January 31, 2014

From Techie to Tie: Making the step from a technical to managerial role

This is a longer version of an article I wrote for GuruCareers in January 2014.

While many people in technical occupations have the career aim of becoming ever more proficient in interesting and useful technologies, traditional company hierarchies and our working culture tends to hold in high status those in managerial and organisational leadership roles.  Hence people who consider themselves to be ambitious often view the career ladder of management to be the most obvious way to progress.

Becoming ‘the boss’ may not be the ultimate aim for all but here are a few observations about progressing your career, as someone who has moved into senior management from a technical background.


The path to progress?

The Programmer’s Progress

If you are a software developer then you need to show you can take responsibility beyond your allotted tasks and come up with sensible ideas to solve problems. You know those questions you always ask your team leader/ manager about what to do? Well one day you may be the one on the receiving end and having to make those decisions. Make it easy for them by making suggestions and provide alternative courses of action, with pros and cons.

For a manager, being able to make a decision based on good information is the ideal position. Being landed with problems and having to come up with solutions (especially when there’s no-one else to bump the problem to) can become tiresome after a while. If you become visible to the organisation by being a source of solutions not problems then when the time comes you’ll be identified as a potential leader.

Another trap technical people fall into is “Not-My-Job-ism”. Maybe a live web application has gone down, or a query has come into support that doesn’t fit the typical profile. The person who makes things happen and sorts out the mess gets noticed; the person who shrugs their shoulders, thinks it’s none of their business and puts their headphones back on to continue coding will not. Not in a good way anyway.

You may be right – it probably is someone else’s job – but as you’re all employed by the same organisation then you all have a common interest in sorting things out for the benefit of your customers. Some organisations may take advantage of that instead of identifying good people – to progress you may have to leave and take your examples of how you go beyond the expected with you.

These things show you are leadership material. The first step up is typically a Team Lead type role – basically someone who still does 80% of their old job but is considered senior enough to guide the team and be the conduit for input from other managers.

What’s it like?

You work for a progressive organisation, your efforts and attitude are recognised and you are made a Team Lead. What next? On day 1 this may not be apparent, but you will find your colleagues will look to you for direction and your managers will be expecting you to ensure that higher level decisions are implemented. For example, if it has been decided that all code has full unit tested before committing, you have to be the enforcer of that. It’s no good shrugging shoulders that people aren’t doing as they’re told or moaning about behaviour in your team. This is now your responsibility to sort out. Your managers are there to support you in how you want to proceed; they will not appreciate being burdened with your problems.

Line management can be a shock to some people. The main advice I can give here is to ensure you are happy to manage the people in the team before you step up. Some people are incredibly easy to manage; others will be a drain on you. However, dealing effectively with difficult people will highlight your management qualities.

I’ve established myself as an effective Team Lead, what next?

Opportunities to progress often depend on circumstance. A fast growing company will create new openings and need experienced people in the company to fill them. In more stable environments you may have to wait until a senior person moves on before a role needs filling. Again, you may need to look elsewhere at this point.

Moving from a team lead or first role with managerial responsibilities to a more senior role such as Software Development Manager (where you may also be managing other managers and people who did different jobs to you) is often the biggest step. In this role you’ll be doing 80% of your old job again – but it will be 80% of the newer managerial work you were doing as a team lead. Your technical proficiency will not be called on in the same way.

You could find yourself exposed if you spent much of the last role doing mainly technical stuff; you were initially promoted because you were good technically, but the job you have now is no longer technical. Seek out training, mentors and good practice for this new part of the job in the same way you might learn a new technology.

Before making this step, you need to be honest with yourself that this work is indeed what you are looking for in a career. Instead of writing code or troubleshooting a server you will be writing lots of emails and find yourself in demand for plenty of meetings.  You’ll be the one to step in with your staff if people can’t resolve things for themselves. You’ll be the one in the firing line from senior management if things go wrong – yet you’re not the one doing the work anymore. This extra responsibility without the means to actually do the work can be very challenging, and the fact that often people are promoted into positions that require you to be a diplomat, investigator, psychologist and commander without any kind of training mean that this step can be the most precarious one.

Future of management

Much of this presupposes you are on a traditional career path within a traditional organisational structure. To truly mark yourself out as a future leader, start to take in some of the ideas emerging that challenge the status quo.

A good example is the Holacracy concept – sometimes characterised as doing away with job titles but actually more about ensuring empowerment and authority reside in those who have the right skills and knowledge in different parts of a business. There is also the Rightshifting movement, which looks to improve the effectiveness of organisations while listening to and meeting the needs of all involved in creative and product development.

Management thinkers since W. Edwards Deming onwards have questioned the effectiveness of command-and-control, top down management and targets yet still they persist. Breaking out of that and proving that your approach works will be incredibly powerful and valuable.

The lesson is that to set yourself apart from the rest and show some originality of thought in the area you’re aiming for – management. Not only for your own development but also for the benefit of those working with you when you’re successful.


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