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If you’re an engineering manager looking to advance your career without leaping into upper management, the senior engineering manager job title may be right for you. But what qualities and skills do you need to improve to get there?

In this post, we explore engineering manager vs. senior engineering manager and look at three areas where you should cultivate your skills and traits to be ready for the next step in your career.

Engineering Manager vs. Senior Engineering Manager – the differences

Not all companies offer senior engineering manager positions or use the senior prefix only to indicate that an engineering manager has more experience and longer tenure. 

Naturally, if a senior role comes with more responsibility and requirements, these will also vary across companies.

Some typical engineering manager vs. senior engineering manager differences include:

  • Manages 2+ teams and their respective managers
  • Mentors other engineering managers
  • Programs even less or not at all
  • Has similar tasks, but must always keep the big picture in mind and be a cross-team thinker

Regardless of what the role of senior engineering manager entails in your case, you will want to improve in the following areas to become a competent and confident leader. 

1. Focus on what’s most important

Even now, you don’t have a chance to accomplish your tasks if you micromanage everything and everyone. As a senior engineering manager, you’ll have even more responsibilities and people under your care. So if you’re fighting against the clock in your daily work, it’s high time to practice letting go. 

  • Trust and empower others: Delegate more tasks and responsibilities to team members and empower them to grow and prove themselves.
  • Make peace with being a manager: The more you advance in the management career, the less code you will write. A senior position will only frustrate you if you want to stay deeply involved in programming.
  • Protect your time: Realize your job empowers your teams to do their best. To do that, you need to focus on the work only you can do. If you get stuck doing work that others in your team could or should do, hit the brakes and start delegating. 
Regularly reflect on your engineering manager experiences and ask your team and manager for feedback.
Reflecting on your engineering manager experiences will also help you improve communication with team members and other managers.

2. Be a decisive and humble leader 

A great leader has to balance competence and determination with humility and open-mindedness. Moreover, you also need to become increasingly accustomed to failing, asking others for support and feedback, and constantly pushing yourself forward.

  • Practice your 1:1 meetings: As a senior, you’ll have 1:1 meetings with the technical leaders of your teams and sometimes with individual team members. These meetings are vital to staying up to date on the well-being of your engineers. The better you can lead these sessions, the more valuable information you’ll receive. Improve your conversation skills, learn more about the topic, and observe how your managers conduct these meetings.
  • Ask for feedback: Practice giving feedback and make it a habit to request feedback. As a senior, you often won’t see the impact of your decisions and actions as clearly as you do now. So regular feedback is essential to grow and ensure teams can perform their best.
  • Reflect on your engineering manager experiences: Regularly take the time to reflect on what went well recently and what didn’t go so well. How could you be a better mentor and leader next time? What will you do differently?
  • Admit to imperfections: No one can know everything, certainly not when you’re working as a manager in tech. Talk openly about your knowledge gaps and show a willingness to learn. Use this as an opportunity to organize a knowledge-sharing workshop – surely others in the company need a refresher too!

You might also like: Three Traits of an Exceptional Engineering Leader

3. Look at the bigger picture

As a senior engineering manager, you’ll be responsible for more than one team and must make decisions that consider all teams’ well-being. But then, you also need to regard the demands of stakeholders and other managers, which can quickly get out of hand if you ignore the big picture. 

  • Get to know other teams: Start by taking an interest in other teams: what do they do and how? What are their processes, and why do they do things a certain way? Draw on this knowledge when proposing process changes for your current team, for example, and figure out how others might benefit as well.
  • Communicate with the big picture in mind: As a senior, you’ll likely report directly to the director of engineering and other stakeholders. Practice talking about projects and your team while considering the big picture. Listen carefully to stakeholders to learn what is important to them: what topics are they most concerned about, and what questions are they asking?
  • Look for training: Search for relevant conferences (such as the LeadDev or QCon), workshops, and training opportunities to improve your technical and leadership skills. Also, talk to your manager about your interest in becoming a senior so they can help you get the proper training.

Manager vs. Senior Manager: Cross-team thinkers with more experience and responsibilities

The senior engineering manager needs to have a lot of experience leading a technical team and be willing to keep improving to help their teams be the best they can be. If you want to advance your career, take the tips in this post to heart and:

  1. Ensure you understand what this role entails in your org
  2. Plan your skills and traits development by reflecting on your engineering manager experiences.
  3. Ask your managers and team for feedback on your recent performance and find the areas that need cultivating.8

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Nataliya Pasichnyk, is an Engineering Manager at Codility and has five years of years of experience working with Frontend technologies. Now she is leading team of engineers, supporting their development, helping the team to deliver great features, and tries to combine coding and team management.

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