Engineering manager archetypes.

December 19, 2020. Filed under management 127 career 20

This is an unpublished draft /scaffold/notes!!

Recently I’ve been focused on the software career junction between senior and staff engineering roles, and how different folks end up operating within different staff archetypes. Something that’s less discussed but perhaps even more relevant is that engineering management also fractures into different archetypes.

There are four distinct engineering managerial archetypes that I’ve seen frequently:

  1. Tech Lead Manager who manages a smaller team of two to five, and provides technical direction for that team. Will loudly inform you that they split time fifty-fifty between management and technical work, but actually spends large majority of time on one of those and is struggling to keep up on the other
  2. Team Manager who manages a team who manages a team of four to ten, and typically partners with an individual contributor within that team (often called a Tech Lead) to supply technical direction. Spends majority of time on people management and facilitating execution through planning, hiring, communication, and so on
  3. Group Manager who manages multiple Team Managers, and reports to an Executive Manager. Provides direction and alignment for supported teams, and coaching for their managers and more experienced engineers. With a benevolent reporting chain, this is a highly empowered, fulfilling role. With a less enlightened reporting chain, this is a bureaucratic role with few merits
  4. Executive Manager who is responsible for an entire organization, and reports into a CEO or business leader. Almost always the senior-most engineering leader at a company, although in a company sharded by business units there may be multiple folks operating in this role. This role’s scope is explored a bit in Your first 90 days as CTO or VP Engineering

There is a common perception that these four roles represent an ascending path, but this is a misconception in most cases. Being a great Team Manager won’t necessarily make you a good Group Manager. Being a good Group Manager won’t necessarily make you a good Executive Manager. The Tech Lead Manager role is often presented as an easy onramp to Team Manager, but my experience is that being a TLM is considerably harder to do well than Team Management, to the extent that I believe the TLM role is a trap for new managers.