A reading list for new (or would be) engineering managers

Nearly every time I have a conversation with someone who is either new to engineering management or considering engineering management, I end up sending that person a list of things to read. I’ve done it so many times now that I figured I should this list down in a public place and update it from time to time. Maybe others will find it helpful.

Like many managers, I never consciously sought out management as a career path—I kind of fell into the role through a fortuitous alignment of ability and circumstance. While I quickly found that I enjoyed the job, I always wish I had gone into it armed with more information about what it’s about, what to expect, and how to do it well.

So what follows is the reading list I wish I had when I was first starting out as an engineering manager—a small collection of books and articles full of wisdom and practical advice on what management is all about, and how to get started on the right foot.

Read these if you’re still on the fence about management

The Engineer/Manager Pendulum (article)

This is one of the very first articles I always recommend to anyone who tells me they are considering management, but is still on the fence about making the switch. The message is simple and encouraging: You can always try out management for a few years and switch back to being an IC if you find you don’t like it. In fact, in many cases this is a good career move!

Personally, I have swung back and forth on the “Engineer/Manager Pendulum” five times in my career without negative consequences. With planning and a little luck, it can be done, and it makes you a better technical leader anyway.

The Managers’ Path by Camille Fournier (book)

This is the best book to read if you’re unsure about management, and is often the go-to book that many people recommend to new engineering managers as well. It’s one of the few books that describes the entire engineering management track from tech lead all the way to CTO and VP of Engineering, while paying special attention in the early chapters to the transition from individual contributor (IC) to manager. In fact, this book has an entire section—entitled “Stay on the Technical Track or Become a Manager”—devoted to this topic. It’s full of “real talk” on what management is actually like, both in good times and bad.

New and prospective managers really only need to read the first five chapters; the remainder is devoted to Director-level and beyond. This makes it a nice tome to keep on your bookshelf and return to from time to time as you advance in your career.

What you give up when moving into engineering management (article)

This is another resource that gives an honest perspective on what engineering management is like so that you can go into the decision to switch tracks with eyes wide open. Pay special attention to the part about feedback cycles. I’ve found this to be one of the most difficult adjustments to make for those new to the management role—namely the loss of regular dopamine hits that come from frequently landing and shipping new code. I still struggle with this from time to time.

Read these if you’re a new manager

Resilient Management by Lara Hogan (book)

Resilient Management is full of pragmatic tips on how to get started as a new manager on the right foot, including how to communicate well with your team, pay attention to and develop your management style, build trust, and provide timely, direct feedback. More importantly, it’s also one of the best at covering how to manage with empathy and handle the emotional toll that the role of management can take on anyone with any level of experience, especially during challenging times. I first read this book when I was managing a globally-distributed team at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and even though I had a few years of management experience under my belt at that time, I found it immensely valuable in helping me navigate through the additional turmoil.

The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman (book)

Like the other books in this list, The Effective Manager is full of practical, tactical tips on how to manage well. Unlike the other books on this list, The Effective Manager is highly prescriptive, providing very specific, step-by-step tools and techniques on how to run one-on-ones, provide feedback, and coach team members. When you’re just starting out, these tools and techniques prove incredibly useful, providing a solid foundation upon which to build your management skillset. As you gain experience and develop your own way of doing things, you may shed these specific tools, but they’re a good place from which to start.

101 Questions to Ask in One on Ones

This isn’t really an article, but it is a useful resource. Early in my career when I sometimes struggled for new topics or questions to ask that might help me learn about a team member better, I often turned to Jason Evanish’s massive collection of one-on-one questions to stimulate ideas. Some of the questions are great; some not so much. You’ll have to use your own judgment to determine what will work best for the situation, timing, and person.

Rands Leadership Slack

This also isn’t a book or an article, but definitely worth including. The Rands Leadership Slack is a massive online community of tech leaders from all over the world, representing all kinds of roles in companies large and small. It’s a great place to learn from others.

Joining can feel intimidating at first, but I’ve found most members to be friendly and forthcoming with advice or anecdotes. Exercise common sense, be courteous and pay attention to the code of conduct and you’ll be just fine. When first joining, I recommend taking the time to mine the archives of various channels because most questions from new managers have probably been answered before.