Finding My Path to Engineering Management

The path to becoming a manager isn’t always an obvious one! Here's one engineering manager's journey.
Jenna Lee
 — 
Engineering Manager

The path to becoming a manager isn’t always an obvious one! Here's one engineering manager's journey.

The path to becoming a manager isn’t always an obvious one; I didn’t expect to go in that direction. When I started working as a software engineer right out of college, I had one goal: to gain as much technical experience as possible. I wanted to design algorithms, build complex systems, and focus on the backend.

I was expecting to spend my career as an individual contributor, working on increasingly difficult problems. And while I still enjoy thinking through technical decisions, I have realized that the work I find fulfilling aligns more closely with engineering management than software engineering.

Learning the Value of Non-Technical Work 

I started my career as a full-stack engineer at a mid-sized company in the DC area. Six months into the role, I was asked to teach myself web accessibility and operate as my team's accessibility subject-matter expert. Months after that I found myself in meetings discussing how to design high-quality interviews and build strong culture.

Each time I moved to a new team or a new company, the same thing happened: I would start off using all of my time on technical work, and slowly my role would morph into something that was more team- and customer-focused. 

I took notes on customer interviews, formalized department values, ran knowledge-sharing sessions, and improved process to help my teams work more efficiently. When I thought about leveling up as an engineer, my instinct was to learn how to write more readable and maintainable code, give more empathetic and clear code reviews, improve relationships with cross-functional partners, and deeply understand web accessibility for the benefit of our users. These are all valid ways to grow as a software engineer, but it was obvious that my priorities had shifted away from my original plan to focus on deep technical work.

Some of this work is “glue work,” as defined by Tanya Reilly. On some teams and in some companies, it isn't considered promotable. This work is too often pushed onto women engineers and has a direct impact on the progression of their careers. In my case, I chose to focus my time here because I found the work fulfilling. As a result, my skillset as a senior software engineer was less “technical” than some of my peers.

Looking back now, the non-technical communication, planning, and strategy skills I developed helped set me up for management success. I feel comfortable working with external stakeholders, evaluating and iterating on process, estimating timelines, and considering different perspectives. Building these skills through my experience allowed me to consider management as an option and also gave me the confidence to ask for more management-related opportunities. But, less experienced engineers should consider what impact a less technical skillset could have on their career paths before following in my example.


Exploring the management path

A few years ago, I felt very uncertain about where I wanted to steer my career. I knew that the parts of my job that energized me all had a clear and direct impact on people, but I wasn't sure if management was the right path for me.

Being a woman in engineering, weighing the choice of moving into an engineering manager role was actually a heavy decision. In my current role, I was one of the more experienced woman engineers, and I felt some amount of responsibility in that position to be an example of a "technical woman in eng." Engineering managers are generally viewed as being less technical than ICs, and female representation at higher levels of IC engineering is low. 

I set up time with engineering managers in my network to do informational interviews. I wanted to understand why they decided to move into management, how they enjoyed the role, and how it differed from their expectations. I also set up time with managers I knew well to request feedback on my personal skill gaps and blind spots.

I also talked to managers about that feeling of responsibility to represent women in engineering IC roles, and they validated these feelings. But they also said that I should prioritize what I want when thinking about career goals. All of these conversations were extremely helpful in providing direction and building confidence. 

If you are interested in informational interviews like these but don’t have relevant connections in your network, feel free to connect with managers at Lattice at hello-world@lattice.com or message me directly on LinkedIn. Mentorship programs, online tech communities, and school and bootcamp alumni networks are also great ways to find folks who would love to chat with you.

I was also fortunate enough to work with a career coach for a few months. We collaborated to identify my strengths and how they showed up at work. Through our sessions, I identified strengths like learning (training and growing skills), developing cross-functional relationships, project planning skills, mentoring, and building strategy and process. While these skills can help one grow as a software engineer, I could clearly see that management would be a better way for me to stretch and evolve in these areas. I was especially excited about the prospect of helping engineers grow and guiding team culture and process.

Opening up opportunities to manage

Now it was time to be more intentional about finding and creating opportunities to take on management-adjacent tasks. I wanted to know that I enjoyed the work in practice, not just in the abstract.

When presented with the opportunity at my previous company, I was excited to take on the role of Team Lead. I began running scrum ceremonies, holding regular 1:1s with engineers, and involving myself in team-level strategy. 

I volunteered to manage more projects from the engineering side to get experience with communicating value and leading other engineers. One such project was around driving accessibility efforts, working closely with another engineer at the company. This required planning, cross-functional collaboration, and training other engineers on web accessibility.

I also took on mentoring students, interns, and junior engineers, within and outside of my company. Some of these mentor relationships were more formal, like those created through company programs, but others formed more organically as I met and worked with people in the industry. I loved talking to others in software engineering about the parts of their jobs they enjoyed most, and how to adjust their roles to do more of it. 

While I’m glad that I took the steps to seek out this work, I want to note that it wasn’t always easy to ask for. In this part of my journey, I felt a lot of imposter syndrome. With each new challenge, I doubted my ability to deliver and questioned whether I was the right person for the job. Over time, I’ve learned to trust myself more, even though the feelings have never fully gone away. I try my best to acknowledge the self-doubt while still stretching myself in ways I find exciting.

All of these opportunities made it clear to me that I wanted to work towards becoming a manager. While I loved building products with code, the team lead, mentor, project lead, and accessibility tasks always felt much more engaging. Whenever I had a spare moment, I found myself focusing my attention on how to improve in these areas.

Managing teams at Lattice

About a year ago, I started at Lattice as a Senior Software Engineer. Since then, I have had the opportunity to work with some fantastic people as a project lead and as the lead of our Accessibility Guild. But coming into Lattice, I was vocal about my intention of becoming a manager; I talked about this during my interview process, as I wanted to know whether the engineering org was supportive of these types of career moves. So, I kept up regular conversations with my manager and other engineering leaders about my career goals and received a lot of support in the form of feedback, stretch opportunities, and knowledge sharing.

A few months back, I excitedly accepted an offer to become the engineering manager of one of Lattice's product teams. I am three months into the new role and am happy to share that I'm enjoying it as much as I'd hoped to. I have more time to focus on things I find incredibly rewarding like supporting the career development of my reports and being deeply involved in team roadmapping.

There is still so much for me to learn about this new job, but I'm looking forward to growing as a manager and am so thankful for everyone who has helped me get here. Serving as a team lead and mentor helped a lot with the transition. As did the informational interviews, because no part of management has been a surprise. 

Plus, it helps that Lattice values glue work more than other companies. Lattice also provides more support for women in engineering through employee-led groups, specific monthly meetings with senior leadership, and a bigger emphasis on gender diversity in hiring than other companies I’ve worked at in the past.

If you find yourself drawn to the same types of leadership tasks that I was, management may be a good fit for you. You might also consider applying to Lattice, where these contributions are valued in engineers and expected in engineering managers.




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