Internal vs external engineering managers


When hiring your first engineering manager, should you look for external managers or promote from within?

Olivia is the co-founder and CTO of Cloudixy, a fast-growing cloud infrastructure startup with 14 engineers. Until recently, the engineers were divided into three teams led by tech leads who divide their time between high-value individual contributions and team supervision. This year Cloudixy will be hiring ten more engineers, and Olivia now needs to recruit engineering managers to keep the organisation structured as they scale.

Since, for most engineers, Cloudixy is their first company, Olivia's co-founder is pushing her to hire engineering managers from outside to bring experience and structure to the team (and hopefully to Olivia). Another solution would be to promote the current leads to engineering managers and some of the engineers to tech leads, with probably many hiccups along the way.

What should Olivia do?

On paper, Olivia's choice is obvious: she should hire external engineering managers! Experienced managers empower and coach team members, they bring structured process and industry best practices, and they are result-oriented. Which founder wouldn't want such leaders in their team? When a startup is scaling fast, founders need managers who can be effective quickly by applying good practices that worked elsewhere instead of spending time training a new manager coming from within. The problem is that these great managers are hard to find and cost a lot! Cloudixy should anticipate a lengthy hiring process and a significant investment for team members that will be, in some way, well, overhead.

What Olivia's co-founder is also failing to consider is the impact of recruiting the wrong manager. When you recruit the wrong engineer, the only damage they can do is on their work scope (bugged code, delays) and, perhaps, within their team if they have difficulty interacting with team members. But when you recruit the wrong manager, the potential damage they can cause is multiplied by the number of people in their team. Employees don't leave companies; they leave managers. The wrong manager can demotivate and frustrate the most engaged team members faster than you think!

Another fallacy in hiring external engineering managers is to think that their simple presence will push the organisation to structure itself automagically. Unfortunately, culture eats structure for breakfast. When an individual joins a group, the group always influences the individual's attitude and behaviour because we are wired to blend into groups. So, even if Olivia hires great engineering managers, she will have to make drastic adjustments to the existing practices to bring more structure along the way.

Let's consider now Olivia's second choice: ask the current tech leads to becoming managers. If they're interested in becoming managers, offering the job to the existing tech leads has multiple advantages: they already know the company, are respected by their colleagues and have repeatedly achieved objectives. Of course, avoiding waiting six months and paying 15K€ to a recruiting agency to hire an external engineering manager (who will ask for a higher salary) doesn't hurt 😉 . Still, Olivia should make sure that management is the right career track for her tech leads and onboard them correctly. Otherwise, she might set them up for failure.

Before offering the management job to her existing tech leads, Olivia should make sure that they don't want to become managers for the wrong reasons: management is not a promotion. Becoming a manager is a job change, like becoming a product manager, a different skill set to use, a different day-to-day schedule, and different management expectations. At GitLab, team members interested in the people management track have opportunities to try it out before committing themselves by, for example, hosting a Group Conversation or running a series of demo meetings for an important deliverable. They also have the opportunity to become interim managers, experimenting with the role full-time as they work on determining their career path.

A good move from Olivia would be to appoint the existing tech leads as interim managers while interviewing external engineering managers simultaneously, so she has a backup plan in case one of the tech leads wants to go back to their previous role. Making the tech leads managers is not enough. Olivia will also need to design a structured management onboarding program like Google or GitLab to ensure the new managers will acquire the necessary skills to thrive in their new role.