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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.

"Engineers should pay attention to the business around them," says Nahm, who now leads Lever, a Silicon Valley firm that helps companies hire well while scaling up. "Look for the fastest-scaling areas of the business, since those areas will present a tremendous number of organic opportunities to step up and take on additional responsibilities. Volunteer to do more interviewing and take a front-row seat to strategic hiring decisions. You'll see exactly what qualities are important to your engineering org, and also get a head-start on a critical skill for when you need to hire engineers for your future team."

Making the transition

One of our pros says management offers many of the same challenges and uncertainties as parenting. He then quickly adds you must never actually express that -- or you'll risk alienating your entire team. Along with that handy analogy/warning, here's a blueprint for the transition.

First, get ready for "a complete and total career change," says executive coach Long. "There are no product specs or algorithms for people. As a manager, your job will be 90 percent about influencing people, which is an inherently illogical task, and dealing with ambiguity in the business while still producing results through others, which is also a task that can't be done by leaning on logic and reason alone."

And now for the really tough part. Are you ready to hand over control and let your team do their jobs?

"The worst managers are those who maintain too much control," says Long, "yet micromanagers always, always think they're doing the right thing. Can you dedicate yourself to guiding, supporting, directing, and advocating for others? At first, it's a white-knuckle ride. Be sure you're ready to get on that roller coaster."

And what if your team includes former colleagues from your workgroup? How do you retain a collegial relationship with these co-workers?

"You have to remain sufficiently detached to be objective and to make and communicate the hard decisions honestly," says Hutley. "It's very hard to give hard negative feedback honestly -- and it's hard for both parties, not just the leader. That said, you don't have to completely shun your old colleagues."

Let your team stretch their skills, our pros say, and be ready to do some nail-biting when they fail. Again, these skills -- communicating effectively, being persuasive, and keeping your cool during times of uncertainty -- may not come naturally. But they can be learned.

"A leader guides and coaches and then lets the chips fall where they may," Hutley says. "Be ready to praise when things go right -- something we forget to do all too often -- and to support and encourage when things go wrong."


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