Engineering Manager to Director: Everything You Need to Know

Think you’re ready to make the move from engineering manager to director? Here’s everything you need to know.

By Kate Dagher  •   December 6, 2022  •   8 min read

Engineering managers have made the shift from sole contributor to people manager. While you’re still responsible for some technical responsibilities in this role, you’re more so overseeing the code and work of the engineers that report to you. It may not seem like there is a substantial transition from an engineering manager role to director position, but this is often said to be a more challenging career journey than some may initially think. 

For that reason, this article will cover what the role of an engineering manager is, explain what the role of an engineering director entails, go through some signs that you’re ready to make the shift from engineering manager to director, and outline some best practices for how to effectively make this transition. 

What is the role of an engineering manager? 

An engineering manager is neither a sole contributor, nor are they simply responsible for technical, hands-on responsibilities. In this role, you are now responsible for hiring new team members, supervising the current team of engineers as well as their code, and identifying training opportunities. In this way, the engineering manager is responsible for the learning and development of their team members. Ultimately, the person in this role is tasked with supporting their team and guiding them to complete software as expected, on schedule, and within the given budget, while also guiding them from a career development perspective. 

Managing a team?

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What is the role of an engineering director? 

An engineering director leads the entire engineering department within an organization, including the engineering managers. This means that they too are involved at a high level with hiring and training new team members. That said, they tend to still manage tech projects and put together cost estimations and the budget for the team. As an engineering director, you’ll have a strategic and a technical role within the organization. The strategic part of the role requires setting high-level goals for the team, overseeing the hiring process, and prioritizing which project needs the most attention and when. In terms of technical responsibilities, the engineering director is involved in planning the development of new products and identifying requirements, scope, timeline and budget for each project. 

Signs you’re ready to shift from engineering manager to director 

1You are not too busy 

If you’re too busy and feel overwhelmed, chances are you’re not ready to shift from engineering manager to director. That said, if you find you do have some windows of opportunity throughout the day, it may signal that you’re ready to take on the next challenge. Tao Wang, a VP of Engineering shares: 

“A good test is that you can comfortably take one month off and the team performs equally well if not better when you were around.”

2You have successfully managed a large team 

To move from a manager of engineering to director of engineering role, you need strong experience having managed a large team of unique individuals with varying levels of experience. If you only have a team of 4–5 people, this experience won’t adequately prepare you for the director role. Aim to gain some management experience with a team of at least 8–12 people so you can gain an idea of how effective you are with more people reporting to you and gain confidence that you can organically grow your team. 

3You can run productive meetings 

Notice if the meetings you’re running are productive meetings. Ensure that you’re setting a clear objective and are organized with a meeting agenda before the actual meeting. Even better, ask your team members to collaborate on the agenda and give you some feedback on it. Add talking points, assign a notetaker, add action items in real time, and be sure to ask for feedback from your team on how effective the discussion was.

4You know how to hire top talent 

One of the most important responsibilities of any leader is to hire the right talent and ensure that new hires are a good fit and effective in their roles. Going further, identifying a means to measure the performance of candidates and understand who would best fit your organization and team is essential. Your expectations for hiring talent as a director become increasingly higher. 

5You can successfully support and coach managers 

Do you think that you’re genuinely able to give concrete, actionable advice to managers on best practices? If the answer is yes, continue to develop those skills and see if any managers are interested in shadowing you or having you coach them. If the answer is no, work on your own engineering manager skills. It takes a good manager to teach others how to be effective in a management role. 

7 ways to successfully transition from engineering manager to director 

1Take on more ownership

If you want to move from an engineering manager to director position, you need to be ready to take on more ownership. It’s good preparation to take on a heavier workload because as a director you’re going to be heading at least two teams. Identify the most important areas to deeply understand and have a more general knowledge of areas of the business that don’t need your two hands on them directly. As a director, you’ll need to plan further ahead with more ambiguity, so it’s essential to ask the right questions and prioritize effectively. Know that the pressure will increase as a director and you’ll need to keep good composure. 

2Find a mentor who is an engineering director

Look for a mentor who is already an engineering director. In episode 46 of our Supermanagers podcast, David Hoang, Product Design Director at Webflow, said it best: 

“Seek out mentors. I think for me, it’s seeking out people who are doing it— that’s probably the best resource. So if you have a clear intention, and you value people’s time, they’re likely going to respond or are connected to others. So that’d be kind of my recommendation is, one, really mapping out the outcomes and what you want to achieve in your career versus like the exact steps to it.”

Check out this amazing template so you can help engineers break the ice in their mentorship meetings and kickstart growth conversations. 

3Build trust in your organization 

To be trusted and to trust others are both crucial when moving from an engineering manager role to a director role. Bhavin Surela, Director of Engineering at Twilio, does a great job explaining why building trust is so important. He shares that people are given more responsibilities when they are trusted within a given organization, so you have to build trust to progress in your career from an engineering manager to a director of engineering. He goes on to say that trust is really the resource you need to rely on and gain as you move up the career ladder, because the less trust you have, the less impact you will have on the efforts of the company. Once you have trust, you then need to trust your team in order to be an effective director, because you won’t have the time to constantly be going over your team’s code. In this way, trust works both ways but is essential in both areas to be successful.

4Develop business writing skills 

As you become more senior, you’ll not only require trust but also very strong communication skills. A central part of your role moving from an engineering manager to a director of engineering is that you’ll need to contribute to strategy planning and the more business-focused side of engineering. As a manager, you may tend to focus more on the coding side of engineering, but as a director, you become more heavily involved in the business side of engineering. The higher up the career ladder you go, the busier you are, which is why it’s essential to learn how to write professionally and concisely. Develop your business writing skills so you can complete executive summaries, briefs, and more with confidence. 

5Learn how to effectively communicate with a broad range of people 

Learning how to effectively communicate in writing, in person and online is essential in making the shift from engineering manager to director. Effective workplace communication is essential to the successful functioning of any organization. It’s important to be self-aware and mindful of the way you choose to communicate in general, but especially while you’re at work. A good communicator is thoughtful and speaks with intent. Often, we can tell when a message is well received and when it isn’t. Pay attention to other people’s reactions and nonverbal communication cues in those instances. Your team will have diverse personalities, backgrounds, and experiences which will affect the way you interact and the way you support, guide, and lead your team.  

Parting advice 

Moving from an engineering manager to a director position can be challenging and requires hard work and perseverance. Wherever you are in your career, it’s certain that you’ll need to develop your management skills, team-building skills, as well as your ability to host team meetings and one-on-one meetings. Ensure that you thoroughly understand the requirements for you to transition from an engineering manager role to director role so you can focus on particular areas of your career development to get you there. While this movement on the career ladder is hard work, it is certainly attainable and guaranteed to be worth it in the long run.

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