The 3 ways an engineering manager’s role differs between a startup and a corporate

Written by Team Zumvie

August 20, 2021

Being an engineering manager consists of coding, managing people, and making tech decisions. This generalization does not change much across industries and even the technologies used at a company.

But perhaps the one area where drastic change can be seen is in the company’s size and stage. In this article, we will cover the 3 ways the engineering manager’s role differs between a startup and an established corporation.

We will cover:

Job Description and Expectations

A startup is an investment, and odds of success are stacked against every employee of the startup. Employees do whatever needs to be done to overcome those odds. 

As things change rapidly, to ensure the startup’s success, engineering managers may tend to carry out tasks related to product management, tech writing, user experience, etc., which may or may not be in the job description. This requires flexibility on the engineering manager’s side.

In bigger companies, however, the roadmap is set in stone, there’s way less day-to-day change. The challenges then are managing the code base, the tech debt, and communicating its importance to other stakeholders.

For most changes and unseen challenges, there’s likely a process to follow or better: resources to deal with it.

Company Politics

We can all agree that every company has politics. For startups, politics isn’t that big of an issue due to the size of the teams, which are usually small enough to hash out conflicts directly. 

But for larger companies with more teams, functions, and hierarchy, the amount of politicking is way more. 

The engineering manager will have a daily job of shielding teams from politics, deescalating rumors, and dealing with other teams or resources. All of this will be done in the name of productivity for the team the engineering manager leads.

Since the majority of engineering managers come from an engineering background, this might be the hardest thing about working at bigger companies.

Writing code

Perhaps the most important difference between engineering managers in a startup and a corporate will be how much time they spend on coding.

In a startup, you’ll be expected to code at least 50% of the time, but the younger the company, the more you’ll do it. So it can easily go way above 50% if it’s a startup and you have just a handful of direct reports.

In a bigger company, writing code will be replaced with managing more direct reports, the 1:1’s with them, recruiting, and stakeholder meetings. 

For some engineering managers, this will be the most challenging part of working in a big company. As the co-founder of MongoDB, Eliot Horowitz says: “Lose contact with the code, and you lose the connection to your team and the project”. 

Eliot estimates that engineering managers should spend around 30% of their time coding.

The rest of his estimates, from his blog

This provides a paradoxical challenge for engineering managers: finding the time to do the coding or the complete opposite of letting go of coding (and keeping up to date with the latest technologies).

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