In the early days of a company's life, the technical team is made of a CTO and a few engineers. The CTO is the tech leader, and she leads the small crew throughout every aspect of value creation. From the architecture to the best practices, through security, processes, projects, hiring, onboarding, etc.
As the team grows, all these aspects can no longer be handled by a single person. We start to distribute the activities and the related responsibilities amongst several engineering leaders.
For an engineer, two different career paths start to emerge in the company. The technical expertise path, also known as the individual contributor path, and the people management path.
Being an Engineering Manager, or EM, is the first step on the people management track of the engineering career ladder. An EM is the hierarchical manager of other engineers. The EM position tends to appear when the engineering team gathers 10+ engineers.
Here is a simplified engineering career ladder with an individual contributor track and a people manager track. You can find many more intermediate levels if you work at a large company.
|Individual Contributor (IC) Track||People Manager Track|
|Senior Engineer||Engineering Manager|
|Staff Engineer||Engineering Director|
|Principal Engineer||Vice President of Engineering|
An Engineering Manager is the manager of a team of individual contributors.
In a small company, he is often managed by the CTO. In a larger one, his manager is usually an Engineering Director. An Engineering Director is the manager of a group of Engineering Managers.
Leading a team of five engineers in a startup has nothing to do with leading a department gathering hundreds or thousands of engineers in a large corporation. It's not the same job.
The first step to evolve to the engineering management path is to lead the delivery of a technical team. Acting as lead developer, technical project manager, or team lead is an inspiring test. It's a way to discover some aspects of engineering management.
- 💡 Here is a curated list of 30+ engineering career ladders.
- 📖 Most of these ladders are directly or indirectly based on the career ladder of Rent the Runway. Camille Fournier, CTO in this company wrote an excellent book for technical leaders: The Manager's Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change.