Before we start: despite my best efforts, this text contains many so-called male default terms, like leader, officer, or manager, which although they are generally believed to be gender-neutral, are considered by most men and sadly also the majority of women as male. I am therefore using pronouns when a male default term appears in the text for the first time.
Whether you are starting your career journey just now, are thinking of the next step, or are possibly even feeling stuck and wondering where to move next, this post aims to help you understand the different options available to you in becoming an engineering leader and how you can make them work for yourself.
When am I a leader?
Irrespective of what an organization’s hierarchies will make you believe, titles do not make leaders. You are a leader (she/he), the moment you develop an original or authentic message or vision, which others are willing to subscribe to, invest into, or follow in thought or belief. In other words, your leadership journey begins, when your behavior - directly or indirectly - influences or induces others to produce an outcome that is valuable to your company. You could be an Intern, Junior or Senior at the time this happens.
There certainly is no rule of thumb, how many years of experience or which specific skills set one must have acquired to become an engineering leader (she/he). There is however a great place to start whenever you feel ready.
Start with thought leadership
As a thought leader (she/he), you offer guidance and insight to others based on your own knowledge and experience. Thought leaders have the ability to synthesize their own and others’ thoughts and insights in a way easily consumable to others, triggering novel thoughts and solutions, and fostering collaboration & sharing. At Wayfair thought leaders provide valuable contributions and are driving forward best practices on anything from introducing new cloud technology to improving diversity in the hiring process. Becoming a thought leader involves many steps of becoming a leader, like knowing and understanding yourself and your views, gaining other’s trust and respect, and putting yourself and your message out there, but without the doom scenario of accountability for big budgets. It is a gradual process, whilst giving one great presentation at a gathering is a victory, it is not success. The network that comes with it, will be handy once your influence increases as you take on more responsibility.
Career tracks in engineering
Companies with Engineering or R&D departments are likely to have two types of career tracks, tech/technology track and management track. Career levels below Senior (she/he) usually are on the tech track, meaning that you are an individual contributor (she/he) or IC, applying a technical or engineering skill set. Seniors have the choice to remain on the tech track as an IC or follow the management track. As a people or engineering manager, their daily responsibilities will increasingly be supplemented with non-technical work: strategy, direction, administration, and people management. At Wayfair this typically happens when people reach the role of Staff Engineer. As people management skills do not build on technical skills, the switch to the management track is less gradual than remaining on the tech track and requires more help and support from your manager, mentor, and peers. We provide a wide range of training material and leadership development programmes at Wayfair, as do most larger companies, to help you develop your managerial skills. Often there are programs you can follow before and after you have started to support actual direct reports. Initial leadership roles on the respective tracks are tech leads and engineering managers.
Tech leads (she/he) take care of systems, engineering managers (she/he) of the people
Whilst differences between the two roles may vary from place to place, in general, technical leadership will encompass responsibility or accountability for technical excellence & innovation, architecture, system design & integration, platform direction, roadmaps, SLAs, and many more. An engineering manager will be accountable for career planning, promotions, coaching, objectives, performance, feedback, team building, and culture. Often responsibilities like a systems roadmap, the development process, and team visibility will be shared between the two. Whilst tech leads will spend upwards of 30% of their time coding or reviewing, engineering managers will spend less than 30%. The two roles can be combined in one person, or separate, sometimes even in different departments, sometimes they are equal partners, sometimes, one reports to the other.
The manager-doer at Wayfair
At Wayfair Engineering we value technical leadership. We believe that people management responsibility should not be disconnected from the accountability of technical leadership. Our teams have senior Product and Engineering leaders who jointly take full ownership of performance and outcome. Like the founders of a start-up, each engineering team has a CPO (she/he) for the product and a CTO (she/he) for the technology and the engineers. In practice this means, whilst engineering managers are accountable for technical leadership, in large teams or teams with complex output, they may delegate responsibility for technical leadership to a tech lead, whilst accountability remains with them. We do this to create the space and opportunity for engineering managers to stay deeply connected to the technology and code, and to remain hands-on and technically relevant on the management track.
Do I have to choose between tracks?
The moment the professional development and well-being of others is given into your caring hands, you will start developing non-technical skills, which divest time away from your engineering core skills. How soon and deeply you get involved is a matter of personal preference and proficiency - poorly managed teams with great tech are just as bad as perfectly managed teams with poor tech. Acquiring the gift of delegation early helps, as you can share the load and balance between the two forces, tech, and people management, which at times may feel like they are tearing you apart.
Job and company choices become increasingly important. In many start-ups, where founders (she/he) in C-level positions are themselves deeply, technically involved, the two tracks may not differ at all, most people will be tech leaders and managers at the same time. In other companies you may be forced to choose, as they don’t permit the skill sets to be combined, to obtain greater proficiency from both. Wayfair provides tech and management track both up to the Director level, as we value ICs and people managers input equally. Whether you may feel a strong preference for either track or not know which one to choose, staying flexible and keeping one’s options open usually pays off. You can do this by working in roles that combine the tracks, as well as switching between tracks in different jobs.
Whatever your choices may be, always remember that ultimately your career will be measured in decades, not months or even years, and what may seem like a big mistake at a time, will later turn out to be a treasured learning experience. Think of your career development as a flow of inspiring events, rather than the climb up a ladder and focus on making choices that feel right for you at the time. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and invest the time once in a while to look for a mentor to support you.
Nadia Schmid leads Data Analytics and Data Engineering for B2B at Wayfair. She has coached and mentored people and built and brought together data teams across engineering, data science and analytics disciplines in various industries and business domains. She believes that culture is the foremost differentiator for long-term success and business value.
Interested in joining the Wayfair team? Explore our open roles here.