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Nurturing Engineering Talent: The DoorDash Apprentice Engineering Manager Program 

October 31, 2023

Gayatri Iyengar

Gayatri Iyengar

At DoorDash, the growth and development of our engineering talent is critical to our success and ability to continue innovating. Apprenticeship has had a long history of successfully cultivating new generations of talent across many different industries. Tech is no different. Designed to identify and foster exceptional engineering talent within the company, DoorDash’s Apprentice Engineering Manager Program prepares engineers to transition into a people management role effectively and autonomously. Launched in 2019, the program is a mandatory part of preparing senior engineers for promotion. The shift from individual contributor to manager can be a significant step in an engineer's career because it involves not only taking on the responsibility of overseeing the work of other engineers but also managing their career progression. Here we explore what makes this program successful, what we’ve learned so far, and our plans for the initiative’s continued growth.

Why we created the apprentice engineering manager program

The Apprentice Engineering Manager Program was created to help senior engineers who demonstrate an aptitude for people management to further develop these skills. The program also serves other key factors:  

  • Nurturing/retaining talent and developing leaders: Many senior engineers have built skills like leading through influence, broad scope, and impact. The Apprentice Engineering Manager Program offers them an additional platform to hone leadership capabilities. Through structured training and mentorship, this program equips engineers with the core skills and knowledge needed to excel in management. Through investing in developing internal talent, DoorDash can retain skilled engineers who might otherwise seek opportunities elsewhere to pursue their career growth. Our initial goal was to create a program for career development within a safe and familiar environment.

  • Building and scaling a solid management bench: DoorDash recognizes the importance of exceptional managers in the success of its engineering teams. This program ensures we have a robust and adaptable management team able to address dynamic challenges while giving us the strategic advantage of scaling our leadership capacity to meet the demands of our growing organization. By thoughtfully selecting and grooming potential managers, the company ensures effective leadership for every engineer.

  • Enabling empathetic leadership: When individual contributors (ICs) transition into engineering management roles, it often brings the team a valuable infusion of empathy and understanding leadership. With their deep IC backgrounds, apprentice engineering managers (AEMs) already understand the challenges their team members face, leading to more compassionate and supportive leadership. They tend to lead by example, naturally fostering a culture of collaboration and mentorship, ultimately enhancing team dynamics and performance.

Program eligibility 

Engineers seeking to enter the Apprentice Engineering Manager Program must meet specific criteria, including being a senior tech leader who has demonstrated experience leading impactful projects while maintaining good performance and demonstrating strong motivation to mentor other engineers. Designed to ensure candidates have the requisite technical and leadership skills to be successful managers, these criteria guide their managers toward nominating engineers for the program. Nominees are reviewed and then take part in interviews prior to acceptance. The process encourages early conversations about a candidate’s interest in moving into management and gives engineers the opportunity to understand the program’s depth while allowing them to make an educated decision about being nominated.

Mentoring and support

Program participants partner with high-performing engineering managers from other teams. This mentorship involves biweekly 30-minute sessions to help AEMs effectively integrate into their new roles. Managers who move direct reports to an AEM are expected to participate in the transition and mentorship process. Additionally, a Slack channel is created for each cohort, allowing AEMs to share ideas, ask questions, and receive updates on the training schedule. This community support enhances their shared learning experience.

Graduating from the program

Over time, AEMs are expected to align with the level descriptions documented in Management Levels Expectations. Feedback is documented throughout the program and provided to AEMs to help them understand their progress. After six months, a final 360 review is conducted during which a committee of key stakeholders decides whether the AEM will continue as a people manager, require a longer apprentice period, or transition back to an individual contributor role.

What we’ve learned so far

The Apprentice Engineering Manager Program has yielded valuable insights and lessons since its inception which now serve as a foundation for DoorDash's commitment to continuous improvement.

The program has highlighted the importance of identifying potential leaders within the organization early. By nominating engineers for the program, DoorDash encourages proactive discussions about career growth and leadership aspirations. Structured training sessions facilitated by senior leaders effectively equip AEMs with the necessary skills for their roles, ensuring that participants receive consistent guidance from experienced professionals. Managers of our AEMs provide continuous feedback throughout the program to track progress and encourage AEMs to sharpen their skills amongst peers.

"I appreciated how the program made the managerial world feel smaller,” said Engineering Manager Bryan Huang who works within our Launchpad vertical and graduated from the program in early 2023.

“It connected me to managers starting out just like me, to a manager mentor who had been managing for a while, and finally to experienced executives who ran our sessions. To this day, I understand the importance of connecting and empathizing with people across our org."

- Bryan Huang

The value of collaboration also became clear to Bernard Ng, a Manager of Technical Program Management, who graduated in 2022. “I enjoyed my experience with the program as it provided a cohort of managers with similar experiences and situations,” he said.

“The content was practical and, more importantly, the exposure to senior presenters led to useful Q&A dialogue that went into more nuances. Real-life applied learnings include how I structure my hiring conversations and strategies for closing candidates. An assignment of an experienced manager mentor helped me navigate situations and set good foundations on my team.”

- Bernard Ng

The program and cohort participants foster a strong sense of community among AEMs. This platform not only facilitates knowledge sharing but also serves as a support network for participants and allows us to exchange insights and lessons with the overall engineering manager community. 

Future of the AEM program

With dozens of successful managers coming out of the program over the last few years, we’re eager to continue scaling it.  Through leveraging both quantitative and qualitative metrics such as attrition, overall manager effectiveness, and tenure, we have developed ambitious plans to enhance the program. Two key focus areas will be expanded programming for developing more practical skills and increased diversity to ensure our cohorts represent the full scope of our talent.

In short, DoorDash's Apprentice Engineering Manager Program has continued to evolve with each new cohort. It is not just a training initiative; it's a strategic investment in the company's future. Through identifying and nurturing talent within our ranks, DoorDash is poised to maintain its competitive edge in the tech industry. With a commitment to continuous improvement and a focus on inclusivity, the program exemplifies DoorDash's dedication to fostering leadership excellence and innovation within its engineering teams.

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