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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.

Bloomberg's Wolf agrees and advises new managers give their team the same autonomy they wanted before they made the jump.

"You can't go too far and abdicate responsibility," Wolf says. "You have to be comfortable standing behind the work your team is doing. I find it's helpful to focus on asking good questions of your team, and letting them reach the right answers."

And don't give up on what got you this far. The quickest way to become out of touch is to let your skills get rusty.

"Use mainstream technologies that are transferable from one company to the next and remain hands-on," says Mark Stagno, principal consultant at staffing firm WinterWyman. "In a 'what have you done for me lately' industry, your ticket ... is your technical skill-set. If you abandon that, you are vulnerable, and if things change -- the company begins to struggle or you become unhappy -- it won't be as easy to find a job if you aren't hands-on."

An argument for staying put

Let's also consider that engineers who move up may look back wistfully to a time when building and deploying code was the focus, rather than managing a product, budgets, and a team.

HireStrategy's Klein says he occasionally hears from engineers-turned-managers that they miss the hands-on work of coding. "With technology constantly changing and evolving, managers notice their technical skills slipping even as their management skills improve," Klein says. "We remind candidates that, at the end of the day, it's all about each individual finding what they love to do every day. Careers can excel without going down a management track."

Many engineers enjoy a solo approach to problem solving, says Michael de Groot, chief architect at software product development firm Geneca, and take pride in coming up with novel solutions on their own.

"As a manager, your responsibility will be less about doing the work and more about helping others be successful," de Groot says. "You'll have to deal with other people's behaviors, attitudes -- and differences in work ethic."

And one final thought about moving up the ladder. In a time where rock-star developers are hard to find, being the boss may not mean better compensation. It's a far different world than when Woz looked around his calculator-producing colleagues at Hewlett-Packard -- and thought he'd found a job for life. In today's market, those who can innovate are the ones in demand.

"Engineers at the top end of the market are now making the same if not more than a line manager," says WinterWyman's Stagno. "Think long and hard before taking the plunge into management, and above all else, make sure you are doing it for the right reason -- that you want to be a leader rather than simply wanting to move up the career ladder."

 

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