Thinking Teams Blog
Engineers can make great managers. They have
highly-developed problem solving skills, and they have mastered knowledge
needed to lead technology-based organizations. But the road from engineering to
management can be surprisingly rocky. Management requires ways of behaving and
thinking that can seem contrary to hard-learned engineering values. This can
lead to teams of engineers, frustrated by managers who can’t manage, and newly-promoted
managers who find themselves in positions of bewildering stress.
Engineers understand that management is different from
engineering. New managers learn they need to set objectives, delegate, give
feedback, handle finances, etc. The concepts are easy, make sense, and engineers
can convincingly articulate them. But engineers frequently struggle with applying
One reason is that engineers try to manage while still
thinking like an engineer. They follow the checklist of good management
practices, but they approach management with deeply-held engineering values. An
engineer who wants to manage must not only learn new skills, but also learn to
look at things from a new perspective. Here are five areas where mindset can torpedo
even the best engineer’s attempt to manage:
What is My Job? An engineer is focused on product, tools, and technical
expertise. A manager must focus on people – roles, relationships, organization.
How do I do my job? Engineers treasure independent thinking and personally coming
up with the best idea or solution. A manager needs to treasure effective
teamwork and success of the group.
What does excellence look like? Excellent engineering is elegant, flawless,
uncompromising, and efficient. Excellent management often compromises, trading
performance for affordability, efficiency for buy-in, perfection in the face of
How do I work with others? Engineers seek unambiguous, data-driven interactions
with others, to communicate and resolve issues. Managers engage in rich
personal interactions to bridge barriers to communication, pool multiple
perspectives, explore ambiguity, and achieve consensus.
How do I develop as a professional? An engineer’s growth is driven by expanding
explicit, technical knowledge in an area, so the engineer can operate there
without making mistakes. Managers become
good managers by managing, making mistakes, and adding to their base of tacit knowledge.
It’s not that the engineering mindset is not useful to
managers. An engineering background can give a manager a real advantage. And of
course, like managers, engineers need to relate to people and learn from
experience. However, an engineer stepping into management needs to know that
his or her job involves not just new duties, but new ways of thinking. And these
new ways of thinking are going to be especially hard to learn, because they can
grate against engineering sensibilities. Engineers becoming managers need to honor
their engineering instincts, but recognize their limitations and make sure they
don’t get in the way.