Most engineering manager positions require X years of managerial experience in the job description. That means as an individual contributor I can never qualify. But this experience has to come from somewhere. How can I bootstrap the managerial experience? Is internal promotion to some lead position the only possible way if I don't start my own business?
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You can get X years of "management experience" without ever being a manager. If you look at management as a series of disciplines (building a team, coaching people, building a schedule, etc.) then you are building a management pedigree. Some recommendations:
- Find a mentor (someone in a management position) to help coach you on the basic skills and help you identify opportunities to grow into those specific skills
- Ask your current manager (try not to make that person your mentor...) for opportunities to take on more responsibility and demonstrate your ability to be successful.
- Keep a list of what you have tried and what you have learned
- Read. Lots. There are many good management books out there and as a lead SW engineer, you are in a good position to understand and innovate some of the theory/concepts in books and put them into practice (also, you are in a good position to evaluate what theories aren't all that helpful...)
I'm sure others will have some other good ideas, but this is what has helped me and advice I give to tech leads looking to make the transition.
good luck and have fun!
Mostly it does come as you guess from internal promotion. You have coded a lot and after years of practice you were asked to take the ownership of the code, mentor juniors perhaps on occasion even be a contact for the customers of the company. Then you discover the years you are doing now count more towards managerial experience than to building up purely technical skills.
There is always an option for somebody experienced be invited to try himself out in a new role in a new company. There are open-minded employers who do give people a chance.
The other option is to try freelancing then join forces with other people to bootstrap a small company and offer your services as a team. There you'll get as much experience as you want.
Just keep an eye open. If you're genuinely interested there is a good chance you will get there sooner or later.
I don't think there's a specific formula. Sometimes, the opportunity will present itself. For example, if you see a job posting within your company for an engineering manager, consider applying for the job and making your case. If your manager can attest to your organizational skills, you might just land it.
Most engineers will find that, as their responsibilities and experience increases, they are taking on more and more of a management role. Often this will happen without an official title or job description change - when applying to a new job, you might have to get a reference from your previous manager to help prove you have the relevant experience.
Beyond that, just as it is true with any other kind of work experience, this is something you can seek out on your own. You can either spend your free time attempting to directly get the right kind of experience, through freelancing and other types of short term work, or you can spend your free time learning management skills and techniques, and then look for opportunities to exercise them in your current work position.
When I say "other types of short term work", all of the standard options apply. You can volunteer in a management position somewhere in your community, join your condo board, find part time or contract work, or contribute to open-source projects.
At least in the companies I have been, senior roles - even the Individual contributor ones grow towards working across teams / influencing a lot of people etc.
They don't have the requirements around people management/release management though - but the experience of dealing with people is almost always a necessity. So you could grow into one of these IC roles and the other company might consider this. You should talk to the recruiters once you get there.
Internal promotion is - IMO - the easy way. It's easier to be a manager within an organization that you understand somewhat. Coming into a new company and a new role would be significantly harder, since you would understand very little about the culture. When I see companies that require X years of management, I think that's what they are saying. Particularly in the X = 2-4 years. If they are saying X >= 8, then I think they are also looking for someone seriously seasoned, who isn't going to be startled by much and who will have a very broad manager skill set.
There's other ways to build managerial skills however - volunteer work. I learned a whole lot about management in a volunteer recreational organization before I ever had the opportunity to step up in my companies. While organizing people for a fun (but intellectual) activity was not the same as getting a herd of engineers to create a product, it gave me at least a few tricks to employ as we got started, and it gave me the confidence to try more things and further grow.
I'd say that if you are looking to apply for jobs that look for 2-4 years of management, and you don't have the opportunity at work to lead a small team - then look for medium to large size projects in non-work organizations.