Staying Hands-On, as an Engineering Manager or a Tech Lead
The importance of onboarding like a software engineer, activities to stay hands-on, and the reality of writing code.
Q: “As an engineering manager/tech lead, how can I stay hands-on and technical, when I’m no longer coding on a regular basis?”
I’ve been getting variations of this question more frequently in recent months. It’s a common query among engineers who are becoming engineering managers or tech-lead managers, who worry their skills will grow rusty as they spend less time coding.
I also sense a renewed focus on this topic by engineering managers who want to ensure they are close enough to where the work is done, and to keep their employment prospects bright should they want to change jobs internally, or search for a new employer. Being a hands-on engineering leader can only be a positive, and of course most engineering manager interview processes include technical interviews, as we cover in the issue Hiring engineering managers.
Just last week, we covered the emerging trend where we could be seeing fewer middle managers across tech companies. If this trend is to continue, managers and tech leads who are not hands-on could have a harder time switching jobs. And it’s not just engineering managers: I recently talked with a VP of Engineering who was offered a Head of Engineering role at a scaleup with 15 engineers, and this offer was extended after the CEO was satisfied on how this VPE felt like they are able to be hands-on, when needed.
Being “hands-on” and “technical enough” are different, though. Today, we cover being hands-on, and will tackle “staying technical” in a follow-up issue. In this issue, we examine:
Why it’s important to stay hands-on
Setting yourself up for success, from the start
Activities to stay hands-on with
Beware of taking space from others
The reality of staying hands-on
While this issue is written with engineering managers in mind, other professionals in roles where it’s hard to set aside time for coding, can benefit from these approaches. Specifically, tech leads and staff+ engineers – who have many other priorities – may see value in the approaches below.