Your non-technical background can be a strength as an EM

How to leverage the strengths you bring to the table as a non-technical EM, and how organizations can better support an engineering team with a non-technical EM

In a world where second- and third-career changers move into engineering or engineering management, you may find yourself with a non-technical leader managing your team. Or perhaps this is you!

If you’ve been following my journey, I’ve been coding since I was 11 but I have 3 non-technical degrees. I do have a technical background, but I know many others who have gone down similar paths to ultimately find themselves in an engineering leadership role without ever writing a line of code in their life.

Can you be effective as a non-technical engineering leader?

The short version: Yes, with some additional support.

A non-technical engineering leader is an interesting profile for most. You may have zero idea on how to make architectural decisions, but when it comes to project or people management, you’re solid.

A non-technical EM will typically be stronger on the interpersonal side; conflict management, recruitment, team development, planning and execution, etc. When you promote an engineer into a management role, they will often never have exposure to this type of work. They can learn, of course, but for some organizations, that non-technical profile can be incredibly helpful for getting a team back on track or for solving some gnarly cultural issues.

Now, I said with some additional support - what does this mean? Engineers have work they need to get done, and with that, technical decisions need to be made. Even the most senior engineers should have a sounding board for technical decision-making, especially if these decisions impact a core part of your organization’s architecture.

A non-technical EM will likely not be able to help specifically with the decision, but may be able to support the engineer on how to think more holistically about the problem. What I would ideally like to see in an organization in this type of scenario is a staff- or architect-type engineer who can be the technical sounding board where the EM is the interpersonal sounding board. This architect may not report directly to you but to your boss as well, and you are on equal footing in terms of team execution. This additional support will ensure your team is well rounded both technically and interpersonally.

If you’re a non-technical EM, I would highly recommending learning some basics around how engineering teams function on the technical front; for example, learn what the software development lifecycle entails and understand common terms and acronyms used within your organization. Ask a lot of questions (and don’t worry about sounding stupid), but don’t force a decision if you don’t understand the decision you’re making. Your team will be much better off if you say “I don’t fully know enough to make a decision here, so let’s involve X” vs. making a potentially destructive decision on limited knowledge.

Lastly, if you’re an engineer on a team with a non-technical EM, let this email serve as a guide for how you can work better with them. Help them understand the core components of your work, lean into their strengths, and leverage technical mentorship outside of your direct engineering manager if you aren’t getting what you need.


or to participate.