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Engineering manager vs senior engineering manager – what’s the difference? 

Engineering manager vs senior engineering manager – what’s the difference? 

At Productboard, our engineering career ladder contains two manager titles: manager and senior manager – and we’re hiring for both. But what are the differences between the two roles, and what skills and experience would you need to be a great fit for either one? Read on to find out. 

It’s all about impact

Before we focus on the differences between an engineering manager and a senior engineering manager, let’s first discuss how we look at different roles and levels of seniority here at Productboard. 

One of the most important factors from a cultural perspective is that we focus on impact above everything else when discussing levels, promotions, or accomplishments, as Joshua Samberg, Director of Engineering for our Scale tribe, points out: 

“Impact is the driving force behind career-related decisions, not some rigid hierarchy that places people above and below each other.  

“In the engineering department, we don’t set our managers up for growth by giving them ten thousand things to manage. We set them up for growth by giving them an important area to take responsibility for. Then we let them find the best structure and processes to maximize their impact.” 

Ultimately, senior engineering managers will be expected to have a bigger impact overall than first-level engineering managers.

The core responsibilities of engineering management

Our engineering managers oversee an engineering team focused on a particular product area or related discipline. Sometimes, a more senior engineering manager might oversee multiple teams. 

Whether you are a first-level manager or a senior manager, the role covers three important areas: People management, delivery management, and tactical management. 

While we do sometimes promote individual contributors to first-level management if they have the relevant skills and desire, we often look for managers with a few years of experience across these key areas when starting completely new teams. 

Let’s take a closer look at what these areas involve. 

People management

  • Being responsible for their team’s wellbeing at both an individual and group level
  • Ensuring that their team members are happy, focused, and motivated
  • Coaching and mentoring engineers, helping them to realize their growth ambitions
  • Hiring new engineers and ensuring they are properly onboarded

Delivery management

  • Ensuring efficient shipping of product improvements and features 
  • Understanding and implementing agile best practices to ensure that projects are delivered on time
  • Working closely with product managers and designers to deliver high-quality outcomes

Tactical management

  • Being responsible for the direction of their team’s work
  • Ensuring that their teams’ work is aligned with a wider business strategy or objective
  • Ensuring that all team members understand how their work plays into these goals
  • Implementing processes to support a growing team efficiently and effectively

What differentiates a senior manager here, according to Joshua, is a stronger focus on strategic work: 

“People who get to the senior engineering manager level are able to delegate and systematize more of the administrative, process-based part of their work, enabling them to have more focus on high-impact, strategic work.”

We also expect senior managers to be able to build and design processes independently within their team that are effective and productive.

“This is not a company that provides you with a template document to fill in for every team process. So we expect our senior engineering managers to be able to figure out how the team will work best and put in place the processes, documentation, and frameworks that will get it done. 

“Our senior managers have an immense amount of freedom and autonomy, but that comes with a lot of responsibility.”

Cultivating leadership in others

Another important part of being an engineering manager at Productboard is the ability to cultivate leadership and ownership in the people you are managing. 

According to Joshua, while this is true at all levels of management, it’s something we expect more from our senior engineering managers – particularly if they are managing multiple teams:  

“If the manager is the only leader in a team, that makes it even more difficult for them to have space for big, strategic impact. So by encouraging individual contributors to step up and take responsibility where appropriate, we can maximize the impact of our teams and our people.” 

Collaboration across the EPD organization

At Productboard, we consider engineering, product, and design (EPD) to be one big team rather than distinct departments. As such, we expect our engineering managers to have a symbiotic relationship with at least one product manager and one designer – or more if they are managing more than one team. 

This collaboration across the EPD organization is a critical part of the job for an engineering manager at Productboard. What differentiates a senior engineering manager here is their ability to collaborate effortlessly with their senior counterparts in product or design – or with multiple counterparts rather than just one – with a higher level of sophistication and complexity.

Supporting other managers 

Being an engineering manager at a hyper-growth startup can be a challenging job – especially during these times of economic and geopolitical turmoil. With this in mind, it’s critical that our managers have sufficient support and guidance from those who have been there and done it. 

As Joshua points out, this is where senior engineering managers can step up and join him in supporting level-one managers:

“At the pace we operate, level-one engineering managers need more support than I alone can give them as an engineering director. So in a senior engineering manager, I’m looking for someone who has a diverse set of experience and capabilities that potentially my other engineering managers don’t have, which they can tap into to help those engineering managers improve and grow.

Soft skills

When it comes to soft skills, there are certain qualities that we look for at both manager levels: 

“Empathy, transparency, and relentless improvement are three of our values that are very relevant and important for managers at Productboard. You have to be able to give and receive feedback in a clear and empathetic way. That doesn’t mean avoiding tough conversations.

“We believe in servant leadership. It raises a flag when we hear people say, ‘I wanted to be a manager so that I could accomplish more.’ We think the motivation that usually drives the best managers is the desire to help others achieve more.”

Impact in action – three examples of senior management at Productboard

To illustrate the type of projects our senior engineering managers oversee – and the level of impact they have – let’s look at three real-life examples:

Example #1 – Building new, high-value functionality 

One of our senior engineering managers is currently leading a team that’s building the foundation of executive reporting in Productboard. This is a highly impactful project, which will eventually involve building the engine that will allow all engineering teams in Productboard to build valuable product-related reports more easily. 

The first slice of reporting functionality will also open the door for product executives to become end-users of Productboard rather than just decision-makers. So you could say it’s a game-changer.

Example #2 – Overhauling the in-app experience

We’re currently looking for a senior engineering manager to oversee a complete reframing of our in-app experience and information architecture. This essentially means creating an entirely new way to organize information in Productboard – and a new look and feel for our users.  

 Example #3 – Expanding the Productboard ecosystem

Another of our senior engineering managers has been guiding the building out of our ecosystem of integrations and APIs. A project of this scale requires many teams across the organization to get involved, but we need someone to lead a team that handles the core activities that enable that work.

As you can see from these three examples, senior engineering managers are required to oversee extremely complex, high-value projects. The level of skills, expertise, and experience to handle such work confidently is what distinguishes a senior engineering manager.

Summary – what differentiates a senior engineering manager?

Before we wrap this up, let’s quickly summarize the key points that differentiate a senior engineering manager from a first-level manager. 

Both roles have significant overlaps in terms of managerial responsibilities, covering key areas such as people management, delivery management, tactical management, and cross-functional collaboration. That said, senior engineering managers are specifically required to demonstrate the following competencies: 

  • A diverse and deep level of leadership experience  
  • The ability to lead teams working on complex, high-impact projects with confidence 
  • The ability to handle higher levels of autonomy and uncertainty
  • The ability to effectively automate and delegate administrative and process-related tasks, allowing them to focus more on high-value strategic work
  • The ability to cultivate leadership in others, thus maximizing the impact of their team
  • The ability to collaborate closely with senior designers and product managers
  • The ability to assist the director of engineering in supporting first-level managers

If you are interested in becoming an engineering manager at Productboard, why not head over to our careers page and check out the latest opportunities?

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