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My Transition from Engineer to Manager

by Steven Cerri

My Identity as an Engineer

When I was a young engineer just out of college, I loved the fact that I was able to write code, develop algorithms, produce charts, perform analyses, and present briefings about my work that moved projects forward and allowed significant decisions to be made. I was an individual contributor. The years of college were being rewarded by my ability to contribute. I was a true engineer, a true individual contributor and I was rewarded for my thinking, my creativity, and my individual output. The same was true as I applied my knowledge of geophysics in my scientific endeavors.

My Identity as a New Manager

As I progressed in my career there came a time when I was promoted to manager, program manager to be exact. I was the program manager of a three million-dollar software project with 30 programmers. I remember one day I went home completely convinced that I had not done anything productive for the whole day. I had not written a line of code. I had not developed a graph. I had not presented a briefing, and I had not made a technical decision. All I had done was keep 30 programmers calm, motivated, and focused on their work. This wasn’t what I had spent my years in college to do. This was not who I was. I was being paid for “baby-sitting” people. I wasn’t a baby-sitter. I was an engineer and scientist. This couldn’t be what a manager did all day long…could it?

My Identity as a Full-Time Manager

Slowly a shift took place. Instead of receiving my gratification from my own, personal technical contribution, I began to achieve my sense of accomplishment from the achievements of my team. Their successes became my successes. Keeping them productive and focused and motivated was indeed what I was being paid for. The transition had taken place. But the transition that was most important was not in knowing “what” to do to be a manager; rather it was more about who I thought myself to be. Over the course of my career, I served as Product Manager, Director of Engineering, Vice President of Operations, Director of Training, and Division General Manager, all in high-tech companies.

My Training Programs Are Impacted by this Experience

During my career the training programs I attended did not address this issue of identity. Even today, most training programs tell engineers and technical professionals primarily “What” to do in order to transition to management and leadership. While knowing what to do is a necessary component for successful transition, it is not sufficient for success. We have all seen technical professionals who attend management training only to NOT apply what they have learned. “What” to do is just not enough to change behavior. That is why, in my trainings, I incorporate an understanding that management is a whole new career for the technical professional. One that will change their identity and the way they see themselves and their work. Taught by a psychologist this can definitely be a turn-off for most technical people. It comes off as too “touchy-feely and so much “psycho-babble”. That trainer is seen as someone who doesn’t understand technical professionals and their technical work. However, when I discuss the whole transition process, which includes not only what to do, but who to be, there is a connection, technical professional to technical professional. The training addresses the complete process, and behavior does indeed change.