Landing your first Engineering Manager role

Andy PolhillDecember 15, 2021

I recently participated in a fireside chat with Adeva. I covered a lot of content, possibly a bit too much. During my preparation I unearthed some topics that warrant a blog post in their own right. The first of which is how to land that first Engineering Manager role.

My initial train of thought was based off a tweet, one that I can no longer find. It said something like...

"Never underestimate the importance of luck when it comes to advancing your career"

This led me to think quite a lot about periods of my career when progress was slow, and other times when it was quick. It would be easy to pin things as luck. There were aspects of luck, but hindsight and experience paint a richer picture. I'd like to take the opportunity to demystify the luck aspect, and help you land your first Engineering Manager role.

Your employer plays an important role

For most people their first Engineering Management role will be an internal promotion. It's rare for someone to land their first Engineering Management role as a direct hire at a new company. The easier step is to get promoted and then use those transferable skills to take you elsewhere. With that in mind, your current employer will play a key part in your chance of success.

Do they have a career path?

Most companies have a defined career path with the expectations for each role. The responsibilities of an Engineering Manager vary widely between organisations. Familiarise yourself with the expectations, look for the gaps and areas to improve, focus on the uncomfortable parts. For whatever reason your company may not have career paths in place. You may be able to help push for a clearer path, this would have the added benefit of getting you involved in their creation. The outcome of course might be, that your current employer can't provide the growth that you desire. Be aware that the varying definitions of an Engineering Manager can effect transferability. If the Engineering Manager role at your current company veers away from the norms it may make any future move that much harder.

Is your organisation growing?

A growing organisation will be expanding teams rapidly, a bit like bacteria on a petri dish, but hopefully the good sort of bacteria. As a team gets too big it will split, someone else will have to run that new team, this pattern is repeated over and over again. Companies will often promote internally and recruit some Engineering Managers externally. This is a good pattern. The internal promotion creates a growth that path keeps employees engaged and happy. The external promotion ensures that fresh ideas and viewpoints are fed in so that things don't get stale. If your organisation is expanding the odds are more likely to be in your favour.

Is your organisation performing well?

The business performance and future outlook of your current organisation will have a direct impact on your career path. I worked for a couple of early phase start ups which didn't end well. At the time I had my concerns about what we were building, but I put most of my focus on the technology. If I had more business acumen I could have read the warning signs earlier on. Engage with the performance of your employer, it may seem detached from your day to day job but it will play a part in your success. It will also help you in the future as you start to influence strategy.

You play the other important role

Someone pointing at you? Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

There are a few factors which lie out of your control, fortunately though there are plenty of factors which you do have control over. Remember to focus on your own development, a key part of landing that first role is to position yourself. If an opportunity arises, through expansion, resignation or any other factor, make sure you are there and a that you are an obvious choice.

Are you a Senior Engineer?

In my experience Engineering Managers are predominantly well respected Senior Engineers who have been promoted. It's rare for people to jump straight from a mid-level role to an Engineering Manager role. By and large if you aren't a Senior Engineer yet, that might be the area you need to focus on first. Promoting an experienced staff member is generally a safer bet for companies. A longer tenure gives people a good base for the amount of different problems they have solved and lessons they have learnt. Moving into Engineering Management too early can be a problem. Having some experience under your belt will mean that you have encountered and dealt with lots of difficult situations. This will help to make you more adaptable, and deal with different types of people.

Have you stated your intentions?

Don't be concerned about letting people know your future ambition. The most critical thing you need to do is start chatting to your manager. Your manager should know you and your organisation well enough to play an important role in your chance of success. I have seen people broadcast their intentions in a very public way, in an attempt to stake a claim to any future roles. Generally I find this doesn't land well with colleagues or increase your odds. Ambition on its own isn't enough, you need the substance to back it up. If you haven't had these conversations with your manager, it is the one most powerful thing you can do.

How is your performance?

The skill set between Engineers and Engineering Managers overlaps but has have distinct differences. A good Engineer may not make a good Engineering Manager. If you have a track record of getting things done as an Engineer, most companies will be more eager to find ways to promote and stretch you as an individual. If your performance needs more of a nudge it's going to be harder to progress. Seek as much feedback as you can to find out where you could boost your performance. If you aren't well respected in your current organisation you have some work to do before you can focus on progression.

Start learning the trade

When promotions are given the person being promoted is often already carrying out a good proportion of the new role. This is why positioning yourself plays such a key factor. Start to read up on the different skills that make a good engineering manager. There are a wealth of different resources out there that can help with this. At first you may just have to learn the theory. In time new opportunities will arise that let you try those skills out, mentoring interns or juniors, leading small sub teams. For me personally it took a few years to switch my learning from technical subjects to management and leadership.

Are your motivations clear?

Be clear in your head why you want to become an Engineering Manager. If it's purely as a way to progress in your career this might not be the right reason for a move. Engineering Management is a different skill set. It relies heavily on your past technical expertise and will see you contributing less code. Make sure that it is something you are comfortable with before deciding on the move. Most companies will now have a dual path career track. If you want to progress while staying closer to the code you might be more suited to an Individual Contributor (IC) path. That said Engineering Management can be a rewarding move. If you get more of a kick out of helping people than writing code, it might be a solid choice. Where possible look for routes that allow you to dip your toes in the water to build up some confidence that this is what you want to do.

Lean on other experiences in your life

My last tip is a plea and a subject close to my heart. Don't just rely on work and software engineering to formulate your style as a leader. There are a great many leaders out in the world and they are all products of their environment. Go out into the world and participate in the things that you love to do. These will all have an impact on the way you address certain situations. They will breathe fresh life into our Industry and help you to fulfil your potential. Go forth!


There are a great many factors that can lead to you landing your first role as an Engineering Manager. Some have aspects of luck, but most are within your control. Sometimes you may need to step sideways or even backwards to get where you want to be. This certainly isn't an exhaustive list. It comes from personal experience both as someone who has made the switch and someone who has seen others navigate it. Remember to take your time and expect some bumps in the road, you will get there.


© Copyright , Andy Polhill