I was thrilled when I received an email from a company—let's call them Acme Inc.—to lead a team of six engineers, including mobile app developers, reverse engineers, and a QA specialist. Although I'm happy that I took the counteroffer my company gave me at that time, I want to finish the story I started in the last Mektup.
During the interviews, I had a technical challenge and leadership, team, and hiring manager interviews. Pretty much the common interviews for that level. After I got the offer, I had a reverse interview to ask my questions about the team, challenges, company, and manager.
But everything started a long time before the interviews. I self-studied leadership, read many books and articles, and took responsibilities that taught me how to influence others without authority—a skill every engineer has to learn at the beginning of their careers but most overlook it.
By the time I started interviewing for leading roles, I had been in the industry for 6-7 years and mainly worked as an iOS engineer and partially as a backend engineer. Although my focus was on coding most of the time, the last 1-2 years went with leading projects, dividing the project into sed chunks and tasks so that people could just grab the next task and go focus on it.
That was the first step towards leadership and what companies look for from leaders: manage a project. I know, I know we have a project manager, and it's their job. Yet, you shouldn't leave them alone and give them a hand or two.
After getting used to projects (with successful and failed ones) and how to manage them, I began to have a holistic picture of the work. I learned prioritization, trade-offs, and influencing others without being a manager (someone with authority).
At that point, I realized that I like helping others do their jobs in the best way possible, prioritizing work according to business needs, the number of work people has, and the sustainability of the project. Once I realized which path lies in front of me—engineering management or, more broadly, people management—I went all in. I talked with my manager, and we worked towards growing my career in that direction by finding opportunities and creating initiatives to sharpen my leadership skills and learn new ones. The RFC process that I worked on was the first cross-team initiative to solve the feedback problem.
I started having 1:1s with my peers and tried solving some of their problems.
Later on, I changed teams because my team was dissolved 🤷. It was a setback.
In my new team, I talked with my new manager and started taking over organizational tasks and career development work for other team members. I held workshops for building the team culture (where there were a ton of problems in the team).
Meanwhile, I was a backend engineer coding in a project. All the extra responsibilities I took were aligned with my career goals, team's, and business's needs. Also, nobody wanted to tackle the problems I wanted to solve. Every other engineer was focused on technical problems, which were a lot. Later, my efforts helped the team to become a high-performing team.
All of these initiatives and study on the side helped me solve complex team and staff problems and the career growth challenges of others. In the interviews for engineering manager (EM), I already have some experience that I could talk about.
Of course, it was apparent that I didn't have much manager experience because my manager was accountable for all the things I did. Although I had a lot of freedom, being the accountable and responsible person for a piece of work is different than just doing the work from start to end. It's not the authority that has the weight but the lack of official responsibilities (e.g., having performance review feedback of engineers).
As it is apparent that I never had a direct reporting person at that point, I was still knowledgeable to answer many questions using the STAR method during interviews: I talked with my real-life experience.
Acme Inc. was okay with hiring junior EMs because they had the time and resources to train the managers. There are a lot of companies that are okay with hiring junior EMs. Your job is finding them (and theirs is finding you) and applying to open positions.
Still, it's easier to get a promotion in your current company. But if they are unwilling to give it to you or have no positions, don't lose that much time and look for something else.
It is easier to get a promotion in your current company because usually, instead of hiring a junior EM, they can promote someone internally. Companies only hire externally when there is no one in the company who wants to become an EM or when that person has no experience at all.
Lately, finding good EMs has become challenging. Before, management was the only way to get a promotion. These days I see more and more folks choosing the Individual Contributor (IC) track over management because of the availability of the IC track career. As great as having an IC track, the management track has become lonelier, and the competition for EM roles is decreasing. That's why I see a bigger trend coming up for hiring junior EMs and training them. Also, many good EMs are switching to the IC track.
As finding new EMs has become challenging, applying for these positions might be worth your time. You never know what kind of leader they are looking for before applying. Even if they require some years of experience in the requirements, still go for it. I've never seen a person checking every item in the requirements list. Companies make sacrifices, and hiring someone will always have trade-offs and risks. It's up to the company to decide which trade-off they want to tackle.
In the worst-case scenario, you will improve your interviewing skills.