Working at Grafana Labs: Making the shift from individual contributor to engineering manager
We are both engineers in the frontend division at Grafana Labs, working on features in the Grafana project such as Explore and data visualization. As we worked together, we discovered we were both interested in the company’s engineering manager (EM) track. We saw that career path as not only a chance to expand our coaching and leadership skills and experience, but also as a way for us to participate in overcoming the organizational challenges of a hyper-growth startup.
In order to figure out how to shift from our roles as individual contributors (ICs) — specializing in hands-on technical tasks such as coding, debugging, and problem-solving — to EMs, we decided to team up on a little investigative work.
We wanted to answer the following questions:
- How does someone transition from an engineer to an EM at Grafana Labs?
- What does this transition look like?
- And finally, what makes a good EM?
To get the information we needed, we chatted with multiple Grafanistas who successfully made the IC-to-EM transition and we recorded their insights.
One great thing we learned was that Grafana Labs supports a two-track career progression between IC and EM, and allows transitioning between them. This means engineers can try a management role position without sacrificing their current level if they choose to pursue a different path. Even knowing that, we still found it very beneficial to talk to individuals about their unique experiences to get a better sense of how a transition could play out for each of us.
We’re sure there must be other engineers in and out of Grafana Labs who are also curious about going down the manager path, so we wanted to share some of the wisdom we learned from people who have been there.
How an engineer shifts from IC to EM depends on three things: an organization’s environment, self-advocacy, and luck.
The dual-track IC/EM career progression is increasingly common across tech companies, but not all of them officially support it. Thankfully, Grafana Labs does.
Principal Engineer Ed Welch, who works on the Grafana Loki team, has made the transition in both directions, first becoming a manager to fill an organizational need, then recently switching back to the IC track after realizing that is where his heart lies.
Although his initial career track shift wasn’t personally motivated, most former ICs we talked to did start out with their own desire to become an EM. They shared their goal with their manager and leadership team so that when an opportunity arose they were considered for it.
Being open about their interest meant experienced team members could help coach and prepare them for the EM role.
Making your own luck
If you don’t make your career intent known and advocate for yourself, it is extremely unlikely that someone will intuitively provide you with a path to an EM role. By letting others around you know about your interests, you make your own luck.
No matter where you work, a lot of what makes a transition possible is out of your direct control. It might depend on whether your organization is expanding and needs more EMs, or your ability to obtain sponsorship from leadership. Accepting that you can’t control everything is humbling, but it can also help focus you on what is in your control, such as working at an organization that supports a lateral move; speaking up for yourself and your desire to grow into the role; and seeking experiences to grow your leadership and mentorship capabilities.
Since a move to an EM track requires many things to happen in your favor, you need to be ready to take the leap when an opportunity does arise. We spoke to one Grafanista, Engineering Manager Kate Brenner, who followed all of the necessary steps and let her manager and skip-level manager know about her aspiration to become an EM. However, when a position opened up sooner than she anticipated, she was a bit hesitant to apply for it. The role was for another team in another part of the organization. After discussing the opportunity with her manager, she realized there was no guaranteed timeline for a role opening up in her division, so she accepted the EM role on the other team. It came with a benefit: She avoided the potentially awkward situation of managing her current peers.
The three stages of the job shift
Now that we’ve covered the big picture, we’re going to get into a more detailed explanation of the transition from IC to EM.
As we mentioned, even though some things will be out of your control, it’s important to be ready for the change when it comes your way.
As an IC, you should actively seek leadership opportunities. Take on roles heading up projects within your team and become a tech lead, if possible. Your goal is to start to flex the non-technical skills required to be successful in the EM track, such as project/product management, mentoring/coaching, and focusing on improving team processes.
It’s also a good idea to read about what makes a good manager. Books such as “The Manager’s Path” and “Radical Candor” can help you confirm whether you want to go down that path. They can also help you better understand the critical areas you may need to develop.
Finally, nothing beats getting real-life experience using your managerial skills. The easiest way to grow is through mentorship — especially if you are already in a senior IC role. Developing relationships with colleagues will open you up to opportunities where you can act as a coach. For example, someone on Nathan’s squad recently reached out to him and asked how they could achieve a goal of becoming a better engineer. He told them he would be happy to support them, and they discussed where he thought the person was strong and in what areas they could improve. This was a great opportunity to level up Nathan’s own mentoring skills, and an example he can leverage while interviewing for an EM role.
The interview process
After you have prepped for the role, the next step on the path to becoming an EM is interviewing for a position. If this is your first EM role, it will likely be easier to get an interview at your current organization instead of somewhere new. You’ll have some home-field advantages such as:
- Already having an established network inside the company
- The ability to self-advocate and make your own luck
- Internal insight into the interview process — including the questions you might be asked!
Once you land an interview, take a deep breath and reflect on the work you’ve been doing. Even though you may not have had any EM roles in the past, you can bring up IC leadership experiences, especially as they relate to interacting with people around you. Stories about how you’ve mentored and coached others can help you prove your potential as an EM.
Starting the new job
Congratulations, you’ve landed your first EM role! Now what?
Odds are you’re not the first person to go from IC to EM, so use the people who have done it before as a resource — or find another newbie so you can help each other. Kate Brenner and fellow Grafana Labs Engineering Manager Yaëlle Chaudy transitioned into their EM roles around the same time and were able to share their early struggles with each other. They told us they were good sounding boards for one another when it came to handling new aspects of the role.
When starting in your new position, be patient with yourself. The skills that will make you effective as an IC are not the same as those required to be an effective manager. You will likely make mistakes, and that is OK.
Be aware that you might develop a case of imposter syndrome. If it’s your first experience managing people, you might question your fitness for the job. To overcome that, it is best to have a mentor who is further along the path you are on. It should be someone who will listen to and understand your feelings, give you advice, and frame any issues in a reasonable way.
Being a good EM
Whether you are considering a career as an EM or you already have years of experience in this field, you may wonder what qualities make a good EM. In our discussions with Grafanistas who have walked the EM path, we identified three key themes for success.
Empathy and effective communication
Management has a very human part to it because people face difficult challenges and situations. Therefore, one of the most important attributes of a good manager is the ability to understand different perspectives, a skill that is deeply rooted in empathy. Being empathetic allows managers to truly understand their team members’ feelings, challenges, and motivations. This, in turn, facilitates effective communication, where team members can convey messages clearly, fostering a positive and collaborative environment. Furthermore, this allows managers to help team members be successful in their careers.
Technical proficiency combined with delegation
Undoubtedly, it’s crucial for EMs to understand the technical nature and challenges of the project they oversee. However, it is equally imperative that managers allow the team to make decisions. By combining technical knowledge with trust in the team’s expertise, managers can guide without micromanaging, ensuring that the team feels empowered and respected in their roles. This approach aligns with one of our core values at Grafana: “Respectfully empowered.” This value encapsulates the essence of individual autonomy, the mutual trust we place in one another, and the overarching expectation that our work — whether minute or monumental — contributes to the company’s collective success.
Focus on mentorship and shielding the team
Lastly, managers should be proactive in mentorship, coaching, and shielding the team from distractions. A manager should be invested in the growth and well-being of their team members, offering guidance, feedback, and learning opportunities. Additionally, by acting as a buffer against external distractions, they ensure that the team can remain focused and productive, contributing positively to project outcomes.
Thanks to the research we’ve done and the conversations we’ve had with other Grafanistas, we now feel like we have a better understanding of what it takes to go from ICs to EMs — and we hope you do, too. It’s an enticing blend of self-promotion, skill expansion, and being ready to seize opportunities as they arise.
The supportive environment at Grafana Labs has helped build our confidence and it motivates us to embark on this journey. We look forward to pushing ourselves to be better every day.
Thanks go out to Kate, Yaëlle, Ed, and several other Grafanistas for chatting with us about this subject!