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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.

"The best advice I ever received was: 'If you want to be something -- look like it,' says Hutley. "When a company wants to fill a position they look through their mental rolodex for someone who 'looks like' the person they are looking for. It's too late to start looking like a leader when the job advert comes out -- you have already been pigeonholed by your actions up to that point."

And that subtle shift toward wearing the part -- and separating yourself from the pack -- may be enough for the friction to begin.

"Looking like a leader can itself be a little uncomfortable. Wearing neat pants and clean shirts when everyone around you is in jeans and sneakers can lead to some leg pulling," Hutley adds. "But you can't climb the ladder by standing on the bottom rung with everyone else. You have to differentiate yourself in the way you look, speak, and act."

Help along the way

You could, of course, apply to an MBA program and complete it online or after work. Public speaking courses can help, say our experts, along with budget training, self-assessments like Myers-Briggs, and training in diversity and inclusion. But there are plenty of opportunities at the office that can help you move in the right direction.

"I should disclaim this answer by saying that I don't have an MBA," says Bloomberg's Wolf. "My feeling is that I learned more about being a manager by actually being one, than by learning about the role. I have taken classes and read books on management, but I found the thing that helped me most was getting good feedback from my colleagues, managers, and my team, and from watching role models and trying to learn what made them effective."

"Find mentors," agrees Hutley. "These do not have to be people who have been formally assigned as mentors -- although they are good too. Identify leaders you resonate with -- who display qualities you admire and wish to emulate. Then observe them whenever you can and understand why you admire them: How did they handle a particular situation; how do they dress, speak, act?"

Pursuing certification in your field can also show that you're looking to advance, says Eric Klein, managing director of staffing firm HireStrategy. And you can show leadership qualities by helping along new or junior colleagues.

"Suggest a peer code review when a colleague is stuck in development," Klein says. "Aside from managing projects and teams, mentoring junior staff and peers can demonstrate your ability to lead others."

Sarah Nahm, a former Chrome team member at Google, advises you to look for areas where your current business is growing.


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