The ability to unlearn
In March 2022 I wrote some thoughts about how important it is to be able to not be too attached to learnings acquired in other fields or professional positions when you are working or stepping into a different one.
The context here is that I was working for a couple of years as an Engineering Manager in a foreign country, managing people from different nationalities, backgrounds, cultures, and additional to that, everything in English which is not my native language.
Here’s what I wrote at that time on this challenge.
Thoughts on “unlearning”
One of the skills I had to learn, and I’m still learning, as an engineering manager coming from an individual contributor background, is the ability to unlearn.
You’ll have to unlearn how do you think about ownership. As an individual contributor, you developed over the course of your career and experiences you’ve been through a sense of ownership for certains parts of a system or product that you and your team are responsible for because you worked on these parts. You care a lot about the technical aspects of the job, and a lot less about what’s going on with your colleagues or with colleagues outside your team, even less, with colleagues in other departments.
As an engineering manager, your perspective of ownership must change. You’ll understand that you’re not the owner of a part of a product anymore. Instead, you now own the responsibility of growing and developing people so that they can do their best. It’s essentially that. Simple, but scary at the same time.
Although you are still expected to give input on the development of product, and feedback and mentorship on technical subjects, you’ll get yourself thinking constantly about your team members, what opportunities there are for them to grow, what could be a good goal for them to fill some skill gaps, what project they can work that will expand their influence, how you can get the team, not a single person, to deliver more value to the organisation.
As you can see, this is a big mindset shift that doesn’t happen from day to night. It takes some time for you to understand which tools and skills you’ll have to acquire, which ones you’ll have to reshape, which ones you don’t even know you have, like giving proper feedback, dealing with difficult interpersonal situations, and the most daring one in my view, having to let someone from your team go.
Be prepared to deal with psychological subjects
Also, something that you should be aware of is that sometimes, instead of going to be thinking on how to solve that bug, or how to implement that part of the feature on a sofware which cannot fight you back, you’ll have to be thinking about how’ll deliver that bad news to another human being, how you’ll deal with frustration, anger, push backs, etc. Those parts of the job are the less rewarding ones in my perspective on this job, and the ones that can get you burned out very quickly if you don’t learn how to deal with the consequences of such tasks will have on you.
Are you willing to pay the price?
Overall, this positions ca be really an exciting one to be If you have the will to be open to learning new things everyday, to feel that there’s no recipe to succeed on this role, that you’ll have to adapt and learn fast, and that you’ll have to have to courage to fail and be responsible for your failures, taking from them the learnings that will lead you to a better place.
If you’re willing to enter this new profession, I can say that you’ll not regret, as long as you’re conscious about the challenges and willing to be patient and perseverant to go through them over some years in order to get the experience and skills you need to navigate the turbulent waters of being an engineering manager. If this price is too high for you, then don’t waste your time and continue growing into technical leadership or a technical specialization.
In conclusion, if you’re up to the challenges above, the odds of success will be on your favour. If not and you wanna try it anyways, go ahead, don’t be scared, we all can adapt and learn. If you don’t feel yourself doing engineering management for a longer period of time, you can always change. Don’t worry.