Aman Swami
Aman Swami Technology Evangelist at Zenduty. Spreading the gospel of SRE

Engineering Manager from a non-STEM background?

Engineering Manager from a non-STEM background?

The Possimpible

There is a long list of requirements a hiring manager looks at before hiring an Engineering Manager, there needs to be a balance between technical and leadership skills to perform well in the position.

Engineering Manager roles differ from company to company. It is hard to list what a day in an engineering manager’s life looks like.

Based on the company that is hiring, we can look at alternative profiles for the role, like hiring someone from a pure leadership role to lead an engineering team, someone from a non-STEM background.

Product managers being non-technical is quite common but why not engineering managers?

Controversial opinion? Don’t worry, I have a justification for the statement.

The Usual Path

Team leads who actively code, take on some managerial responsibilities, and have relevant experience are usually promoted to an engineering manager role.

The transition while tough for some people have many commonalities. Firstly, no more coding. If you are still coding, something is wrong and you are probably not getting enough time to take care of your people.

As the team lead you are a programmer who does some manager and/or process stuff. Moving to engineering management is a total career change. You’re not a programmer anymore and your “technical involvement” is leading technical conversations and encouraging people to build software well.

When you don’t code after transitioning to an engineering managerial role, what’s stopping companies from hiring non-STEM background candidates with stellar leadership skills for it?

Some initial questions

One of the key responsibilities of an engineering manager is to contribute to architecture discussions, plan and help the team execute. How is a person with no technical background supposed to contribute to a discussion around the architecture of the product?

Let’s for argument’s sake say that the team lead can help the engineering manager when it comes to architecture discussions and the team lead contributes much more to the technical discussion than the engineering manager.

Driving the discussions and balancing the perspectives would become the key responsibilities of a non-technical engineering manager.

If not technical background, what other backgrounds could fit the role? A person with leadership experience in finance, marketing, and HR?

A good leader with great team management, planning, delegation, coaching, conflict management, and budgeting skills would ideally fit the profile.

But before you find this good leader, you need to answer some questions about your current team, what skills are the team lacking or needs more work? Will diverse talent help the overall development of the team and product?

More precisely, do they lack technical skills, and a clear roadmap, are there any conflicts within the team, is the team not meeting timelines, and are the expectations set right?

Once you have answered these questions internally you can consider the following to build confidence amongst the team in support of hiring a non-technical engineering manager to lead the team to success.

The Experienced Engineering Manager

Technology is progressing every day, and the way of coding has changed. Someone who actively coded a decade ago and moved to an engineering manager role would face challenges in actively making technical contributions as the skill set becomes outdated.

Experienced engineering managers contribute to the team’s vision and execution roadmap more than the code itself. Given this, hiring an EM with a non-STEM background with people managing skills that help get more out of the teams that are excellent at executing by giving them direction and the right set of tools becomes crucial.

It becomes more about helping people unblock themselves and to use their skills to build software with modern tools. Use his/her mentoring skills to teach better communication, collaboration, good engineering principles, and how to look at risk vs impact in making something new.

The Sports Parallel

Typical engineering manager persona;

Zinedine Zidane was one of the best players in the world in his time. Sir Alex Ferguson arguably the best manager in the world, once said: “Give me Zidane and 10 pieces of wood and I’ll win you the Champions League”.

He became a successful manager, winning 3 consecutive champions league titles (the equivalent of 3 super bowls).

The non-Stem Engineering manager persona;

A well-known football/soccer coach, Jurgen Klopp, who in his playing career didn’t have much success, wasn’t a technical player and couldn’t make it big. To put that into perspective he scored 52 goals in 352 games as a striker.

But in the managerial role, he rebuilt a team that had lost its legacy, had lost the zeal to be a winning team. He improved moderately good players to the world’s best. Liverpool won the Premier League after 30 years and the champions league title after 14 years under him.

The path and definition of success for the two managers mentioned above differed, they possessed different skill sets and achieved their goals in completely different ways. But the point to note is that they both achieved their goals.

So before hiring the EM, you must clarify your goals, shortcomings and challenges

To sum it up, a non-technical EM candidate will possess the following skill set and experience; coaching, conflict management, definitive way of working, recruitment, scaling organization, team development, planning, budgeting, etc.

You can tackle the problem of contributions to technical decisions by pairing the EM with a Staff engineer so they have someone responsible for the tech side of things.

Technical mentoring and taking architectural decisions would not fall on the plate of the said role. But driving the discussions and balancing the perspectives would be the responsibility of a non-technical engineering manager.

One way the person in charge can help in technical mentoring is by translating tech leads plans into actionable things.

If this helps you hire your next engineering manager, do have him check out Zenduty for incident management.

Looking for an incident management and on-call scheduling platform?

Sign up for a 14-day free trial of Zenduty. No CC required. Implement modern incident response and on-call practices within your production operations and provide industry-leading SLAs to your customers

Sign up on Zenduty Login to Zenduty