Almost two years ago I took on a new role as an engineering manager. In an attempt to get a better understanding of how to properly perform in this role, I’ve been interviewing several managers for the site. Here is the first in the series of those interviews. In it I speak with one of my old managers Robert Tomb, who is currently a Senior Engineering Manager at Target. You can find more information about him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
- What was your career path to becoming an Engineering Manager? Was it intentional decision or were you unexpectedly offered the opportunity to transition away from being an engineer?
The first time I recognized I was being offered a chance to lead, the job did not include the title of manager. I was a Sr. Software Engineer building testing tools, and I was told that I could hire engineers to work on my team to support our new tooling initiative. The only catch was the team would be in our Philippines office. In that position, I did not have HR reporting responsibilities, but I helped to interview, select the onsite leaders for the team, and, with another local Sr. Software Engineer, drove the team’s technical direction.
I did not choose to pursue this because it included the opportunity to manage. I’m grateful for it, though. It helped me recognize how interesting it can be to share my knowledge and scale my ideas beyond my own keyboard. It taught me to have confidence in my designs, learn to break down work so it could be shared with others, and to include the input of the people on my team.
This was not a transition away from being an engineer, this was a transition away from being an individual contributor. This chance came in 2006. I’ve gone back and forth between various IC, team leadership, and leader-of-leader roles.
- What is your definition of an Engineering Manager and what do you see as the purpose of an Engineering Manager inside you organization?
An Engineering Manager is a leader in a technical organization who, formally, has the job to grow engineers and lead projects.
- Did you receive any formal training once making the move to management? If so what kind? If no, what self learning have you done to close the knowledge gap?
I have been a leader at a few different organizations over the last 15 years. I did not receive formal training from any of my employers over that time. At my current job, however, I am scheduled for multiple leadership growth training sessions over the next few months.
- How does a normal work day as a manager differ from your normal work day as an engineer?
The biggest thing I dialed in on was the fact that I could no longer measure my productivity on quantity of my PRs, commits, or deploys. It’s now your job to help make other people productive.
- What is the single most unexpected part of the job?
A good bit of what you’ve been doing on your engineering career growth trajectory has been leadership, and it has been leading up to where you are. If you’re surprised you’re a leader now, you’re not very observant. Being observant is a big part of your new job, are you sure you’re ready for it?
- What is the highlight of the job?
Working with smart people and knowing you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room for the project to be successful.
- What is the best piece of advice you can offer a new Engineering Manager?
Here’s a response I gave to a similar question on twitter:
- Anything else you’d like to add for new or potential Engineering Managers?
See # 5
Seriously, though, you can be a leader without being a manager.