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The programmer's guide to breaking into management

Paul Heltzel | July 1, 2015
The transition from command line to line-of-command requires a new mind-set -- and a thick skin.

Which way to management?

Software development, like any career, is divided into leaders and producers. You're either Steve Jobs, or you're Woz. Two completely different approaches, and yet both can lead to great success.

Talented engineers may see managing a team as the next step to growing their careers. So if you're moving in this direction, what tools do you need to make the transition? We'll look at some possible approaches, common pitfalls -- and offer solutions.

A first question might be whether to make a change at all. What if a Woz-like existence is more your style? Knowing yourself and whether management is really where you want to land is worth some self-reflection.

"You have to think about what aspects of the job you really enjoy, and which you try to avoid," says Adam Wolf, head of engineering for foundational applications at Bloomberg L.P. "If what you really enjoy doing is bringing everyone together to accomplish something as a team, or building a vision and getting everyone behind it, then management is a great opportunity to have a broader impact."

Consider the management transition thoroughly

The management track begins right where you are, in your current position. It requires taking on more responsibility, reaching out to team members, and making yourself visible. Because of this, you probably have a good first approximation of what to expect and an inkling of what will be expected of you, but there's a lot more to it than that.

Rick Hutley, clinical professor of analytics at University of the Pacific, advises checking how thick your skin is before you plan to manage others.

"Ask yourself how well you tolerate risk and criticism," says Hutley, a former CIO at British Telecom, and vice president of innovation at Cisco Systems. "Be honest. Better to be a happy grassroots worker than a miserable leader. That said, stretch yourself. Have the courage to move outside of your comfort zone and take on more responsibility."

Managing others will often lead to awkward situations. An exceptional career can be uncomfortable. And good managers are driven by a desire to lead and understand that delivering criticism may influence people, but maybe not win friends.

"Leadership means making hard decisions on occasions -- disagreeing with those who used to be your colleagues -- and it can be a lonely place," Hutley says. "The higher up you go the more certain it is you will fail -- in someone's eyes."

James Casey, vice president of engineering at Seattle-based enterprise software firm Chef, says you can communicate your desire to move up the ladder -- and this is critically important -- by showing you have the qualities possessed by a good manager.

 

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