior EM roles is predominantly titular. IC and EM roles are based on different skill sets and follow separate career tracks.
A senior IC role requires advanced technical skills, limited influencing skills and limited managerial responsibilities. EM roles, on the other hand, are based on people and processes requiring strong non-technical skills and limited technical execution.
Advancing into senior IC roles will help deepen an engineer’s technical expertise but will not impart adequate levels of managerial experience required to successfully transition to a senior EM role.
Even at an L6 or L7 level, an IC would be expected to acquire necessary managerial skills and grow into a senior EM role which could mean transitioning to a lower management level first. ICs usually don’t see the value in progressing to senior IC roles only to take a ‘step-back’ to enter management , hence, generally transition into an EM role after reaching an L5 level.
Why choose an Engineering Manager role?
The key motivational factor to becoming an EM should be the desire to perform a non-technical, managerial role.
ICs should first identify if they are the right fit for an EM role based on whether they enjoy working with people, have the right personality and people skills (as listed above), and whether they envision themselves making a more meaningful impact as an EM.
Opting to become an EM for the wrong reasons can lead to job dissatisfaction, failure to achieve career progression, or even burnout due to mismatch of skills, interests, and abilities.
Some of the more popular, often misconstrued, reasons ICs choose to switch career tracks from a technical IC role to a non-technical EM role are -
- Entrepreneurship goals
Unlike most industries, the tech industry rewards ICs and EMs similarly. It is a common misconception that EMs are better compensated than ICs by default.
Compensation for either role is based on how much a particular company needs or values IC or EM roles.
Generally, ICs and EMs follow parallel career paths where compensation does not differ markedly at lower levels. However, as the scope of work scales up at higher levels, people management skills become necessary giving rise to more opportunities and demand for EMs over ICs. EMs thereby tend to command higher compensation.
However, tech companies are increasingly defining separate career tracks for ICs and EMs at higher levels as well, offering more opportunities for pay parity between the two roles. Where opportunities for advancement exist, ICs have the potential to earn as favorably as, or, in many cases, more favorably than EMs.
Compensation should be considered along with growth opportunities before deciding to pursue either an IC or EM role.
The role of an Engineering Manager should not be viewed as an alternative to coding or technical execution.
Engineers often perceive the role of an IC to be more demanding, having to keep up with ever-changing technologies and the threat of being outdated whereas the role of an EM is perceived to be easier and more stable/less competitive comprising largely of people management and non-technical tasks that don’t require constant upgradation of skills.
However, EMs are responsible for the technical execution of a project through their team even if they do not personally execute these tasks. It is imperative for EMs to stay as updated on technological changes and advancements as the ICs they work with. EMs also have to interact and deal with their peers and superiors besides their own direct reports. Staying abreast of technical developments as well as constantly performing on non-technical aspects is necessary to ensure longevity within a company.
EM roles are, also, fewer in number than IC roles within any company’s organizational structure making it a more competitive level to be at as opposed to IC roles which offer engineers the opportunity to explore more areas of interest and more positions at various companies.
Suitability for entrepreneurship or early-stage start-ups
It is commonly perceived that EMs make for better entrepreneurs.
An entrepreneur requires a full stack of skills and should possess the right competencies, if not expertise, in various areas e.g. recruiting, fundraising etc. it can be said the four core skills needed at a tech start-up are in the areas of –
- Software development
- Story telling
Considering the role of an EM entails both technical knowledge and management skills, that encompass the above, EMs appear to fit the role of a founder.
However, in many cases, it’s the deep technological skills, expertise, talent and persona that an IC possesses/develops that are considered more valuable and impactful to a new venture.
To become an entrepreneur or join an early stage start-up, one should, primarily, be invested in and motivated by the business idea on which the company is founded. There is no particular defined skill set that can be mapped to entrepreneurship. As a founder or founding member, an engineer may have to deal with multiple aspects of setting up or working within a fresh venture, from product development to business execution.
The Engineering Manager Interview Process
Reputed companies generally do not entertain candidates without the requisite experience for the role of an Engineering Manager. In order to secure an interview at a company of choice, it is ideal to first gain a couple of years of experience in the role of an EM.
The interview process for an Engineering Manager, as outlined below, is well understood by the faculty at Interview Kickstart.
Every company has their own nuanced way of conducting technical interviews. However, Engineering Management interviews at most top tech companies generally feature the following stages:
- The technical interview
The first stage of the interview process features questions on coding; typically, on topics of algorithms and data structures. Most candidates incorrectly assume coding or technical questions won’t feature in an interview for the role of an Engineering Manager. While the coding round of an EM interview is not assigned as much weightage as that of an L5 engineer or senior engineer, candidates are expected to have reasonable levels of technical knowledge and competencies.
- The systems design interview
This is the second, and a very important, stage of the Engineering Manager interview process. This stage usually comprises two rounds of interviews to test candidates’ understanding of large scale design and distributed systems. This stage has a high potential for failure as interviews can often be in areas candidates have never worked on before, making it very challenging.
- The domain knowledge interview
This stage tests candidates’ domain knowledge and expertise based on their technological background or area of specialization.
- The leadership interview
Usually the last stage of the process, candidates are tested on their leadership, people management, team management and communication skills. More weightage is assigned to this stage for an EM candidate than for an IC candidate. An EM role requires strong people management and leadership skills, as compared to an IC role which requires more technical expertise, making this a pivotal stage of the EM interview process.
The Engineering Manager interview process at Facebook
The EM interview at Facebook typically follows the process outlined above, the various stages being -
- Coding round
- Systems design and domain knowledge round – A pivotal stage of the process that tests a combination of design skills and domain knowledge.
- Leadership round – A very important part of the process that focuses on candidates’ people management skills such as collaboration, partnership, conflict resolution etc.
How can an Engineering Manager’s success or productivity be measured or How can EMs project their capabilities?
An IC can showcase technical skills, projects they’ve worked on, technologies they have expertise in, systems they’ve built etc. They have far more opportunities at different companies based on their competencies. However, given the scope, complexities and intangible nature of an EM’s work, it’s challenging for an EM to quantify, measure and project their successes and capabilities.
Whether moving up within the same company or pursuing an opportunity at another company, it is hard to define key results EMs should focus on or how to showcase what they bring to the table.
An IC is better placed to showcase success or results because these are well-defined and immediate or short-term in nature as opposed to that of an EM whose success is only evident over a period of time; sometimes stretching over a quarter or a year.
An IC’s success is dependent on the immediate resolution of issues and completion of components of a project without having to work through others. However, an EM works on multiple aspects with various dependencies in which case success and failure go hand-in-hand. EMs are focused on overall project outcomes.
The success of an IC is measured in terms of the contribution of an individual within a team or on a particular project while the success of an EM is measured in terms of the contribution or impact of a team on the company.
An EMs success can be broadly measured or projected based on the following areas –
- Organizational health – How effective are relationships between various members of a team? Is there growth within the team? Are inter-departmental relationships effective?
- Strategy – Does the team have the right set of roadmaps? What is the technical product impact that the team delivers?
- Execution – How smooth is execution of projects on a daily basis? How extensively and effectively are goals met?
- Impact on business or mission – At smaller companies the impact of a team on revenue can be measured directly, however, at large companies, the impact can be measured against deliverables based on the team’s scorecard which is related to the company’s mission.
While there is no universal checklist to determine whether an engineer should remain an IC or become an EM, in deciding to pursue one over the other, one should carefully consider what each role entails, the skill sets required to be an EM, one’s strengths and motivations to pursue an EM role, career paths and growth opportunities as an EM, and the potential to create an impact as an EM personally and professionally.