DEV Community

Cover image for The Complete Path to Grokking the Engineering Manager Interview
Hunter Johnson for Educative

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at

The Complete Path to Grokking the Engineering Manager Interview

This article was written by Educative's Co-founder and CEO, Fahim ul Haq.

Before I get into this week's topic of engineering leadership, I'd like to express my appreciation to the Educative learner community for their continued support over the years. I love receiving feedback that helps us expand our course selection because it says you trust us to deliver world-class learning resources.

We listened, and in response to the overwhelming demand, I'm thrilled to announce that we have published a brand-new course: Grokking the Engineering Management and Leadership Interviews!

This course is recommended for:

  1. Engineering leaders who are looking to level up or switch organizations
  2. Strong ICs who are curious about transitioning into an engineering manager role

Engineering leadership is a tricky career path to navigate. Positioning yourself for engineering management roles isn't a skill taught in colleges or universities, and there are embarrassingly few resources available online that adequately prepare software engineers to succeed in these positions. This can make figuring out how to move up in the tech industry a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

So, how exactly do software engineers become engineering managers? More importantly, what qualities distinguish the best EMs from the worst?

I'll cover some of the major responsibilities of this role and the skills needed to succeed in it. Afterward, I'll go over how you can stand out in any Engineering Manager interview with the help of this fantastic new course.

Let's get started!

Why engineering management might be for you.

Engineering managers are professionals who oversee and manage engineering projects, teams, and operations within an organization. EMs occupy a uniquely challenging role that demands a dextrous balance of both technical aptitude and interpersonal know-how. These individuals are expected to possess a deep understanding of the software engineering process, from design and development to testing and deployment, in addition to the larger business context.

Engineering managers are critical to the success of engineering projects. Without EMs, it can become far more difficult for teams of engineers to operate efficiently. If the following responsibilities interest you, becoming an EM could be a good fit.

Engineering Management Responsibilities:

  • Project Management:
    Oversee the design, development, and implementation of engineering projects and solutions. EMs must ensure that projects are delivered on time, within budget, and to specification.

  • Team Management:
    Manage the day-to-day operations of the engineering team. In addition, EMs are expected to hire, train, and mentor team members to encourage high productivity and engagement. EMs monitor the performance of the overall team and its individual team members to provide feedback.

  • Technical Expertise: Possess a strong understanding of the various technologies, tools, and methodologies used in their field of work.

  • Cross-Functional Collaboration: Work with various stakeholders, including product management, marketing, and operations to ensure that engineering activities are aligned with broader organizational goals.

  • Risk Mitigation: Identify and manage any risks associated with engineering projects (including but not limited to cost and safety).

  • Continuous Learning: Stay abreast of emerging technologies, tools, and trends. This skill is useful for identifying new technologies that can be implemented to optimize engineering processes.

  • Strategic Planning: Set clear goals and priorities for the engineering team while effectively allocating resources and managing deadlines. Analyze data and use insights to make informed decisions.


How do you become an engineering manager?

If you don't have any engineering management experience but you're still eager to transition into an EM role, your best bet is to start by taking on more responsibility at the company you're currently at.

Software engineers without prior management experience have much better odds of being considered for an internal management opportunity over external ones, simply because this is a high-stakes position where a proven track record of excellent leadership is considered a hard prerequisite. Interviewers don't want to take an unnecessary risk by putting someone without management experience into a management position.

So, take a year or two to develop some management skills and consider taking an interview prep course before you start looking for EM roles outside your company. Applying to external jobs with less than two years of management experience is met with swift rejections, pretty much by default.

Now that we've outlined the primary responsibilities of an engineering manager, let's look at what qualities and skills separate great engineering managers from terrible ones.

What makes an engineering manager good at their job?

When I worked at Microsoft and Facebook, there was no shortage of talent. Some of the very best EMs I met were capable of driving progress forward in the face of significant obstacles. These EMs were adept at ensuring the development process was in line with strategic goals and operational objectives because they maintained clear lines of communication with their team, and trusted their team to deliver great results. This is why I'm adamant that trust and respect form the foundation of highly successful engineering teams.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true; inexperienced and underqualified EMs can often cause more setbacks than progress on projects.

The Qualities of Successful EMs

1. Effective EMs know when to delegate the engineering work to their engineers.

Being too hands-on is an easy mistake to make when you're new to managing people. However, it's important to learn to let go of the work without being a contributor. As a manager, your priority is to manage, and the best way to do that is to trust your engineers to do their job without any handholding.

2. EMs must be flexible and open to negotiation.

There are often multiple right answers, and being able to compromise is key to keeping things moving forward. There will be times when moving forward is the greatest priority. Let go of any stubborn belief that your way is the right way, and instead, get used to weighing trade-offs for different solutions, and embrace compromise.

3. Supportive EMs trust their team members to succeed.

Engineering teams will rise to their potential when given the chance. EMs that view their teams as incompetent or in need of micromanagement deteriorate trust and can contribute to a toxic work environment that undermines productivity.

4. Great EMs always provide feedback with the right intentions.

Engineers should trust that their EM will be honest, transparent, and invested in their professional development. These EMs are eager to see you succeed in your career, and aren't afraid to deliver harsh truths if they're beneficial to your growth. EMs who give indifferent feedback because they're afraid of being impolite or negative often cause more harm than good. Those EMs care about minimizing their discomfort more than your professional growth. Finding out that your EM has been withholding feedback is demoralizing, and deteriorates trust even further.

As an EM, being able to accurately gauge the success of your teams and projects is vital, but a less obvious but similarly vital skill is introspection. This advice can apply to just about everyone, but it's especially important for engineering leaders to be able to identify what personal success looks like. As an EM, you're answering to a lot more stakeholders, each with their own expectations.

How can I showcase my management skills during an interview?

Demonstrating your management skills during a job interview is crucial to convincing a potential employer that you're the right person for the role. Effective interview prep is all about knowing how to showcase the most important and relevant skills in 30 to 45 minutes.

In Grokking the Engineering Management and Leadership Interview, we cover the interview process from end to end by going through five critical areas that interviewers focus on evaluating. Throughout these sections, you'll see plenty of commonly asked interview questions, as well as examples of possible answers.

What does this course cover?

  • People Management. Due to the complex nature of this skill, there is a lot that this particular section goes over. You can expect to see topics such as managing distributed teams, conflict resolution, employee retention, and steering teams through difficult situations. Interviewers will be evaluating to see if you're technically sound enough to support an engineering team, qualified to operate in the company's management framework, and whether you will meet the expectations in the people management axis of the company.

  • Project Management. This section will go over the roadmap planning and execution process, team missions, long-term visions, and strategies. Then, you'll learn how to provide clear, thoughtful answers to project retrospective interview questions.

  • Organization Building. This section goes over team growth, hiring, sourcing, reorganization, mentorship, and onboarding. You'll learn about the many challenges that are inherent to working in a living organization, and the strategies used to nurture its growth.

  • Collaboration Management. Strong collaboration skills are an absolute must for EMs to have. You'll be in constant contact with leadership and other teams, so it's imperative that you are able to communicate effectively with all stakeholders. Cross-team and cross-functional (XFN) collaborations are two areas that will be covered in this section.

  • Behavioral Interviewing. A large part of behavioral interviewing is done to find out how a candidate's experiences inform their decision-making process. This section covers the different components of behavioral interviews:

    • Impact and result-driven approaches for achieving goals.
    • Conflict resolution approaches between peers and leadership.
    • Ability to handle difficult situations.
    • Approach to maintaining open and clear communication channels with peers and team members.
    • A candidate's focus on personal learning and growth.

Course Outcomes

After completing this course, you will be able to:

  • Have a better and deeper understanding of the end-to-end process of engineering management interviews.

  • Understand the key principles of being an effective people manager.

  • Articulate situational stories from your past experiences. Additionally, the course emphasizes the importance of building a story bank for your interviews, allowing you to effectively recall relevant experiences during the interview.
    With these tools and knowledge, you'll have everything you need to effectively navigate all aspects of the EM interview process. More importantly, you'll have the insight needed to truly excel.

Why Grokking the Engineering Management and Leadership Interviews course is right for you.

Engineering management interviews are challenging precisely because these roles are so critical to the success of an organization. It takes a unique combination of technical expertise, management skills, and nerve to handle the demands of this high-pressure role. Interviewers aren't just looking for someone who's qualified on paper, they're looking for a leader who inspires confidence, and is unfazed by uncertainty. To instill that sort of confidence, and leave the best possible impression, it's vital to learn exactly what interviewers are looking for.

Whether you're an experienced engineering leader looking to switch organizations or an ambitious software engineer looking to take the next step in your career, Grokking the Engineering Management and Leadership Interviews is the perfect place to get started.

Interview rounds often come down to candidates who share very similar qualifications and levels of experience. It's often that final bit of interview prep that gives your answers the polish needed to stand out.

As always, happy learning.

Top comments (0)