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engineering management seriesThis is the fifth in an ongoing series of posts that address how New Relic does engineering management in the real world, written by various New Relic software engineers and managers.


Engineers who distinguish themselves by being particularly good at their jobs are obviously management material, right? After all, that’s the traditional engineering career progression: a standout engineer is made “team lead,” then a manager, and then maybe a director, vice president, or CTO. Doesn’t that make sense?

Actually, it’s a terrible idea. Companies that like to promote strong contributors into management roles may think they’re getting the best of both worlds, but instead they often wind up with talented people doing two jobs poorly instead of one job well. The person promoted doesn’t have time to really learn the craft of management, so not only does the engineering team get a fairly mediocre manager, they’ve also lost one of their best contributors.

That’s not how we approach the engineering-management relationship at New Relic. Here, moving to a management track doesn’t necessarily represent a promotion. We recognize that management is a different job entirely, one that requires very different skills. Critically, the qualities that make for a good engineer aren’t necessarily the same as those that make for a good manager.

At New Relic, the engineering career track comprises four levels within the title of Software Engineer:

  • Engineer
  • Senior Engineer
  • Lead Engineer
  • Principal Engineer

The management track is similar - the titles are:

  • Manager
  • Senior Manager
  • Director
  • Senior Director/Vice President

Another thing that’s different about our approach is that people can move across or through the two tracks in whatever way makes sense for them. Engineers are welcome to pursue opportunities to move into management if that’s what they think they want to do, and they’re welcome to move back if it doesn’t work out. Neither direction is considered a promotion or demotion, however.

two paths: engineering or engineering managementIf someone left engineering to join marketing, for example, no one would say, “They’re being promoted to marketing.” It’s the same with moving to management. Just as marketing’s goals are different than engineering’s goals, a manager deals with completely different success criteria than does an individual contributor such as an engineer.

Making sure that individual contributors who move into management understand the new success criteria is incredibly important. As an engineer, you’re told, “We want to see your contributions.” When you’re management, suddenly it’s the exact opposite. The team’s accomplishments are your accomplishments, and if you’re standing out as an individual, you may not actually be doing as good a job as someone who’s less visible.

As a corollary: Just because someone has moved several steps along the engineering track, it doesn’t mean they’ll start at a senior level if they move into management. An engineer on my team who’d been a professional programmer for something like 15 years recently moved to the management track, and he started fairly near the beginning of the track. But he was given the time to become a full-time student of management. He scheduled meetings constantly to learn from other managers and really threw himself into developing quickly. As a result, he was promoted within a year. But that happened because he was doing well in his new role, not because of his experience in his old one.

Working under this model can be difficult. It often requires breaking people’s ingrained thinking habits. Even here at New Relic, we still catch people internally referring to moving to management as a “promotion.” That’s the way we’ve all learned to think of it at all the other places we’ve worked. It’s how the world at large works—if you don’t have a bunch of people reporting to you, you must be less important than someone who does. But, in fact, a lot of people here with no reports are way more important than I am.

And that’s exactly how it should be.


Be sure to read the other posts in this series:


Background and two paths images courtesy of