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What Is An Engineering Manager?

Depending on your niche, industry, or company size, an engineering manager could be put in charge of a lot of different initiatives and teams.

Some days you may be stuck in cross-functional meetings with other departments, flexing your soft skills. Others might be spent deep in code review or training a brand-new engineer.

Each day might bring a new challenge and opportunity to your desk.

Engineering managers, or EMs, drive the most impact by harnessing the power of an engineering team. Not writing lines of code.

But it seems that many companies hear the word “engineering” but forget about the “manager” part — and then they are confused why their new engineering manager can’t do both!

So let’s break down what an engineering manager really looks like in 2022 and beyond.

What Is An Engineering Manager? - Definition of Engineering Manager
Nick Caldwell

Nick Caldwell

Nick is the former GM of Core Tech at Twitter. Previously, he was Chief Product Officer at Looker, VP of Eng at Reddit, and GM at Microsoft. He serves on the boards of HubSpot, True Platform, and /dev/color.

Doa Jafri

Doa Jafri

Doa Jafri is an Operator in Residence at Reforge and an early-stage engineering leader. She most recently built and led teams at Glossier and Thrive Global.

Camille Fournier

Camille Fournier

Camille Fournier is the former Managing Director at Two Sigma and former CTO of Rent the Runway.

What is an Engineering Manager?

An engineering manager helps deliver impactful and reliable output from the engineering team. It’s really that simple.

According to Nick Caldwell, GM of Redbird at Twitter, “The role of the engineering manager is to staff a team to deliver on set objectives, namely products and services, at a predictable cadence and well-understood quality level.”

An engineering manager is also accountable for their team's work beyond its own reporting lines. In almost every tech company, timely updates and output from the engineering team are required.

Doa Jafri says that engineering managers are the most engaged and hands-on leaders in an engineering organization.

“Engineering managers are responsible for delivering the right technology on the right timeline while building and maintaining healthy teams. Doing this requires strong cross-functional relationships, the ability to communicate with technical and non-technical people, and the ability to make important calls with limited information.”

For example, marketers can’t plan a marketing campaign without knowing when a product feature is going to live. And your customer support team can’t inform users about how to navigate a new bug without effective communication.

Remember everything that goes through engineering, must also go through engineering managers.

Camille Fournier, MD at Two Sigma and former CTO of Rent the Runway, puts it nicely by saying “Good management is actually a pretty important part of making engineering teams effective and making companies effective.”

Most of these engineering manager roles are filled by high-achieving engineers that have already flexed their technical skills.

However, these managers often face a critical paradox: Once in the management track, they no longer build software — they build the teams that build software. And that leads to a lot of challenges for a new engineering manager.

Engineering Manager Responsibilities & Challenges

Moving from a top independent contributor into management is going to have some major challenges.

Engineering managers face common managerial speedbumps in their first few months, or years.

Jessica McKellar, Founder and CTO of Pilot, states: “There's an inflection point when someone moves from engineer to manager, and it can feel very uncomfortable—like you're only in meetings and not getting anything done.”

Doa goes on to say that she recommends new engineering managers redefine what “getting things done” means.

As an engineering manager, you can no longer measure your productivity by tickets or bugs, and losing that consistent sense of accomplishment takes a toll.

A lot of new managers go through a similar process, it's a jarring experience, to say the least.

Because of the cross-functional nature of the engineering manager role, you’re also going to face some unique growing pains as well.

According to our experts, these are the main reasons why the EM role is challenging:

  • EMs are critical assets who harness and direct the technical talent of the team.
  • Work experience hasn’t adequately prepared EMs for management.
  • EMs sit between cross-functional groups and their ICs.
What Is An Engineering Manager? - Responsibilities of An Engineering Manager

Doa has seen that most engineers haven’t had to build up their soft skills like communication, team feedback, and resource planning until they make that shift into a management role.

Commonly these new managers will fall off what she calls the “Communication Cliff,” and it takes some time for them to understand how to effectively communicate with other stakeholders.

She also believes that “a successful transition into engineering management relies heavily on strong support from other managers, but that doesn’t always happen.”

So now let’s look at how you can set yourself up for success as an engineering manager.

How To Become A Successful Engineering Manager

We could spend hours talking about how to become a successful engineering manager. And if you’re interested in that, you should check out Reforge’s Engineering Management program.

So let’s keep it short and sweet.

According to our experts, the best engineering managers are empowered to create impactful change within their companies, alongside delivering high-level product output.

So how does an engineering manager actually do that? They build a powerful engineering manager system.

What Is An Engineering Manager? - Engineering manager system

That system is made up of four distinct but interconnected components:

  1. Managing Work
  2. Managing Stakeholders
  3. Managing Self
  4. Managing People

Managing work includes managing the engineering work as a whole. Like we said above, an engineering manager is responsible for delivering impactful and reliable output from the engineering team.

The best engineering managers don’t just treat activities like intake, assignment, and retros as administrative tasks, instead, they rethink how those activities can be strategic levers for continuous improvement.

Managing stakeholders is exactly what it sounds like. A ton of work requests are going to land on your plate from other stakeholders at the company.

Unlike some of the other teams, engineering touches almost every aspect of the organization including marketing, sales, and operations, among many others. Especially in a tech-heavy company.

To cut through the chaos of cross-functional teams, a great engineering manager must be able to proactively partner with these groups in order to effectively curate their team’s production.

At the end of the day, you have to look out for yourself. That’s why Managing self is such an important part of the manager system. If you can’t manage yourself, how can you manage a whole team?!

Effective engineering managers figure out how to use their time efficiently. They recognize it as the powerful and precious resource it is. And don’t get distracted or discouraged easily when things aren’t going their way.

A lot of companies forget that their engineering managers actually have to manage people. Unsurprisingly, the ability to manage people might be one of the most important pieces of the Manager System.

In this position, you will be responsible for developing and deploying a unique type of human talent, highly intelligent and in-demand technical problem-solvers.

Additionally, you will be tasked with managing a subset of talent that tends to value autonomy and resent micromanagement. It’s a tricky balance to strike.

As you can see, these four components all form an interconnected system that ensures that engineering managers can deliver on their core remit: reliable and impactful output.

Level Up As An Engineering Manager

Now that you have taken a quick look at what it takes to be an engineering manager, you should check out our Engineering Management program.

This amazing program was built by Heidi Williams, Head of Engineering, Grammarly Business at Grammarly and Nick Caldwell, GM of Redbird at Twitter.

Engineering Manager Program Partners

It’s perfect for new or experienced engineering managers looking to sharpen their skills.

Across each of the sections, you will learn how to manage engineering output, different stakeholders, direct reports, and yourself.

But most importantly, you will build a foundation that will help you succeed as an engineering manager at any company, and deliver impactful and reliable products and services.

Nick CaldwellDoa JafriCamille Fournier