The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier: Book Overview & Lessons

What does it take to be a software engineering manager? In The Manager’s Path, how does Camille Fournier describe the path from engineer to manager?

In The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier describes each step in the engineering career ladder, from early mentorship roles to large group management. She also details key skills necessary for engineers looking to move into management.

Learn more about the path from engineer to manager as laid out in The Manager’s Path.

About The Manager’s Path

In The Manager’s Path, engineering executive Camille Fournier introduces readers to the field of engineering management—the management of software engineers, who design and code software systems and programs.

Being an engineering manager brings some unique challenges, Fournier says. Managers are often promoted from an engineering role, so they have the technical knowledge needed but may struggle with traditional managerial skills like clear communication. They must also adjust to new responsibilities—like managing several teams simultaneously or setting a schedule to complete a project—which are very different from the designing and coding they’re used to.

(Shortform note: The nature of a software engineer’s work may make the transition to management particularly difficult, but struggling in a new managerial role isn’t unique to this field. Many new managers struggle with their new responsibilities, some business experts say. New managers often have little training to help them fulfill these responsibilities, while the skills they do have (software programming skills, in this case) are suddenly less important. In addition, being in a position of authority makes it hard to maintain friendships with coworkers, which can be uncomfortable and isolating. To handle this pressure, these experts recommend asking for help often during this transition, whether from a friend, a manager, or HR.)

Such challenges inspired Fournier to write The Manager’s Path. As she rose from software engineer to chief technology officer of the e-commerce platform Rent the Runway, Fournier realized there wasn’t any advice available specifically for engineering managers. While she had mentors and friends who offered her advice, she learned mostly from trial and error. She wrote this book, published in 2017, to make other engineers’ transition into management easier than her own.

Here we’ll first explore the engineering management career path, and then discuss Fournier’s advice for following that path. We’ll discuss three main skills that can help you succeed as an engineering manager: clear communication, strategic planning, and adaptability. We’ll explain each skill’s importance, how they evolve throughout your career, and Fournier’s suggestions for developing them. In our commentary, we’ll compare Fournier’s ideas to those of other software engineers, as well as tech business experts like Marty Cagan.

The Engineering Management Career Ladder

In The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier covers the six levels of the typical engineering management career ladder. Fournier based her career ladder on personal experience, and she notes that your titles and responsibilities may vary, since software engineering is a young field and there aren’t many agreed-upon roles or definitions yet. She says this ladder can still be helpful, though, as it offers a general outline for how your career will likely progress.

Level #1: Mentor

The first managerial experience many software engineers have is being a mentor to a junior team member, such as an intern or new hire. Experienced engineers take on this responsibility, but it’s not an official managerial role. As a mentor, you’re still primarily an engineer, but you’re also responsible for helping your mentee acclimate to the company, understand their tasks, and connect with their coworkers. Fournier says this is a good first step toward becoming an engineering manager because it lets you practice directing and supporting another person without the pressure or higher stakes of an official role.

Level #2: Tech Lead

The next step on the engineering management career track is tech lead. Much like mentorship, this is a set of responsibilities rather than a managerial position. You’re the official technical leader of a group, but the role doesn’t grant you a raise or advance your position in the company’s larger hierarchy—you still report to the same manager as the rest of your teammates. The tech lead role lets you practice managerial skills on a larger scale, holding more responsibility while still avoiding the pressure of an official managerial position.

Level #3: Junior Manager

The third level of the engineering management career track is junior management, which Fournier calls being an engineering lead. This is the first official management position, and thus it comes with a new title and pay increase. The junior manager role is similar to that of a tech lead, as you continue to oversee projects and liaise between your team and your superiors. However, you also gain some new responsibilities, including hiring new team members, giving feedback to your direct reports, and helping select projects for your team.

Level #4: Engineering Director

The next level Camille Fournier discusses is engineering director, where you manage several teams at once. Like a junior manager, you provide your teams with resources and support, but you do so through longer-term actions like training your subordinates in new skills, as well as identifying any systems that need to be updated and delegating the responsibility for those updates.

Level #5: Large Group Management

In The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier says the fifth level of the engineering management career track is large group management, where you’re in charge of a group composed of other managers and their teams. As a large group manager, you continue supporting your teams like you did as a junior manager and engineering director, but on a larger scale: You’re responsible for hiring, liaising with, and giving feedback to the team managers—the junior managers and engineering directors working under you—rather than individual team members. This role also comes with the new responsibilities of helping your direct reports develop their own managerial skills so they can properly support their engineers, and following up regularly to make sure they do so.

Level #6: Senior Manager

The final level Camille Fournier discusses in The Manager’s Path is senior management. Fournier groups a number of roles and high-ranking positions under this heading because your specific responsibilities as a senior manager can vary depending on your exact job title and company. This variation occurs because companies assign titles and responsibilities according to their unique priorities.

Core Skills in Engineering Management

In The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier also discusses the essential skills you’ll need to build along the way from engineer to manager.

Skill #1: Clear Communication

We’ll start with clear communication. Clear communication is one of the most important skills for an engineering manager to have, according to Fournier. 

The Importance of Rapport In Communication
Fournier describes increased rapport as a benefit of clear communication, and some business experts suggest that increasing rapport makes it easier to communicate, too. When you’ve built positive relationships with your team members, they’re more likely to listen to your feedback and care about what you say. In turn, this can help increase your team’s efficacy, as they’re more likely to implement your feedback, complete tasks, and meet your expectations.
Increasing rapport may also help with problem-solving. One professional development expert says that rapport is often the first step to building trust; and when people trust you, they’re more likely to tell you their thoughts and concerns. Thus, increasing rapport may encourage your team to be honest about their problems, helping you recognize and solve them faster.

Your methods of communication and your main goal will change as you’re promoted. In this section, we’ll retrace the career path Camille Fournier lays out in The Manager’s Path, examining the way your communication responsibilities evolve and her advice for communicating effectively.

Skill #2: Strategic Planning

The second essential skill for engineering managers is strategic planning, which includes dividing projects into steps, assigning tasks to your team, and creating a schedule to complete them. A strategic plan accounts for the resources the project requires and accurately reflects your team’s work processes and availability, Fournier says, ensuring your projects are completed properly and on schedule.

(Shortform note: An important part of strategic planning is ensuring your team members have enough uninterrupted time to complete their tasks on schedule. While people often try to multitask, Brian Tracy explains in Eat That Frog, what they’re actually doing is task-switching—and every time you switch from one task to another, it takes your brain 17 minutes to focus on the new task.  To work effectively, Tracy recommends dividing your schedule into 60- to 90-minute time slots and assigning a task to each slot. Managers can approach strategic goals this way and can give employees the space to do the same.)

Skill #3: Adaptability

The third essential skill for engineering managers is adaptability, the ability to handle and create change. This is an important skill for people in the technology industry because the field is constantly evolving, and you must keep up with these changes to succeed. Fournier says adaptability is a skill you’re likely suited for because you’re already used to the technology industry’s constant evolution. You can apply that mindset to your managerial style, helping your team and the company become more flexible and successful.

The Manager’s Path by Camille Fournier: Book Overview & Lessons

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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