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Upskilling Senior Software Engineers into Team Managers

Engineering Management

Sometimes, the best tech managers are right under your nose.

When looking for leaders for a new team, or to replace one who’s leaving, it can be tempting to rush to your talent acquisition department with a list of needs and have them start building a pool of potential applicants.

But often, you need someone who is already familiar with how your team works and the details of getting things done at your company.

Giving your current employees the opportunity to lead can result in significant benefits for you – reduced expenses of onboarding a new employee and improved existing employee loyalty, to name two.

To move your potential leaders into actual leaders, you’ll need to consider two things:

  1. Who currently has the desire and the potential to lead?
  2. What skills might they be missing that would make them a great leader?

Not everyone wants to be a leader. Some are happy being skilled individual contributors who contribute advanced development and engineering skills to your team. 

Not everyone will have the skills or experience necessary to be a great leader, but the good news is that those skills and experiences can be easily gained with the right systems in place.

In this article, we will review the journey from coder to leader, unpacking the crucial skills senior software engineers need to cultivate to manage projects and personnel effectively. 

Understanding leadership in software engineering

Leadership within a tech environment is more than just project management; it involves envisioning and implementing strategies that align with the broader organizational goals. 

This role demands an understanding of both the big picture and the minute details—the former of which is not typically exercised in purely technical roles. Leaders must navigate the complex dynamics of managing people, projects, and sometimes entire departments.

In addition to overseeing project timelines and technical processes, tech managers must also be a bridge between their team and upper management – and sometimes clients. This requires a thorough understanding of the technical challenges and project demands and the ability to advocate for the team’s needs and negotiate resources or adjustments to ensure project success.

One key skill that eased my transition [to tech leadership] was the ability to solve complex problems while maintaining a strategic vision. My background in various industries taught me the importance of aligning technical solutions with broader business goals. For example, leading the development of Daisy’s ten-point branch support system was instrumental in scaling our operations and providing exceptional customer service.

The hardest part was shifting from hands-on technical tasks to strategic oversight and team management. It required a new level of trust in my team’s abilities and a focus on clear, effective communication. I wish I had known earlier the value of delegating effectively—it would have alleviated the initial overwhelm and allowed me to focus more on strategic growth rather than day-to-day operations.

Hagan Kappler, Cofounder and CEO of Daisy

An engineering leader must also be an agent of change. This involves recognizing when technological pivots or strategic shifts are necessary and guiding the team through transitions smoothly. It requires courage to make tough decisions that may initially be unpopular and the ability to steer projects away from potential pitfalls. 

When looking for current employees to move to leadership positions, it helps to ask them and their coworkers about their experience in these areas. For example:

  • Have they displayed the ability to strategize with other teams so that the whole project succeeds, rather than just the part they’re responsible for?
  • How have they managed complicated relationships or misunderstandings with other team members and stakeholders?
  • How have they handled prioritizing multiple tasks when they have insufficient time and resources to complete all of them on time?
  • What difficult decisions did they have to make on a project, and why did they decide the way they did?

The answers to these questions will help you get an idea of the leadership styles of your internal candidates and whether or not they fit the needs of your team or organization.

Essential leadership skills for technical managers

Whether your internal candidates come with the necessary leadership experience or will need some help gaining it, you should focus on the following to ensure they develop into great leaders. You’ll find some suggestions you can give your future leaders to develop specific skills.

Communication skills

Misunderstanding will happen at any time; learning to reduce the risk of it is crucial for future leaders. These skills are clear and effective communication techniques, focusing on speaking and listening skills.

Ways to practice

     – Active listening exercises: Engage in exercises that promote active listening, such as feedback sessions where you listen, summarize, and respond to team members’ ideas.

     – Communication workshops: Participate in communication skills workshops to enhance verbal and written communication abilities.

Project management

At its simplest, project management involves balancing resources to complete a project as efficiently as possible. This may be done through methodologies like Agile and Scrum, but it ultimately focuses mainly on delegation and time management.

Ways to practice

     – Certification courses: Consider obtaining certifications in project management methodologies such as PMP or Scrum Master to deepen your understanding and credibility.

     – Lead a project: Use these methodologies to take the lead on a project and gain experience in the challenges and benefits of different project management techniques.

Team Building

Not just your skip-levels and confidence courses anymore – team building can be any strategy for fostering a collaborative team environment and nurturing team dynamics.

Ways to practice

     – Team events: Organize or participate in team-building events to strengthen relationships and improve team cohesion.

     – Regular team meetings: Conduct meetings focusing on open communication and collective problem-solving to enhance team dynamics.

Team leadership

Getting through a difficult time often depends on how great a motivator a leader can be. You’ll often see this as an ability to inspire and guide teams towards achieving organizational goals.

Ways to practice

     – Leadership training programs: Enroll in leadership development programs to learn and practice essential leadership skills.

     – Team lead roles: Volunteer for or request to be placed in team lead roles on smaller projects to gain practical leadership experience.

Decision-making

Knowing how to make decisions when information is incomplete and resources are scarce is essential. In leaders, we want the ability to make timely, effective, and informed decisions.

Ways to practice

     – Decision-making frameworks: Learn and apply different decision-making frameworks to everyday challenges.

     – Shadow leaders: Shadow senior leaders in your organization to observe and discuss decision-making in real scenarios.

Conflict resolution

Conflict is inevitable when humans are involved. Therefore, your leaders should have the skills to effectively manage and resolve interpersonal and team conflicts.

Ways to practice

     – Conflict resolution workshops: Participate in workshops that simulate workplace conflicts and provide strategies for resolution.

     – Mediation role: Act as a mediator in conflicts within your team to gain hands-on experience in conflict resolution.

Transitioning from an individual contributor as a software engineer to a leadership role was a calculated move – and quite an interesting journey. While I loved the intricacies of programming and software development, I realized that to make a broader impact, leadership was the way forward. I was always interested in strategy, planning, and the overarching picture of how technology can influence operations – aspirations that pushed me into leadership.

Past experiences as a Software Engineer at Brodia and a Tools Engineer at WebTV Networks prepared me with significant elements in leadership like critical thinking, problem-solving, and understanding technical nuances. 

The hard part of this transition was initially letting go of the granular control I had as a developer. Leaders need to trust their teams and let them do their jobs while providing high-level guidance. Knowing how to delegate without micro-managing is key. I also learned that leadership demands more soft skills, like clear communication to diverse audiences, conflict resolution, and empathy, which aren’t necessarily the main focus during the early years as a developer. It’s a constant learning curve with bumps along the way, but a rewarding journey worth every effort.

To any aspiring tech leaders, my advice would be to strengthen your soft skills and learn to trust your team. Also, gain a broader understanding of business beyond your tech niche. This knowledge will enhance your decision-making, helping you frame technological issues and solutions from a business perspective.

Javier Muniz, CTO at LLCAttorney.com

Technical skills proficiency

Like any good leader, technical managers should be proficient in the same skills they manage. They don’t need to be the best (and probably shouldn’t, as they’ll need to delegate), but they need to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk with their employees.

In practical terms, they must possess a robust understanding of their teams’ technical skills. This helps earn the respect and trust of their developers, who value leaders with genuine software development experience and credentials.

After finishing my Computer Science degree, I started as a software developer in a bank, then joined Accenture as a senior developer. Within 2 years, I was promoted to a team leader/technical architect role. I later started my own software development agency, initially contributing as a developer and now managing a team of 30.

The journey wasn’t easy and still isn’t. Being a software developer is completely different from being a leader. Most developers are introverted, while leaders need to be motivating and communicative. I always wanted to be in charge, so I had to work hard and overcome mental barriers.

Core skills I had to develop:

  • Responsibility
  • Prioritizing business benefits over personal interests or ego
  • Communication skills

Final advice: Tech leadership is about guidance, not doing everything yourself. Many tech leads prefer to do things themselves because it’s faster and better, but your goal as a leader is to mentor, take responsibility for others, and plan ahead.

Alex Ragin, Founder of Zoftify

Some general technical areas that leaders should be proficient in include:

  • Architectural thinking: Understanding system architecture is vital for overseeing projects effectively, ensuring that technical strategies align with business objectives.
  • Code review mastery: Employing code reviews as a method for mentoring and ensuring quality assurance, fostering a culture of continuous improvement.
  • Keeping up-to-date on technologies: Staying abreast of new programming languages, tools, and frameworks to maintain relevance and provide knowledgeable leadership.

If your future leaders lack in any of these areas, the recommendation for filling those gaps is similar to the advice for general leadership skills in the previous section.

  • Continuing education: Technical managers should regularly participate in educational courses, obtain certifications, and attend industry conferences to keep their technical skills sharp and up-to-date.
  • Hands-on projects: Engaging directly in technical projects, whether leading or contributing, helps managers stay connected with the current technology landscape and understand their teams’ practical challenges.

Developing business acumen

Good leaders understand how to efficiently combine and manage resources to create great products and make customers happy.

Rather than spending my life as an employee, I wanted to build my own team, which would give me the freedom to work on my dream projects. Also, being a software developer meant restricting myself to a single field without much room to explore newer fields like AI. My lack of freedom to make decisions and work on things that would use the full extent of my brainpower made me transition to be a tech business leader.

My years toiling as a software developer working with multiple teams and commandeering their feedback or issues have helped me be a better tech boss. I was more open to listening to my peers and took a bottom-up approach – leading to ingenious ideas and plan execution. However, the financial aspect of running a business became challenging, and I wish I had had proper knowledge of accounting, taxes, and corporate financing. Hence, I advise aspiring tech leaders to transition if they truly love being 100% invested as a tech geek, and proper knowledge about business finance goes a long way.

Mark Gadala-Maria. Co-founder and CEO of Post Cheetah

You’ll want to develop several key areas in your leaders so that they are prepared to make the best possible decisions for your company.

  1. Understanding product lifecycles: Understanding how to integrate business goals with technical development is essential. To help facilitate this, future leaders can sit with and regularly meet members of your product development team who are outside the engineering realm, such as product managers, product owners, and customer service. 
  2. Risk management: Great rewards often require great risk, so identifying, analyzing, and managing risks in software projects is paramount. Tech leaders need to know how to do risk-benefit analyses so they can understand the tradeoffs of decisions they’ll have to make. Learning this can be done in one of many risk management courses or with the right mentor.
  3. Understanding financial fundamentals: Senior software engineers aspiring to leadership positions should start by gaining a solid understanding of the financial aspects of the business. This includes comprehending financial statements, budgeting processes, and how their projects impact the company’s bottom line. Resources like online courses on financial literacy for non-financial managers can be incredibly beneficial.
  4. Learn multiple aspects of the business: Encourage engineers to participate in cross-functional teams to collaborate with peers from sales, marketing, and operations. This exposure helps them understand different facets of the business and how they interlink, enhancing their decision-making skills from a business perspective.
  5. Customer engagement: Direct engagement with customers can provide invaluable insights into how products and services are used and the value they add. This engagement aids in sharpening product development and innovation aligned with market needs.

Focus on these areas will help your internal candidates become business leaders and tech leaders.

Empowering others through mentoring and coaching

If you’re going to be a leader, you need to know how to lead others. A significant portion of this is knowing how to mentor and coach your employees. 

If your company already has a mentor program, you can have your future leaders participate so they can start getting experience helping newer employees become successful. 

If you don’t have a program in place, it may be an excellent time to start a structured mentorship program that pairs less experienced engineers with senior leaders. These programs should have clear objectives, such as leadership development, technical skill enhancement, or career progression, and regular feedback loops to measure progress.

In addition to learning how to mentor, you can help your future leaders develop the following competencies:

  1. Role modeling: Emphasize the importance of role modeling within the mentoring and coaching process. Senior engineers can demonstrate best practices in coding, project management, and communication. Showing rather than telling can often be a more robust method to impart knowledge and skills.
  2. Coaching for specific competencies: Highlight the importance of coaching for specific competencies. This could include technical skills, such as learning new programming languages or systems, and soft skills, like leadership, communication, and conflict resolution.
  3. Encourage self-reflection: Guide senior engineers to encourage their mentees towards self-reflection. This can involve setting up regular one-on-one meetings where they discuss technical challenges, personal growth, and career aspirations.
  4. Recognition and encouragement: Teach mentors the importance of recognizing and verbalizing their mentees’ strengths and improvements. Positive reinforcement can boost confidence and motivation, which is crucial for ongoing development.
  5. Adapting coaching styles: Different mentees may require different coaching styles. Encourage mentors to be flexible and adapt their coaching style to fit their mentees’ needs. This might mean being more hands-on for some while stepping back and providing guidance from a distance for others.

Making the jump from individual contributor to a leadership role was a big change for me, but one that I felt ready for after many years spent gaining technical skills and experience in the industry. As an individual, I enjoyed diving deep into projects and solving technical problems. But over time, I started wanting more opportunities to mentor others and help guide the strategic direction of initiatives.

I believe what helped most in preparing me for leadership was the time I spent learning how different parts of the business worked together. Even when my focus was on a specific technical task, I made an effort to understand how it fit into broader goals. I also volunteered to collaborate across teams so I could see different perspectives. This business acumen proved invaluable when I took on more managerial duties.

Of course, leading a team brought new challenges too. Figuring out how to delegate effectively while still tracking progress was a learning curve. Early on, I caught myself micromanaging details instead of trusting others’ expertise. Also, adapting my communication style to different personalities and working styles within the group required some adjustment.

In hindsight, I wish I started cultivating strong relationships across departments sooner. Building those connections would have made transitioning to a leadership position a bit smoother. It’s important for leaders to have an understanding network both inside and outside the organization for support, advice, and fresh perspectives when navigating complex situations.

For anyone aspiring to a tech leadership role, my advice would be to start developing strategic thinking skills early. Focus on fostering partnerships, setting long term visions, and gaining a holistic understanding of business objectives. Always seek feedback to grow your empathetic abilities too. Most of all, have confidence in your expertise while maintaining curiosity to constantly expand your knowledge alongside new technologies. The transition is challenging but deeply rewarding when done right.

Taimur Ijlal, Information Security Leader at Netify

Conclusion

While transitioning from a senior software engineer to a leadership role does require deepening one’s technical skills, it requires a significant expansion of one’s horizons in business acumen, strategic thinking, and people development.

Leaders who invest in these developmental pathways advance their careers and foster an environment of growth, innovation, and resilience within their teams. By modeling behaviors, facilitating learning, and guiding new leaders, they lay down the foundations for a future where the technical workforce is more dynamic, responsive, and aligned with the broader business objectives.

For engineers stepping into leadership roles, remember that the journey involves continuous learning and adaptation. It’s about leveraging your strengths and steadily acquiring new skills that enhance your capabilities and uplift those around you. By doing so, you not only meet the immediate demands of your role but also contribute to your organization’s long-term success and vision. Embrace these challenges with openness, dedication, and a commitment to excellence, and watch as you transform from a leader in technology into a leader of people.