I can share zero-to-one experience to become an engineering manager (EM) without previous experience. Another common path is to get hired as an EM, but that typically requires previous management experience, leaving zero-to-one transition still relevant. The practice looks generally similar in other tech companies with differences in details.
Let’s start with the minimum requirement:
- Your job title should already encompass leadership as an individual contributor (IC). So, the minimum requires a “senior” engineer title, but the exact detail can differ per team or company. e.g., some groups may require higher titles.
- Leadership refers to the capability to technically lead 2-3+ members to achieve non-trivial goals over a few months, if not years. Thus, you are already expected to demonstrate management skills like planning, bringing consensus among stakeholders, guiding others to achieve the common goal, updating status, and course-correcting.
- It is unlikely this minimum bar will be lowered as there are plenty of supplies of talents that satisfy this condition.
Technical excellence is an interesting topic worth mentioning separately:
- There’s one school of thought that EM should be technically excellent like Elon Musk. “I strongly believe that all managers in a technical area must be technically excellent.”1. Assuming he has a very high bar of technical excellence, however, I think this stance is more strict than typical tech companies.
- Instead, EMs are expected to bring the best output for the team, not necessarily to suggest technical decisions by themselves. Andrew Grove, another legendary CEO, suggested “the output of a manager is the output of [their] organization”2 and greatly influenced Silicon Valley for decades. This relaxation allowed tech companies to scale more easily because more people could manage well without being the best technical person.
- There’s no absolute rule for successful companies, and the exact requirements for EMs will continuously change. So, let’s conclude that technical skills are highly critical criteria for EMs, but not an absolute one.
After satisfying the minimum, there are still casual requirements that have different weights per circumstance:
- Opportunity: Let’s say your manager has five engineers on the team, the team is unlikely to grow for years, and the manager has no plan to move. In this case, there’s not enough air for another manager to breathe. In contrast, let’s say your team grows 3x every year. Then, the team would be forced to have more EMs, providing ample opportunities.
- Explicit willingness: Even when there’s an opportunity, decision makers (your management chain and other senior ICs) may not know if you’d be interested. Share your willingness explicitly with your manager so you can be a part of the transition.
- Similar experiences: Decision makers can give you more responsibilities more easily if you have track records with similar experiences. For example, hosting interns is a great way to show that you can lead others and bring higher output beyond yourself. Such experiences also give you more confidence (and test if you really like the job of management.)
- Working without an official title: At the last step, you may be required to act as an EM without official responsibility. This way, decision makers can accumulate more confidence and more easily fall back if things don’t go well.
The position change is similar to system migration. Instead of big jumps, executing with smaller and incremental steps is more likely to succeed.
In the end, EMs are required to bring impacts beyond themselves, but there are other positions to do so as well. So, it is useful to think about bringing larger impacts and continuously assess your circumstances (your capabilities, team’s phase, company practices, etc.). In addition, getting feedback about growing impacts from more senior members (both EMs and ICs) can be tremendously valuable. You may not become an EM immediately following this strategy, but you will be in a better position to transition to EM (assuming you still want that).