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Why tech management will always be ‘the good ones’ from engineering, despite what tech management says (who came from engineering)

I’ve heard tech managers say lately that they think there’s some mysterious fallacy in the industry, that tech management is often strange (or bad) because technical management comes from the technical ranks. That good engineers don’t make good managers. While that’s fine for people to say, here are my thoughts. (Note: I sent a version of this as an email to someone, and I thought “hey, why not blog about this, despite not being a manager?”)

A few weeks ago, Camille Fournier had a really interesting Twitter conversation that I watched (blog post out of it: on being in engineering management. I am interested in this, for it is likely I’ll end up there eventually, because time.

I find it interesting that folks in engineering management think that “good engineers” being groomed as managers will, or even just should, change, but at the same time I don’t think it ever will, because it’s just like the situation of majoring in biology to get into medical school.

Counselors sometimes tell students “you don’t have to major in biology to go to med school! In fact, not majoring in biology can help you stand out!” This leads to some (spoiler: misguided?) students to spend lots of energy majoring in philosophy, or music theory, or whatever, and then applying to medical school.

Except then you take freshman biology (this happened for my husband, true story), and are lucky enough to have a professor who says “that is ABSURDLY bad advice. Of COURSE you should major in biology [note: bias evident from fact of biology professorship]. It’s the one major that gets you all your pre-reqs, and then you don’t have the distraction of having to do pre-reqs and another major. If the MAJORITY of med students majored in biology, wouldn’t that make it a good idea?”

So if the majority (all?) of engineering management come from the ranks of the “good engineers” … why would that ever change? And if you wanted to go into management … isn’t your best bet (because math) to be a good engineer?

Thoughts, management folk? People who like to rant about management folk?

4 Replies to “Why tech management will always be ‘the good ones’ from engineering, despite what tech management says (who came from engineering)”

  1. I have often hear engineers complain about managers that are not ‘tech savvy’ in any way. They want someone that understands them. So for me the it was certainly a plus coming from a technical background and having come through the engineering ranks. It seems to confer a certain amount of credit to what I do. That is even though a ‘Manager’ role is very very different from the technical one I once held.

    1. A lot of the discussion I read was from managers talking about their perspective, perhaps ignoring the opinions of engineers 🙂

      I can get weird with this analogy, but (especially in corporate) thinking of things analogous to the military helps me sometimes, in that NCOs are generally more respected than commissioned officers who (literally, true story from my husband) show up at their first assignment not knowing how to tie their shoes correctly. “Going through the ranks,” is something organizations and workers value, even if it’s not so much related to the day-to-day duties of a manager.

  2. My experience has been that the skills that make one a good engineer are the same ones that make a good technical manager, but they are exercised in drastically different proportions.

    As an analogy, some of the most successful NBA coaches were former players (Pat Riley, Phil Jackson), but were not necessarily all-stars when they were playing. Conversely, some very successful coaches (Jeff van Gundy, Rick Pitino) never played in the NBA. There are also a plethora of very talented players that I suspect would make terrible coaches.

    Having a good understanding of how software is made (and made well) is super useful for a technical manager, for sure. However, people skills, coaching skills, awareness of social dynamics and armchair psychology are probably even more useful.

    1. “However, people skills, coaching skills, awareness of social dynamics and armchair psychology are probably even more useful.” Definitely.

      What I don’t see in engineering management are those (in your analogy) coaches who weren’t NBA players. Yes, I’m sure they played basketball at some point, but they never went pro. As much as I heard from engineering execs that they’d like more of that kind of manager, I don’t see “Hey, this mediocre engineer should be a manager” happening.

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