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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.

"Leadership and mentoring are at the top of the list -- as an individual contributor," Casey says. "In parallel, ask yourself, 'Would my teammates want me leading this team? Why? Why not?' As you're thinking through how to move up, you need to be doing your current job very well -- demonstrating that you can excel in your current responsibilities builds trust that you can move to a role with more responsibility."

But if you've never managed people before, how can you know if leading others is a good fit for you? Hutley offers these tips: "Are you one of those who tends to think beyond the immediate task, not just at work but socially as well? Do you suggest a better way of doing things or challenge things when they don't seem right? Do others seek you out for your thoughts or guidance? If this is you then you are a natural leader -- and others recognize it too."

 Communicate your plan

If you're hopeful hard work and attention to detail will speed your way to the top, you may need to broaden your plan. The leap to management will mean a complete redesign of your work life. But the first step is to telegraph your intentions to your boss.

Silicon Valley executive coach Jennifer Selby Long has spent two decades helping software developers move into management and effectively lead teams. Long says that great work isn't enough to send the right message -- you'll need to be more up front. And it's not always easy.

"Nearly all software engineers want to remain software engineers, so your boss won't know that you want to get into management unless you say so directly," Long says. "Discuss your desire to contribute more to the company and take on a new challenge, not just in terms of how you want it for your own career benefit."

Performance reviews and other one-to-one meetings are a good time to lay out a desire to move up the ladder. And your manager may be able to help you determine what skills you need to develop to make it happen, says Chef engineering VP Casey.

"Regardless of whatever system your company uses for documenting your long-term career aspirations and directions, your one-on-one meetings with your manager are the best time to discuss your goals in detail," Casey says. "If you and your manager are both agreed on the path you need to take to reach management-level responsibility, then they will also be your biggest advocate. That's the best route to success."

And along with these other tips, if you're looking to make the move, one of the subtle yet painful changes might be changing the way you present yourself at the office. It's obviously a personal choice, and Mark Zuckerberg aside, if you're going to be running meetings your street clothes may need to go.


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