You’re finally a new engineering manager, so why do you keep worrying about screwing up?

Originally published on my Substack, Engineering -> Leadership

You’re a manager now!

There are many ways this might have happened: You applied for a new role at your company, you were recruited by another company based on your outstanding LinkedIn profile, your team outgrew the “two pizza” sizing rule, or… there was an opening because the old manager was fired for an ethics violation…

Now that you’re here, why do you feel you’re not completely qualified? Why do you get the nagging feeling that someone’s going to “find out” you’re a fraud?

This feeling has a name: imposter syndrome.

Most people will feel this insecurity at some point, especially in a new role. As an engineer, chances are you lean towards the introverted side so providing direction to a team of people, detailing their performance to your leadership team, and talking to an endless cycle of new candidates may have you stepping outside of your comfort zone. Some managers may feel more insecure leading their previous peers (because you were just asking for help with an issue yesterday!), while some managers may feel intense pressure to perform when inheriting a new team of strangers at a strange company. What if your new peer group of experienced managers, directors, and business owners doesn’t look or act anything like the engineering teams you used to work in?

Step 1: Take a step back and realize that you were chosen for a reason

Yes, “by default” is technically a reason, but chances are some high-level people got involved and made a decision to put you into a managerial role. They’ve put their names and reputations on the line and made a decision for the good of the company. Even if you moved up organically from team lead to team manager, upper management and HR were involved to make the change. Accept the fact that you were chosen out of a pool of qualified candidates, identify some reasons they chose you, and try to move on because the decision has been made! It’s time to adapt.

Step 2: Quantify or catalog the specific feelings you’re having

Do you feel you’re not adequate because you’re new to XYZ Corp and everyone on the team is a veteran? Do you worry that your peers know you’re not strong in X so they won’t look to you for help? Are you worried about making a mistake that will cost the company money? Perhaps you’re worried about hiring the wrong candidates and impacting the company’s growth.

It’s time to get your engineering/problem solving hat on! Whatever your concerns are, make note of them and try to evaluate them objectively. Get different viewpoints and perspectives. What does your best friend think of your concerns? What does your spouse think of your abilities?

Awareness is a great first step in identifying, then addressing your feelings. Are you constantly downplaying your past or current successes? Did you cross the line between being humble and being self-deprecating? Do you really believe you got the job via “luck” or that someone “made a mistake”? Does the company really need you to be the expert in X when they’ve got other SMEs? Maybe XYZ Corp hired you to provide new perspectives and insights because you worked at a peer or competitor recently.

Even if you can’t find a way to alleviate or negate all of your concerns, at least you have them written down so you can continue to step 3.

Step 3: Identify a mentor or peer group that you can learn and gain support from

This may be one of the hardest steps for those that rose through the ranks via individual grit and determination. Asking for help is hard when you’re a self-made individual contributor. Rising up through the ranks as an engineer can mean some long, lonely nights of studying and poring through code. You’ve never asked for help before, so why do it now?

Maybe asking for help isn’t something you’ve historically had to do, but now you’re in a new role and you’re a bit outside of your comfort zone. Just as you read books and references from the experts that came before you (which is getting help!), learning how to manage and overcome feelings of inadequacy are no different. There are tons of free and paid resources available in whatever form you prefer to consume them in.

Look at your network and find a director or manager you used to work with. They don’t even necessarily need to have held the same role as your current one. For example, a seasoned sales manager may have perspective that would be insightful (i.e. “You’re way better than that old engineering manager we had!”). Form or join a peer group (virtual or in-person) so you can talk openly about your concerns, hear their advice and input, and perhaps share your own. A formal mentor can be a powerful tool to guide you on your career journey. If you’re not comfortable finding one or if you’re unable to find one, start with a peer group on LinkedIn, Discord, Reddit, Quora, etc. Once you have a support system in place that you can participate in, you may start to realize that almost everyone in leadership has had similar feelings before and they can be overcome.

Step 4: Don’t let perfection stand in the way of progress

Some studies have linked perfectionism to imposter syndrome for good reasons: Perfectionists are typically acutely self-conscious about the actions they take and the content they create. They’ll take extra opportunities to revise, redo, and obsess over the work they produce and dwell on past mistakes. Perhaps there were times during your “previous” career as an engineer that you spent time trying to learn the most minute details about something or kept revising your code until it was as perfect and efficient as possible.

Managing a team of humans as a perfectionist probably won’t end well unless you can learn to let things go (for the moment, at least). Humans aren’t completely predictable (think herding cats) and everyone will have different standards applied to the work they do.

Don’t feel the need to master everything that your team is responsible for. Don’t feel the need to pressure them into doing everything perfectly. Accept the fact that you don’t know everything (because no one does) and take the opportunity to learn. See your team’s imperfections as coaching and engagement opportunities. Often, making forward progress while continuing to iterate is more valuable to the company than staying in a holding pattern while work continues in the background.

Step 5: Realize that becoming proficient, not to mention an expert, takes time, a willingness to learn, and hard work (stuff you’ve already done!)

Your technical achievements and your journey to your new role didn’t happen overnight. Building the confidence you seek, along with other “soft” skills, takes time just like any of the technical disciplines you mastered. As a new manager there are many new skills to learn: emotional intelligence, active listening, servant-leadership, etc. While you’re learning, you can start building a rapport with your team by listening to their concerns and ideas.

Set realistic goals and realize how you arrived at the position you’re in today.

It can be as simple as recalling that when you started learning about Cisco, for example, you didn’t know a packet from a power cable. Yes, you’re a CCDE now, but how did you get there? How many years did it take? You probably worked hard at your job and after hours over several years. You learned from books, labs, classes, and peers. Learning how to manage is no different. Embrace the opportunity to learn how to adapt and excel in this new role.

If and when a setback happens, don’t panic. Things happen. It’s how we deal with issues that shows our strengths. As I try to teach my children to have a growth mindset, it’s a good reminder to treat a perceived failure or mistake as a learning opportunity, not the end of the world.

Conclusion – It happens to more people than you’d think and it can be overcome

Everyone has had these feelings of self-doubt: famous actors, celebrities, athletes, comedians, and well-known CEOs. Know that you’re in good company and that it’s something that can be managed and/or defeated. There’s no single solution or list of steps that will banish thoughts of imposter syndrome, but I hope this is a good start and can at least help you identify some of the specific concerns you’re feeling so they can be recognized, discussed, and alleviated.

And when all else fails, let the wise words of Tina Fey guide you =)

Sources and related articles:

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Everyone Suffers from Imposter Syndrome – Here’s How to Handle It

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a First Time Manager

Why Imposter Syndrome Hits Women and Women of Colour Harder

What CEOs Are Afraid Of

In the Shadows of Perfectionism: Imposter Syndrome

Upwork’s CEO on how an Introverted Engineer Learned to Lead