The path to managing managers

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Managing managers

How do you end up being one of those people that manages managers? 

This is the beginning of a series of articles looking at how you can start working on progressing up the management track beyond an Engineering Manager, and into the world of important-sounding job titles. And meetings. Don’t forget meetings. There’s lots of those.

But those job titles, huh? 

You may have looked at roles such as Director of Engineering or VP Engineering from afar and imagined just how prestigious it must be to see it shining at the bottom of your email signature as you send a terse and impactful decision to your large organization.

Yes. Let’s commit to this.

——

A. Genius, PhD

Senior Vice President of Data Science and Engineering

Maybe you’ve even edited your Twitter profile to see what it would look like in your bio. Don’t worry, we’ve all done it. Hopefully you didn’t accidentally hit save.

Anyway, to that question. How do you get one of these roles?

No doubt you’ve seen Director of…, Head of…, and VP roles advertised externally, especially at large software companies. However, often there’s a Catch-22 situation that you’ll face: they’re typically looking for people who have had experience in doing it before. Or even if they say that they aren’t, what chance are you going to have in the recruitment process if you’re up against others who’ve been there and done that? Now, of course, you might get lucky. But maybe there are ways of preparing to make yourself even more lucky.

Let’s think about getting yourself prepared for making the leap to managing managers. I believe that you stand the most chance of being able to make the next progression step if you find yourself at the union of a majority of the following characteristics and situations:

  • You’ve been an Engineering Manager for a decent amount of time (say, 2-5 years) and have a provable track record of shipping and people management, with references that can back you up. After all, if you’re going to be running multiple teams, you’re going to need to know how to run one team inside out. (If you’re still working on that, there’s plenty of material on the rest of this site to help you skill up.)
  • You’re already working for a company with a strong management culture that has clear career progression tracks for managers as well as individual contributors. This means that if the role opens up where you already work, it’s clear how to put yourself forward for it. It’ll also mean you’re learning and practicing the right skills.
  • You’re at a company that is changing fast and has a tendency to not quite be able to keep up with the chaos. This often occurs during periods of rapid growth, or even via shake-up – through downsizing, mergers and acquisitions – any event that begins to question the current shape of the org chart being correct for the foreseeable future.
  • You have a good presence online via the usual social channels: LinkedIn, Twitter, Github, and so on. This way if people are trying to find people like you elsewhere, then they can.

Now, of course, it is entirely plausible that you may apply cold for a Director of Engineering role as an external applicant whilst currently being an Engineering Manager. That’s what I meant by getting lucky above. Quite often more senior engineering management positions are either specifically headhunted or promoted from within. 

But why is this?

  • The more senior the managerial position, the more risky a bad hire is. That’s why excellent internal candidates always have the upper hand: they are a known entity that likely already has domain knowledge. They’re also far more likely to have the company take a chance on the new gig working out. Even better: smart companies will do a 30-60-90 plan that allows the promoted member of staff to revert back to their old role amicably if it’s not working out.
  • Good companies will look out for their own staff first and seize opportunities to offer career progression in order to retain existing talent. I don’t have any statistics on how many manager of manager roles that get filled and are never advertised externally, but I’d reckon it’s maybe in the 70%+ region. If you hire good people consistently, you’ll always have someone great progressing up through the ranks. Why look elsewhere, unless you specifically need to bring in someone specific, such as a candidate with key domain knowledge that is lacking at the company?
  • The need to find a manager of managers (in my experience) is rarely something that undergoes extensive planning. During periods of rapid growth, the number of staff in the department may start stacking up to the point that existing teams need to be split into smaller ones, thus greating opportunities for a node in the org chart above those teams. Sometimes an existing manager of managers will quit and filling that void internally, on a tight timeline, is much easier than reaching outside of the company. Or perhaps two organizations merging together create a bunch of empty nodes in the org chart needing urgently to be filled. Often you look within.

These are all opportunities that you can more likely seize if you make sure you’re already working for an ambitious, high growth company and are doing a stellar job of running a team. This is no small feat in itself, mind you.

Start-ups, or smaller high growth companies in general, are great for giving yourself this opportunity, especially ones that have just received a new venture capital investment. An injection of money means an injection of people, and that then creates more opportunities for leading them as the org chart adapts. I advocated strongly for the managerial opportunities that high growth start-ups can offer you in the penultimate chapter of my book. After all, how do you reckon many CTOs became CTOs for the first time?

So where am I going with this? To use the cheesiest quote, you’ve gotta skate where the puck is going. (Thanks Wayne.) Yes, you can keep an eye on external adverts and apply to anything and everything and hope that you land the job. However, depending on where you currently work, it may be more fruitful to change role sooner at your current level – which is often easier – in order to stand more of a chance of upward growth over time.

There are parallels here with the early stages of an individual contributor’s career. It’s often really hard to land that first job because the applicant has yet to be able to prove themselves. However, once they’ve stuck around for a few years and have gained experience by shipping lots of code, they find themselves having to bat the recruiters away.

The exact same thing is true about progressing further up the management track. Getting your first management role is tough, but you only have to do it once to prove you can do it again. The same is true about the next step of managing managers. People often grow from within by being excellent performers and then working their way upwards.

If you’re looking to grow from managing individual contributors to managing managers, have a think about the following points.

  • How likely is it that this will be possible at your current company within a reasonable timeframe? If it’s not, you might need to look elsewhere sooner rather than later.
  • Is your current Engineering Manager role defined similarly to how other notable companies in the industry define it? If not, why not? The more your current EM role fits that of the best employers in the industry, the better chance you have of moving sideways and upwards.
  • How many years of experience in this role do you have? I would expect a manager of managers to be a high growth EM with at least a few years of tenure.
  • What notable infrastructure, features or products have you shipped whilst being an EM? 
  • Are you seen as an influential person in your current department? Do people outside your team seek your advice? If not, why not?
  • Have you coached anyone outside of your team? If not, then I’d advise you to start giving it a go.
  • Have you found anyone else doing this role, either in your existing company, your network or online? Get in touch with them to see if they’ll have a chat with you about what it’s like to do that job, and ask them how they got into it. What changed for them when compared to just running one team? What happened to their time to contribute technically?

What’s your current story? Does it feel like you’re ready for the next step? Have you already been working at the level of your next promotion?

If you’re not familiar with the management career progression path in general then you can check out the career tracks of other companies, including our own from Brandwatch, on progression.fyi.

If you’re seeking out others to talk to about it, then you could use LinkedIn, Twitter, or Slack communities such as The Lead Developer, CTO Craft, or the Rands’ Leadership group to do so.

While you ruminate on these, I’ll be expanding out my own thoughts and experiences of doing the job for a number of years in the forthcoming series of articles that I’ll be hosting under the Managing Managers section of the website.

Until the next one, good luck! 

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