8 mins

Establishing trust, ensuring career growth, and avoiding the discomfort of reporting to a micromanager can all be achieved through effective “managing up” techniques.

As software engineers progress from junior to senior roles, their scope of impact grows from focusing solely on excellent technical execution, to influencing people and processes. However, even as experienced individual contributors (ICs), some of the key enablers for software engineering effectiveness lie outside your direct control. This is where managing up – the art of building mutually beneficial partnerships with managers – becomes critical for delivering more impact.

Scenarios where managing up is required 

Specifically, software engineering ICs encounter three pivotal scenarios that necessitate mastering managing up skills:

First technical lead without management experience

If you are the first staff or distinguished engineer a manager has had on their team, you play an instrumental part in setting the tone for the team’s technical vision and standards. However, your manager likely has focused more on fostering engineering managers thus far rather than developing senior ICs.

Consequently, they may not fully grasp the role, provide adequate coaching, or understand how to properly assess your contributions. This lack of understanding can affect how they evaluate contributions that combine strategic leadership with hands-on architecture and prototyping. These gaps can negatively impact your job satisfaction, growth trajectory, and team cohesion.

However, you can bridge misalignment by being transparent on your goals, checking-in regularly on support needs, and educating your manager on the hallmarks of impactful technical leadership in your role. While taking these steps, position your strategy as a way for your manager to achieve success by launching a new senior-IC-driven team, rather than just for your personal advancement.

Avoid a negative dynamic due to a less technically savvy manager 

Sometimes, despite managers previously being ICs, your level of solutions architecture proficiency, coding fluency, systems comprehension, or technical influence may far surpass your reporting leader. This may especially be the case if they originated from non-engineering backgrounds.

In these situations, managers may feel anxious granting autonomy or providing technical guidance due to imposter syndrome. They might default to micro-management tendencies or avoid giving stretch assignments that nurture your growth to hide capability gaps.

To avoid this, pitch your manager’s knowledge gap as an avenue for further professional development through consultative approaches and mentoring. Frame your expertise as making their leadership life easier while keeping them apprised of solution tradeoffs. Enable them to glean technical acumen from you.

Career growth ambiguity

As managers balance competing priorities, they may need more transparency to understand your ideal, specific career trajectory for your professional advancement.  

For example, they might default to assuming you want to manage people, rather than nurturing dual-ladder technical tenures. Or they may need help matching you with apt mentors, strategic cross-functional projects, and tailored learning experiences.

This ambiguity risks misaligned perceptions, support ill-suited to your goals, and friction over advancement pace. But when you directly discuss aspirations around skill building, technical influence, problem spaces, and organizational connectivity, they can actively sponsor tailored growth.

Core techniques to manage upwards effectively

While the mindsets and scenarios that necessitate managing up provide crucial context, successful execution requires tactical capabilities. Mastery develops over the progression of an IC career journey through continuous small wins. 

Below are five techniques that will help senior ICs uplift partnerships with their managers. When applied consistently and comprehensively, they amplify the realization of potential for individual ICs and their managers.

1. Adopt a partnership mindset

The foundation for managing up is viewing your relationship with your manager as a partnership, rather than a unidirectional supervisor-subordinate dynamic. This partnership aims to enable each other’s success through transparency, accountability, and support.

This serves both parties better than siloed work. Your manager provides resources, connections, and covets for you. In return, you deliver technical leadership and initiative to achieve team results. Understanding each other’s worlds fosters empathy during challenges and paves the way for growth through success.

2. Master proactive communication

Proactive and constructive communication is essential for managing up. Silence and surprises rarely fare well. Instead, preemptively and frequently communicate project status, risks, blockers, and updates, even if there are no asks.

Adapt your communication mode to your manager’s style. For example, some prefer succinct highlights and metrics, while others want detailed analyses. Complement face-to-face conversations with summary emails they can refer back to.

During conflicts, focus communication on solutions, not just problems. Suggest paths forward or have exploratory discussions on potential remedies. Ultimately, enable your manager to implement decisions, not just voice concerns.

3. Connect your value

While engineering ICs deliver immense organizational value through technical leadership and execution, managers may not fully realize the reach without clear communication.

Take time to educate managers on how your specialty area connects to broader business goals. Explain how your projects drive key results like uptime, conversion, or retention. Use analogies and simplifications to describe complex internal processes you improve. Where relevant, quantify your contributions with metrics and financial impact.

Enabling managers to grasp your value empowers them to advocate for you. It also builds credibility for your ideas and growth asks, which rely on their buy-in.

4. Coach your manager

Rarely are managers perfectly suited to provide all the support ICs require, especially if they lack hands-on experience. Thus, approach coaching managers as an opportunity rather than a frustration.

If they struggle to relinquish control due to delivery pressures, have open conversations on your proven execution capabilities to rebuild trust. If they rarely check in, demonstrate immense value from consistent 1:1s and cadence meetings – frame coaching as enabling mutual success rather than criticism.

5. Project clarity on goals and needs

As managers juggle myriad responsibilities, they may not automatically grasp ICs’ specific aspirations and required support without a clearly communicated vision.

Explicitly discuss your short and long-term career goals, whether they involve technical depth, people management, or external influence. Additionally, directly ask for the coaching you need around skill building, connections to leaders, or special project opportunities to serve those goals.

While managers enable your success, the onus lies upon you as an IC to transparently convey your destinations and guide their assistance toward your personal and professional growth.

6. Mastering conflict and challenge navigation

Finally, let’s explore some common challenging scenarios with managers and methods to course correct by managing up:

Imposter syndrome as the first technical lead: If you suspect discomfort in your manager due to your seniority, be extra consultative. Avoid directives and invite their guidance on proposed solutions before firm decisions. Maintain consistent communication on your decision framework and reiterate you value their leadership.

Micromanagement tendencies: If encountering overbearing, controlling behaviors, leverage 1:1s to establish trust in your proven execution and reiterate your desire for autonomy. 

  • Set clear expectations and boundaries – During your 1:1s, discuss and agree upon the level of detail and frequency of updates your manager prefers. Outline your approach to tasks and request clarification on the desired outcome. This will help align expectations and reduce the need for constant check-ins.
  • Propose a check-in schedule – Instead of waiting for your manager to initiate status updates, suggest a regular cadence for progress reviews (e.g., daily stand-ups, weekly reports). Align these check-ins with key project milestones to provide meaningful updates. This demonstrates your proactive approach and ownership of your work.
  • Frame autonomy as a benefit – Emphasize to your manager that having the space to manage your own work not only allows you to perform more efficiently but also frees up their time to focus on other strategic priorities. Position autonomy as a win-win situation.

    For example: "I understand that this project is a high priority. To ensure smooth progress, I propose we have a quick daily stand-up to share updates and address any potential roadblocks. For more detailed reviews, would a weekly progress report with key milestones be sufficient? My goal is to provide you with the necessary visibility while also having the flexibility to manage my own workflow effectively."

Mismatched needs and support: In the event that your current manager cannot support your growth despite multiple discussions, consider seeking a mentor match with a different engineering leader. This distributes the development responsibility and expands your visibility to other directors.

Managing up in practice: A success story

Effective managing-up in action is illustrated in the below example. 

Example of managing up 

Tanya recently became the first staff platform engineer under Alex, a director who rose from product management rather than engineering. Recognizing Alex’s business orientation, Tanya proactively shared two-pager overviews of her team’s technical roadmap and key architectural decisions using easy-to-grasp analogies. She highlighted platform initiatives improving conversion and retention.

During 1:1s, Tanya asked for Alex’s guidance on boosting cross-functional partnerships and understanding higher-level organizational priorities to inform platform scalability tradeoffs. In return, she offered to mentor Alex on technical architecture through quick whiteboard sessions ahead of his leadership meetings.

When Tanya felt ready for higher visibility assignments, she discussed options with Alex and they co-designed a plan enabling both Tanya’s growth and a clear value-add for the department. She took the initiative to scope possibilities but incorporated Alex’s insights on viable impact areas and stakeholders to influence.

While aligning on a 12-month goal for Tanya to drive a cost-efficiency project, Alex committed to sponsoring her through connections and clearing obstacles. Tanya also enrolled Alex’s peer engineering leaders for supplemental guidance to distribute the support model rather than exclusively relying on an overburdened director.

Within six months, Tanya made strides in modernizing infrastructure prayerfully – generating over $2 million in savings. Alex often boasted Tanya's technical leadership and delivery track record to executives, unlocking further funding for her proposals. Through consistent managing up, Tanya transformed an inexperienced manager into her biggest advocate. She accelerated impact through skillfully positioned partnership.

Parting thoughts

Managing up well unlocks a world of growth opportunities and sets you on the fast track to organizational influence. But beyond career perks, it also enables people transformation, both within managers and yourself. It accelerates the achievement of both organizational and personal goals while enabling your managers to become stronger leaders. Momentum compounds when the partnership is founded on trust and commitment to mutual growth.

However, the journey requires nuanced navigation. It does entail stepping outside traditional subordinate mindsets to guide alignment and support. But the fulfillment emerges from building win-win collaborative relationships. Approach managing up as you would a technical mastery curve – expecting skill-building over time through repeated small acts. Set audacious goals for your career and lend managers a supportive hand in charting the path together.