From Engineer to Manager: How to Cope With Promotion

Swapping technical expertise for management skills can be difficult

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Being offered a promotion is typically cause for celebration. Apart from higher pay and maybe a better parking spot, it is a recognition of one’s skill and dedication. But a promotion can bring its own headaches—especially for engineers. In addition to universal challenges, such as when you become the boss of friends (or rivals), the very skills that land an engineer the promotion may become a stumbling block in the new position.

Engineers pride themselves on the depth of their detailed technical expertise, and they distinguish themselves on the strength of the performance of the things they create. Once you become a manager, however, so-called soft skills become essential. You are evaluated in large part on the performance and creations of others. You will find yourself having to restrain yourself from wading in and fixing a problem that rightly belongs to a subordinate. And then there’s the flip side of that last problem—having to accept that sooner or later your technical knowledge of some domain will be outstripped by someone working under you.

“People have a lot of trouble letting go,” says Pablo Herrero, head of RF front-end systems for Intel and the chair of the IEEE’s Student Activities Committee. Mauro Togneri, a management consultant who has founded and led numerous tech companies, agrees that engineers can struggle with the transition, saying, “The focus has to shift from designing things…to managing people. And that’s usually a difficult shift.”

Consequently, Intel runs career development workshops for employees moving into management. “We try to teach them how to look at the big picture,” says Herrero. One common exercise in these workshops is to break participants into teams and provide each with a copy of the company’s publicly stated overall goals for the year. “Then we ask them to break that down into pieces, until they reach ‘What do I do every day, what e-mails do I answer, what meetings do I attend that help accomplish these goals?’ ”

Another focus of the workshops is to encourage participants to develop their networks with other managers within a company, because how you deliver to other teams will become a critical part of how your performance is measured once you are in a management position. “When you’re an individual contributor, it’s you and your problem and your equipment or your piece of code… but when you make this transition, it’s all about the network, which teams you deliver to, which teams you get stuff from,” says Herrero.

Getting the best from your team means remembering that the skills and decision processes are very different from the usual subjects of engineering, warns Togneri: “I always tell people when they become managers to keep in mind that while components such as transistors have predictable behavior, people’s behavior can, and will, change. Think of it in terms of you’re designing some electronic device and your transistors are able to become NPN or PNP at will. So you cannot craft a solution to something and expect it to stand forever.”

Togneri also has some useful advice on coping with some of those more universal issues of promotion, saying that once someone is promoted, there is “the tendency to focus on ‘What is my authority?’ and ‘Who am I boss of?’… What the person who moves from a nonmanagement to a management position really needs to focus on is ‘What is it that I need to do for the people who work for me and for the company?’ ”

Herrero’s final advice is to learn how to say no when demands on you or your team threaten to become too much: “It can be very difficult for [new managers] to learn how to say no, but if you don’t learn this then you are dead in three months, because you will be automatically swamped.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Coping With Promotion.”

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