Archive for the ‘management’ Category

So You Want to Be A Manager: Part Two – The First Management Job

August 24, 2007

(See SYWTBAM: Part One – Good/Maybe/Bad Reasons, Prelude)

OK, so you’ve decided you want to be a manager. Your intentions are angelic and your goals are set, and now you’re scouring the land and talking to your manager about it. Then, out of the sky, it comes: your chance to manage a few engineers. Now, it’s not the most exciting project in the world – ok, you ran from it as an engineer – and the team, well, it’s kind of B-Players, but you’ll learn, right? Take it!


Ruthfield’s First Axiom of So You Want to be in Management: If you want to be a manager sometime soon, you will be a manager sometime soon.

Engineering departments that value engineering over hierarchy (see the Prelude for why you want to be in one of those) never have enough people who want to be managers, and even fewer who want to do it for a good reason. So if you’re interested, it’s going to come up, even if it’s not tomorrow.

Why does this matter? It matters because you still get to choose. You don’t have to take the first management job that comes your way – you should treat it with the same skeptical eye as you would any other job, plus now there are even more things to understand and you don’t yet have enough experience to know what questions to ask. Here are a few:

  • Will I be managing mostly A-Players? Not every team is 100% superstars, but you don’t want your first management experience to be filled with up-or-out management of everyone on the team. Don’t get talked into taking the junior or the troubled team. This is a very common trap. I fell into it, and I had to fire my first-ever employee (a wife, two kids, etc.) when more experienced managers kept pushing it off. Nothing good comes from starting your management career this way: it’s an important skill but it need not be the first one.
  • Does this team have a focus? You don’t also want to be setting strategy for a team adrift as your first job. You have a lot to learn up-front about building your team and your own skills: don’t inherit a floating team at the same time. Again, not everything has to be perfect, but starting from zero overwhelms you from doing anything else.
  • Will I have the right manager? Besides the normal things you should look for in a manager, you’re looking for two extra qualities: someone ready to mentor through new challenges, and someone whose view on team leadership matches yours. You’re going to need to spend a lot of the first few months checking your intuitions on how to deal with challenging situations, and you want your manager to care and to be a sounding board you respect.

    The best way to find out if your views on management align is the same as finding out other alignments – talk to people. Current and previous employees, colleagues, etc. Ask what they think of Joe as a manager, how he deals with conflict, how he sets goals for his team, how he provides feedback, does he build consensus, overdelegate, control every decision, etc.

You will always have more than one chance to move into management, and your first job is like your first impression, both to yourself and to your company. Think through it.

(Off on vacation for a week: back after Labor Day.)


So You Want to be a Manager: Part One – Bad, Maybe, Good

August 17, 2007

(See SYWTBAM: Prelude)

So you’re a software engineer now, and you think you want to be a manager, huh? Bully for you. Let’s figure out why.

Bad Reasons

  • I want more money/a fancier title/a promotion. If you’re working in an engineering organization where the only way you can see career progress is to move into management, get out of that organization. Organizations that value engineers provide them technical career paths – multiple engineering levels/compensation brackets, technical architecture or advisory roles, etc. They also provide opportunities outside of engineering if you want to grow other skills – product or project management, for example. If your organization doesn’t promote engineers (consistently, not theoretically), it doesn’t value them or doesn’t understand them. Find something else.
  • The code/design/whatever would be better if I was in charge. Yes, you’re 1337, I get it – you really are a better engineer than your peers (they see it too), but they don’t do things your way, and things would be better/faster/cleaner if I could tell them what to do.

    If this sounds like you, then management isn’t the right role – a good software manager doesn’t dictate technical direction to a series of monkeys, or keep their innovation box so small that they go somewhere else. You need to find ways to increase your influence over technical direction – mentoring, discussions, examples – by skills, not dictate.

  • My manager stinks and I could do a better job. Maybe so, but even if your management chain agrees, this is a blinking red light. You have no management experience, you’re going to move from being a peer to a manager, and you don’t have a good role model or someone who can help prepare you? Tough gig.

 Maybe Reasons

  • I don’t want to program anymore. Here it’s the “because” that matters. You want to learn new things or have more influence on product direction? Great. You’re tired of the drudgery of debugging and are sure that management has no such busy work? Not so good.
  • I’m ready to increase my sphere of influence. You’ve nailed your current job – everybody tells you that, too – and you’re ready to take on a bigger piece. That’s great – what you need to know now is if the best way to do that is through management. This means understanding your organization in more detail (we’ll talk about that more later), but for today, you should be thinking about who the influencers and connectors are, and if most of them are in management.

Good Reasons

  • I’m motivated to lead a great team. Three parts here: “motivated” – excited about and ready to work to new challenges and required skills; “lead” – your team will depend on you to set direction and give guidance, and you’ll be responsible for a larger goal; “great team” – ready to mentor, hire, and build relationships between great individuals to make a strong unit.

… and that’s pretty much it. The good reason is a prerequisite – if you don’t buy into all three parts, either you’re not ready for management or the management jobs you’re seeing aren’t quite right.

Did I miss something? Other reasons that come to mind?

(Breaking Blogger Rule #X – posting late Friday afternoon. Aah well.)

So You Want to be a Manager: Prelude

August 15, 2007

Anyone who mentors regularly knows their sweet spot – the person who he can help the most (and who he feels most satisfied about helping). For me, that’s always been the ambitious software developer who wants more of something, even if she isn’t sure what she wants. The first guess is usually manager, and the first conversation goes like this:

Emma: I’ve been thinking about what the next step in my career. (it usually sounds corporate like this.)
Scott: That’s great – most engineers don’t think about this. I’d love to help. What are you thinking?
Emma: I want to be a manager.
Scott: OK, why? What is about a manager that’s interesting to you?
Emma: <crickets>

OK, it’s not usually dead silence, but I’ve probably had this conversation a dozen times in just the last year and have never heard an answer that was coherent or well-thought-through. This isn’t a big surprise: as Rands notes, developers don’t know what managers do.

Additionally, most engineers don’t tell their peers, because it doesn’t always feel OK to tell others you want to be a manager – it can seem like the sellout/ungeek thing to do. (Just Say No to Management, Kids.)

I’m the blogger and I’m here to help.

Starting real soon now, this series of articles will talk about this process – of figuring out if you want to be a manager, deciding to pursue management, planning ahead and getting started. Of course, I’m not the first person to write on these topics – Scott Berkun has two essays here – but I hope this generates some conversation.