Get hired as an Engineering Manager – part 1: Capturing your Preferences

Get hired as an Engineering Manager – part 1: Capturing your Preferences
Mizuki Heitaro: Abstract Pattern Portfolio (1930)

I’m covering the entire process of getting hired as an Engineering Manager in this mini-series. With the tech industry changing gears, more and more EMs find themselves out on the job market or considering a switch soon. (See the stats in my last newsletter about close to half of engineering leaders thinking about leaving their current company.)

I’m partnering wit Péter Batiz on this series, an experienced consultant who’s been helping startups and scale-ups find tech talent since more than a decade. I believe his contributions are adding a valuable perspective to my experiences.

We divided the “getting hired” process into five parts:

🔎 Capturing your Preferences - this article!
📝 Perfecting your CV and LinkedIn profile
📥 Searching and Applying
💬 Interviewing
🤝 Closing the offer

In this first part, we’ll start with the “why”. Why would you go to a new company? What motivates you in a new job? What are your preferences and dislikes? Starting with defining the right company profile might seem weird if you’ve been desperately looking for a new job for a while.

Unfortunately for job-seekers, today’s market is benefiting companies: due to rampant layoffs and tight budgets, there is a big competition out there for the few open jobs, which can lead to significant compromises in one’s preferences. The last time I was looking for a new job in early 2022, I only had to spend a month actively searching, applying and interviewing, and at the end I had the luxury of two offers to choose from. It’s a radically different climate now. Expect longer processes, fewer opportunities, and harder compromises.

Still, having to compromise on your preferences requires you to be clear about them first, so that’s where you should start the work.

Table of Preferences

The idea is to create a simple table where you list various criteria for a new job. Score each from -10 to +10, based on how positively or negatively you feel about them. Use higher absolute value numbers if the area is more important to you. You can choose a different scale, or add an extra dimension for significance, but I don’t think it makes sense to be too complicated here. This exercise is about discovering your preferences — though the resulting numbers will be helpful at the end of the process to make an objective decision about accepting an offer or not.

I’ll list a few aspects that can get you started, using a few examples from my preference:

  • How important is remote work for you? My ideal workplace would be in Budapest, Hungary, with 2-3 days in the office, but I’m very much open to fully remote work within my time zone. So in my Table of Preferences, I would probably add these rows:
Job criteria Preference
Hybrid setup with 2-3 days in office +9
Fully remote in CET +/- 1 hours +7
Fully remote in a significantly different timezone -8
100% office work -6
  • What are your travel preferences? If you’re looking at in-office work, what commute time is ideal for you, and what would be close to a dealbreaker? In a remote setting, how often would you prefer to travel to offsites and company events, what’s not enough and what’s too much? 
  • Are you willing to relocate for a job? Same country or continent preferable? How much? List these aspects with your preferences. 
  • List the industries you don’t want to work in, and similarly, your dream areas too. In my case, I don’t think I want to work for an alcohol or tobacco company, and nowadays I’m especially excited about the intersection of health and technology. However, this aspect is not too important for me compared to others, so I would use smaller absolute numbers, like this:
Job criteria Preference
Tobacco or alcohol industry -3
Health-tech industry +2
  • What’s your preferred company size? Working in a small team where you might be one of a handful of Engineering Managers (or maybe the only one) is radically different from organizations with hundreds of engineers and dozens of EMs. You’ll probably have less freedom to try out stuff in this case, but you can learn a lot from your peers. On the other hand, in a smaller company you have more chance to shape and innovate – but you might be limiting yourself at your current role if there’s just one person above you. 
  • How important for you is the stability of the company, which financing stage they are at, how old they are, what’s the leadership tenure, etc? If you have a strong preference, list it – these can determine how long you’ll likely be able to stay at your next place. 
  • Where are you in your career? Have you recently been promoted and need more experience at this current level? Or to the contrary, you’re looking at a new job to get that long overdue promotion? Is there an area you’d like to gain experience in? Something you’d avoid? List those too.
  • Are you happy with your current level of hands-on-ness? Would you prefer to be more technical? Do you miss coding? Or to the contrary, do you want to focus on management more? It’s important to clarify your preferences, because two companies can have radically different technical expectations from an EM. 
  • What’s your preference for various tech stacks? It’s the preference, not the experience: someone might be motivated by deepening their knowledge with a familiar stack, while others would give a higher score to something new that they could learn. Microservices or monoliths, native products or web apps, hardware, AI, crypto… add everything you have positive or negative feelings about.
  • How much are you willing to work? Some companies in critical phases will probably make you do overtime, others are more chill. You should have a good feeling about this by the end of the process. Maybe you’re at a point in your life when you can sacrifice some money to afford a reduced commitment, like halftime or 4-day/week. Or, maybe you’re eager to learn and try new stuff and don’t mind a bit of a grind.
  • How much do you want to make? Again, go with bands, figure out what’s the absolute minimum you can’t consider going under, what’s your current salary that you don’t want to cut from, and what’s something that would be a significant boost in your compensation. Score them accordingly, taking in mind the importance of this aspect for you.
  • What about culture? What company values resonate with you, and is having a purpose important to you? How much do you believe Glassdoor reviews are relevant?
  • Finally, you should add any random aspects we left out that are important to you (in a positive or negative way). I for example would love to work with ex-colleagues, so I’d add that with a fairly high score.

The goal of this exercise is to think about these aspects and discover your preferences in a fairly objective way. Once you’re at the end of an interviewing process, you’ll probably be subjective and might overvalue some aspects and trivialize others. Falling in love with a job can be a powerful motivator, but do it as a conscious decision, knowing what preferences you’ll need to compromise on to chase this opportunity.

The secondary goal is actual decision-making: If you end up with more than one offer (congrats!), or feel that you can’t decide to continue applying or to accept the first one, then scoring the company / companies with your Table of Preferences will give a valuable aspect to help you decide. 

Your Table of Preferences doesn’t need to be set to stone, however, I encourage you not to change what you listed now, before starting to interview. Instead, add new aspects and opinion changes in a separate “comments” or “updates” column. This way you can keep a distance from your interviewing experience, avoiding clouding your judgment.

Once your table is ready, put it aside and start working on your CV and LinkedIn profile. This will be the topic of the next part of this series on Getting Hired as an Engineering Manager. Add your email address to get a notification once it’s published.

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