How to Find an Amazing Engineering Mentor with PlatoHQ
Shivani Sharma’s (Sr Engineering Manager at Slack and Plato’s mentor) keynote about her transition from Engineer to Engineering Manager during the Plato event #1 hosted on May 15, 2017 in San Francisco
Transitioning from an engineer to a engineering manager may seem like a promotion. But when you go from working with computers to managing people, it is actually a career change. When you use code to tell a computer what to do, it will do the same thing every time. People are different. While you may predict people’s behavior, you can’t control it, not to mention there are many factors that can affect how a person thinks or feels. And that’s exactly what makes this transition hard for an engineer.
Shivani Sharma, senior engineering manager at Slack, experienced this earlier in her career. When IBM acquired BigFix, the startup company (and later tech leader) where she worked as an engineer, she faced that challenge.
“As an engineering manager, I enjoy leveling up engineering managers around me, and if I have a way to impact other engineering managers, I want to be a part of that, because it is something I’m passionate about”
Shivani said in a speech she gave at the Engineering Management Talks with Plato event our company hosted on May 15, 2017, in San Francisco.
Why becoming an engineering manager
In her speech, Shivani explained why she became an engineering manager. First of all, as her peers and managers later pointed out, there were some things that she was doing constantly, such as:
- Resolving team conflicts and keeping everyone focused on the goals under tight deadlines
- Building positive working relationships with her colleagues and other people in the organization
- Enjoying coaching and mentoring others, especially interns
Shivani was already thinking about changing her path and becoming an engineering manager, but before other people told her she would be a good candidate, she wasn’t completely sure it was the right choice for her.
Transitioning from one role to another was hard enough. Company size shifted dramatically going from a company of 150 employees all working together locally to a company of 400,000 employees globally. Additionally, having 70 engineers working locally to having 500 engineers globally working on the same technology.
What did the transition look like?
Shivani started her new position in August, when her new manager and other peer managers, who were located in Europe, were on vacation. Her local team was an adjacent team and she didn’t know what they were doing on a day-to-day basis, so she relied only on her engineers. At that point, she had only mentors who were engineers instead of other engineer managers.
Another challenge she was facing was the time difference. The only overlapping time with her manager and other peer managers was before 9 a.m., Pacific Standard Time. That didn’t leave much time to discuss any ideas or solutions to any difficult situations that might occur throughout the day.
Learning from Shivani’s experience
Shivani emphasized that this wasn’t a promotion, but a career change, because the engineering role and engineering management role are completely different, despite a few similarities. The key difference is that as an engineer, you are responsible for lines of code and making that code work in an efficient system.As an engineering manager, you are responsible for groups of people working as an efficient system.
In her speech, Shivani advised people who were considering an engineering management path to seek out a mentor as soon as possible, even during the consideration period. During her transition period, she buried herself in books and read every management book she could get her hands on. Some companies provide management-specific trainings, but unfortunately, her training wasn’t available until about nine months after she started her new role. She learned from her own experience that books are great, but mentors are better.
She also encouraged attendees to not be afraid to make mistakes. Humans are unpredictable — even the most perfectly planned conversations and situations can go differently. The important thing to remember is that in a management role, the learning never stops — first you learn how to be an engineering manager, then you might move on to manage managers, which comes with a new set of challenges and tasks.
On the frustration of not coding anymore, qualities to look for in a mentor, and recommended reading
When someone in the audience asked Shivani if she is frustrated about not coding anymore, she answered no. Even before transitioning to a management role, she recognized her abilities to motivate people and keep them focused on their goals, and she was mentally prepared to take on the task of leveling up and impacting others.
When asked what people should look for in a mentor, she emphasized that besides experience, the most important thing is to have a real connection with this person, someone you can talk to about your challenges and stress factors.
Shivani recommended that those who were interested in an engineering management role read the book Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. The book explains why technical teams behave in a certain way and points out that the major issues are human, not technical. She also mentioned the Google Project Aristotle, which analyzed what makes a team productive. Google learned that productivity is not based on IQ, personalities (introvert/extrovert); it’s based on mutual respect and trust, also called psychological safety.
Check-out the full video here: